What’s The Right Throne Height?

Time for a new blog post – this one comes from Julian Rudall. He asks:
Hi John
I wanted to reach out to you after hearing your podcast with Nick Ruffini at Drummers Resource. It was an awesome podcast – thank you for doing it. I’ve got the book on order :-)
For many years I’ve been a “sloucher” when I play and have suffered with intermittent lower back pain (L4/L5) as a result.
I wanted to ask you about throne height. Is there an optimal throne height to help balance and posture?
What I do find is that when I sit lower then playing the kick drum “heel-up” becomes more of an effort than if I sit higher. Watching some of my peers – Tony Royster Jr for example – some seem to sit really high, but yet there are many that don’t too.
I’ve tried all sorts of positions – high and low. I even installed a protractor app on my smartphone to see what the angle of my leg was on and off the pedals!!!!
My current throne is a Tama 1st Chair saddle with back rest.
I’d be really interested to read your thoughts on throne height.
Many thanks in advance for your time.
Best Wishes
Hello Julian, thanks for the interest and the question! The short answer is that you’ll want to learn to not slouch. The pain in your back and the problems with your heel up technique both likely stem from your sitting posture. I go through it at length in Anatomy of Drumming and in my Drumeo video (free on youtube) and class (through a paid Drumeo subscription), and also in a feature for the Feb 2016 edition of DRUM! Magazine.

The short answer is that you can sit well at any height – even on the floor. Doctors generally recommend a 145 degree angle between the upper and lower leg. Doctors recommend this because it is neutral position for your leg, and what position it often goes into when sleeping. Think fetal position. In addition to the pull of the muscles, there is also a connective tissue capsule around the hips that is neutral at this position.

For drummers, this is very high. While it is possible to sit well at any height, drummers have to use their feet, and not every height is equal for pedal use. Most drummers end up sitting such that their upper leg and lower leg make a 100 degree angle. This means that the hip joint is just above the knee joint in space. For finding this seat height, I use the “rule of knee.” I’ll measure the height of the throne as I set up to my knee joint. If the top of the throne is just above my kneecap, then I’m about right.

I’ve been looking for research about the kinematics of the setup and have come up without any really good explanation, and now my pet theory is this: It has to do with gravity.
At that height, when the leg is resting, the entire weight of the leg is delivered into the pedal, and none of it is pulling on the back. If you sat any lower, some of the weight of the leg would by delivered back into the throne, creating some additional postural strain in the lower back above and beyond the aforementioned tension from the position. If you wanted to sit on the floor, your legs would come out to the side and fold over, criss-cross-applesauce style that would alleviate this weight. You can’t do this on the drums unless you are Trilok Gurtu.

 Additionally, if you sat lower than this your muscles would be in a less-than-effective position. Most of the work in playing the bass drum is not done by the muscles that deliver force into the pedals but by the muscles that lift the leg off the ground. When you sit very low, these muscles are farther out of position and require more energy to use. 

At the most common seat height, if you lift your left up so that your knee goes up in the air, then some of the weight of the leg is shifted back to the throne, taking a little weight off the legs momentarily during the stroke. This would present a problem if held, but as a momentary thing during the course of a stroke it works great.
However, at this position, the tension on the connective tissue wants to return the leg to neutral position: 145 degrees. In other words, the connective tissue is wanting the leg to extend into the pedal. This action works to increase the effective weight of the leg. Many drummers solve this by tilting their hips backwards slightly. This leads to what I call “drummer’s slouch.” It isn’t a conscious choice – it is just easier to move the legs when the hips tilt back, It is easy to find as a drummer because the connective tissue that pulls the legs down also pulls the hips backwards.
In Drummer’s Slouch, the hips tilt backwards so as to reduce the tension on the connective tissue around the hips and to shift tension from the legs (freeing up the pedals) to the lower back (causing pain and injury over time).
An example of better posture at the drum set.
Regarding the Tama thrones, it is a good thing you brought this up. I used one for years before studying movement, and my professor really had a lot to say about it when I brought it in for her to try out. Not all thrones are equal and Tama thrones have made a choice to tilt their thrones forward slightly. My guess is that the rationale behind this is that it helps to take some of the pressure off of the lower back caused by drummer’s slouch. Unfortunately, it also makes is almost impossible to sit well at all, and impossible to maintain good posture while playing. You won’t be able to correct your posture while using it. You could continue to use the throne in the while you work on developing better posture, but it might be better just to get something else entirely.
At NAMM I got to try out a throne that Roc n Soc is developing that allows for a dynamic front-to-back tilt. In my opinion, this is much better because (1) it allows for movement and natural stretching and (2) it is possible to sit well – albeit more difficult than in a throne without that tilt. When I adopted a drummer’s slouch while using it this throne felt fantastic. Better on all points than the Tama thrones. I don’t know if it is available yet, through (you could always ask them if you’re interested). Still….  this throne may make it more difficult to sit well, but could potentially make it easier as a stepping stone because the way it moves might highlight needed changes. I currently use a Hokki Stool for this while teaching.
Along those lines, I do recommend the nitro. Having a little bounce in the seat strikes me as a fantastic idea because it (1) allows for more natural movement of the body as a whole and (2) provides a little shock absorption – something that can go a long way to easing pressure on the back.
For the record, there is nothing wrong with sitting higher. The only problem with it is that it requires a little more work to operate the pedals. The difference is not huge, and the muscles that get used to do the work are the very large core muscles (such as the iliopsoas). Sitting higher also takes some strain off the back. So while sitting lower might make it a little easier to use the pedals, sitting higher makes it easier to sit. Personally, I sit at the standard position. The extra connective strain isn’t a major problem is you sit well.
At the end of the day, there isn’t a “correct” seat height. There is just the seat height that feels best to you. However, I would urge you to shift your focus from the seat itself to the way you are sitting on it. This is one of the major ideas in Anatomy of Drumming. It is your body you have control over, not the gear, and the way you understand it guides the way you use it.

This information is for your information only. It is not intended to be medical advice and should not be taken as such. The idea here is that the more you know, the healthier and more effective you will be. While there are common injuries and causes, there is no way that I can know about your particular situation, so if you suspect you have a problem that requires medical attention, please see a reputable doctor who is knowledgeable about your problem.