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Guide to Buying Drum Sets
Drum sets (or drum kits) come in many different sizes, colors, and configurations, so we'll only cover the basics here. A complete drum set will always include a bass drum (or kick drum) and a snare drum. The bass drum is the largest of all the drums and produces a deep, rich, heavy sound. The standard size bass drum is 22" in diameter, but can range from 16" to 28". It is played by kicking a pedal (one foot) or a double pedal (both feet) for more advanced players, which causes a mallet to strike the drum. The snare drum (sometimes called side drum) is the most played piece of the kit and produces a short, sharp, "snap" sound when you hit it with a drumstick. Snare drums are available in many different diameters and depths, but typically are 13" or 14" in diameter and 5" or 5 1/2" deep. The snare drum gets its name from the wires or "snares" stretched across the bottom head with a device called a strainer that's mounted on the shell, which resonate when the top head is played.
The other drums are simply called toms. If the tom is mounted on another item, like the bass drum, it is called a "mounted" tom. If it is attached to a cymbal stand it may be called a "hanging" tom. If it has legs and can stand on its own it is called a floor tom. Standard tom sizes are from 10" to 14", although most drum manufacturers have sizes available from about 6" to as much as 18". The smaller toms will create a higher pitched sound, while the larger toms generate a lower pitch with more bass tones.
Drum kit configurations are named by the number of pieces included. A 4-piece drum kit typically consists of a snare drum, bass drum, a single mounted tom, and a floor tom, providing all the basic sounds. Ringo Starr made this configuration famous with The Beatles. A 4-piece kit takes up a minimum of space, is easily portable, and has a sound well suited to jazz, blues, and rock styles. A 5-piece kit adds another mounted or hanging tom to the mix, while a 6-piece kit adds either two toms or a tom and a floor tom. There is almost no limit to the number of pieces you can add, but the most typical configuration is the "Standard" 5-piece with two toms mounted on the bass drum, one floor tom and a snare drum. The "Fusion" configuration is similar, with two toms mounted on the bass drum but instead of a floor tom this set-up may have a hanging tom attached to a cymbal stand.
Drum manufacturers typically do not make cymbals, so these are usually sold separately. A set of cymbals would include hi-hats, one or more crash cymbals, and a ride cymbals (other types of cymbals are also available). The hi-hats are a pair of parallel, horizontally positioned cymbals, usually 13" or 14" in diameter, controlled by a hi-hat stand, which includes a foot-pedal to open and close the hi-hats for a variety of sounds. The crash cymbal is used for accents, while the ride cymbal is used for keeping rhythm.
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.
All cymbals and toms must be supported by an appropriate stand. Thus, drumsets come with different types of stands and other hardware, including the aforementioned hi-hat stand, cymbals stands, a snare stand, a pedal, a throne (a seat or stool), and various adapters and clamps to hold things in place. Cymbal stands can be either straight or may include a boom or arm to better position the cymbal. 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 to 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. 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 with a similar sound. Basswood is plentiful and makes a good, less expensive alternative to maple or birch. Basswood has a nice grain that takes lacquer finishes beautifully. Oak has a similar sound to maple, with a more porous composition and a powerful, bright 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 wood grain for a beautiful natural look.
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.
- Find drum sets made by Pearl.
- Find drum sets made by Ludwig.
- Find drum sets made by Mapex.
- Find drum sets made by Pacific.
- Find drum sets made by Gretsch.
- See our drums FAQ page.
- See more information on how to choose a drum set.
- See also how to play a drum set.
- See also how to tune a drum set.
- See also how to care for your drum set.