Here’s a nice geekish piece at by E.W. Flack at The Drumslingers, in which he goes in depth on the history and usage of the three basic sticking methods in US drumming and its derivatives– rudimental, natural, and alternating; and I would add to that something I call pseudo-alternating. I’ve included some largish snippets of Flack’s text, along with a few of my own comments and examples, but definitely go read the entire piece.

Natural

This is the sticking method I learned through drum corps, but it’s also very drumset friendly. Basically the lead hand (usually the right) play all notes landing on the 8th note grid, and the left hand plays any e’s and a’s:

Much of what Flack says below is borne out by my own experience:

The natural sticking method… does not rely on the complex rudimental patterns of military drumming, although a mastery of basic rudimental technique is still important.

The concept behind natural sticking is based on the observation that most people are right handed and therefore the strongest beats which are the “pulse” beats should be played by the strongest hand which is the right hand. All subsequent up-beats are played by the left hand which results in naturally flowing sticking patterns throughout.

In his book, Championship Concepts for Marching Percussion, Thom Hannum wrote that the natural sticking system, “negates any awkward doublings of one hand or the other.” Hannum then prescribes a series of 16th note timing exercises based on duple and triple beat check patterns. To explain their sticking he says, “All stickings are derived by eliminating the stroke of the note which is rested. Then play the remaining values in the sequence of natural sticking.”(1)

Natural sticking is generally easier for most people to learn; it enables less experienced players to more readily produce an even and consistent quality of sound. Natural sticking is an excellent option for marching band drum lines because the simple sticking patterns facilitate the ability to play at faster tempos while presenting a visually uniform style. Drum lines using the natural sticking system can more quickly adapt to changes in musical scores, requiring less rehearsal time.

Much more after the break:

Sight reading drum music is easier when using the natural sticking method compared to rudimental sticking because reading becomes a matter of visual pattern recognition which does not require anticipating and controlling unpredictable sticking patterns.

Probably the earliest American advocate of natural sticking and the man who best explained and helped proliferate that system was Edward B. Straight (one of the original 13 founders of N.A.R.D.) Ed Straight wrote several books on the topic of modern drumming. […]

Ed Straight’s strong influence in popularizing natural sticking is why it is often called “Straight Sticking.” In the introductory pages of his book, Straight lists the following points to explain the foundation of his Natural Way System.(2)

[…]

The downside of natural sticking is that strong hand dominance means the weak hand tends to stay weak. The antidote to that risk is to invest time practicing natural sticking exercises with a left hand lead.

Alternating

A strict alternating sticking was something I learned studying concert snare drum in college (it seems strange now that I would’ve picked it up so late!). As a general rule phrases start with the right hand and alternate after that, regardless of the rhythm:

There would be exceptions– a phrase starting with a pickup or pickups might begin with the left:

Or certain very exposed or very delicate parts might be played with repeated notes on the same hand to insure absolute consistency. Here’s an example from my copy of Tony Cirone’s Portraits in Rhythm, with stickings penciled in by my professor, Charles Dowd:

Here’s Flack:

Alternating sticking is just exactly as the name implies: every stroke is alternated from right-to-left, or left-to-right regardless of what the rhythm is. In definition, it is sometimes confused with natural sticking because the two methods share a foundation that depends on alternated patterns between right and left hands.

The difference is that when using the natural sticking method, the strong pulse always falls under the right/lead hand but when playing the alternating sticking method, sometimes the strong pulse beat will be played by the right and sometimes the strong pulse will fall under a left-leading stroke.

This can make alternating sticking feel somewhat awkward to play and it can make sight-reading more difficult because repeated rhythmic patterns can occur with the opposite sticking sequence. By contrast, when using the natural sticking method, any time a particular rhythm is repeated it is always played the same way.

Alternating sticking is very conducive for drum-to-drum, or key-to-key movement which makes it a good fit when applied to tympani and to mallet percussion instruments such as marimba and xylophone. On those instruments the sticking sequence is dictated as much by where the stroke is to be played as it is by what rhythm is called for.

Pseudo-alternating

That’s my own term, and it’s probably bad Latin, but what the hell. If you like quasi-alternating or mostly-alternating better, use them. What I mean by it is to use an alternating sticking, but starting every measure (more or less) with the right hand:

Another option when playing in cut time would be to begin every other measure with the right hand. This is a handy sticking for the drumset– where the hands are often on different instruments– and you want an alternating sticking for how it makes a rhythm lie on the drums, but you want to come out on the right hand frequently, and avoid turning the sticking around so the left hand is on the strong beats for extended periods.

Here’s the above example played on the drumset with the right hand on the cymbal, doubled with the bass drum, and the left hand on the snare, first in natural sticking:

Then in strict alternating sticking:

Then in “pseudo-alternating”:

Rudimental

Flack actually went pretty short on this subject– I guess because Drumslingers covers it on a daily basis:

American military drumming is a pure rudimental style in the sense that all drum beats are composed and arranged entirely of military drum “rudiments” as they evolved during the 1800s.

The idea of using open-form rudiments as the basis for sticking ordinary rhythms is kind of interesting to me, and I’ll be exploring it a bit with this “rudimental Reed” series. It’s a very old-fashioned method, but has never been a foundational part of my own playing. I think it can be somewhat limiting; the method can begin to dictate the musical content somewhat, and I feel there’s a certain sameness in heavily rudimentally-based playing. Here’s a very crude, very non-traditional illustration of this concept, applying open-form rudimental stickings to the same rhythm as the earlier examples:

Again, go read Flack’s complete piece for much more detail and historical background.