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Tech Tip:How To Make One Drum Kit Work

By Daniel Glass

For most working drummers, life as a freelance musician brings with it a variety of challenges. One night, you're playing bossa novas at a wedding. The next, you're swinging the local college big band. The next, you're slamming out hip-hop and funk with your original project. Since most drummers can't afford a separate kit for each situation, here are some tips that'll help you achieve a variety of sounds using just one kit:

1. Head Choice - Your choice of head can greatly affect the way a drum will sound, and can help to authenticate the style you happen to be playing. Coated heads provide a warm, rounded sound often associated with jazz, while clear heads generally mean a much brighter attack. Double-layered heads like Pinstripes will draw out the lower frequencies of the drum, and there are several good calfskin facsimiles out there that will help your brand new DWs sound like 1938 Radio Kings. Trying different head thicknesses on top and bottom can affect the tone of the drum, as will combinations of clear and coated heads.

2. Tuning Concepts - Although much has been made about the idea of matching up shells to particular "notes," every drum actually has a range of pitches at which it sounds good (e.g., from Ab to C#). This gives you quite a bit of flexibility when it comes to tuning. Just remember this simple formula: a) The bottom head controls pitch. b) The top head controls bounce. Depending on what sort of gig you have, apply the formula. Jazz-oriented styles usually mandate smaller, higher pitched drums and greater stick control, so tighten both top and bottom heads. Rock music requires deeper tones and simpler fills, so tune with that in mind. On a funk gig, you might want the deeper tones, but need to pull off 16th note runs, so loosen the bottom head while keeping the top tight.

Once you start experimenting with different heads and tunings, you'll be amazed at the variety of tone you can pull from just one drum. A standard 13" tom, for example, could probably be tuned to sound like a 10" jazz tom, a 14" floor tom, and everything in between.

3. Cymbal Selection - Mel Lewis, the great jazz drummer, was once asked to explain his setup, which included three cymbals. When asked how many were rides, he replied, "Three." When asked how many were crashes, he gave the same answer. The point illustrated here is that, ideally, your sound should be determined not by the kind of gear surrounding you, but by the way you approach it. Ride, crash, hi-hat—these are just labels, and they can limit us creatively. See if you can find alternate uses for your cymbals, outside of their traditional roles. An 18" crash, for example, can double nicely as a secondary jazz ride, while a pair of 10" splashes can create a very "retro"-sounding hi-hat combo.

4. Positioning - Most of us, after the first few years of playing, settle on a certain way of positioning our drums and cymbals, and we fall into a pattern of setting up exactly the same way no matter what situation we're in. But your rock setup may not be ideal for a jazz trio gig. If being comfortable is tantamount to playing better, then find out what's most comfortable in every situation. If you're worried about playing too loud at a wedding, for example, adjust your crash cymbals to a steeper angle. This will cause less of the stick to contact the cymbal, meaning less volume. Raise or lower your throne, tilt your snare in a different direction, switch the beater ball on your kick pedal from wood to felt. Changing your positioning will automatically force you into a different mindset, and hopefully allow you to dig a little deeper into the style at hand.

The lesson here is: don't be afraid to experiment. Contrary to what you may think, every kit has a tremendous range of possibility—you just have to open your mind to it. Sometimes, playing your drums in unconventional ways can actually provide great inspiration (and help you really stand out on the gig). I once saw Abe Laboriel Jr. tear up the joint using just a kick, a snare, and a set of tambourines as hi-hats!! Unusual, but burnin'. Remember, you are the instrument, not those pieces of wood and metal that you're bangin' on.