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Straight Outta Gettysburg

Scott Kenemore
Photo (partial) by Dennis Carroll© from The Drum

A Civil War drumming technique becomes a YouTube phenomenon. But what good is it for songs?

Drummers, a contentious group (perhaps because they are so frequently denigrated by other musicians), have made use of internet forums and chat rooms to debate the superiority and inferiority of other drummers since the technology first became available. They love to argue about who has the fastest hands (Virgil Donati? Neil Peart?), who can play the funkiest grooves (Bernard Purdie? Carter Beauford?), and who is just an overrated poseur. Recently however, drummers have united to use the internet in a (mostly futile) attempt to find information about Sanford Moeller, a mysterious military drummer born more than 100 years ago.

Moeller became the object of these fruitless searches when online video services like YouTube started posting videos of drummers (some famous, some not) playing a jaw-dropping technique called the Moeller Method involving an almost impossibly difficult one-handed roll. A YouTube video of famous jazz drummer Dave Weckl demonstrating the Moeller has more than 180,000 views, an astounding number, as this is, to say the least, not a general-interest topic.

Adding to the fascination with this technique is the mystery of the life of the man who created it. Because so little is known about Moeller, he has become something of a lost-guru figure to drummers. It is romantic to think of him as a spirit reaching out through the mists of time to bestow ancient knowledge that lets drummers today do amazing things.

What is known for certain is that Sanford Moeller is the author of an instruction manual called The Moeller Book: The Art of Snare Drumming. It was first published in 1925 and has been reprinted several times since. While the book’s sales never surpassed George F. Stone’s Stick Control (the Bible of educational books for most drummers) it sold well enough to be reprinted in the 1950s and had its copyright assigned to the Ludwig Music Publishing Company in 1982.

The unsubstantiated conjecture about Moeller is, however, more interesting. Moeller was a military drummer who purportedly studied the drumming style of Civil War drummers to create his method. In the introduction to his book, Moeller refers to these Civil War drummers as “ancients” and calls their style of holding drumsticks the "ancient grip". The style, which is unheard of today, involves holding the stick like a hammer, but gripping it only with the little finger.

In the '30s, Moeller, like a mysterious Keyzer Söze of drums, is said to have shared his powerful techniques with the top drummers of the day, including Gene Krupa and Jim Chapin -- drummers still respected as among the very best ever. Famous contemporary drummers -- from veterans like Chapin to youngsters like Tony Royster Jr.-- have started regularly including lessons on the Moeller in their educational DVDs and instructional books. But Chapin (the father of folk singer Harry Chapin) has been the most vocal advocate of Moeller and his method. According to Chapin, mastery of the Moeller brings not only incredible hand speed, but also an increased stick control that makes a drummer’s playing “like a dance in midair.” Chapin’s video demonstration of the Moeller currently posted on YouTube, is probably the most impressive available.

Essentially, the Moeller Method is accomplished by playing a bounced triplet with one hand. The first stroke is played with a powerful whipping motion. The second and third strokes are then played as the wrist resets upward to prepare for another downstroke whip. These second and third strokes, the heart of the Moeller, are either bounced and come from the delivery of the first stroke, or are a combination of bounce and finger motion. When performed correctly, the results are astonishing. Drummers can use it to keep a one-handed roll going on their snare while freeing their other hand to explore the rest of the kit during a solo, or they can play it with both hands concurrently, bringing their single-stroke roll to new, blistering heights.

Yet for all the appealing mystery about its origins, at the end of the day the most relevant question about the Moeller Method involves its musical usefulness. On this, the jury is still out. Most drummers begin to play by learning a set of standardized sticking-patterns called rudiments, most of which have silly names like Paradiddle, Flamacue, and Inverted Flam Tap. Some rudiments, like the Single-Stroke Roll, are used almost constantly by drummers when they play with other musicians. But the more obscure rudiments often have the sole function of impressing other drummers. The Moeller may be one of these: When executed, the Moeller definitely impresses other drummers. But even as it becomes more widespread among drummers, it may never find its way into popular music.

An analogy is appropriate. Compare playing drums to playing a sport like basketball, baseball, or football. Rudiments are the “weight room” of drumming, the thing that one hits -- literally -- to be good when game time comes. But just as some athletes decide to forego the game entirely and stay in the weight room to become bodybuilders and weightlifters, some drummers tend to remain “rudimental drummers.” They know all the sticking tricks and practice techniques but are at something of a loss when called upon to jam with other musicians.

Whether the mystical Moeller Method will remain the province of these technical, rudimental students, or whether it will start showing up in the rock songs you hear on the radio may be the true test of this mysterious man and his method. I, for one, am slightly skeptical of the ability of rock drummers to incorporate it, tastefully and musically, into rock and pop songs. The Moeller will be difficult to use musically in something other than a drum solo. But that said, I may be guilty of underestimating the resourcefulness and creativity of the average rock drummer. And it is exciting to think so.

Scott Kenemore is the author of The Zen of Zombie and is the drummer for the Chicago-based rock band, the Blissters.

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