Dave's Blog | #5: The Uncomfortable Truth about Pipe Band Drumming

The Uncomfortable Truth about Pipe Band Drumming 

A Monster Blog Series by Dave Bullard


Missed Dave's last Blog? Oh. You'd want to read it first. 

 Check it out HERE. 




Let’s get an uncomfortable truth out of the way here.

When I first saw a pipe band drum corps, I was thrown off by how ‘disorderly’ it seemed. I was blown away by what I was hearing, but there was this little voice nagging at me saying things like:


“What’s the deal with all of them shaking their sticks to the beat?”

and :

“What the hell is wrong with their hands?”


"Why are they all looking down at someone else's drum?”


“Why do they start their strokes like marimba players? ”


You see uh… Well... I mean….


Look, I think get it now, but (and not to belabor this point) a HUGE part of my musical training as a DCI-style American Drummer was concerned with uniformity and precision. Uniformity of stick height, of hand position, of grip… the list is endless. 


2016 Santa Clara Vanguard Drumline


While I was in high school I reckon that I spent upwards of 80 hours marching back and forth on an American football field just so that I could learn to perfectly divide 5 yards by 8 paces. I swear that I can still do this. Drunken and in the dark I can tell you (to the nearest 5 yards) how far away the nearest bar is.


I’m ashamed to admit it but when faced with the beauty and mystery of Pipe Band Drumming, my arrogant, fastidious, and judgmental appraisal of their ‘uniformity’ and ‘discipline’ was getting in the way of me really seeing what was happening.


I figured it out the first time that I tried to play chips with a Pipe Band drum corps because I had forgotten how hard it was for drummers to sync up after resting. 

After flubbing nearly every unison for an hour it occurred to me that I could just watch the lead Snare Drummer and then it hit me full-in the face why “they’re always looking down at someone else's drum” and why they were shaking their sticks to the beat.

It also explained that one piper who was always stomping out the tempo as well.


Check out Music Theory Tutor Class MT3005: An Intro to Unisions, Chips, Fortes


Americans do it by yelling “DUT DUT DUT DUT” at the top of their lungs.

(I always hated this by the way.)

It seems like cheating, and you can imagine how sweaty teenagers chanting quarter notes (quavers?) in the background could spoil an otherwise delicately transcendent moment in the ballad. (To be fair, they’ve got a conductor in the form of a drum major too but no one ever pays attention to them.)

 The Scottish system of just watching is so much more elegant and refined.


So I learned to watch. 


Ready to learn about watching, chips, Buzzes, and everything else Pipe Band Drumming? Cool. Subscribe today to join Dave and thousands of other Monster Drummers from around the world by learning online with Rhythm Monster! 


That explains some of the timing problems I was having, but only a tiny bit. I was far more confused by things like this:



After thinking on it and messing around I had a realization: Pieces like this call out to me like a long lost friend:



One of the challenges in producing that beautiful Buzz Roll sound is that it’s ‘evenness’ is largely dependent on the frequency of the strokes that produce it. This is a subject that was never touched on back when I was active in DCI. We just had to perform various lengths of Double Strokes on top of whatever subdivision was happening at the time.

As a result, my timing has always been dependent on subdividing the beat by the appropriate ratio. This has always caused difficulties with things that switch between prime number ratios non prime ones. Especially when that change happens mid-beat or extends across the division between two beats. Like so:



Depending on tempo, that transition between the last 16th pf the first beat and the second triplet in the second beat could be covered by any number of odd strokes, plus that transition between 16ths and triplets isn’t really the easiest thing…

It was making me crazy.


After thinking on it and messing around I had a realization: Stop worrying about the underlying subdivisions of the rolls and just make the number of strokes fit evenly into the rhythm. 


“No [email protected]&t Dave!” I hear you exclaim. I know, I know...



If you will allow me a little digression...


There is a story about famed 20th century composer Milton Babbitt.  Babbitt was known for ridiculously complex and difficult music.

He was one of the first composers to literally ‘program’ his compositions. He made a lot of crazy music using the RCA Mark II Sound Synthesizer.

During a rehearsal of “Philomel”, a duet that he had written for that synthesizer and a soprano singer, the singer asked him how she should go about synchronizing her performance with the synthesizer part.

“Well”, he replied, “I was imagining that you would just sort of drape your part over it”.

I love this story. The guy that calculated every possible permutation of every little bit of his music was suggesting throwing all of that precision out of the window. It’s always been gratifying to me that he was "okay" with her ‘just draping’ her performance over the synthesizer part he so meticulously crafted.

Here’s a link to a modern performance of this music if you’re interested:

Babbitt, "Philomel" (1964) [Monadnock Music Festival 2010]


Maybe this story inspired my approach with these types of roll passages. I just ‘draped’ strokes over them until I began to figure it out. I figured out what Babbitt apparently knew and realized that my previously referenced ‘mathematical’ approach to time was getting in the way.

Once again, it’s all about feel.  


As my favorite little green Jedi master says,



Story of my life really. 

In the next installment I’ll attempt to break down what has helped me get closer to my ideal roll sound. I will succeed in either pulling it off in a way that’s helpful to others or in further exposing my ignorance and illuminating just how far I have yet to go (Pretty far I suspect).

I hope you enjoy it regardless.

See you next time!


Up next:

"What do you think you are doing with that Snare Drum?"



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