Your guide to the fast-growing world of finger drumming

This highly engaging performance technique, embraced by DJs and drummers alike, is getting more and more attention. We look at the past, present and future of finger drumming, and offer advice for those looking to get started. 

About a minute into Fred again..’s Boiler Room, which at the time of writing has been viewed 24 million times, he began using a technique that became a big talking point, one that helped cement the set as an instant classic.  

Rather than simply hitting play on his first track, Fred built up a series of drum loops by hand, playing the rhythms on performance pads using a technique called finger drumming. He turned to the technique again later, with a live rendition of “Turn On The Lights,” his track with Swedish House Mafia and Future, with the crowd by this point in a state of frenzy. Anyone who caught his performance at this year’s Glastonbury would have seen Fred, in his role of one of the festival’s headliners, finger drumming in the middle of a vast stage for one of the weekend’s biggest crowds.

This was perhaps the most visible demonstration of finger drumming ever seen, and for many people they would have been seeing it for the first time. However, finger drumming is far from new. Fred was standing on the shoulders of a now thriving community of finger drummers. Participation and interest in finger drumming has, according to people in the scene, picked up in recent years, fuelled by a steady stream of highly engaging video content.

This growth has been helped by a low barrier to entry. All you really need to get started is a small bank of performance pads, the type found on basic MIDI controllers and entry-level DJ equipment. 

We’re going to look at what, exactly, finger drumming is all about. Hear about the people and circumstances that created it. Understand the fast-developing world of finger drumming at this moment in time. And explore what it takes to get involved and get really good.

What is finger drumming? 

Finger drumming is a fusion of traditional drumming principles and modern technology. Performers trigger samples on MIDI controllers, DJ equipment, samplers or drum machines, using their fingers to build anything from simple drum rhythms to entire compositions. These samples are usually one-shot drum sounds, but you can also use notes and chords to create melodies and harmonies. (The definition becomes hazy when performers use melodies, as this technique can be called “tone play,” a close cousin of finger drumming that has its roots in turntablism.) 

In theory, any style of music could be finger drummed. The performance pads are a blank canvas ready to be loaded with any type of sample. However, finger drumming is most closely aligned with hip-hop, a lineage that goes back to producers in the 1990s making beats on samplers like the AKAI MPC. There are popular finger drummers who play dance music styles, and people whose performances could be mistaken for actual drummers playing rock or jazz. In general, “broken” styles of music, with the kick and snare playing off each other, tend to lend themselves to finger drumming particularly well. As we mentioned, though, there are really no rules. 

Gnarly, a finger drummer, producer and teacher from the UK, told us that finger drumming performances could be considered on a scale. “Some people will either play along to loops or have a backing track and only be playing the drums,” she said. “Whereas some finger drummers are more purists. The style that I play, every single sound, every melodic element, bass, drums and everything is all 100% live.”

Much of the finger drumming scene is an interconnected online community, but around the world people gather for festivals, events, tournaments and workshops. Finger drumming works especially well on social media and in short-form video content. Unlike other styles of electronic performance and DJing, with finger drumming it’s fairly easy for the audience to grasp what’s going on just from watching. 

It’s also worth bearing in mind that you might, for example, catch an open-format DJ or turntablist using finger drumming as part of a club set. DJs at the popular Red Bull 3Style DJ competition would often include finger drumming and/or tone play as part of their routines. Or perhaps you might see someone like the UK dance-pop act Disclosure busting out a routine in a DJ set. In other words, finger drumming can be thought of as both its own musical discipline and as a technique that sits within a DJ set or live performance. 

Where does finger drumming come from?

It’s difficult to be too precise about the origins of finger drumming. I asked five figures from the scene about its history and got different responses from each person. The pad-samplers of ‘90s hip-hop production were a precursor to the techniques. The revered late producer J Dilla, for example, would drum his beats on the MPC to create his signature swung sound. Going back further still, Spinscott, the pioneer of jungle and drum & bass finger drumming, cited a 1967 drum solo by Joe Morello as an early example of a musician drumming with his fingers. 

Alex Sonnenfeld, who runs Sample Music Festival in Berlin, and the US finger drummer and DJ Buck Rodgers both mentioned an influential 2002 performance by the turntablists DJ Shadow, Cut Chemist, DJ Numark called Pushing Buttons. It was a team battle routine based on techniques that these days we’d call finger drumming, combined with the crossfader cutting associated with scratching.

Intriguingly, Erykah Badu, one of the leading soul and R&B artists of the past 30 years, could be considered as one of the original finger drummers. There is footage from as far back as 2008 of her performing a drum machine solo, a technique that she’s used frequently as part of her stage shows. 

The world of finger drumming began to take a recognisable shape following a wave of viral videos between 2007 and 2012. Performers like araabMUZIK, Jeremy Ellis and David “Fingers” Haynes showed the exciting possibilities of the craft, something many viewers were seeing for the first time. Most finger drumming videos are shot in closeup, with the performer in a home or studio environment. But an influential video of araabMUZIK from 2011 had the advantage of being filmed in a busy venue, with people literally covering their mouths in disbelief at what he was doing.

Where araabMUZIK and Jeremy Ellis could be considered as part of the hip-hop and sampled music tradition, David “Fingers” Haynes, who’s from South Carolina and is now based in Germany, is a foundational figure in the community of finger drummers who emulate acoustic kits. Haynes is an accomplished drummer who’s been active since the early ‘90s, working with stars like Chaka Khan, Prince, Stevie Wonder and Frank Ocean. In 2007, he uploaded a video to YouTube called “David Haynes playing the drummachine live!” that could be considered among the first widely seen demonstrations of finger drumming to reach the internet.


David has spoken in the past about how he stumbled upon the technique. Forbidden from playing his older brother’s drum set, he was given a drum machine, which he wound up trading for another drum machine with a random person in a music shop. Bored of sequencing drum patterns in the usual way, David tried playing in patterns by hand and began building a repertoire. 

“If you weren’t watching him finger drum, you would think you were hearing an actual drum kit being played,” Gnarly said.

The origins of the type of uptempo finger drumming showcased by Fred again… can be traced to the live MPC routines Spinscott began posting in 2012. Scott told us that when he uploaded videos like the one below, he wasn’t aware of any earlier examples of jungle and drum & bass performances using one-shot samples. “This is real time,” he noted in the video description, “no click used and not time corrected.” There’s a level of speed and dexterity on display here that is incredibly impressive to this day. “I created the technique and built the routine over about a six-week period,” Scott said. “I called my layout of the sounds on the pads the ‘dashboard layout,’ because I arranged it to mirror the way I had been drumming along to jungle mixes in the car over the years.” 

Finger drumming now

These early figures helped create the conditions for the global community of finger drummers and fans that we see today. “The finger drumming scene could, in a sense, be described very similarly to the scratching and turntablism scene,” said Spinscott.

“Over the past decade or so, it has gained popularity online via social media and video sharing platforms, and thanks to the incorporation of pads into more and more gear, has made its way into the DJ and live performance realm. The scene has grown to include events, showcases, competitions, and sub-communities based on genre, style, method, etc. As a newer performance form, there are a lot of forums, tutorials, lesson programs, and other resources that attract and welcome new players to the game.” 

Alex Sonnenfeld runs the annual Sample Music Festival, which, along with the likes of A-Trak’s Goldie Awards in the US and the King Of Flip battle in Japan, is a meeting place for finger drummers, turntablists and digital music performers. Sample Music hosts the Finger Drumming World Championship, which this year was won by Steve Nash from Poland. The judging panel included key figures like Wendel Patrick, Beat Matazz, Gnarly and Clockwerk. 

Sample Music Festival is a hub for all types of competitions and workshops stemming from turntablism and digital music performance. But Alex also uses Sample Music as a platform for his near-life-long mission to get these styles of performance taken seriously by music institutions and the education system. 

“Our mission is to establish turntablism, finger drumming, syntablism, artablism, datablism and controllerism on an academic and public stage,” he said, referring to the various strands of digital music performance that have grown out of turntablism. “Eventually it should be possible to learn these new instrumental forms at state music schools and universities. This would increase social acceptance and make it easier for many people to turn their passion into a profession.

“It is an absolute travesty that only a small handful of people can make a living from music in our community,” he went on. “I have personally seen far too many dedicated artists who pour forth innumerable hours, often eight hours a day, into their craft only to not be able to support themselves financially. To think that these same people could be provided jobs as educators, composers, and players for bands and orchestras would truly be an amazing opportunity for our community.”  

The internet has played an enormous role in drumming up buzz for finger drumming. “I think a huge part of the community is just online,” Gnarly said. “So like with Instagram and TikTok now as well. These are big places where everyone from all over the world is able to share work and see each other’s stuff going on.” 

“My goal is to increase awareness of finger drumming at the largest scale possible, which is why I’m doing everything on the internet right now,” said Dragon, a drummer-turned-finger-drummer and teacher, who runs online classes and a YouTube channel. “Especially with viral social media platforms like TikTok, I foresee finger drumming becoming a lot more popular on a global scale within the next few years.” 

Leading the charge is the US finger drummer and producer Beats by Jblack. With over a million followers across Instagram and TikTok, he is probably the most visible finger drummer working today (excluding Fred again.., who’s known predominantly as a recording artist). It isn’t difficult to see why this has happened. In addition to being supremely skilled, Jblack, who’s cited AraabMuzik as a key influence, has a breezy and confident style of hip-hop performance.

The learning journey

Jblack is also helping to develop the next generation of talent through his Finger Drumming Academy, which offers one-on-one online tuition with him and fellow finger drummers Meccah Maloh and OGdosequis. A few years ago, Jblack revealed a central part of his methodology: he advises people not to look at the pads, but to feel the beat, suggesting that thinking too hard about what you’re doing can be an obstacle. 

Dragon and Gnarly both offer one-to-one finger drumming lessons, while social media—especially YouTube with accounts like The Quest for Groove—abounds with free tutorials and guides to get would-be finger drummers started. You can still see Jeremy Ellis’s tutorial series from 13 years ago, which offers both a slice of finger drumming history and a great way to get started on the basics.    

Many people who have recently learned finger drumming would have done so through Melodics, the app started in 2014 by Sam Gribben, the former CEO of Serato. The app, which also teaches keys and electronic drums, gamifies the learning journey by presenting lessons in a fun, user-friendly environment, while providing continual updates on their progress. 

“Fortunately there are many wonderful and accessible resources available for anyone who wants to get started in finger drumming,” Spinscott told us. “From a gear perspective, just about any drum pad will do, whether it is a small controller connected to a computer, a stand-alone sampler, or even the keyboard on a laptop. As a drummer, I always encourage people to learn the standard drum rudiments, because they really are the DNA of drumming and provide a great foundation that applies to any style of music.  

“I always recommend starting with a style of music that you love, and practicing along to your favorite tracks. As with any other performance method, practicing is the best way to develop accuracy, speed, endurance, and confidence with finger drumming.”  

“I always start with basics, the fundamentals,” said Gnarly about the lessons she teaches. “I think some people will definitely progress faster than others. And a lot of the time it’s people who have musical training in another instrument, for example piano, because your brain already has that network of knowing how to get your hands moving separately. 

“But I think that the beauty of finger drumming is that even if you don’t have a musical background, literally anyone can learn how to play. You don’t need to learn music theory… finger drumming is very accessible in that way.”  

On the subject of accessibility, you may have noticed that finger drumming is a male-dominated world. “I think it’s the same as any music industry,” Gnarly said. “It’s the same in DJing and in music production. There’s always just a small percentage of women who are involved. But there is a small community of women who are finger drumming. I think I’ve definitely seen more coming in. And since I’ve started teaching and stuff, I always get people messaging me like, ‘Ohh my daughter loves seeing what you do.’” Gnarly shouted out Lisa Vazquez, Jeia, Lionclad and Sowall, while the artists Alianna and Kenya Grace have been attracting plenty of attention for their finger drumming-based performances.

The possibilities

“As finger drumming continues to become more prominent in performances of various styles of music, I am noticing that more artists are putting their own spin on the traditional sample layouts and programs,” Spinscott said. “The 4 x 4 grid provides a lot of possibilities for customization, and I always encourage finger drummers to come up with a layout that is comfortable and natural to them. This leads to the development of new techniques, not only for solo finger drumming, but for combining it with other hardware, mixing gear, etc.” 

Gnarly said that, in her capacity as a judge at Sample Music’s Finger Drumming World Championship, she saw plenty of innovation—techniques and routines that she’d simply never seen before. Alex from Sample Music also noted that this year’s Championship featured participants from 12 different countries, which can only be a good thing for increasing the range of creative perspectives.   

So if the finger drumming masters are advancing the scene creatively, what about grassroots participation? Everyone we spoke to seemed to agree that things were growing, that more people were getting involved, and that online interest was increasing. But Dragon was careful to put things in perspective. 

“As finger drummers have been growing their social media followings, there certainly seems to be increased interest in finger drumming online,” he said. “However, it’s a very gradual increase at this time. I don’t think there are any finger drummers with a social media account with over one million followers. Of course, that will change in the years to come, but it just goes to show how small the niche still is.”

“The finger drum scene in the US is something that is getting some popularity, but still something you don’t see a whole lot of,” Buck Rodgers said. “You see more videos online than you do [performances] in the club or main stage.” 

“Overall, I think there is a big future for finger drumming,” Spinscott told us. “I see the progression of finger drumming following the same path that turntablism and scratching has. DJs are continuing to look for ways to differentiate their performances, and the use of pads opens up endless possibilities. Both the competitive and community aspects of finger drumming will continue to attract new players, and will also drive performers to push limits and innovation of new methods. 

“I have noticed an incremental increase in demand on behalf of promoters for more live elements in lineups, and I expect this trend to continue as fans move away from pre-recorded, automated, and fully synchronized sets. Finger drumming will continue to be a great way to blend the excitement of live musicianship with the art of DJing.”

“The finger drumming wave is still rising,” Dragon said. “But when it breaks, it’s going to change the music world forever.”

Words: Ryan Keeling