Though in the early days of classical orchestra, every percussionist was specialised in a specific instrument, as time went on drummers sought for ways to combine drums so they could play several at once. With the invention of the drum pedal, it became possible to have one or more hanging and floor drums, various stands and cymbal pedals allowed for a variation in sound from low to high.
Thus, over time, the drum kit was born. However, there is an inordinate amount of different drums available. So what should you invest in if you want to learn drumming? What drums should you get for a beginner drum set?
The exact composition of a drum kit will vary slightly depending on the type of music you want to play, but fortunately, they are usually sold as a set. As you advance in your craft, you will want to put one together yourself – you might prefer a Gretsch Catalina Birch for your floor tom, a Meinl Byzance Jazz Hi-Hat, a Yamaha Stage Custom hanging tom set… But if you are just starting out, here’s a little guide to the different drums in a kit.
If you are just starting out and don’t have much of a musical background, or if you are looking for a drum set appropriate for a child, try out a junior drum set.
If you decide to stick with drums, you can either upgrade it by adding drums and cymbals or sell it used to another beginner. If you do decide to continue past intermediate level, you should definitely consider getting a new drummer’s kit more adapted to your level, but the basic kit is good for getting a feel for drumming and practising your stick work and rhythm.
A junior drum set is a three-piece set with:
The types of drum in a basic drum set are pretty standard; the main difference between the different music styles is in the number, exact size of the drums and their materials.
A good size is the five-piece drum set; it can be expanded as needed. Professional drummers, especially in rock bands, like to personalise their drum kits, but with the five-piece variation, you can play the percussion to almost any song.
A complete drum set includes:
Bass drums are fairly large, cylindrical, with a depth much smaller than their diameter – this is what sets them apart from other low-pitched drums, such as concert timpani. They come in a variety of sizes, but the size doesn’t influence the sound produced as much as other factors such as construction.
The diameter is the main factor in determining the basic note, together with the thickness of the drum shells, the material used – from birch to mahogany to metals for steel drums – and the direction of the wood grain. The way a drum is tensioned will also affect its pitch.
Bass drums are commonly sounded with one or more of the following drumsticks:
They come in three main variations.
Concert bass drums are double-headed and rod tensioned. They typically measure 40 inches in diameter, and 20 in depth.
They are mounted on a stand so their angle can be varied from horizontal to vertical.
They have a big sound that reverberates somewhat.
The bass drums in drum kits are generally smaller than concert drums. Their diameter can vary from 16 to 28 inches, their depth from 12 to 22. The most common size for the past twenty years was 20-inch x 14 inch with the current preferred size being 22 inches x 18 inches.
Having trouble finding the bass drum? It’s the big one on its side, usually with the band name on it – or the brand name if you aren’t in a band yet. Photo credit: Marc Wathieu on Visual Hunt
Kick drums take their name from the drum pedal used to sound bass drums when they are part of a drum set. The drums themselves are set up vertically on drum stands with the pedal on the floor. The pedals were first developed by the drummers themselves, then produced commercially as more and more music-hall bands used primitive drum kits – the Ludwig & Ludwig Drum Company is known for having produced the first fast-action bass pedal.
Many modern rock drummers use double bass drums in their drumkits – necessitating, of course, a double bass drum pedal. They were first introduced in jazz, and are now fairly common in fusion, rock and punk bands.
Bass drums used in drum sets are often muffled in some way to shorten the sound.
Pitched bass drums are hung vertically from straps and used in marching bands, usually several different drums with different pitches. They are used to set the rhythm, but also have important melodic lines.
Snare drums are cylindrical double-headed drums, with depths ranging from 9 to 16 inches and diameters from 14-16 inches. They can have wooden or metal shells.
The drum head was originally made of calfskin; more modern ones are made of Mylar.
Snare drums are characterised by parallel cords or wires strung just under the lower skin (except for tarol snares, where the snare wires are under the top drumhead).
Here you can see the snares on this antique snare drum. Photo credit: quinet on Visual hunt
Snare drums started out as military drums, often used for signalling. They have a short, staccato drum sound, and can be played by drum sticks, brush or rute.
Famous techniques for the snare drum are drum rolls and rimshots. In classical rock rhythms, they are often used for the backbeat.
Different types of snare drums include:
Toms are cylindrical drums but without snare wires. Many toms are tunable thanks to the use of hoops and tuning lugs. Most toms have two drum heads, but not all.
They are usually used for drum fills.
The main difference in the various music styles is in the number and types of toms in their acoustic drum set:
|Music style||Tom-tom size||Tom-tom style|
|Acoustic drum kits (1950s and 1960s)||varies||one hanging drum and one floor drum|
|Rock||12 and 13 inch hanging toms||hanging toms and floor tom|
|Fusion||10, 12 and 14-inch toms||14 inch can be a hanging or a floor tom|
Tom shells are generally of different woods – up to 8-ply – such as mahogany, though they can be single-ply or solid wood as well, usually lacquered. Artificial materials include fibreglass, acrylic glass or resin-composite, usually finished with laminated plastic.
Hanging toms or rack toms are tom-toms raised up on a stand or rack.
This drum set has two hanging toms (above the bass drum) and a floor tom. Photo credit: mikecogh on Visualhunt
Single-headed hanging toms are called concert toms. Another type of single-skinned tom are octobans. Octobans have very long drum shells and were originally set up with eight tuned toms on a rack – hence the name.
Another type of hanging tom is the rototom – rototoms have no shell; they’re basically a frame (usually of steel) and a single head.
Floor toms are double-headed generally as deep as they are wide. They are set up on three-legged stands, usually to the drummer’s right (for a right-handed drummer).
The final element in drum kits is the cymbals. The use of cymbals for percussion music was revolutionised by the cymbal stand and pedals. They allowed drummers to crash cymbals with only one hand or none at all, opening up the way to more complicated percussion music.
There are several different types of cymbals regularly used with a percussion set:
Hi-hat cymbals are a pair of cymbals mounted horizontally on a hi-hat stand. A foot pedal moves the top cymbal while the bottom one stays fixed.
A hi-hat cymbal. The top cymbal is stationary, the bottom is raised and lowered with a pedal. Photo credit: Timothy Valentine on Visualhunt
This type of cymbal evolved from sock cymbals, originally set at ground level and operated with a spring mechanism. They were eventually mounted on short stands (”low-boys”) which were then raised so the cymbals could be clashed with the sticks as well as with the foot pedal. This setup was originally called “high socks” until it was superceded by the term “hi-hat”.
Hi-hats are frequently used for the beat or for accents within the rhythm, occasionally for effect accents. They can be played with sticks in the open, closed or half-open position.
Ride cymbals are used in a similar fashion to high-hats, but since the ride cymbal is a single cymbal, its sound cannot be varied as much. However, it has a certain amount of sustain when struck, hence the name: it rides with the music.
There are different types of ride cymbals, each one shaped slightly differently and giving a different sound:
Where ride cymbals are used in rhythm and ride with the music, crash cymbals are single-effect cymbals for one loud crash. They can be crashed by hand in pairs or mounted on a stand as a single cymbal, as in a drum set.
A crash cymbal in a drum set. Photo credit: HckySo on VisualHunt
China cymbals give a light, crisp tone and are generally mounted upside-down on their stand. They have a bell but no taper and are named after their similarity to Chinese gongs.
Though there were a few previous forays into electronic percussion, the first true electronic drum was invented in the early 1970s by drummer Graeme Edge of the Moody Blues.
Electronic drums are usually set up like a traditional drum kit, but theoretically, you can program each of the drums to sound like any percussion instrument at all.
Basically, each module is a drum pad that produces an electronic sound when struck. The first pads were rubber-coated, but Roland, with its “V-Drums”, introduced a mesh-head pad with a bounce similar to that of acoustic drums.
It has the advantage of sounding like any percussion instrument – from maple drum set to cowbell – and can be played with headphones to promote neighbourly feelings when practising. However, the sounds do not replicate acoustic drumming exactly – something that some drummers love and others don’t.