Buying Guide:Drums and Cymbals
Table of Contents
Get in the groove, play the drums!
Whether you're a hobbyist, a student, a weekend warrior, or a working pro, there's a drum set that fits your needs. We'll be taking a look at the drums, hardware, and cymbals that make up a drum set, the various kinds of sets available, things to keep in mind when considering your purchase, and detailing important accessories like sticks and drumheads. If you see a drum term that you don't understand, you'll probably find it in our drum set glossary.
How to Choose a Drum Set
With the huge variety of drum sets available, how do you decide which set is right for you? Before we take a look at how to choose your drum set, we'll introduce the components that go into it. These include: the snare drum, the bass drum, one or more mounted toms, and a floor tom. The two other essential components that complete the contemporary drum set are the cymbals and hardware, both of which we will address shortly. First we'll examine the various drum set configurations that are available.
If you're a beginner or hobbyist who wants to play in a band or jam with your friends, a 4-piece drum set consisting of a snare drum, bass drum, single mounted tom, and floor tom provides you with all the basic sounds. Ringo Starr made this configuration famous with The Beatles. A 4-piece set takes up a minimum of space, is easily portable, and has a sound well suited to jazz, blues, and rock styles.
|Snare Drum||Bass Drum||Mounted Toms||Floor Tom|
If surrounding yourself with drums sounds like fun, then consider a five-piece, six-piece, or larger set, which add additional toms for a wider tonal range. These larger kits are well suited for rock, fusion, contemporary, and country styles.
Many drum sets come in two different configurations, Standard or Fusion. The drum diameters distinguish each configuration. Fusion drum sets typically feature 10" and 12" mounted toms, a 14" floor tom (suspended or standing) and usually a 22" bass drum. Standard-sized kits feature 12" and 13" mounted toms, a 16" floor tom, and 22" bass drum. The benefit of the smaller diameters of the Fusion set is their punchy tone and articulate sound. The benefit of the Standard size set is that the larger toms produce more volume and bigger tone. Choosing the best set is a subjective process with benefits to each configuration.
The double bass drum set was pioneered by the great jazz players and popularized by rock drummers. The double bass set allows you to play very fast patterns with power and has a striking visual appearance.
A complete drum set will usually contain all the hardware you need. If you already have the hardware, buying a shell pack can save you money. A shell pack consists of the drums themselves with no additional hardware except the rims and tom mounts.
While there are drum sets that work for a variety of styles, in general it's a good idea to choose a drum set that fits the style of music you play. Is Slipknot's Joey Jordison your drumming idol, or is Steve Gadd more your style? A rule of thumb is that kits with fewer and smaller drums are a good fit for jazz, traditional blues, and other primarily acoustic forms of music, while drum sets with larger drums are better for rock and other more amplified styles.
Another element that you should consider is the kind of wood used in the making of your drums. Many kinds of woods are used for drum building, and all have unique sound qualities.
- Maple is the most popular wood used for drum making, with a warm, balanced tone.
- Falkata is sometimes substituted for maple, as it costs less yet shares maple's sound qualities and takes finishes well.
- Birch is very dense and tough, with a harder and brighter sound than maple or mahogany. Its loud, bright tone makes the wood excellent for recording, as it easily cuts through the mix with its clarity. Birch features enhanced highs and lows with a reduced midrange.
- Mahogany has enhanced low end and midrange with reduced highs. The sound is slightly warmer than maple and is said to have a "vintage" character.
- Poplar is a low-cost alternative to maple or birch. The sound is similar to birch or mahogany.
- Basswood is plentiful and makes a good, less expensive alternative to maple or birch. Basswood has a nice grain that takes lacquer finishes beautifully.
- Lauan wood is often referred to as "select hardwood," and can be thought of as a budget version of birch wood.
- Oak has a similar sound to maple, with a more porous composition and a powerful, bright sound.
Drum shells are made of several plies, or layers of wood. In general, the more plies a drum has, the rounder and fatter the sound. Drums made with fewer plies usually have a brighter, more resonant sound and a lower fundamental note.
The angle at which a drum shell's bearing edge is cut makes a difference in the sound quality. A sharper bearing edge angle gives a brighter sound with more cut, while a rounder bearing edge gives a softer, mellower sound.
Drums come with a variety of finishes. Covered finishes are an inexpensive alternative consisting of vinyl wraps with a great variety of patterns and looks to choose from. Covered finishes provide great durability and resist scratches and nicks better than a natural finish. Transparent lacquer finishes enhance the woodgrain for a beautiful natural look.
Drums alone do not a drum set make--hardware is another crucial component that makes up a complete kit. Unless you are purchasing a shell pack, a drum set will come with the hardware necessary to assemble and play it. Essential drum hardware includes the bass drum pedal, snare stand, hi-hat stand, and one or more cymbal stands. Keep in mind that though a complete drum set will include enough hardware to get you playing, the hardware that's included varies from set to set.
Most drum sets do not include a drum throne. It's not advisable to use anything other than a drum throne to sit on, as thrones allow height adjustment, are compact, disassemble for easy transport, and include padding to make for a comfortable playing experience.
Some modern drum sets offer an alternative to mounting drums and cymbals on stands, employing a frame-like structure called a drum rack.
Cymbals are an essential component of any drum set. Most drum sets come without cymbals, so you'll want to find cymbals that fit the music you like to play and the set that you've chosen. Different kinds of cymbals exist to fill various roles within the drum set. The main types of cymbals are ride cymbals, crash cymbals, and hi-hat cymbals. Splash and China cymbals have also become very popular in the last few decades. A wide variety of effects cymbals are available to provide drummers with a multitude of sounds, colors, and shapes to choose from.
Cast cymbals are made of individually poured, raw molten metal. The castings are then heated, rolled, shaped, hammered, and lathed. This lengthy process results in cymbals with a full, complex sound that many feel improves with age. Each cast cymbal has a distinct sonic character that is unique. Sheet cymbals are cut from large sheets of metal of uniform thickness and composition. Sheet cymbals have a very uniform sound from cymbal to cymbal within the same model, and are generally less expensive than cast cymbals.
Cymbal sounds are a very individual preference. Many jazz players favor darker, more complex cymbal sounds, while rockers generally lean toward a brighter, louder sound that cuts through the mix. While a few traditional cymbal-manufacturing giants continue to dominate the market, there's an expanding universe of options to choose from.
The snare drum's crisp, snappy voice cuts through any mix, keeping the groove moving, adding accents, and interacting with the soloists. This drum's distinctive sound comes from the metal wires, or snares, that are held in place against the thin bottom head of the drum with a device called a strainer that's mounted on the shell. The snares can be released for a high tom or timbale-like sound.
Snare drums are traditionally made of either metal or wood. A metal snare, available in steel, brass, aluminum, and other alloys, offers an exceptionally bright, cutting tone, though many drummers prefer the warmer, mellower sound that a wood snare offers. Snare drums are generally 14" in diameter and range in depth from 3-1/2" to 8", however today a huge number of custom snare drums are available.
Many drummers like to collect additional snare drums to use in special situations. Piccolo, soprano, and sopranino snare drums are specialty snares that are progressively smaller-sized and higher pitched than a standard snare drum. The popcorn snare is a 6" x 10" specialty snare with popping hi-pitched tone. These specialty snare drums are used by many drummers who play modern electronica styles that require a higher pitched snare sound such as drum 'n bass, trance, and jungle.
An electronic drum set has some unique advantages. You can plug in headphones for nearly silent practice. In the recording studio, you can run a signal directly from the electronic drum module to the mixing board, making it easier and faster to get a good drum sound.
Another advantage with an electronic set is the ability to call up hundreds of different drum and percussion sounds. Electronic kits use rubber or mesh pads to trigger a variety of sounds contained in a digital drum module. Acoustic drummers who prefer an acoustic set but want to be able to produce alternative sounds may do so with the use of drum triggers. These small sensors attach to your drumheads and trigger sounds from an external electronic drum module.
Keep in mind that an electronic drum set requires connection to a sound system to produce an audible sound unless you're using headphones exclusively. You will also need a monitor speaker so that you can hear yourself onstage if you perform with a band.
The kind of drumheads you use can make a dramatic difference in the sound of your kit. Heads come in many varieties--coated, clear, single ply, and double ply. The heads used for the top of the drum, the side you play, are called batter heads, while resonant heads are used on the bottom side of the drum to give the sound resonance and sustain.
The overwhelming majority of drumheads these days are made of a thin plastic called Mylar. Mylar heads today come in various colors and are available with or without a sprayed-on white coating or without. Coated drumheads, for decades the main type available, have a bit less ring and projection and are still favored by many jazz players for their more subtle sound. Coated heads have a warmer sound than clear heads and are considered excellent for studio use.
Drumheads come in various degrees of thickness, in single or double plies, with each type having a markedly different sound. Thick heads generally sound best tuned to a higher fundamental tuning range, and have a quicker decay with more pronounced attack than thinner heads. They are also more durable and dent-resistant. Two-ply heads have a more controlled sound, and sometimes come with material sandwiched between them to focus and dampen the tone, as with Remo Pinstripe and Evans Hydraulic heads. Pinstripe heads have an epoxy ring sealed between the plies, which limits overtones and gives a "wet" sound. Evans Hydraulics have oil between the plies for an extremely dampened sound with a very dry tone.
Many jazz players prefer the livelier sound and quick response of thinner heads, while rock players generally like the fatter sound of two-ply heads. However, there are no strict guidelines for what kind of head to use--drummers have very personal responses to the way different heads sound, so let your ears be your guide.
Snare heads are of two types. The bottom or snare side head is very thin for sensitive response to the metal snare wires that are held across it. For the top of the snare drum most drummers prefer to use a coated head, as it serves to slightly attenuate the very lively response of the snare drum. The fine grain of the coating is needed if you play brushes.
Techniques drummers use to dampen excess bass drum ring and resonance include using a felt strip on the bass drum batter head, cutting a hole in the front bass drumhead and placing a pillow against the inside of the batter head, or using a specialized muffling bass drumhead. Bass drumheads are available that provide many degrees of muffling.
Drumsticks come in as many sizes and shades as the players who use them, and drummers often use different sticks for different styles of music. In general, heavier sticks such as 2Bs are favored for rock and R&B styles where more volume is needed, and lighter sticks like 7As tend to be favored for jazz, folk, acoustic, and other styles that require less volume. Experimentation is the key here, so try out a lot of different sticks to find the pair that's right for you. Many drummers like to use heavier sticks for practicing than they do for gigging in order to develop strength and stamina.
The numbers used in drumstick manufacturing, such as 5A, 5B, 2B, 3S, and 7A, come from the earliest days of drumstick manufacturing, when a number and letter were assigned based on the stick's size and application. The numerical part signifies the circumference of the stick. In general, the lower the number, the larger the circumference and the greater the number, the smaller the circumference. For example, a 7A stick is smaller in circumference than a 5A which in turn is narrower than the 2B. An exception is the 3S, which has a larger circumference than a 2B despite the number.
As for the letter designations, "S" stands for "street," as these large sticks were designed for street applications such as marching band. "B" sticks were intended for "band" applications like symphonic and brass bands. 2Bs continue to be recommended by drum teachers as ideal starter sticks. "A" stands for orchestral sticks, which are smaller in circumference than "B" series sticks and continue to be very popular with rock and jazz players. Why does "A" stand for orchestral? Reportedly this comes from the preference of William F. Ludwig of the Ludwig drum company, who simply felt it printed better.
Stick tips come in a choice of wood or nylon. Wood tips have a softer, warmer sound, while nylon tips offer increased durability and brilliant, focused cymbal sound.
Brushes are commonly used in place of sticks for playing ballads and acoustic music styles. Brushes come in a variety of sizes, shapes, and materials. Configurations include telescoping, non-telescoping; with metal bristles, plastic bristles, loop ends, ball ends; with handles of wood, rubber, aluminum, etc.
Lately a profusion of bundled sticks or "rods" have become available, marketed under a variety of names. They all consist of rods or dowels of various thicknesses bundled together for a sound that's somewhere between sticks and brushes. Bundled sticks are ideal for low-volume gigs and practicing.
Bass drum: Large drum played with a footpedal. Sometimes referred to as the "kick drum" or "kick." The bass drum is used to anchor the bottom of the mix and interacts with the bass to build the music's foundation.
Bass drum pedal: The pedal that you step on to play the bass drum. Uses a lever and tensioning springs.
Bass drum beater: The metal shaft that fits into the bass drum pedal, with a head that is made of felt, wood, or other material.
Bass pedal spring: The spring that pulls the pedal back after the pedal is depressed.
Bass drum spurs: Short metal legs that attach to the bass drum to keep it from moving.
Batter head: A drumhead that you hit, on the top side of the drum.
Bearing edge: The edge of the drum shell where it contacts the drumhead.
Bell: The round, raised part in the center of the cymbal. Used for creating accents and variations in cymbal sound.
China cymbal: Special-effect cymbal of Chinese origin. Usually mounted in an inverted position on the stand. Has a trashy, dark, white noise sound.
Claw hooks: The hooks that hold the bass drum hoop, or rim, in place.
Crash cymbal: Cymbal with strong attack and fast decay used to create accents and crescendos.
Cymbal sleeve: A plastic or rubber sleeve that prevents the cymbal from contacting the metal rod at the top of the cymbal stand. Prevents cymbal damage and undesirable metal-on-metal sound.
Cymbal stand (straight and/or boom type): Holds the cymbals. Boom stands have a movable arm, or boom, that extends from the stand at an angle, allowing you greater flexibility in placing your cymbals.
Double Bass Pedal: Bass drum pedal with two beaters and two footboards. Used in modern rock and fusion styles. Allows the drummer to play a single bass drum with two beaters for a double bass drum effect.
Drum key: Tool used for tuning drums by adjusting the tension rods. Sometimes used to adjust tom arms and other hardware.
Drum module: Module used to generate sampled and synthesized drum sounds, either through MIDI or drum triggers.
Drum rack: Stand used in some modern drum sets to mount tom holders and cymbal stands.
Drum throne: A padded, height-adjustable, armless seat for drummers.
Drum triggers: Small sensors attached to drumheads or rims used to trigger drum and other sounds from an electronic drum module.
Drumhead: The head that fits over a drum's shell. Originally made of calfskin, most modern heads are made of Mylar. The batter head goes on top of the drum and is the head you hit, while the resonant head goes on the bottom and enhances the drum's sustain and resonance.
Dry sound: Drum sound that has little or no ambience or effects.
Floor tom: The largest tom in a drum set, usually 14" to 18" in diameter. Either has detachable metal legs or is suspended from a tom or cymbal stand.
Footboard: The part of the bass pedal or hi-hat pedal that is pressed with the foot.
Fundamental note: The tuning at which a drum produces its most open and resonant tone. Determined to a large degree by the shell design.
Hi-hat cymbals: Pair of cymbals that are mounted on a hi-hat stand (see below). Hi-hat cymbals usually range in size from 12" to 15."
Hi-hat stand: The stand that is used to mount and play a pair of hi-hat cymbals. An integrated footpedal is pushed down to close the hi-hats and raised to open them.
Hi-hat clamp (or clutch): The part of the hi-hat stand that holds the top hi-hat cymbal.
Isolation mounts: Tom mounts that allow the tom to vibrate freely by isolating it from the tom holder.
Lug: A bracket that is attached to a drum and accepts a tension rod that threads through the rim to hold the drumhead in place.
Lug nut (or swivel nut): The receptacle inside a lug that accepts the tension rod. Interior threads allow the tension rods to be tightened in order to tune the drum.
Mounted toms: Toms that provide various voices and timbres within the set, most often used in playing fills and solos. Mounted toms generally range from 6" to 14" in diameter, and commonly mount on the shell of the bass drum.
Piccolo snare: A high-pitched specialty snare drum, usually with a 3-1/2" depth.
Ride area: The large, slightly curved area of a ride cymbal that offers a balanced, consistent tone with good definition.
Ride cymbal: A cymbal with sharp attack, fast decay, and clear stick definition. Generally 20" or 22" in size, ride cymbals create a continuous "riding" pattern and are often used for accompanying instrumental solos.
Resonant head: The bottom head used on toms, snares, and on the front of bass drums.
Rim: The metal rim that holds the heads in place and can be tensioned for tuning.
Shell: The actual drum cylinder. Usually made of wood.
Shell pack: Drum configuration sold with minimal hardware usually including only the rims and tom holder.
Snare drum: Drum with a metal or wood shell and bright, cutting tone. Has a characteristic buzzing sound created by the sound of the snares on the bottom head.
Snares: Coiled metal strands that vibrate against the bottom (snare-side) head of a snare drum.
Snare side head: Thin head for the bottom of a snare drum.
Snare stand: Stand with an adjustable basket that holds the snare drum.
Snare strainer (or throw-off): The device that holds the metal snares against the bottom snare side head. Has a lever that allows you to tighten or release the snares.
Soprano snare: Small specialty snare drum, usually with a 12" diameter.
Splash cymbals: Small, thin crash cymbals with a quick decay.
Tension rods: The rods that are used in conjunction with the lug nuts to tune a drum.
Tom: Drums of varying size that are typically mounted on the bass drum with a tom holder. Toms may also be mounted on a drum rack, and are referred to suspended or hanging toms. Toms larger than 16" are usually mounted on legs, in which case the drum is called a floor tom.
Tom holder: Mounting hardware that holds one or more toms on the bass drum.
Trigger: Small sensors attach to your drumheads and trigger sounds from an external drum module.
Washer: A metal disk that fits between the head of the tensioning rod and the rim.
Wet sound: Sound that has an ambient, spacious quality, with effects like reverb and/or delay
Wing nut: A nut with wing-like finger grips, used on the top of a cymbal stand.