A Brief History of Foot Percussion
A Musical Tradition Without Boundaries
By Pete Farmer
Foot percussion and multi-instrumentalists are an age old tradition. Some of the earlier forms of foot percussion have been unearthed by archaeologists in the form of foot drums found in several southwestern and central-Californian US Native American archaeological sites inhabited, or formally inhabited, by the Maidu, Miwok, Aztec, and Hopi Indian tribes. These drums were often semicircle, cross-sectioned hollow logs laid over wood covered ‘resonating’ pits positioned according to custom in kivas or dance houses. The foot drums were played by stomping on top of the hollow log with the structure’s poles used for steadying.
Another traditional, more rudimentary form of foot percussion, is known as clogging. It has roots in traditional European, early African American, and traditional Cherokee dancing. These dancers often had various styles of footwear that were used musically by striking the heel, the toe, or both in unison against a floor or each other to create percussive rhythms. These moves were sometimes accompanied by the dancer playing a fiddle, guitar, or banjo. Clogging later became a social dance in the Appalachia Mountains as early as the 18th century and is gaining popularity today in the folk revival of the 21st century. Depending on cultural variances, clogging is also known as flat footing, foot stomping, buck dancing, jigging, or other terms.
Modern foot played percussion had a renaissance of sorts in the early-20th century, especially in jazz and dance hall music popular at the time. It was also during this time that the term “trap set” came into use, short for “contraption.” This was meant to summarize the array of mechanical setups used by a drummer of this era. The photos below offer just a taste of the instruments used in the early years of mass production and innovation. They were manufactured by Sonor, Max Flemming, Duplex and Viktoria. The “low boy” (or “snow shoe”) by Walberg is one of few instruments that survived into the 21st century, albeit in an evolved form. You will recognize it today as the hi-hat.
What has united these styles is the emphasis on the downbeat of the music. When I started the business of manufacturing and innovating foot-played percussion in 2005, I had no luck in finding anything acoustic and pedal played that was designed to be played by a guitar player. As I delved deeper into the research, I saw that there was a strong and growing enthusiasm in the 1950s and 60s from musicians who wanted to express their inner beat; as seen with Jesse Fuller, Joe Hill Louis, or Hasil Adkins with hi hats, bass drums, and other mechanical contraptions. I also soon learned that there were many others out there today, who also wanted to make more compelling rhythmic music. Some use electric instruments to add beats to their music, including programmed beat or loop machines and or the electric stomp box. Others have come up with DIY acoustic percussion setups that can include everything but the kitchen sink.
To me, none of those tools felt to be honest, flexible, or dependable in the real world. While the old standby of finding a reliable drummer to haul his or her gear around is still the most dynamic means to add percussion to your music, it is not always feasible and/or ideal – and it certainly wasn’t for me. People have been drawn to foot percussion for centuries for a reason, and they probably have remained much the same: your own foot percussion means that you have more control over your sound and style, the ability to change your tempo at will and improvise with ease, and you can avoid having to coordinate practice and performance times. But perhaps the biggest bonus to playing foot percussion is you have more fun and feel a deeper connection to the music you’re into. While some people hesitate, adding foot percussion is actually an easy and instinctual thing to do. Oftentimes it is the beat that is the backbone that drives a song and the key sound that prompts even the least musically inclined person to be able to follow your music. Most of us are able to dance to music with arms, legs, feet, and hands in closely synchronized movements and can tap our foot to the beat starting from a very young age. It is certainly much less complicated than playing a guitar with 6 different strings over 20 or more frets using the coordination of all ten fingers AT ONCE!
If you are at all curious to know more about the world of multi instrumentalists and “one man bands,” look no further than the book Head, Hands, and Feet book, published by Dave Harris of Victoria British Colombia, Canada. His exhaustive research covers “every manual one man band [he] could find and places them into their context chronologically, geographically, and stylistically.” Learn about more than 600 artists around the world, across all genres and countries. It is a fantastic resource and an inspiring look at this rich musical tradition!