Direct Drive Pedals: One weird trick to becoming a better drummer, sort of

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been playing drums for twenty years, but spending the last two decades with a pair of drumsticks in my hands has taught me a lot. One of the dumber things I’ve learned is that every drummer has at least one specific quirk, and six years ago, I stumbled into one of my own: From here on out, I’ll only use direct-drive bass drum pedals. They’ve made me a better drummer. Sort of.

William Ludwig’s 1909 bass drum pedal patent. The pedal was also used to strike a cymbal.

William F. Ludwig perfected the bass drum pedal in 1909, and it works like this: A foot presses a pedal that pulls a drive mechanism downwards in order to swing a beater towards the batter head of the drum. You can see Ludwig’s patent up top, and very little has changed in bass drum pedal design over the past 113 years, aside from us drummers wearing the type of shoes he depicted in his drawing. 

Today’s pedals feature three overarching types of drive mechanisms: Chain, belt, and direct. Since the 1970s, the majority of pedals have been chain-driven; they’re the standard. Their downside is that there’s some lag between when the pedal is pressed and when the beater strikes the drum since every link in the chain is a point of contact for the drive system. The lag isn’t overtly obvious -it’s microseconds- but it’s there. As far as my own experience, my Junior High had a phenomenal old Pearl chain-driven pedal that seemed to me back then as fast and smooth as Steel Vengeance at Cedar Point does now, and I used a cheap PDP 5X14 chain-driven double bass pedal on my own Ludwig kit in high school. When I joined a metal band in 2014, I upgraded to a hardier chain-driven PDP DP402.

My own drums are in storage, but here’s a modern Mapex chain-driven pedal, courtesy of Wikimedia user Wyglif and available under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 attribution.

The second kind of pedal is belt-driven. Sometimes known as a strap-drive, this type of pedal simply swaps the chain out for a belt. All else equal, belt-drive pedals are less powerful than their chain-driven cousins, but they’re also nearly frictionless. Belt-driven pedals are pretty rigid, too, and they generally lack the side-to-side motion of a chain that leads to input lag. Historically, belt-driven pedals were unreliable since they were made of leather. Today, they’re fashioned from nylon. Pearl, whose drums I’ve played exclusively for fifteen years, actually makes its belts out of conveyor material. Whatever that is.

The last type of bass drum pedal is called direct-drive. For me, that’s where the money lies: Instead of a chain or a belt, a direct-drive pedal uses a solid metal linkage as the hinge between the footboard and the beater. With only two points of contact, there’s no noticeable flex. Zero. As a result, direct-drive pedals are powerful, responsive, and provide your foot with an initially-shocking degree of control and precision. The original “Ludwig Pedal” featured a primitive direct-drive mechanism, actually, an n ow that I have a modern example of a direct-drive pedal for my own drums, I’m completely smitten.

This is the only drumset featured in Ludwig’s 1918 catalog. If you squint, you can see that the linkage between the pedal and the beater is solid. It’s a direct-drive pedal through and through.

Here’s the story of how I came to upgrade: Back in 2016, the metal band I was in got courted to play a show two exits north of Fort Wayne in the small town of Waterloo, Indiana. Advertised as an annual “Concert on the Green” festival, the promoter advised us to expect an audience of several thousand people based on the previous years’ attendance figures. We were suspicious, but accepted the invite in order to expand our reach from the Indianapolis area and maybe sell some CDs. We weren’t paid for our performance, but we assumed that the spoils would be worth it based on the projected attendance.

After we agreed, one of us googled Waterloo. Only 2,200 people lived there. Multiples of the town’s attendance were projected to attend the show, so there was that.

From Indy, the guys picked me up in Muncie on the way up to the gig. As we merged onto I-69, I saw a caravan of pickups escorting a flatbed carrying an enormous wind turbine headed northbound. Steve punched it and we got on the highway just before it passed us. We quickly put some distance between us.

My band, The Venom Cure, throwing down in a park shelter in Waterloo on September 17, 2016. That’s Sky, Steve, me, and Nate.

Sky had to pee just south of Fort Wayne, so we got off the highway at Markle. He did his thing and began chatting with someone outside the gas station just as Steve and I saw the convoy looming towards us from down the interstate. We herded Sky into the van and got moving, narrowly missing being stuck behind the slow-moving turbine for the final fifty miles of our trip! 

The rest of the drive was nonchalant until we rolled into tiny Waterloo and realized that our fears were confirmed: The promoter had told us some tall tales- only a handful of people were there for the festival! Then the rain hit. The outing -meant to take place over an entire park’s worth of greenspace- wound up barely filling up half of a single picnic shelter, and I think around thirty people showed up, all told.

For what it’s worth, that’s life in a local band.

Here’s our singer, Steve, at a gig at the Emerson Theater on Indy’s near east side.

All the same, we gave the gig our best. Personally, I loved the fireworks that erupted from behind the drums at the end of our set, explosions caused by me as I reacted to the catastrophic failure of that “hardier” bass drum pedal I’d upgraded to. It just fell apart! By the end of our last song I was literally kicking the batter head of the bass drum to get some sound -any sound- out of it and into the PA, which was thirsty for some lows. I don’t think the audience noticed but after our set concluded, the dumpster at Waterloo’s Francis Thomson Park became one DP402 pedal richer. I was upset, but someone might have made out with a bargain.

Most of my drum purchases have been utilitarian or have come from a place of need. But when it came to the new bass drum pedal, I’d just gotten a bonus from work and had some extra funds. I tried a couple of new chain and strap drive pedals, but since I’d played Pearl drums for so long I decided to go with what I knew, and I went for broke, leaving Sweetwater with a $640 Pearl P3002d Demon Drive double bass pedal. Yes, $640!

Steve, Brad, and I headlining Muncie Music Fest on October 10, 2015. I was using a borrowed drumset, a Pearl Export series.

That’s more than my drums themselves cost, and I swear that my debit card felt physically lighter as I put it back in my wallet. Cheaper alternatives were available -even as direct-drives- but the fiasco at Waterloo stuck firmly in my mind: I wasn’t going to be humiliated by something as mundane as a bass drum pedal if I could help it. For me, the Demon Drive was the right choice. But despite the certainty, my resolve quickly wavered as I took the pedal to our next practice. I nearly returned it after one run through our setlist! 

See, there are pretty much three ways to play a bass drum with your foot: Heel-up, heel-down, and a hybrid technique that combines the two. Playing heel-up leads to a forceful stroke, and I use it occasionally to accent certain notes. The majority of my playing, however, is done heel-down, the same basic motion you’d do if you were tapping your foot from behind your desk at work. I’ve found that playing heel-down gives me better control and stability than heel-up, especially at fast tempos, but that’s a manner of thinking that flies in the face of contemporary conventional wisdom in the same way that a buzz cut and a pair of wing tips did in the late 1970s. For me, though, as the drummer in a metal band, fast tempos and flurries of notes were pretty much my home base, so controlling those via the heel-down technique made sense.

Here’s Sky, our guitarist, when the band headlined a music festival at Lucas Oil Raceway in 2015. He’s playing a Ruby Red Ibanez Prestige.

Blast beats are taxing on the legs regardless of what technique you use, but I’d long ago mastered our songs by conserving energy through economy of motion and gradually building up my ankle muscles. What I hadn’t considered was how starkly different playing a direct-driven pedal was from using a chain-drive. I’d underestimated how steep the learning curve was, and I got really discouraged. 

I could make it through our setlist on autopilot with my chain-drives, but I soon found that approaching our songs that way with the direct-drive pedal was impossible. The pedal demanded that I be precisely in the pocket down to the millisecond, something that the omnipresent click track in our in-ear monitors made painfully apparent to me as we rehearsed. The complete lack of lag, friction, and slop from the Demon Drive led me to play way behind the beat, and drumming with that pedal for the first time was like trading an old stick-shift Ranger for a new Jetta, swapping a Johnson spincast reel for a Garcia baitcaster, or like trying to sweep pick on an Ibanez with a wizard neck and then switching over to a ’52 Tele. I just couldn’t get away with the stuff I’d been used to slacking off on in my playing.

Steve, Sky, and I at our last show, at the historic Melody Inn in Indianapolis.

Of course, I didn’t think to be so introspective immediately. I had a toothache that day and was using Orajel to temporarily address the pain. During a break, I actually googled to see if I could blame the Benzocaine for some impact on my motor skills! Needless to say, I left practice mad, discouraged, and with the new pedal as my scapegoat. I left it in the car overnight even after I unloaded my drums. 

The next morning, I unlocked my car and approached the Demon Drive warily. I gave it a quick side-eye before I took it inside to clamp it to my bass drum. After another day or two, I practiced on it with a metronome for weeks until I improved my precision, speed, and strength. As I worked on the drums in my garage, I realized that my issues with the direct-drive pedal were problems that had always been present in my drumming, regardless of the type of pedal I used. It took a lot of work, practice and woodshedding, but eventually I got there.

I spent my high school summers marching in CITSA invitationals, the Indiana State Fair band day finals, and the big ISSMA competition at the RCA Dome. I was in a couple of short-lived bands in high school, including one called The Killer Hadoogan that tricked our principal into letting us record an EP as an independent study course. I joined the metal band, The Venom Cure, in 2014, and we performed to 10,000 people when we headlined a musical festival at Lucas Oil Raceway in Indianapolis. Today, I still record drums for people as an occasional side gig.

My current drums feature the Pearl Demon Drive pedal and, from left to right, a 14×4 piccolo snare, a 6.5×14 snare, 10×8 and 12×9 rack toms, 14×14 and 16×16 floor toms, and a 22×16 bass drum. The cymbals are by Meinl. The heads on all but the bass drum are Evans G2s.

Nowadays, I’m comfortable and proficient at using direct-drive bass drum pedals, and I’ve still got the Demon Drive. It shows up on everything I play on, and my attention to what I play and how I play is better for it. A direct-drive pedal isn’t for everyone, and it won’t convert a sloppy player to a precise one on its own. But any technical drummer with a little bit of cash, a critical eye towards their own playing, and some time to practice their progress will appreciate the instantaneous response a direct-drive pedal provides.

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