Scottish Drags

Most drummers are familiar with the concept of the Drag, PAS rudiment number 31. It features 2 grace notes before a primary note and is played in the American style as a double stroke followed by a single stroke. Normally, all three of these notes are distinctly audible and separate although the exact timing of them is somewhat variable from 16th notes all that way up to 64th notes, depending on the context and the player. Pipe band drumming has a Drag as well and on paper it looks identical to the American Drag, but there are two interpretations that are distinct in the Scottish style – Scottish Drags and Open Drags. Open Drags are the American style of Drag but Scottish Drags are completely different. How different they are depends on whom you ask or possibly in which time period you ask.

Pipe bands were first formed in the middle 1800s in Scottish regiments of the British Army. Sources differ greatly, citing dates from the Crimean War in the 1850s up to as late as the 1880s. Whenever they actually started, it was definitely sometime in the 19th century. Today, pipe bands are found in essentially every former British colony or Commonwealth country, making it one of the most popular types or rudimental drumming. Piping has a distinctly different rhythmic feel than fifing or bugling and thus a new type of snare drumming was necessary. At first the difference was subtle, meaning that pipe band drummers played more or less the same was as standard rudimental drummers. Today the difference is drastic and immediately obvious, even to someone who knows nothing about pipe band. From the sticks to the drums to the rudiments, pipe band drumming is now completely different from other types of rudimental drumming. This includes the Drag.

Modern pipe band Drags are often said to be “dead stroked,” and there is some debate about exactly how dead that is, but it is definitely not the same as an Open Drag or American style of Drag. This wasn’t always the case, however. The earliest pipe band drum settings that I’ve ever seen, and possibly the earliest that survive today at all, are found in the Henry Potter’s Side Drum Beatings book from around 1910.  No author is listed and Henry Potter was born in about 1817, so unless he lived to be at least 93 and was still writing, it was probably not Henry himself. The settings are pretty much indistinguishable from the fife and drum rhythms or drum and bugle rhythms of the day, which leads me to believe that the Drags were likely played the same way as any other common types of rudimental drumming in Great Britain at the time. The drums used in pipe band were also very similar, or even identical, to those used in other types of drumming, meaning they did not have the crisp rattle of the modern high tension, double snared pipe band drums. An Open Drag type of interpretation is very likely, as were Open Double Stroke Rolls. Unfortunately, neither the Henry Potter book nor John Seton’s 1920s pipe band book have any rudimental instruction to clarify the technique. In both cases the rhythms are all round, that is played in straight 8ths and 16ths without the modern dot-cut and triplet types of rhythms.

Admittedly, I have not seen every pipe band snare tutor out there. The next one I have examined is from 1972 by Wilson Young. Young does actually describe the rudiments and definitely mentions buzzed rolls and the proper execution for Drags, which in this case was closed, like a Ruff. He specifically says to buzz the grace notes and make the sound “Zzup.” Sometime between the 1920s and the 1970s the drumming became distinct from other rudimental playing, which would not (and mostly still does not) advocate for much buzzing. In the 1940s pipe bands switched over to screw tension drums from rope tension, which meant that higher tunings could be achieved. In the late 1950s, plastic drumheads were invented, also allowing for higher tunings and clearer tones. Between these two innovations, it is thought that pipe bands made the switch from Open Doubles to Buzzes. Recordings from this era are very hard to make out, and I have not been able to get a copy of the 1930s Army Manual for pipe band drumming or the 1954 John Seton tutor, so I cannot yet put an exact date on the switch. As interesting as this is, it doesn’t yet show anything like a dead stroke for the Scottish Drag.

Allen Benson released a book explaining the pipe band style in 1981 and he reiterated the sound “zup” for the Scottish Drag, so it can be assumed that a closed Ruff with a buzz stroke was still standard at that time. The Royal Scottish Pipe Band Association produced a Structured Learning series in the 1990s and they refer to the Drag as closed, giving the syllable “trup” for the required sound. This is definitely distinct from the earlier “zup” or “Zzup.”

The earliest mention I can find of the grace notes actually being dead stroked is from around 2010, in James Laughlin’s Guide to Pipe Band Drumming. He uses the word “dead stroke” and gives the syllable “thrup.” This is extremely similar to the 1990s “trup” and it can perhaps be assumed that the Drag was somewhat dead in the 1990s, but definitely was by 2010. In 2014, Michael Eagle also uses the term “dead stroke” in his presentation on Scottish rudiments at PASIC and there are videos of him playing Drags with a complete lack of bounce on the grace note. It is almost a Flam, but the grace note sticks to the head. Because of this video evidence, it is very clear that the Drag is totally dead stroked. It is not a nuanced term or open to interpretation, according to Eagle, its just dead.

Interestingly, in Canada the Drag isn’t fully closed. Cadet pipe band manuals still refer to the Drag as buzzed in 2015 or later. Some rank and file pipe band drummers of the past few years in the USA, Scotland, and elsewhere, use the term “dead” but simply mean a small amount of buzz, rather than a long drawn out buzz. In these cases they are not referring to the complete lack of rebound. It appears that even with a “dead stroked” interpretation possibly dating back to the 1990s, the word isn’t universally applied to the same technique.

I am no pipe band expert and so I have no way to say what is the most correct or most legitimate opinion. I also must admit that I do not own Duthart’s or Stronach’s tutors, which are some of the most classic. Perhaps there is further evidence there.

In any case, it appears that the Scottish Drag probably started out as an Open Drag in the 19th century, then moved through a buzzed Ruff, “Zzup” or “zup,” phase sometime in the mid-20th century, and then furthered closed in the 1990s or 2000s to a very short buzz or sometimes a completely dead Flam, “trup” or “thrup.” There is a clear progression toward a shorter sound and it is likely that at some point the completely dead Flam sound will take over in all cases, as that is the logical conclusion.

 A curious parallel is actually the Russian Drag, or Dvoyki Forshlag.  Today, Drags and Flams are performed exactly the same way in traditional Russian rudimental contexts. This makes no sense to drummers of other traditions, of course. Why write two grace notes if you mean to play one? Russian rudimental drumming was heavily influenced by the Dutch and Austrian styles in the 17th and 18th century, and those systems definitely had regular Drags with two grace notes. It appears that over time the interpretation by Russian drummers became more and more closed, similarly to the Scottish, such that by 1903 A. Vassilyev notes that the Flam and the Drag are performed the same way “in battles.” So, the interpretation was variable depending on the context. Over the following 120 years drums were not used in many battles, obviously, so the Flam and the Drag are now always the same in the 21st century. They continue to write both Flams and Drags in music because of tradition, not for any practical reason.