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10 Fundamental skills you have to develop to become a great percussionit

Author: Facundo Alvarez, Percussion teacher and Facilitator

Hi, If you are starting your learning path in percussion and looking for guidance to move forward in it, stay tuned!, because in this post I’m going to share with you the 10 fundamental skills that you have to develop to become a great percussionist. 

All the information and advices that I’m going to share with you in this post can be applied to any percussion instruments, such as: Bongó, Cajón, Conga, Djembé, among others.

Also, all the contents of this post comes from my own experience of more that 20 years as percussion teacher and facilitator.

SKILL 1:  Be able to keep a steady tempo along your playing over a song or any music part you play


This first skill is directly related with our role as percussionist in a band, that is timekeeping. 

To move forward and improve this ability, you have to work in three separate areas: 

  • Train your tempo sense

    How you that?, well basically follow this rule:

    • Never, but never practice anything “On the Air”, what I mean always practice using a metronome or playing over music. You need an external musical source of tempo that helps you to keep it on the right track
    • Once you learn to play a rhythm, play it for a long time, to see how much you can keep the pace and most important the tempo. Remember the main function of a percussionist is playing a steady tempo on a song, so you have to train yourself to be able to do that.
    • I know that playing at high speed is more fun, but make sure to practice both fast and slow tempos. You are going to see that most of the time, playing slow keeping the tempo is harder. 

Practice using a metronome is one of the best practice of a great percussionist

  • Work hard on improving your hand technique:

    • To be able to keep a steady tempo when you’re playing a song, you have to be in full control of your hands. That means that you control the overall hand motion, as well as control that you´re playing each sound correctly and at the right volume.  

    • The key factor here is to work on a hand training routine that takes you through several musical and rhythmic situations that challenges you and helps to be prepared for any musical situation in which you´ll be involved. 

  • Train your “musical ear”:

  • As percussionists and musicians we have to feed us with tons of music, the more diverse the better, because you are going to learn a lot from listening to it. 
  • A basic training that you can do is to play any random song on Spotify or Youtube and try to find: 
  • first the tempo, if you want you can clap it or dance, you choose.
  • Second, look for the beginning and the end of the principal rhythm pattern and try to replicate, with or with your instrument. You see, your body is full of sounds to play. You can also move on to other instruments and try to mimic what they are playing. 
  • To improve this training look for songs you are not familiar with, to get better you always have to live the comfort song.

SKILL 2:  Be able to play at different tempos.

For a great percussion tempo is not an issue. What I mean is tempo can´t change your sound or your way of playing or your musicality.

Yes, I know you’re going to tell me that maybe in the point that you are right now, there are some tempos that are out of your reach because they are too fast. I give you that, however keep in mind this idea, if you look for popular music, you’re going to find out that on average, songs are mostly between 90 BPM and 200 BPM.

So if you train yourself to be able to play between these two tempos, you’re going to be more than well.

SKILL 3: Be able to break the “Dominant Hand” trap

  • No matter if you´re right handed or left handed, most percussion students battle with this issue. The “dominant hand trap” means that you use one hand more than the other, obviously because you feel more comfortable and safe with it. That’s no good, because it makes you develop several playing vices that go against your development as a percussionist.


  • So it’s recommendable, that your practice routines focus on developing both hands equally, in a way that you don’t have to think about what hand you have to use to play, you just flow and play. The goal here is to achieve an organic way of playing, similar to what happens when you walk. Think about this, when you walk from a point to another you just go, I mean you don’t see which foot goes first. Well you have to train to get that way of working with your hands.  

SKILL 4: Be able to play loud and soft, follow what the music you´re playing ask for

  • This ability is called Dynamic Range, and It’s one of the most important abilities you have to develop, because it is directly related with your musicality and the expression of the music that you play in your drum. When you control this everything that you play sounds better, because sounds and accents of the rhythm are in the right place and you can groove better.


  • Basically this is going to give the ability to control the volume of the different sounds that you play in a rhythm, so you can build it the right way. Let’s look closer to this rhythm, listen to how it sounds when you play it “plain”, I mean you play all sounds at the same volume. And how its sound improves when I play using the Dynamic Range, I mean when I play accents louder and filler notes or ghost notes softer.

Controlling the sounds of your hands improves your playing skills as percussionist


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You don´t need to have previous knowledges of music or percussion to get started.

SKILL 5: Be able to play and combine different hands digitation

  • I don´t know if you know that there’s more than one digitation to play the drums. What is a digitation?. Basically is the way in which you move and combine your hands when you play a rhythm.
  • You can play the drum using a 1 and 1 digitation, or using a ghost notes or using a double strokes. -show examples-.
  • What’s more, to play specific rhythms you have to use a specific fingering. So the more digitation that use learn to use the more rhythms and music, you´re going to be able to play.

SKILL 6: Be able to play and combine different music figures and its silences

Figures are the main content of rhythms. In fact rhythms are built from the combination figures and their silences: quarter notes, eighth notes, sixteen notes, among others . So being able to play and combine them is vital for your development as a percussionist.

To develop that ability you have to train yourself in playing them separately and combined in all the ways you can find and imagine, in order to expand your playing boundaries. 

SKILL 7: Be able to play different bar types

As part of your musical and rhythmic training you have to develop the ability to recognize different bar types. What is a bar?. We can define the bar as the space in which the music happens. And we define them for the amount of beat they have.

Again, music is a wide and diverse universe and in it you are going to find different rhythms built in different bars. So the more bars you’re available to recognize the more rhythms and music you´re going to be able to play.

Bar types is one of the main concepts of rhythmic theory a percussionist needs to know

SKILL 8: Be able to adapt and play in different music context

As a percussionist you have to be able to play in different musical contexts, what I mean you have to be able to play in a band among a drum set and other instruments, or in a percussion ensemble, or in a duo with a guitar or a piano, or in whatever set up you can find.

To develop this ability in the most productive way I recommend you to play over different songs with different instruments set up, so you can experiment with different music contexts and see how you adapt your play to each of them.


SKILL 9: Be able to improvise both rhythms and solos

Improvisation is a key ability in our development as percussionists and musicians, because each time that we improvise we are going to develop our own personal voice on the drums. It’s true that we start playing percussion mimicking what others play, but the best way to build our own way of playing it is going a step further and create our own version of those rhythms. Improvisation is the best way to do that.

So lose the fear and allow yourself to take the risk to play something new from any rhythm that you learnt. By doing that you´re going to expand your playing boundaries.

SKILL 10: Be able to be creative and play out of the box


Making music in a way is putting creativity to work by combining sounds and creating melodies and rhythms. So being creative is really important to your development and growth as a percussionist.

To play out of the box, implies to always go one step further than any rhythm or musical idea we learnt in the past. What I mean, by doing that you are going the ability to develop a personal way of playing and sound. Give it a try, you wont regret it.

Bonus track: SKILL 11:  Be able to sing any rhythm that you play. 

Singing is a vital ability to develop as a musician and obviously as a percussionist, both to learn to play and to express yourself with them.

One important concept that you have to learn is that as a percussionist you´re not only playing rhythms, you´re also playing melodies.

In every percussion instrument you are going to find different notes. The basics one have at least two sounds or notes -show examples-, in general one bass sound or low pitched and a sharp sound. while others has 3 or more -show examples-.

Following that you can sing any rhythm copying the pitch of the different sounds. This ability is great,  first to help you to learn and remember new rhythms and second as a resource to create and play new rhythms.

percussion facilitator

Facundo Alvarez
Percussion Facilitator

For 20 years I´ve dedicated myself to develope educational and recreational materials and experiences, with the goal of facilitate access to percussion learning to people of all ages

In all the projects I work motivated by the premise that "Percussion is for everybody" and that "Everyone can learn to play percussion".

My main goal is to help, as many people as I can, to live the unique experience of making music with percussion instruments.