Today I want to briefly discuss “feathering” the bass drum. You “feather” a bass drum by striking it very lightly with your bass drum beater. This technique’s origins are often credited to my favorite drummer Papa Jo Jones. The concept of “feathering” was used primarily in early Jazz music to maintain a pulse and prevent the drums from overpowering instruments that had no amplification. As one who often struggles with a heavy foot, playing softly is a lot harder than it looks. At least it is for me. In fact, it is one of the biggest challenges that I face as a drummer. Steve Smith has mastered this style of play and offers up a great lesson. According to him:
Begin with the heel down style of playing. The heel down technique produces a more legato, resonate sound which is generally desired for this style. Your foot should be comfortably on the pedal with your heel on the heel plate. Using the weight of your leg and perhaps a bit of foot pressure should make the beater sit about 1 to 2 inches from the head. When making the stroke you should strive to keep that 1 to 2 inch distance between the head and beater. The space should only widen when you intend on making accented strokes. The feathering stroke is compared to lightly tapping your toe, however, plenty of sound will be generated from the small ankle movements. Allow the beater to rebound off the head. The finishing position should be the same as the starting position. The main point is to get the bass drum head vibrating just enough to generate some low end frequencies, you don’t need to hear the attack and definition.
I recommend practicing with just the bass drum. That way you will have no distractions while you build up muscle memory and can accurately judge the quietness of each stroke. Once you master the feel add the other limbs and practice it all over again. Try a simple pattern 1-2-3-4. Then add 1-and-2-and-three-and four. Then mix them up: 1-2-3 and 4 etc. Remember to play as softly as possible while keeping the beater close to the drum head. There is a great example of this technique in Jone’s Caravan solo from 1964 (below). Note at the 2:33 mark how he uses dynamics to establish a backing groove to what he is playing up top on the rims. You can barely hear it but it feels the space perfectly. This is the “feathering” technique personified: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W3QFNNk3tgI