Finger and Pen Drumming

"Finger Drumming becomes natural, second nature. I find myself doing it unconsciously."
                                                                                                                      -Tom Mutdosch

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Finger drumming is a great pasttime. It's great for when you are working on on the computer for a long stretch of time during a long coding or web-surfing session. It is nice for a small break or tension reliever. I usually have music playing and it's quite easy to start finger-drumming to the beat. However, as my roommate can attest to, I'm often found finger-drumming when there is no other music to be found. It's truly quite addictive once you get in the habit.

Finger Drumming really does become second nature. It becomes an addictive habit. You'll begin to find yourself finger-drumming along to almost anything, and not even realizing it!

Finger Drumming Environment

A proper environment must be set up to have a truly productive and enjoyable finger or pen-drumming experience. I reccommend having the keyboard pushed back slightly to expose the surface of the desk about four to six inches (see Figure 1 below).

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Figure 1.

Pen Drumming Vs. Finger Drumming

There are three main styles: Pen Drumming, Finger Drumming, and the Finger/Pen Combination. Each have their merits, advantages, and disadvantages. Which is better? Well, that really depends. I use all techniques depending on mood, music, and situation.

Finger Drumming

Finger drumming is a general-purpose technique that is useful anytime. Like a fine white wine, it goes with any occasion. Finger drumming can be used for a finesse-style drum, utilizing other objects as separate drums (or cymbals) to produce different sounds, and is the only technique that allows for hardcore Power Drumming. This is my method of choice if I want to really drum hard, listening to some music that I really need to rock out on (the famous Phil Collins In The Air of the Night drum-fill, for instance). I have been wont to drum my fingers so hard that the bottoms of my fingers become completely red, and stay that way for some timee. Be careful: you don't want to BREAK your fingers; I've almost been there quite a few times...

Pen Drumming

Pen drumming is basically finger drumming, but using two pens as drum sticks. Pen drumming gives the drummer a little bit of a more finer control over the drumming. The drumming can be a little more precise and has a more defined sound.

The pen drummer must take caution however: You don't want to use pens with easily breakable heads - stay away from all BIC pens!! (especially the round stic.) My drum-pen of choice is the Papermate FlexGrip Ultra MED (non-retractable). Most other pens can be used but be careful and watch for signs of the pen beginning to break.

I have moved away from pure pen-drumming. I prefer the sheer power of finger drumming, or the versatility of the finger/pen combination drum-style.

Finger/Pen Combination

My drumming technique of choice is the finger/pen combo (see Figure 2). This is a method that I devised myself: a cross of both the finger and pen drumming styles. A pen is held in the strong hand (in my case, the right hand), and the left hand is held flat raised up to an angle of about twenty degrees, to allow for easy striking of the desk surface.

This method provides the utmost versatility. I like having two distinct drum tones at my disposal. The hard sound of the open hand acts as a bass drum, and the quick, sharp sound of the pen takes on the role of snare. The fingers (bass) generally lay down the basic background track, keeping the beat, while the pen is free to roam and freelance. I usually lay down two to four beats with the pen per every single beat with my fingers.

I find that the combination style offers me the most flexibility and the most options.
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Figure 2.

Drum Variations

Once one becomes adept at finger and pen drumming, there is much room for exploration of new techniques or modifications of existing techniques. New drum sounds can be created. The new sounds can then be used sparingly or often to offset the main drumming to create exciting new drumming patterns.

A mousepad or wristwrest can be used to employ a "softer" tone. Any flat surface can be used to get varying timbres. Experiment!

Keyboard Hi-Hat
I bring special attention to the Keyboard Hi-Hat technique. This is making use of the bottom edge (closest to the drummer) of the keyboard as a variant sound. The crisp, tight sound of the finger hitting the keyboard provides an appropriate hi-hat cymbal sound. This can be mixed in with great effect into any finger-drumming session.


Some examples of the various drumming techniques are provided as MP3s.

Basic Finger Drumming
example1    example2

Basic Pen Drumming

Finger Drumming with Keyboard Hi-Hat

Pen/Finger Combination Drumming

Winner of the Finger Drum Solo of the Year Award
2001 entry

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Finger Drumming Anecdotes

Here's a few amusing anecdotes detailing the kind of trouble one can look forward to getting into as they become proficient in the ways of finger and pen drumming.

Turn the bass down! (or we'll have to arrest you)

While I was on co-op on one occasion, I was at home in my apartment room on the third floor. I had my stereo on playing one of my glorious CD's while doing some programming work on my computer. I hear some pounding on the floor from somewhere below. "Hmm, odd," I think, and continue my work. After a few more poundings, I decide to concede to this "asshole" and turn the stereo down a tad. It's not even that loud. Whatever. So I continue my work, and about five minutes later, there is a knock on the door. After letting out a sigh of exasperation, I open the door. I large and tall gentleman stands before me. "Yo, man," he says in a loud, deep voice. "Can you turn your stereo down? I can hear the bass all the way down in my room below me. I'm trying to sleep, and all I can hear is your damned radio."

I stare dumbfounded. Not merely the fact that it is not even nine o'clock and this person is complaining about my stereo which is on currently at speaking volume. "Ummm... sure," I stammer, meaning full well to get this man out of my doorway without even the slightest intention of turning down my stereo. So after assuring this guy that I would turn down my stereo, I do nothing and I go back to my programming work. The stereo remains at the same reasonable listening level. Still muttering over the gall of that guy, I get lost in my work once again.

About twenty minutes later, there comes another knock on the door. I pound my fists on the desk. Oh, I am livid!!! This is unbelievable! The music is NOT loud AT ALL! Just freaking deal, dude! I mean, damn! So I get up, ready to curse this guy out and call him a baby, etc, and whip open the door at full speed. "What?!" I nearly shout. Before me stand two security guards. "Uhh... What's the problem, fellas?" I ask, knowing immediately what has taken place. "Well," says one guard, "we received a complaint from another tenant that the music in this room was too loud."

"Was this from that guy downstairs?" I ask. "I already spoke with him. My music is not loud! If I turn it down any more, I wouldn't be able to hear it! My tv would be louder than that!" "Yeah," says the other guard. "We have been standing outside your door listening for about three minutes. We didn't hear anythining loud or out of the ordinary. We couldn't even hear the radio until we put our ears to the door. But we still had to check it out and ask you to turn it down." They both laugh coyly and seem genuinely embarrassed to be there.

"Right. Sure," I say. We all chuckle amiably as I shut the door. At that point I'm quite pissed, so I bring the stereo over directly to my desk with the speakers right next to my ears so I can turn the volume down and still hear it. I am so aggravated and upset that I can't do any more work. I can't believe that guy called the freaking toy cops on my ass, when my radio was barely audible. And I don't know where he got this bass from. My stereo's not even capable of producing bass, let alone enough to shake the room below me. Hell, the speakers weren't even on my floor!

I just sit there with the music at a decibel, and just listen to the music. But... do I just listen to the music? No! I caught myself. Unconciously, once again, I had begun to finger drum on my desk. A deep, bassy sound is produced with each strike of my finger. THAT'S IT! That is the loud bass sound that is keeping my neighbor up downstairs! Unknowingly, I had been furiously finger-drumming, and had to have the authorities brought in to put an end to it! After the guy had told me to turn the radio down initially, I had done so but unconsciously went about my finger drumming, whose volume never changed. See kids. The moral of this story is: Be careful, finger drumming can be dangerous and possibly land you in jail. The things I do for the love of finger drumming!

Shhhh!! Quiet in the library, please!

I was on the third floor of the RIT library doing some studying for my finals. The third floor is made up of many little cubbie-holes and hidden-away cubicles to study at. I had my portable cd player with me of course, and was getting carried away with my intense studying with my music in the background. Out of the corner of my eye, I see some kid walk by, slowly looking around. I think nothing of it and continue studying. The same guy again walks back in the same slow, plodding fashion. Ok, so I never said smart people were in the library. Whatever. A few minutes later, the guy walks by again, this time as he passes my cubicle, a look of realization appears on his face, and he walks back to my cubicle and stands there. I continue studying. Feeling this stranger's eyes continue to bore on me, I take my headphones off and slowly turn to face him.

"Yes?" I ask in a "Can I help you" dick-like manner. "Yeah," he says, "can you stop tapping your pen? That's really annoying." I had NO idea that I had been pen-drumming to the music. It's fun to piss people off.