The Evolution of an Instrument: The Drum Kit

Collector’s Series Drum Kit from Drum Workshop

We’ve all seen them or heard them, whether we listen to Rock music, Jazz, Country, and increasingly Classical: the drum kit. Sometimes referred to as a drum set, or “trap” set, this is the collection of percussion instruments collected onto a rack system so that they can be played by a single individual. When you hear some child saying he wants to play drums, this is usually what they mean.

The earliest forms of the drum set date to the late nineteenth century, in particular in connection with Vaudeville and other small performance venues. These arrangements of percussion instruments were imperative to having the benefit of a full percussion section using the minimum of space. A bass drum would be set on its side on the floor where it could be played by the foot, thus giving it the name “kick drum” which is still used today. A concert snare drum (a flatter version of the field drums military bands used which had catgut or wire strands stretched across the bottom head which vibrate sympathetically to the top head being struck) would typically be placed to the left of the bass drum between the legs. Usually a floor tom (a larger, un-snared drum) would be placed to the right of the bass drum. In addition, other auxiliary percussion instruments would be mounted or placed close at hand, such as cymbals, whistles, cowbells, and anything else the music called for. The whole set up was colloquially called a “contraption”, which appears to have been the origin for calling a drum set a “trap” set. Another possible reason for the term was that early kits had a bass drum with a trap door in the shell to use it as a box for transporting smaller percussion equipment.

A major development occurred in 1909 when Ludwig & Ludwig Co. patented the first pedal system for playing the bass drum. This allowed the drum to be played more easily and clearly, and from a seated position. By the time of World War I, drum sets began making their way into jazz ensembles, particularly in Dixieland groups. The next important addition came in the 1920s with the hi-hat. This was a pedal-operated pair of small cymbals placed to the left of the snare drum. The left foot on the pedal would open and close the pair to produce different sounds when played, or the act of opening and closing them could produce a soft counterpoint to the rhythms set by the bass and snare.

By the 1930s, the drum sets began to be standardized somewhat. A standard set had the bass, snare, floor tom, and smaller and higher pitched tom, and hi-hat. In the 1940s, Louie Bellson introduced a double bass drum set, but it would be several more years before it would catch on in a major way.

Around this time, the first drumming superstar appeared on the scene, Gene Krupa. Krupa had assembled his own big band that he led from his seat at his set, and demonstrated that the drum set did not have to be confined to the rhythm section all the time. He was the first to do a drum solo on a commercial recording, and his performances are still studied and enjoyed today.

The next surge of popularity would come along in the 1960s. Although early rock drummers typically used a very sparse set, Ron Wilson of The Surfaris had a major hit with “Wipeout”, a popular surfer rock song that featured the drums heavily. Shortly after, The Beatles began performing on television with Ringo Starr set up prominently with the band around him. These events (and others) triggered a meteoric rise in popularity of rock drummers, and it seemed each new band had a drummer that was trying to outdo their predecessors. As rock progressed into the 70s and 80s, larger and more elaborate drum sets appeared, and their players are revered as highly as anyone else in the group. Among these were Keith Moon of The Who, John Bonham of Led Zeppelin, Phil Collins of Genesis, Stewart Copeland of The Police, and arguably the greatest of all time Neil Peart of Rush.

However, the seeds of the demise of the superstar drummers appeared in the 1980s as well with the appearance of the “drum machine”, a programmable electronic drum synthesizer which allowed bands to do without a drummer altogether. Although looked at by many with disdain, it nearly took over the popular music industry.

Perhaps as a reaction to this and the use of other synthesizers, rock bands began edging into a “back to basics” approach in the 1990s. For drummers, this meant paring their sets down to necessities and honing their playing skills. A contemporary drum set makes use of a single bass drum, a snare, two or three mounted toms, a floor tom, a hi-hat, and a pair of suspended cymbals. One suspended cymbal will be heavier to produce a clear, light sound for rhythmic patterns called a ride cymbal, and the other is thinner and lighter to produce a longer, brighter sound and is called a crash cymbal. Most drummers will make some variations to the overall kit to highlight their skills or better fit the band.

Although there are instruments that are thought of as more difficult to play, when it comes to coordination, there is certainly nothing more challenging than being a proficient drum set player. All four limbs (or in the case of Rick Allen of Def Leppard, three limbs) are required to work almost totally independent of each other. A drum set drummer must treat their set as a single instrument. Thinking in terms of a collection of instruments would make it all too confusing.

(Thanks to percussionist and educator Frank Oddis for input on some of the information.)