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DRUMS

Beginner’s Guide to Types of Drums

“I don’t want to go to work, I just want to bang the drum all day” - Todd Rungren

What is it about the drums that makes them so alluring? Who’s eyes don’t light up when they see a percussion rig set up in its full glory? Stealing away a few quick taps on a drum is such a primitive action, yet it clearly satisfies some deep rooted impulse within us all. No matter where you are on the planet the drums exist. Some of these are strictly for show and entertainment. Others have deep spiritual associations that can be traced back for centuries. Whether you are just beginning, or have been at it for some time, understanding the different types of drums is a fundamental part of the journey. After all, the rhythm we create is what connects the entire human race. Let’s take a look at some of the different types of drums that allow us to do this.

Acoustic Drum Kit

The modern drum kit is only about one-hundred years old. This makes it a relative newcomer in the world of percussion. While many other types of drums remain rooted in tradition, the drum kit has evolved constantly. In its earliest form the “traps kit”, as it was called then, consisted of a bass drum, snare drum, and some small percussion effects (e.g. woodblock, cowbell, cymbal). Prior to the kit, each of these items would be played by an individual musician. Due to physical space limitations it inevitably occurred to someone to combine the multiple instruments into a single, more compact configuration. Hence, the drum kit was born. While the appearance and construction methods have changed significantly over time the core pieces of the kit remain the same:

Snare Drum

If you look at a picture of any drum kit, no matter how big or small, they are all centered on the snare drum. Out of all the pieces in the kit it is the most important. The name is attributed to the snare wires that run along the bottom head to produce the distinct snap sound. Drummers spend considerable time developing their technique on just the snare drum through rudiments and other exercises for stick control. These skills are then applied to the larger kit. Modern snare drums can range anywhere in size from 10-16” in diameter (14” being the most common), and 3-12” deep (5-6” being typical).

Bass Drum

The bass drum is the large drum that sits on the floor. It is struck with a foot operated pedal. When the term “drumbeat” is used what is being referred to is the interplay between the bass and snare drum. As the biggest drum in the kit it can range in size from 18-28” in diameter (22” being the most common), and 12-18” in depth (16” being typical).

Tom-Tom(s)

The toms are used primarily to provide color to the music and for fills. They range in head size from 6-20”. The depths vary quite a bit relative to the diameter of the drum. The most basic drum kit configuration utilizes two (one high, one low). There are no limits to how many can be included though. This is more of a personal choice that is dictated by musical requirements. They can also be played with a single head, or a top & bottom head. This is a matter of personal preference by the drummer.

Hi-Hat

The hi-hat is comprised of two cymbals nested on top of each other. They can be played with a stick, or struck together with a foot operated pedal. This allows for a multitude of sounds to be produced. In contemporary music the primary function is to “ride” on the cymbals with a constant pulse. This provides a foundation for the drum beat occurring between the bass and snare. The cymbals range in size from 12-16” with 14’ being the most common. The hi-hat is the modern day offspring of the low-boy. This more primitive version consisted of two small cymbals at floor level that were clapped together by a foot pedal. As Jazz music developed the drummers of the day began raising the cymbals with a piece of pipe so they could be played at hand level with the sticks.

Ride Cymbal

A ride is typically the largest cymbal within the kit. Functionally it is used in the same manner as a hi-hat - to ride on. However, it provides a bright “ping” sound to color the music with. Ride cymbals can be anywhere from 18-24” in diameter. The most common size is 20”

Crash Cymbal

Crash cymbals are used primarily to accent and punctuate the music with a sharp, cutting tone. When a drum kit includes many cymbals they will be mostly of the crash variety. Sizes range from 14-20”. The most common sizes are 16” or 18”.

Percussion

Just like the original traps kit, the modern kit can also incorporate a wide variety of percussion items (e.g., cowbell, tambourine, woodblock). This comes down to musical and creative requirements as determined by the music.

Electronic Drums

In the same way there are acoustic and electric guitars, there are also Electronic drums. These first came to prominence in the early 1980’s in two distinct forms.

Electronic Drum Kit

The first being a physical kit that has electronic trigger pads in lieu of drums and cymbals. These pads mimic the acoustic counterpart in physical positioning. The drum and cymbal sounds don’t emanate from the pads themselves, though. They are generated from a brain module that stores the sounds as “samples”. While the sounds may originate from an artificial source, a human drummer is still required to play the kit.

Drum Machine

The second form is that of a drum machine. This is a drum computer that can be programmed to produce drum/percussion sounds in a defined manner. No skill or knowledge of the actual instrument is required to program one. This has made drum machines popular with composers. 

Since Electronic Drums and Drum Machines are technology based they have advanced rapidly over the last few decades. The manufacturers of electronic kits have focused heavily on developing trigger pads that more closely resemble the feel of actual drums and cymbals.

Hybrid Drums

Hybrid refers to any combination of acoustic and electronic drums. The term is vague, but can be divided into three broad categories:

Acoustic Drums w/ Electronic Trigger Pads

This would be a standard acoustic drum kit with some additional trigger pads included in the set up. The pads are used to generate sounds that aren’t easily produced by the acoustic kit. This could be to maintain authenticity with the sound of the original recording. Or it may also be due to the physical constraints of carrying around large, specialized instruments on the road.

Acoustic Drums w/ Electronic Triggers

This approach became popular in the late 1980’s, particularly for the Arena Rock sounds that were in vogue at the time. An acoustic drum kit is set up and mic’d through the PA as normal. Then an electronic trigger is placed on the drum. Each time the drum is struck a computer generated sound is triggered as well. The two are then blended together in the mix. This allows the drummer to maintain the authenticity of playing an acoustic kit while the sound engineer has an added element of control and predictability.

Electronic Drums w/ Wood Shells

To maintain the look and feel of acoustic kits some electronic manufactures have begun producing fully electronic kits that look like wood kits. The triggers are built directly into the shells. In some cases mylar heads can be placed on the drums to convert them to a fully acoustic kit. This continues to blur the line between what is acoustic or electronic.

Marching Drums (aka Drumline or Drum Corp)

Marching drums are used with field bands in either parades or choreographed performances on a measured pitch, typically Football. These types of events feature the percussion section as an ensemble performance. Since these drums are used primarily outdoors they tend to be made in larger sizes and for greater durability. The individual instruments are essentially variations on the pieces that comprise the modern drum kit. All are worn with some type of body-harness.

Snare

Marching snares are noticeably deeper (10-12”) than the ones found on a drum kit. This is to produce the extra volume and projection needed outdoors. The heads are also tuned considerably tighter to achieve the correct tone. A modern drum corp will have up to ten individuals all playing snare. Typically they are performing the same part in unison.

Bass

Marching bass drums are built shallower (10-12”) than those found on a drum kit. This allows them to be played on both sides. A drum corp can have up to six bass drummers. Each drum will be on a different size drum ranging from 16”-28” in diameter. This allows the parts to be written in a melodic sense.

Tenor and Multi-Tenor (aka Quint, Quad, Tri-Tom)

The tenor drum is similar to the tom-toms on a drum kit, yet unique to marching. When just one drum is used it tends to be slightly larger than a marching snare, without the snare on the bottom head. For more modern and melodic approaches groups of 3-5 smaller drums per player are mounted on a single harness. These will range in size from 6-13” and have only a single head. There can be up to six tenor players.

Cymbals & Percussion

In addition to the drums listed above a marching band will have players with handheld cymbals. For performances on a football grid there is also a large percussion battery that does not march. That is, they play from the sideline of the field. These set-ups are often complex and incorporate a significant amount of percussion instruments as dictated by the music being performed.

Timpani (aka Kettle Drums)

Timpani are most commonly used in orchestral and symphonic settings. They are large, semi-spherical bowls with a skin over the top. The most common material used in their construction is copper. Unlike most of the drums being reviewed here the tympani are tuned to specific notes. Each drum, depending on its size, will have a range that can be adjusted via a foot pedal attached at the base. This tightens or loosens the skin to reach the desired pitch. The drums are played with felt mallets to draw out a warm, robust sound. A basic set-up consists of two timpani. Musical requirements can easily dictate the use of four or more drums to cover the range of notes needed. A standard set of four drums includes sizes of 23”, 26”, 29” and 32”.

Hand Drums

As the name implies, the term “hand” drum refers to any sort of drum that is struck with the hand rather than a stick or beater. The various types all originate from specific geographic regions across the globe. This gives them deep roots in both cultural and spiritual practices. Some of the more commonly known ones are:

Congas

The Conga is a Cuban instrument. It is a deep drum, made with barrel stave construction, and a single animal-skin head. They are tall enough to be played with the base of the drum resting on the ground while the player sits. Originally bands would have three different conga players. Each playing a different sized drum. Much like the modern drum kit, over time this has merged into a single player covering multiple parts or drums.

Bongos

There is some debate as to the exact origin of the Bongo, but it was popularized through use in Cuban music. The bongos consist of a pair of small drums joined together. Like Congas, they have a single animal-skin head on top and an open bottom. Traditionally the pair is held between the legs of the player but in contemporary settings they can be mounted on a stand. Due to their small size they produce a fairly high pitched pop.

Cajon

Hailing from Peru, the Cajon has become a popular addition to the percussion section in recent memory. It is essentially a wooden box made from musical grade plywoods. Five sides of it are made stronger to support a person sitting on it. The front face is made from a thinner, more resonant layer. This serves as the primary striking surface. The other surfaces can be struck as well to increase the sound and rhythmic possibilities. Some variations have holes cut in one face or other accessories utilized to increase the musical possibilities.

Tabla

Originating in India, the Tabla are a pair of small drums. Each is a slightly different shape, but they are both barrelish and hollowed out. Construction materials include wood, clay or metal. A single head is stretched over the top opening. Unlike most hand drums that are struck with the whole hand, the Tabla is played with the fingers and palm. 

Ashiko

West African in origin, the Ashiko is recognizable by its tapered cylinder shape. It is considered to be halfway between a Conga and a Djembe. 

Frame Drums

A frame drum is perhaps the simplest and most ancient form of drum. The only real requirement to fall into this category is that the width of the head is greater than the depth of the drum (i.e., frame). In some cases the drum may not even have a head. Much like hand drums, these instruments tend to have origins within specific geographic regions.

Tambourine

The most common and versatile form of frame drum. Tambourines come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Depending on musical requirements they may or may not have metal jingles and a head. This allows for a multitude of tones to be generated by shaking it, striking the frame, or playing the head. The exact origin is unknown but it appears to have been adopted by most cultures around the world in some manner.

Bodhran

This is an Irish instrument that dates back to the Celts. It comes in a variety of sizes. All have a head on one side. This is struck with one hand while the other is used inside the frame to control the tone of the drum. A small hand beater can also be used to strike the drum. Despite its ancient origins the Bodhran was not fully recognized as a legitimate musical instrument until the mid-twentieth century.

Pandeiro

The unofficial, official drum of Brazil. A Pandeiro is very similar to a tambourine. The key difference being that the head is tunable. The metal jingles are also cupped in the hand to produce a shorter, dryer tone.

Tar

The Tar is an ancient drum found in the Middle East. It is a simple instrument with an animal skin head stretched over a wood frame.

Daf (aka Ghaval)

Another common frame drum in the Middle East, the Daf is also the national instrument of Pakistan. It consists of an animal skin stretched over a wood or metal frame. Metal jingle rings are typically inserted within the frame as well.

Ocean Drum

While most frame drums have more similarities than differences, the Ocean drum is a bit unique. Originating in Nepal, the intent was to have it imitate the sound of water, hence the name. This is done by having a head on each side of the frame. Within the drum are metal beads. The drum is held horizontally and tilted so that the beads roll. This action resonates against the head and creates the desired sound.

Check out other School of Rock Drum Resources

Goblet Drums

Goblet drums have existed for thousands of years. They are characterized by their unique “goblet” shape. This allows the drum to be held under the arm for playing while standing, or laid across the legs while sitting. The wider end of the drum is covered with a skin for striking.

Djembe

West African in origin, the Djembe has a rope tuned head and is played with the hands. It is known for its versatility of sounds and relatively high volume.

Bougarabou

Another West African instrument. The name actually refers to a group of three of four drums played at the same time by a single player. This is thought to have been influenced by Conga players who gradually merged multiple drums into a single set-up. A unique part of the sound is that the player wears metal bracelets which contribute to the overall performance in a musical way.

Udu

An Udu is actually derived from a clay water jug in Nigeria. An additional hole is cut in the side to transform it into an instrument. The sides of the jug, and the hole, are struck with the hands to produce a variety of sounds.

Steel Drums

Just as the name implies Steel Drums are fabricated from steel plates. Most commonly the base of a barrel is cut off and reworked to become a new drum. There are a few varieties that are all similar yet different.

Pan

Pan drums come from Trinidad and Tobago. The bottom of a 55-gallon barrel is hammered into distinct playing regions. Unlike most drums these are tuned to perform in the pythagorean cycle of fourths and fifths. The designated zones are struck with rubber tipped sticks to produce their distinct sound.

Tongue

The Steel Tongue drum is typically crafted from a 20-pound propane tank, making it smaller than the Pan drum. Once removed, the bottom is cut so there are 7-10 “tongues” or playing surfaces. These are often tuned to Pentatonic scales but others can be used. They are played with the fingers or mallets.

Hand Pan

The Hand Pan is a modern take on traditional steel drums. Rather than being hammered into a concave playing area the drum is produced to provide a convex playing surface. This is then struck by the hands. 

Talking Drums

The intention of a talking drum is to mimic the sound of the human voice - hence the name. It originates from West Africa. The drum has an hourglass shape with heads on both sides. These are connected by tension cords. When squeezed under the arm the cords change the sound of the drum. This is what generates the “voice” sound. The beater used to play the drum is highly recognizable as it is bent at a 90-degree angle.

The world of drums and drumming is vast. As we’ve seen here, even a quick look at just some of the varieties can take us around the world in a flash. That can be a bit daunting at first. In doing so though we not only learn more about our role as drummers, but the origins of music and how cultures developed. Ultimately, in making music the goal is to always bring people together. And that will make the world a smaller place, indeed. 

Happy drumming!

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About the Author

Andrew Baranowski is a drum teacher at School of Rock Chicago West. His teaching philosophy encompasses three main points: building a strong technical foundation in which to draw from, playing a song versus playing the drums, and understanding the drummer’s role in the greater context of any ensemble.