What’s Happened to the Ruff?

11 Jan

What’s Happened to the Ruff?
A letter to a friend who asked, “what is the difference between ruffs and drags?

Friday November 3, 2007


In 1933-34 the National Association of Rudimental Drummers (“NARD”) adopted the 25 rudiments in Gardiner A. Strube’s “Drum and Fife Instructor” 1869, and added the Single Stroke Roll to make 26 rudiments, of which 13 were declared “Essential”.

Today the Percussive Arts Society (PAS) espouses 64 snare drum rudiments: “40 PAS International Drum Rudiments” and 24 “Contemporary Hybrid Rudiments”.

This growth in the number of rudiments appears dramatic, but less so when viewed from an historic perspective. Approximately 40 rudiments were in use between 1777 when George L Winters “Kurze Answiesug das Trommel-Spielen” was published in Berlin, Germany and 1869 when the Gardiner Strube method was published.  Some of these rudiments had interchangeable names that make determining the exact number in use during those years problematic. e.g. depending on the author, the Ruff was sometimes named the Half Drag, the Drag or the 3 Stroke Roll.

The number of rudiments used during any historic era is interesting because all snare drum technique is based on only five strokes; some say one, some three, others five or more. From the earliest days of drum notation in the west (Arbeau, Thoinot; “Orchesography, 15th and 16th Century Dances”, 1588, Dover Publications, New York) to James Campbell’s “Rudiments in Rhythm”, (Meredith Music Publications, MD, 2002), all drum beatings have been composed of these basic strokes: down, up, tap, bounce, and the grace note of the flam. (The author’s opinion.)

The legendary John S. (Jack) Pratt calls the various combinations of these five strokes “exercises”, not rudiments.

Now to your question, “What is the difference between Ruffs and Drags?”

To begin untangling the twists in notational semantics that have evolved with these strokes, one should have the old green NARD book and a list of the modern PAS rudiments (e.g., James Campbell).

In The NARD list of 13 essential rudiments, only number 8-The Ruff; No.9-The Single Drag; and No.10-The Double Drag concern us. Compare these notations with the notations in the Campbell book, page 10.

In the Campbell book, No. 31-the Drag, has the same notation as the N.A.R.D. No.8-(the Ruff). No.32-Single Drag Tap, is the same as No.9-(the Single Drag). And, still in Campbell, the notation of No.33-Double Drag Tap, is the same as No.10 in NARD, (the Double Drag).

The word Ruff does not appear in the Percussive Arts Society list of rudiments. Except for Fife and Drum corps drummers and re-enactors, it is gone.”Alas! poor Yorick .  .  .”  But why the PAS compilers did not call No.31-“Single Drag” is beyond me.  In fact, why did they drop the name Ruff?  An historically  appealing aspect of some rudiment names is their onomatopoetic verbalisation. A Ruff played, sounds Ruff, not Drag. But then, neither does a single or double drag sound drag. Perhaps the NARD men should have made their list read, No.8 Ruff, No.9 Ruff tap, No.10 double Ruff Tap.

(In May of 2011, a group of very good drummers began a contentious and sometimes humorous exchange of E-mails after one of them was criticized for using the word Drag rather than Ruff. If the statute of limitations ever runs out, I may be tempted to publish their correspondence.)


Through the years both exercises (rudiments) have undergone changes in name. The earliest reference to a Ruff comes from a manuscript titled “Thomas Fisher Version” dated by the British Museum, ca.1634. Of the six exercises illustrated in that document, four are ruffs: “Full Ruff”; “1/2 Ruff”; “Stroke and ruff”; and “a ruff and a half joined together”. The remaining two are single strokes “L (left) hand” and “R (right) Hand”. All appear in words or letters only. There is no music notation.

The next example is not dated, but is believed to have originated in the mid to late 1600s and is titled “The grounds of beating ye drum”. This one page manuscript was  discovered attached to the inside back of a book owned by one Francis Ducet. Among the descriptions of strokes, the following words appear: a “half ruffe”; a “whole ruffe”; and a “ruffe n half”. Sometimes those words are combined with others to form a ‘rudiment’ of greater duration.

Besides its historical value, the Ducet manuscript is interesting because it employs hieroglyphs to distinguish one exercise from another. For instance, i = “a plain stroak”; CC is a “ruffe and half with a stroak”; H “is a stroke with both sticks together”; /C is a “half ruffe beginning loud and ending loud”; and a gradually diminishing circle-spiral- means “continually rowling”. The “Ducet Manuscript” contains 11 exercises each designated by a glyph.

In “The Revolutionary War Drummer’s Book”; Massachusetts Historical Society, ca.. 1778-1810, one finds 18 exercises. Among them: “the 3-stroke roll”; “a stroke and two strokes”; “a ruff 1, 2, 3, 4 quick from hand-to-hand”.

The Drag first appears as “Draggs” in “Young Drummer’s Assistant”, London, ca. 1785. Later, the “Drag” and “Double Drag” appear in Benjamin Clark’s Drum Book”, Massachusetts Historical Society, 1797.

Between 1810 and 1869, thirteen snare drum manuals were published in North America. (See my article Drum Notation part II and III on this web sight.) Most field drummers agree that the Geo. B. Bruce and Dam D. Emmett “Drummers’ and Fifers’ Guide”: Wm. A. Pond & Co., New York City, 1862, represents the perfect marriage of drum and melody. It is one of the first snare drum books written in “modern notation”, and it contains 30 Lessons: among them are: “The Ruff”; “The Single Drag”; “The Double Drag”; “Half and Full Drags”; “Tap Ruff”; and “Half Drag Taps”.

(A close inspection of the Bruce and Emmett book will add another dimension to understanding the saga of drags and ruffs. Indeed, that book may have been used as a guide by the compilers of the Percussive Arts Society list of rudiments.)

Perusal of the manuscripts listed in this article will show that nomenclature and notation changed significantly through the years as drummers and composers came to grips-no pun intended- with the emanations of vellum headed, gut snared, rope tensioned field side drums. The changes in name and notation continue today, and describing them is aided by highly tensioned plastic/kevlar drum heads that provide reliable clarity, of particular importance to competition judges.

I hope this helps.  If there is more I can do, please call or E-mail. At present I am putting a history of the field drum – its music, military & ceremonial uses – with pictures and music into a computer programme-Keynote. I’m getting close to completion. Next April (2008) I’ll present it to Jim Campbell and his studio and over two days next September I’ll present it  to percussionists in Sweden and members of the Swedish Military Academy in Stockholm. Then twice more for the Sibelius Academy and the Finish Military Band in Helsinki.

My warm regards to you and yours and your students,



Posted by on January 11, 2009 in Articles, Fifes & Drums


3 responses to “What’s Happened to the Ruff?

  1. Joanie Pratt

    March 1, 2015 at 3:15 pm

    Hi Robin,
    Great article! The history is always very interesting! I hope you’re doing well. My Dad always speaks highly of you and your contributions to Traditional Drumming! While reading, I just happened to notice a typographical glitch while reading the article. My Dad’s middle initial is actually an “S” for Sterling. John S. (Jack) Pratt. It was accidentally typed as an H.
    Joanie Pratt

    • robinengelman

      March 1, 2015 at 4:24 pm

      Thank you Joane. It must have been me and theses days I just might type anything and not know. How’s your Dad and Mom?



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