A Brief History of the Drum Set

Archaeological evidence suggests that around 30,000 years ago, in the Upper Paleolithic era, early man figured out how to stretch an animal skin to make a drum. It only took 29,000 more years for man to arrive at a system for multi-tasking on the instrument: the drum kit.

Not quite a hundred years old, the drum kit might be just a kid in instrument years, but it’s long been at the heart of popular music. It’s served not just as a time-keeping machine but as a tool for virtuosic expression, from the bombastic jazz of Buddy Rich to the prog-rock stylings of Rush’s Neil Peart to the impeccable funk rhythms of Clyde Stubblefield.

Before any of these idioms existed, in the late 1800s, separate percussionists were assigned to drums and cymbals in military and concert bands. As these ensembles typically played in parades, there was plenty of space for a large percussion section to roam about. Indoor concerts, on the other hand, had obvious physical constraints and therefore percussionists often had to do double duty.

Pedal Driven

A clever solution to this issue was to get feet in on the action. In 1909, William F. Ludwig, Sr. of the Ludwig Drum Co. helped drummers do just that when he pioneered a foot pedal for the bass drum. One drummer could then play multiple parts simultaneously—kind of a big deal at the time.

One drummer could then play multiple parts simultaneously — kind of a big deal at the time."

After that, the basic drum set gradually began to take shape. A snare drum and cymbal, both stand-mounted so that a drummer could play seated, joined the bass drum. This allowed for the basic common-time pattern: the bass drum on beats 1 and 3, the snare on 2 and 4, and the cymbal running throughout, which is still in heavy use today across a range of genres.

A New Contraption

But drummers wanted more. And so the drum set evolved to included a pair of tom-toms and also a contraption tray, holding horns, whistles and various other noisemakers. Named after the word “contraption,” these early drum sets were known as “trap kits,” a name that’s still used occasionally to describe the drum set.

Gene Krupa performing in 1946

The Roaring ‘20s saw the cymbal receive a pedal, like the bass drum had done in the previous decade. A new instrument, the low boy, was a pair of oppositely facing cymbals, mounted a foot off the ground, that crashed together when the pedal was depressed.

The resulting effect was that of a hand-muted cymbal being struck. Soon the low boy grew taller, evolving into the hi-hat we know today.

The drum set developed further as a long line of percussionists of all stripes demanded certain configurations to suit their styles.

In the 1930s, one of the first great drum-set players, Gene Krupa of the Benny Goodman Orchestra, ditched the contraption kit and opted for a four-piece kit with bass and snare drums, a small tom mounted to the bass drum, and a larger one on the floor, complemented by a hi-hat and ride, splash and crash cymbals: the drum kit in its modern incarnation. This setup enabled Krupa to develop into a vivid soloist.

The Modern Age

The modern drum kit is what allowed players like Max Roach to play polyrhythms at racing tempos and, in the 1940s, develop a highly complex new jazz idiom: bebop. They began using the ride cymbal to delineate time in a swinging way, and this pattern, which you no doubt know, is still the basic rhythmic unit of jazz.

In the 1950s, as more drummers took their kits on the road, they experienced technical difficulties when their drumheads, made from animal skins, got out of whack due to fluctuations in temperature and humidity.

In response, the first Mylar polyester film drumhead was developed, allowing for easy maintenance and a consistent sound, with a quicker response than its animal-skin counterpart. This coincided with the development of rock drumming by players like Earl Palmer, the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer who’s frequently credited with creating the backbeat and who drummed for Little Richard, and D.J. Fontana, who drummed for Elvis Presley.

The Rock Era

Rock became louder and louder in the next decade, thanks to ever more powerful sound-reinforcement equipment. Drummers adapted by modifying their kits to compete with electric guitars and basses. Ginger Baker, in Eric Clapton’s power trio Cream, began to use a pair of bass drums; heavy metal players would later do the same. Manufacturers responded to the need for loudness by producing kits with greater numbers of components and by thickening their cymbals.

In the ‘70s, the acrylic drum was developed to produce the decibels necessary for the demands of louder arena environments. At the same time, many drummers went for a maximal approach, both to gear and to playing. Neal Peart’s setup included not just a massive drum kit but a battery of auxiliary percussion instruments, such as temple blocks and tubular bells, used to coloristic effect in Rush.

Electronic Drums

Another big development came in the ‘80s, with the introduction of MIDI technology and drums equipped with soft pads triggering electronic sounds when struck.

An early Simmons Electronic drum kit from 1979

In the mid-to-late-'80s, the sound of Phil Collins playing his electronic kit, drenched in gated reverb, was inescapable. The earliest electronic kits had physical advantages over traditional drums: they were compact and could be used with headphones for practicing quietly.

There was a backlash against electronic drums in some quarters, and against extensive setups as well. In his work with Nirvana, in the grunge era, Dave Grohl used a stripped-down kit, having just bass and snare drums, two toms and cymbals; other players used three-piece kits. Not everyone rejected electronic drums. Some players, like Radiohead’s Philip Selway, would combine conventional and electronic drum sounds to excellent effect.

Today's Drum Set

These days, drummers have never had more options when it comes to gear. On the high end, kits like those in Yamaha’s Maple Custom Absolute series, or the DW Collector’s series, offer a configuration to suit any player, while at the other end of the price spectrum, Ludwig Breakbeats by Questlove kits offer a lot of bang for the buck.

Yamaha, Alesis and other makers offer electronic kits sounding considerably more realistic than the earliest electronic drums. Not only that, DAWs come equipped with solutions for creating authentic-sounding drum tracks or uncanny percussive effects: a realm of possibilities that William F. Ludwig, Sr., the drum-set pioneer, could have scarcely imagined.

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