How Modern Drum Sizes Became Standard

These days, drummers are spoiled for choice when it comes to drum sizes. The market is saturated with everything from the largest and deepest to the smallest and shallowest, and what direction a drummer decides to go in as it relates to the size of their drums can say a lot about them and their music.

A drummer’s size preference can be based on a variety of factors. What styles of music are they most drawn to, what kind of drums do or did their idols employ, what aural and visual characteristics stir them the most deeply, and how much space they have to work with.

Today, we’re going to take a look back at the history surrounding different drum sizes and explore how standard sizing became the standard.

The World's Oldest Instrument

The drum is an ancient instrument. Some would argue that the only instrument that is older is the human voice.

Decades ago, William F. Ludwig Jr. gave me a book on percussion’s history by the noted British percussionist James Blades (Percussion Instruments and Their History, published by Frederick A. Praeger, 1970). It’s an exceptional, carefully researched book that’s very well-written and truly a scholarly tome for all time.

Even a cursory visit with its contents reveals the tremendous varietal expressions that drums have taken throughout history — large and small, round and square, deep and shallow, thick and thin. The designs and permutations are vast and fun to explore.

The contexts within which the drums were utilized had everything to do with their structure, sound, and visual aesthetics. Communication. War. Spiritual ceremony. Dance. Artistic expression. Entertainment. Through it all, from Africa to Tibet to Europe, a drum was there.

Who Were You and Where Were You Playing?

So how did the “standard” drum set sizes of today become standard?

Most modern drums derive from military-style bands and those used for field communication had to be small enough to be portable and large enough to be heard.

1939 Leedy kit with a 28" Bass Drum

As these drums found use in other settings, the size of one’s playing environment impacted things. A jazz band in a little club where people were primarily listening is a different atmosphere than a rock concert with 20,000 screaming fans and a relentless sound system.

For the purposes of manageability, let’s go back to the 1930s when the Big Bands were streamlining the “Modern Drummer” down to four or five drums, along with three or four cymbals and a hi-hat. Bass drums were bigger — usually 26 or 28 inches — and their depth hearkens back to symphonic bass drums and marching bass drums, which often had to accommodate the swirling mallets that were part of the theatre of marching bands.

And snare drums, after being fashioned from metal during the 19th century in Europe, had gotten thinner than the field drums, which offered another easier-to-manage option for marching drummers — a 6x14-inch snare drum was well in use by the end of the 19th century.

So with those sizes as a drum kit’s “heart,” toms were influenced by the sizes of the Chinese toms of the drum kits in the teens and ‘20s.

Standardization in Drum Manufacturing

As the relationships between depth-to-width became somewhat normalized by the major American drum manufacturers (who all watched pretty closely what the other was offering, paying attention to what became popular), a drum kit with a 26-inch bass drum, 14-inch snare drum, 13-inch small tom, and 16-inch large tom became familiar and replicated, and drummer’s were happy.

1940s Slingerland 14x8 Radio King Snare Drum

The smaller-sized drums that were associated with jazz trios, quartets, and the like made sense because they didn’t need as much volume, but the deeper reason they came into vogue was that the big bass drums were terribly cumbersome to travel with. Try putting a 28-inch bass drum in the back seat of your car, or worse, try to carry it onto the bus or train.

The smaller bass drums gained popularity from usage because they were physically more manageable. It had less to do with music than it did with ergonomics.

Perusing the catalogs of the major drum manufacturers in the second half of the 20th century (Ludwig, Rogers, Slingerland, Gretsch), one quickly deduces that they were promoting 14x20 or 22-inch bass drums, smaller toms of 8x12 and 9x13 inches, and floor toms sized at 16x16 inches (though 14x14 inches was depicted as well).

Even the European makers like Premier in the UK and Sonor in Germany held pretty closely to these patterns. Other sizes could be ordered, but the way drum kit offerings were depicted in the catalogs gave the musician the sense of what the “right” sizes and ratios were and how they were to be understood.

The enthusiasm for drummers to know about wood plies, bearing edge angles, wood configurations, and width-to-depth ratios didn't happen until decades later when drummers were able to have a hand in their instrument’s fabrication to a previously unforeseen degree.

Evolving Drum Size Tastes

After the Beatles and as rock music began to experiment with musical ideas and volume (among other things), drummers began to add more drums to their kits. The questioning and experimenting that brought about changes in the 1960s generalized to most walks of human life — social mores, politics, style, and fashion. Music was not only not an exception here, it was a leader.

1970 Ludwig Rock Duo with two 24" bass drums

Multiple bass drums of 24 or 26 inches were not uncommon, and multiple toms seemed limited only to “If I can reach it, I want it available.” The music was bigger, the drum kits were bigger, and the world was becoming smaller.

The deeper upper toms began to appear in the 1980s, often referred to as “power” toms, though more than a few boutique drum builders would take exception to “power” being the descriptive that best defines that design.

Largeness was often associated with volume, a perception that is not without merit, but volume by itself isn’t so compelling to a musician unless the tone colour is appealing. Some found the deeper-shelled toms to be musically apt for their context. Some did not.

Though currently out of favour given the inherent irrationality of us featherless bipeds, that will, no doubt, change one day.

Keep Experimenting, Find Your Drums

As time has passed, we’ve seen a broad spectrum of options for sizes with drummers — the “standard” sizes of the ‘50s and ‘60s, the larger and deeper sizes of the ‘70s and ‘80s, and the smaller and shallower sizes in the ‘90s to the present.

The best way to learn what suits you is to try things out."

Given technological advancements and the opportunities to experiment and have something custom-made (almost unheard of 50 years ago), the options for a drummer are almost exhausting. And we haven’t even factored build quality into the picture.

There are a host of options for the drummer of today, and the best way to learn what suits you is to try things out. Experience for yourself what it’s like to play and old-school kit or something used by your favorite drummer. Try something you wouldn’t normally seek out, and don’t listen with the ears of expectation. Listen, instead, for what’s there, and don’t be in a hurry to judge and decide if it’s “good” or “bad” — it’ll often be neither, and it’ll often be both.


Editor's Note:

There's a ton more to explore and to be said about the evolution of the drum set. For more history on how the modern set evolved over the years, take a look at:

About the Author:

Paul Schmidt (M.M., M. Div.) is an artist, teacher, author, and scholar. His book on Ludwig was the first book ever published devoted exclusively to America’s contributions to percussion instrument development. To learn more about Paul go to www.artofmusicinstruments.com


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