Downsizing: Find The Perfect Small Or Mid-Size Drum Kit

Big kits have an undeniable appeal for many drummers. If you're like most of us, though, chances are you don't have a roadie with you at every gig ready to break down and carry that 10-ply, 18x24" bass drum you've had since high school. And even if you did, don't they deserve a break?

Luckily, there are more fantastic options than ever before for today's drummers when it comes to affordable and portable smaller-format drum sets. After playing quite a few of them, I've whittled this list down to five options you should consider when downsizing your set.

Gretsch Catalina Club

There's a reason you see Gretsch Catalina series drums in college programs and houses of worship all over the world. They're fantastic for the money and work well in just about every situation. While my alma mater opted for Catalina Birch kits, when it comes to mobility, the Catalina Club series is what we're after.

Gretsch recently made some improvements to this line by upgrading the grade of mahogany used in the shells. They also switched out the single, center-mounted lugs for their traditional teardrop style lugs, which allows the drums to resonate a bit more naturally.

In addition to the White Marine Pearl and Silver Sparkle options we've grown accustomed to in the Catalina Club, the 2014 lineup introduced some new wrap options as well as the addition of several lacquers and stains. Gretsch chose to stay at the same price point on these options which is a huge plus. I personally dig the White Chocolate Lacquer. Like a good shirt, it tends to look great with just about anything.

Gretsch provides plenty of options in terms of shell configurations. If you want to downsize but an 18" bass drum (which ships from Gretsch with a pedal mount/riser) seems a bit too small, you can still opt for the 20" and save yourself some weight and space.

As for tone, Gretsch used their classic 30-degree bearing edge and five-lug construction. That means players looking for a vintage sound who like tuning their toms to medium or high-tension will feel most at home behind this one.

Gretsch swapped the square badge you're probably used to seeing on these drums for a round one. If you're having trouble determining whether you're looking at an older or newer model, check the badge.

I'm not knocking the pre-2014 models. In fact, the new upgrades mean the older models tend to sell for even less on Reverb. It's just a matter of your budget and weighing the value of what each era delivers (something I'm sure Gretsch was well aware of when they priced the updated line so competitively).

A matching snare drum is included with these kits. Even if you're not that into the snare (I wasn't), this cherry on top makes Catalina Club arguably the highest overall bang-for-buck kit on the market today.

Pearl Vision Birch VBL

Available in multiple five-piece configurations which include a middle tom and a steel SensiTone snare drum, the Vision kits offer many of the benefits of the Catalina Club line, but with a more contemporary look and feel.

For starters, these toms all have a traditional six-lug setup. This is especially important for players who haven't mastered their drum tuning technique yet, as they're easier to dial in. There's also less risk of bending your hoops as a result of poor tuning.

To really get your drums to sing, you need the entire surface of the head to be held at the same tension. Otherwise, you're likely to get some unwanted overtones. Check out the drum tuning tutorial from DW's CEO later in this article. For now, just think of overtones as the result of several notes being played at the same time. This occurs when one point of the head is tuned to one note (for instance, C) and another point on the same drum is tuned a half step higher (for example, C#). It's not pretty. If you weren't a band geek like me, just ask your guitarist to play a minor second and you'll understand.

Another modern feature of the Vision line is the availability of five high-gloss lacquer finishes. Birch has tonal characteristics that respond best to high and low frequencies but not as much to mids. This is perfect for someone who wants the option of tuning their rack tom tightly. Some players even crank theirs to the point of mimicking a timbale. Birch allows you to achieve this without sacrificing a nice low, controlled growl from the floor tom.

The sound and aesthetic of this line probably appeals most to rock, fusion, Latin and Afro-Caribbean players.

Ludwig Club Date

With the Club Date, Ludwig essentially took their student-edition kit, originally introduced in the early 1960s, and reissued it in some new wrap finishes, all of which look fantastic. They used the unmistakable center-mounted "Bow-Tie" lugs to keep with the look. The rail-style tom mount on the bass drum completes the style, tugging even harder at the heartstrings of nostalgic suckers like the guy writing this.

The question you may ask yourself as you read into these is: "What the heck is a Cherry/Gum hybrid?"

Well, when combined with the full round-over bearing edge we've all been hearing from Ringo, Buddy, and a slew of other famous drummers for the last sixty years, the answer you get is "Classic."

I played them. I loved them.

Available in multiple configurations, you'd be hard-pressed to find another 18" or 20" bass drum that packs more of a punch in a kit with a MAP under $1K.

I tried tuning the toms at various tensions expecting to find where they fell short. While the rack tom did exhibit less control at lower tunings (which can be corrected with a Moongel), I have yet to find a tuning I didn't like. If you're playing an expansive range of genres from night to night and dig an old school vibe, go with the Club Date.

The catch is that the new Club Dates were a limited run. And though I wouldn't have known it, these reissues were built overseas. There only seem to be a few boxed ones left, some of which are listed on Reverb. Once those sell, your options are buy a used reissue or a true vintage Club Date.

These kits were so well-made and popular in the '60s that a lot of the originals are still floating around. If you're looking for vintage rather than a reissue, check out some original Club Dates on Reverb.

Sonor Bop

To be clear, Sonor is no stranger to the gigging drummer. In addition to the Bop, they also produced or currently produce the Safari, Jungle and Martini lines. One common thread across pretty much all those lines is the shorter-than-average tom depths, which make them insanely easy to carry and set up. The caveat is that they tend not to favor the power drummer.

The Bop shells are constructed from poplar which is known as more of a budget wood, so the price tag on this kit is roughly half of the what you're likely to pay for the others on this list.

However, the combination of smaller tom sizes and 9-ply (that's a lot) construction make the shells far more focused than any other poplar kit I've played.

If you're on tight budget, or maybe looking for a second kit for local gigs so you can leave your diesel rig at home, this is your kit. Again, heavy hitters will likely not get as much satisfaction from this one. As its name suggests, the Bop pairs best with thin, jazz-centric cymbals and a lighter touch.

DW Frequent Flyer

This last one breaks the $1K rule by a little bit, but the Frequent Flyer is constructed in the US, utilizes North American Maple shells, and includes a matching snare drum that (unlike the other kits' snares) is actually pretty damn good.

The Frequent Flyer gives the average musician a chance to flaunt the DW badge without shelling out a gazillion dollars. DW even sported a smaller version of their iconic round lugs so everyone at your gig except the other drummers will assume you paid more.

Given that this kit was designed on recommendation from one of the world's most renowned jazz drummers, the fact that DW got Brooks Wackerman (Bad Religion, Tenacious D) to help them promote the series speaks to their versatility.

In short, they respond really well at every dynamic level.

DW builds their drums with the intention of suiting players of all shapes and sizes, and to sound great at various tunings as a result of their HVLT cross-lamination process. But in order to take full advantage of any drum's range, you need to know how to properly tune it. Check out this drum tuning tutorial from John Good, Executive VP at DW. Leave a comment here if you found this or any of the other information helpful.

The three things all these kits have in common is that they're relatively inexpensive, small and light. With the right set of bags, getting your shells in and out of the venue can become a one-trip affair.

If you're still looking to drop some weight and save additional time loading out, consider picking up a second set of hardware. Leave the old heavy stuff at home and consider keeping some flat-base stands at the ready in your gig bag. DW and Gibraltar (made by DW) have proven their flat base models will withstand a good beating.

John Bonham played Moby Dick on flat-base stands and a squeaky Speed King pedal. Remember that before dismissing flat-base stands because you "rock too hard."

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