I've always enjoyed using a lot of different drum and percussion set-ups, allowing the music genre I'm playing in, the type of group I'm playing for, the venue I'm playing at, and my overall mood to guide me. One thing, however, that I am consistent about is making sure my set-ups feel ergonomically sound.
When it comes to the drum set-up, many drummers play with their HiHat positioned at the 9 O'clock position (see photo). This is largely due to the fact that the Hi-Hat stand is limited to its placement. If the Tom Toms are mounted on the Kick drum or at the very least, positioned directly in front of the player, the HiHats get pushed off to the side simply because there's no other place for them. Right-handed drummers usually have their Hi-Hats positioned so that the left foot can operate the Hi-Hat pedal; left-handed drummers would mirror this, using the right foot to operate the Hi-Hat pedal. Makes sense, right? So there is a well established line of thinking that the HiHats, stand and all, MUST be placed at the 9 O'clock position.
So what's so bad about having a 9 O'clock HiHat position anyway? Well, the biggest issue I have is that if forces the drummer to cross his/her drumsticks (unless they are playing "open grip") in order to play the HiHat. This also means that whenever the drummer wants to play a loud backbeat on the Snare drum, with the drumstick in the left hand, the drumstick in the right hand, which is on the HiHat, must also be lifted to make room for the raising of the drumstick in the left hand. Personally, I don't like having to move one limb in order for a second limb to move. I want complete freedom to play as soft or loud as I want with any limb, at any time, without affecting any other limb. I don't want my HiHat to be louder just because I have to lift the right hand's drumstick out of the way to make room for the raised left hand drumstick ... preparing to strike the Snare drum. One solution that Charlie Watts came up with is to leave out the HiHat when playing the Snare drum. This has become a signature sound for Charlie, and something I do as well when I want that sound. But if we are using this technique only because the drumstick is in the way ... and not because we want that sound or feel ... well, that's just not acceptable to me.
Something I think everyone should at least consider and experiment with is repositioning the HiHat. Try moving the HiHat stand so that the HiHats are positioned at the 10/11 O'clock position (see photo). Doing this will allow your left leg to be more forward, like the right leg that is on your Kick drum pedal, and allow you to play the HiHat without having to cross the drumsticks while playing the Snare drum and HiHat. This may mean that you are going to have to move your Tom Toms to allow for the HiHat, but that's okay! Think about: why give "prime real estate" to your Toms when you spend the most time on the Kick, Snare and HiHat? If you can play your HiHat at the 9 O'clock position, then you can certainly play a Tom Tom that is not directly in front of you. If you have a large set-up with multiple Tom Toms, you're able to play those right? They're not all right in front of you are they? Hopefully you don't start all your fills on that first Tom Tom right in front of you because of it's location ... as opposed to the sound that you are going for. So try it out! Give the HiHat some priority in your set-up. Experiment. Find what works best for you and don't just set your drums up a particular way because that's how it looks the best or because that's how your drum hero does it. We are all built differently. Find that perfect ergonomic placement for your HiHat ... and watch your playing improve! You'll be more relaxed and creative if you aren't having to fight your set-up the entire time you are playing it.
In many of my drum set-ups, I've been using my Remote Cable HiHat as my primary HiHat source; something I've been doing since the mid-90s. mounted on it's own stand and placed at the 11 O'clock or 12 O'clock position (see photo). The reason I like having the Remote HiHats is that I can place the HiHat exactly where I want them; not being forced to place them based on where the pedal is.
The "prime real estate" on any set-up is going to be directly in front of you. Why? Because both hands can easily play what is directly in front of you! That's why the Snare drum is typically placed directly in front of the performer. The best place for the Kick drum is right in front of the foot that is playing it, not directly in front of the performer's torso. The best place for the HiHat pedal is right where the foot that is playing it will naturally land ... while sitting forward with the Snare drum centered on the torso and the Kick drum positioned as previously mentioned. If you do this, using only your throne, Snare, Kick and HiHat, you'll find the most relaxed set-up you could possibly ever find. You'll notice that the HiHat is positioned at the 11 O'clock position!
With the Remote Cable HiHat, I'm able to take the ergonomic set-up a step further by placiing the HiHats directly in front of me ("prime real estate") in the 12 O'clock position, while keeping everything the same, in particular the foot playing the HiHat pedal. My feet don't have to change positions, but I can have my HiHats in front of me, my elbows down by my side, and I can reach everything very easily. Kick, Snare and HiHat is what most of use on every tune we play regardless of the music genre, save jazz ... which just needs to add a Ride cymbal ... but the set-up still works!
If you are into larger set-ups, here's a 6-piece set-up I've used that incorporates a rack system. My 12, 14 and 16-inch Toms are basically set-up as they've always been; very standard. The 10-inch Tom is to the left of the HiHat. From the "standard" set-up, it will look as though the HiHat and small Tom have basically switched places. My Ride cymbal and my Crash cymbals are in their normal position. As you can see in the photo, the drums are fairly centered and split evenly. The Snare appears to be slightly to the left to accommodate a comfortable position with the Kick drum, but this actually isn't the case at all. I don't sit behind my Kick drum, but rather position myself so that I'm more centered on the Snare drum (and in this set-up, the HiHats), with my right leg being the only thing really behind the Kick drum.
Performing with right hand or left hand on the HiHat feels really great!
You can see from the Tom angles that everything is fairly flat, with only a slight angle towards me to accommodate my throne height. I have always set my Toms up so that, in my relaxed position, my drumsticks hover about 2-inches over the drum(s); the drumstick is parallel to the drumhead surface in this position. This allows me to play very soft when needed, as well as with a lot of speed. The angle also ends the problem of accidentally striking the rim of the Tom ... and Tom rimshots are easy to achieve as well.
The HiHats are slightly higher than the mounted Toms; perfect angle and height for me to play relaxed ... with elbows down to my side. I also have to make very little effort when I want to use either the shoulder or tip of the drumstick on the HiHats. This also includes incorporating the "rocking motion" during groove playing.
Using the Remote Cable HiHat and rack system makes it very easily to employ my Double Kick Pedal and/or Gajate brackets since the set-up footprint is more open and at a minimum.
Believe it or not, I can play very quickly around the kit, moving from the 10-inch Tom to the 12-inch Tom with no problems whatsoever. The HiHat is far enough forward that there is no problems with it interfering with my rolls around the kit. Crossing-over ... right hand to the 10-inch Tom, left hand to the 12-inch Tom is a breeze. Although it appears to be a problem visually, I can tell you that for me, I've noticed no negative difference in my playing. I can still execute everything as I've always done, although now I feel more relaxed and open.
Give it a try with your drum set-up. Experiment and see what works for you. Try to find the most relaxed, ergonomic placement for your HiHat, and for all the instruments in your set-up. The more instruments used, the harder it may be to find room ... so give preference to those instruments that are used the most: Kick, Snare and HiHats. Also, be sure to watch the supplemental video included with this lesson!
Bart Elliott is a degreed professional musician and founder of the Drummer Cafe. His 30+ years in the music industry, over 100 albums to his credit, as well as his understanding of contemporary and classical music, makes him a complete and skilled master musician. A highly sought after drummer and percussionist, both live and in the studio, Bart is widely known as a top music educator and gifted teacher, appearing as a guest artist and clinician throughout the USA.