This is a frequently asked question from a lot of players. It is a fair question to ask, considering most students want to dedicate their time to learning the technique which will be optimum for their playing. However, the question is flawed. It is similar to asking whether matched grip or traditional grip is better when holding the drumsticks. The reality is that different techniques serve different purposes. It is not necessarily that one is better than another, but that each technique is another tool for you to apply in a variety of situations.
Heel up playing is the most common bass drum technique. It involves using the weight of your thigh and leg to depress the pedal using the balls of your toes as the contact point. As the technique improves, your foot will almost be able to float above the pedal as your ankle moves up and down to play.
Heel up playing tends to be louder because there is more force that can be transferred to the pedal through the weight of your thigh and leg. It also opens the more advanced players up to other techniques such as swivel technique and heel-toe technique, which can both be used to play faster consecutive strokes.
The trade-off for this increase in speed, is reduced balance. Because your heels are off the floor, as you lift your leg to raise the pedal in anticipation of the stroke, you’ve essentially lost a point of contact with the ground for that limb. For those who play double-kick pedals, it requires significantly more balance to remain centred on the drum stool while both feet are playing, especially when also moving around the kit with both hands.
Heel up playing is popular in styles such as rock, pop, metal, progressive, and punk, where loud or fast bass drum strokes are required.
Heel down playing involves depressing the bass drum pedal with your heel resting on the pedal. The weight of the pedal is depressed more evenly across your arch, balls of your toes and forefoot when compared to heel up playing.
Heel down playing tends to be quieter. Less force can be generated as the beater acceleration is only controlled by the ankle joint, as opposed to the entire leg in heel up playing.
The trade-off for lack of volume is increased control. You will always have a point of contact with the floor as the heel rests on the pedal. The use of controlled, quieter strokes make this technique popular for styles such as jazz, big band or latin music.
From an anatomical perspective
Your ankle joint is mortise joint. Structurally it can be imagined as an upside-down T inside an upside-down U. The tibia and fibular form the outside components of the ankle joints, with the talus bone of the foot resting between them.
As your ankle dorsiflexes (forefoot up), the talus (highest foot bone, or the vertical component of the upside-down T), is forced up and between the tibia and fibular (the upside-down U). Because of this, the ankle joint has limited degrees of freedom in this position.
The opposite is also true. As your foot plantarflexes (forefoot down), the talus comes free of the sideways compressive forces and your ankle becomes far more mobile in all directions. This is way most ankle injuries happen when the foot is plantarflexed.
You can try this yourself by resting your foot firmly on the floor and then lifting your forefoot up off the floor while keeping your heel on the ground. Now try and move your foot. Compare this is resting your forefoot on the ground with your heel in the air. You will be able to make circles, move it left and right, as well as up and down. There are more degrees of freedom.
Why should I care about degrees of freedom?
More degrees of freedom mean more control is required for balance and execution of consistent sound. The additional degrees of freedom make way to the possibilities of more techniques (such as swivel technique), which generally allow the player to produce more speed. However for the beginner player it can result in lack of control and inconsistencies in sound.
Where does this leave us?
Both heel up and heel down have their place in the tool belt for drummers. When used properly, a player can alternate between the two depending on what the moment requires. Heel down for control and consistency, and heel up for speed and power.
For a beginner player with no preference for either method, I usually have them learn heel down first, to reduce the degrees of freedom at the ankle and keep them with a constant point of contact with the ground.
*Ben is also a registered physiotherapist with AHPRA