A History of the Drum Set: Toms, Snares, and Kicks

From the simple yet crucial tom to the thunderous, foundational bass, join us on a journey through the history and evolution of the modern kit, one shell at a time.

Tom-Toms

Devoid of any modern contraptions like foot-operated beaters or strainer mechanisms, the tom-tom is a drum as simple as they come: a cylindrical shell with two tensioned drumheads. Its deep, melodic tones have been integral to the development of modern popular music and can be heard anchoring famous tunes across all genres, from Benny Goodman's "Sing, Sing, Sing!" and The Sufaris' "Wipeout" to "Come Together" by The Beatles and "Run to the Hills" by Iron Maiden.

Despite its humble beginnings, the development of the tom has been inextricably linked with the evolution of recording technology and pop trends through the 20th century. It is perhaps the one piece of the drum kit most indicative of its era.

It's a Trap!

As the drum kit coalesced into a complete unit during the early 20th century, drummers looked for trebly, staccato sounds that would translate well onto the primitive recording media of the time. Bass drums were too bass-heavy, and snare drums were just overpowering.

Woodblocks, bells, and small cymbals (referred to collectively as "traps," short for "contraptions") would be mounted on a small rail or table atop the bass drum. Many of these new sounds had their origins in Europe and Asia, including curiously ornate small drums called tom-toms.

1920/'30s Chinese Tom
1920/'30s Chinese Tom

Usually 8" to 14" in diameter and rarely more than a few inches deep, these exotic drums had bowed wooden shells with two tacked-on drumheads often adorned with traditional Chinese painted scenes. American drum companies like Ludwig and Slingerland would soon begin importing the instruments from China and incorporating them into their outfits.

As the volume and size of the big bands grew and recording technology improved throughout the 1920s, drummers began to favor larger drums. Traps were playing a less pivotal role in the music, and manufacturers were now supplementing their basic kits with one-, two-, and three-tom setups mounted on elaborate metal rail systems called "consoles."

But instead of Chinese-style drums, these were deeper (7x12", 9x13", or 12x14") and featured the same shell layup and finish options as their bass and snare drum counterparts. Most importantly, the top heads now featured T-rods or key screws to enable the batter head to be tuned, while the bottom head retained its primitive tacked-on design.

The Tom Becomes Integral

1930s Slingerland Radio King toms
1930s Slingerland Radio King toms. Photo by Nelson Drum Shop

In the 1930s, an up-and-coming Chicago-born drummer named Gene Krupa signed with the Slingerland Drum Company as an endorser and began working with the firm to introduce some innovations into their products. Krupa insisted that his toms be fully tunable, with both the batter and resonant heads featuring metal hoops, lugs, and tension rods.

The smaller drums were mounted on the bass drum via a small "consolette," while the larger models came with their own floor-standing baskets, as was typical for the time. Within a few years, the baskets had been replaced with individual height-adjustable legs, and the modern floor tom was born.

Dubbed the Radio King series, these "Krupa-style" kits would become the model by which all drum makers would design their products, though Chinese toms, tacked heads, and baskets could still be found on certain outfits from Ludwig, Gretsch, and Slingerland all the way up until the late '40s.

Benny Goodman Orchestra "Sing, Sing, Sing" Gene Krupa - Drums, from "Hollywood Hotel" film (1937)

Standardization and Expansion

Post-World War II saw the size of the standard drum kit shrink once again, as radio and recording tech continued to advance. By now, configurations had become somewhat standardized into basic 3- and 4-piece kits. For the first time, noticeable distinctions along genre lines began to appear.

1976 Ludwig Rock Duo
1976 Ludwig Rock Duo

While big band and straight ahead rock 'n' roll drummers still favored the now-standard 9x13" and 16x16" setup, bop and small-group jazz players migrated towards 8x12" and 14x14" models, often tuning them up higher to produce a more melodic tone.

But by the 1960s, players had begun experimenting with expanded setups once again. As guitar rigs continued to get louder, drummers added larger drums (and more of them) to compensate. Nick Mason, Ginger Baker, and Keith Moon led the charge, all playing double-bass kits with upwards of four or five toms.

The music reflected this, too. Gone were the simple backbeat rhythms of the previous decade, as Jazz, African, and Latin influences began to creep into the mainstream. Manufacturers responded in kind, offering triple and quad-tom double bass kits (such as the Ludwig Rock Duo and Gretsch Avant Garde) and outfits incorporating timbales, cowbells, and other "world" instruments (like the Rogers Timbale Twin and Ludwig Carioca)—almost a modern throwback to the "traps" of old.

A Devolutionary Evolution

Once again, developments in recording technology would spur changes in the drum kit as the '60s came to a close. Up until now, most drum recording setups were comparatively crude, with one or two mics placed at a distance from the drumheads and cymbals.

As microphones became more robust and could handle close-mic'ing's environment of high sound pressure level (SPL), the tom was thrust into the sonic spotlight. Engineers were now unable to rely on the natural dissipation of less-pleasing overtones over the distance from the drum to the diaphragm of the mic, so tunable bottom heads—once a revelation gifted to the world by Slingerland and Krupa—were now being removed.

Muffling was often applied to the batter head to further deaden the sustain, often in the form of a taped-on cigarette pack, or copious amounts of tea towels (as made famous by Ringo Starr, Geoff Emerick, and George Martin during The Beatles' late-'60s recording sessions).

Pretty soon, the tom would begin losing its resonant head and hardware altogether. Top LA session man and "Wrecking Crew" member Hal Blaine ordered a set of seven single-headed fiberglass toms from drum maker A.F. Blaemire. Their distinctive pale green finish was in stark contrast to the Sparkling Blue Pearl Ludwig Super Classic kit he normally toted to his recording dates.

The hollow, brittle snap of these "melodic" or "concert" toms was music to producers' ears, and Blaine ordered a second set to cut down on the cost of constantly shipping the drums to studios across the US. Eventually, Ludwig sat up and began to take notice.

Ludwig, like most manufacturers, had been producing single-headed concert toms for band and orchestra settings for some years. By combining sets of these drums with standard kicks and snares, the company could produce an entirely new line of kits catered toward the modern pop musician at very low R&D cost. Thus, the massive Octa-Plus outfit was born.

Built around a complete eight-drum set of 6"–16" concert toms, the kit also featured twin 22" or 24" kicks, an 18" floor tom, and the ubiquitous LM400 snare. Along with its half-sized counterpart, the Quadra-Plus, these new kits set the standard for modern recording setups. Soon Rogers, Slingerland, Premier, and other major drum makers debuted similar multi-concert tom offerings.

More Power

Thankfully, the concert tom craze came and went, and the tom regrew its resonant appendage. This was due in part to stalwarts like John Bonham, Mitch Mitchell, and Buddy Rich—all of whom continued to use double-headed drums tuned up high, like the big band kits of old while the rest of the world was duct-taping and tea-toweling their tone to oblivion.

Still, as rock gave way to heavy metal in the 1980s and amps continued to get louder, drummers were still left searching for ways to increase the sonic presence of their playing. The answer, according to drum makers, was the extended-depth "power tom."

1989 Sonor Phonic Plus
1989 Sonor Phonic Plus

Up until now, the depth of the tom had been anywhere between half to two-thirds the size of the drum's diameter, allowing the resonant head to react quickly and forcefully when the batter was struck. With the advent of the power tom, the depth grew two to four inches, resulting in a deeper, punchier attack and significantly reduced sustain from the resonant head.

But this increase in size meant that positioning and mounting was now somewhat difficult. What was once a compact 9x13" rack tom became a cumbersome 11" or 12" deep. Companies like Sonor and Slingerland took the concept to further extremes (with their Phonic Plus and Magnum lines, respectively), producing "square"-sized drums (10x10", 12x12").

Mounting hardware was beefed up to accommodate the additional mass of the shells, and the traditional bracket and L-arm design gave way to large tubing, producing some impressive, albeit over-engineered rigs (see: Ludwig's Modular system and Rogers' Memriloc hardware).

Heavier drummers like Iron Maiden's Nicko McBrain, Metallica's Lars Ulrich, and Slayer's Dave Lombardo embraced the power tom, along with many fusion and session musicians (most notably, Billy Cobham). But the dull thud of these cannon-like drums often required extensive post-production to achieve the desired tone.

Spoiled for Choice

As the 20th century gave way to the 21st, advancements in drum mounting technology—like the Gauger RIMS system and Tama's Starcast mount—helped solve the sustain issues inherent in larger toms with heavy mounts by suspending the drum from its own hardware instead of penetrating the shell.

Meanwhile, popular music continued to diversify, reflected in the increasingly vast array of popular setup choices from manufacturers—from retro big band-style kits with large, traditional-depth drums to smaller fusion kits with shorter, "fast"-sized toms.

Ludwig Legacy Classic Kit
Ludwig Legacy Classic Kit

Thanks to this proliferation of new sub-genres, influences, and sounds, today's drummers enjoy an endless array of options when putting together a kit. Most major drum companies offer toms in sizes between 8" to 18" in a variety of depths, from thunderous power toms to ultra-resonant "short-stack" models.

In many cases, what's old is new again, and most manufacturers are now offering traditionally sized kits modeled on the classics of the '50s and '60s, such as the Ludwig Legacy Classic and Sonor's Vintage Series. Companies like Ludwig, C&C, and Pearl are even building concert tom kits again (albeit on a custom-order basis), and power toms can still be had in most high-end lines, like DW's Collectors Series and Gretsch's USA Custom.

In the end, the tom-tom—once a novelty relegated to the occasional ensemble hit or sound effect—has become an absolutely essential part of the musical fabric of the modern age. Though the drum kit as we know it wouldn't exist without the snare drum and bass drum pedal, it owes much to this humble little drum once imported from the Far East.

The Snare

In Western music, the snare drum is the "lead" voice of the drum kit. For pop, rock, funk, and hip-hop, it provides a backbeat that cuts through the wall of vocal and instrumental sound to anchor the rhythm of the tune. In jazz and Westernized Latin music, it is often used for "comping"—a lyrical, conversational, and improvisatory role that plays call-and-response rhythms with the lead instrument or voice.

These leading roles are befitting of the snare drum's storied history as it evolved from the medieval "tabor" drum (with its distinctive gut-wire rattle) to the military "side drum," which was slung over the shoulder of a drummer who could amplify company leaders' commands and provide a marching rhythm for ranks of soldiers through dry, rudimental patterns. Although these early developments are fascinating and certainly merit discussion, we're mainly concerned with how the snare evolved as it became an essential part of the modern drummer's setup. Without it, the drum kit as we know it simply wouldn't exist.

From Wood to Metal

In the late 1800s, it was common for players to "double drum," playing both the snare and bass drum with sticks, which can be rightfully seen as the first concrete step in the evolution of the drum kit. The snares used at this time were relatively simple, featuring reinforced steam-bent single-ply shells (usually mahogany or walnut) with single-tension lugs, T-rods, and wooden hoops. Only one of the drumheads had tension adjustment and the strainers did not have quick engage/disengage levers.

A typical turn-of-the-century double drumming snare
A typical turn-of-the-century "double drumming" snare,
manufactured by the Oliver Ditson Company of Boston, MA

A notable exception to this was an early metal-shelled drum owned by John Philip Sousa Band's Tom Mills. Manufactured by Sonor, the drum featured a 6.5x13" welded brass shell, metal hoops, and separate tension lugs.

The robust timbre and revolutionary design of this drum caught the eye of a young Leedy sales agent by the name of William F. Ludwig. After months of pestering Mills, Ludwig purchased the drum and brought it directly to his boss, Ulysses G. Leedy, who promptly refused Ludwig's request to research and develop a similar model, as he believed metal was an unsuitable drum shell material. Ludwig began to develop a copy of the drum on his own, convinced that its superior construction and tone would be the key to standing out in the highly competitive drum market.

William and his brother Theo would go on to find great success with their newly-developed line of metal-shelled snares. Along with other technical advancements, such as the bass drum pedal and pedal-tuned timpani, the brothers developed a new "tube lug" design, joining the top and bottom single-tension lugs to reduce strain on the shell. Before long, their innovations would become industry standards, as competitors looked for ways to attain the high level of performance and reliability of Ludwig & Ludwig snare drums.

Early Icons: Black Beauties and Radio Kings

As drum technology continued to evolve through the '20s and '30s, two titans of the snare world were born that would have a lasting impact on drum design: the Ludwig DeLuxe "Black Beauty" and Slingerland Radio King.

Expanding on the popular all-metal brass snare drum models, Ludwig introduced the DeLuxe line around 1926. Available in a variety of depths and 14" or 15" diameters, the drum was a true masterpiece, featuring hand-engraved ornamentation, a variety of colored enamel choices, and even a gold-plated option dubbed the Triumphal model.

1920s Ludwig DeLuxe Model "Black Beauty" Snare

1920s Leedy Black Elite Snare

The gun-metal black version of this drum ultimately proved to be the most popular and before long, Leedy and Slingerland followed with their own takes on the design called the Black Elite and Black Beauty respectively. Although Slingerland was the first to use the term "Black Beauty" in its literature, the name would become synonymous with Ludwig's original DeLuxe model, in part due to the highly sought-after reissues released by Ludwig starting in the 1970s.

Jimmy Chamberlin's 1940s Slingerland Radio King Snare
Jimmy Chamberlin's 1940s Slingerland Radio King Snare

Despite the proliferation of metal-shelled drums, wooden models still retained immense popularity within big band and orchestral circles. In 1935, Slingerland released a new solid maple shell snare called the Broadcaster. After some pressure from competitor Gretsch, who already had a well-established "Broadkaster" drum line, Slingerland changed the name of their drums to Radio King.

With its sleek, streamlined lug casings, hefty adjustable snare system, and eye-catching pearloid or sparkle wraps, the drum was a true work of art. Most famously used by Gene Krupa, the Radio King would become a staple of Slingerland's lineup, its single-ply shell providing a warm, boxy sound and superior sensitivity that captivated drummers for decades to come, from Jimmy Chamberlin and Neil Peart to Buddy Rich.

The Reign of the Supraphonic

In 1941, Ludwig introduced its "Super Ludwig" line of snares, boasting the latest and greatest in drumming tech. Built around a reinforced mahogany or nickel-plated brass shell, the drum came in a 14" size, with a variety of depths available. The parallel snare system ensured even tension and each individual snare wire had an additional fine-tuning adjustment. Self-aligning art deco-esque "Imperial" tension lugs ensured there was no danger of stripping the threads if the heads were not seated dead-center and an internal tone control allowed the player to dial in the desired amount of dampening for any musical situation.

Ludwig reintroduced the Super Ludwig as a metal shell-only model in 1960, with a sleek new design. The Imperial lugs returned, sitting atop a beaded two-piece brass shell. Chrome-plated or clear-lacquer finishes were available, the former proving more popular but the latter allowing the rich lustre of the brass show through. The drum was available in 5x14" or 6.5x14" sizes, with the shallower version selling in far greater numbers. Deeper models, especially those with clear-lacquer shells, are exceedingly rare today.


Supraphonic Snares on Reverb

The high cost of brass would cause Ludwig to rethink the design of the drum and around 1963, production switched to seamless spun aluminum shells. Two strainer designs were now offered: The standard P-83 equipped model was dubbed Supraphonic, while the drum sporting the parallel snare system was called Super Sensitive.

The dry, bright snap of these drums would prove an almost instant hit. Legends such as Mitch Mitchell, John Bonham, Hal Blaine, and countless others used the Supraphonic almost exclusively and before long, most outfits in the Ludwig catalog came equipped with the 5x14" LM400 model as standard.

Eventually, the "Supra" would come to be called the most recorded snare drum in history, and it remains a favorite for many professional players and hobbyists alike. Ludwig still produces the drum to this day and despite some additional options and hardware upgrades, its construction is essentially unchanged.

Mitch Mitchell drum solo, 1969

Back in Black

As if Ludwig didn't have enough of a claim to snare drum fame already, they reintroduced the legendary Black Beauty snare drum in 1976 with some modern improvements. Gone were the solid tube lugs, welded two-piece shells, and clip-style rims. Instead, the drum was modeled after the art deco look of the Supra, with 10 Imperial lugs sitting atop a seamless beaded shell. Brass was still the material of choice, as was the obligatory black-nickel plating. Available in Ludwig's standard 5x14" and 6.5x14" sizes, the drums could be had with either the usual P-85 Supraphonic snare strainer or the more expensive Super-Sensitive model.

These drums would go on to become favorites of many top session players—even those who publicly endorsed other brands—and today, an original late-'70s Black Beauty can command prices in the $1000–$2000 range, with the limited edition hand-engraved models going for even more.

Late '70s Ludwig Black Beauty Supraphonic

Tama Kenny Aronoff Signature Trackmaster Snare

Today, nearly every major drum company produces some variety of Black Nickel-Plated Brass snare, from DW's Collector's Series to Tama's Trackmaster and Pearl's Sensitone. Ludwig still offers the reissued Black Beauty, now available with additional options like tube lugs, hammered shells, and die cast hoops, and it is still a perennial favorite that can be found on stages and in studios the world over.

More is More?

By the '60s and '70s, snare drum sizes had become relatively standardized, with most companies offering 5x14" and 6.5x14" versions of their popular models. Some shallower "piccolo" drums (like the Ludwig Downbeat) and larger orchestral models (such as the Leedy Broadway) were offered as well.

1984 Ludwig Slotted Coliseum
1984 Ludwig Slotted Coliseum

However, the snare drum, like the rest of the kit, did not escape the "power" craze of the 1980s and would soon grow heftier as smaller drums went out of style. Shells got thicker and many drums were outfitted with additional lugs and beefier hardware. Perhaps the most memorable approaches to this new philosophy were the Ludwig Coliseum and Sonor HLD-590. Both 8x14" in size, they each sported no less than twelve tension rods per head.

The Coliseum bore Ludwig's now-standard 6-ply Maple shell and was available in a "slotted" configuration, which left nearly an inch gap in the middle of the drum shell for a shotgun-like attack. Meanwhile, in true Sonor fashion, the HLD-590 was an over-engineered masterpiece, with its hefty 30 pound sand-cast bronze shell decked out in chunky copper-plated hardware, complete with die-cast hoops and an unbelievably complicated (but beautifully designed) parallel snare system.

Needless to say, the main instigators of this trend were the rock and metal drummers of the time, like Twisted Sister's A.J. Pero (who used a bona-fide 12x14" Ludwig marching snare) and Motley Crue's Tommy Lee. In many fusion and pop circles, by contrast, standard-sized drums remained the weapon of choice. Steve Gadd used his 5x14" Ludwig Supraphonic on most sessions, Bill Bruford played a 6.5x14" Ludwig Super-Sensitive or Tama Mastercraft steel snare, and Neil Peart had his trusty 5x14" solid-shell Slingerland.

Eventually, the oversized snare trend would fade as drummers continued to gravitate towards the more expressive, studio-friendly nature of shallower models.

Bronze by any Other Name

While the venerable Supraphonics, Black Beauties, and Radio Kings continued to reign supreme in many studio rigs, Japanese manufacturer Tama was working on a design that would go on to become a recording legend in its own right. Through their Mastercraft series (an array of high-end snare drums with various shell materials and hardware appointments) the company introduced a new metal-shelled model around 1980. One of the first commercially available sand-cast drums, this hefty beast was marketed as the "Bell Brass" drum even though in reality, its shell was composed of bronze. Its deafening rimshot, unparalleled sensitivity and musical yet controlled overtones, made it a natural favorite of many rock and pop engineers.

1982 Tama Mastercraft Bell Brass Snare
1982 Tama Mastercraft Bell Brass Snare

The 6.5x14" Mastercraft Bell Brass was truly in a class of its own, especially when paired with Tama's monstrous cast bronze hoops The drum is now regarded as something of the Black Beauty of its time, appearing on countless era-defining records in the 1990s and 2000s—from Metallica and System of a Down to Nirvana and Audioslave. Though Tama reissued the original iteration of the drum in 2014, the original models continue to command high prices and remain a true "holy grail" for many drum collectors.

The Rise of Free Floating Snares

Although shell material, hardware specifications, and sizes continuously evolved during the middle part of the 20th century, the basic elements of the snare drum remained relatively static: tension lugs and snare strainers bolted directly to the shell.

Pearl 5x14
Pearl 5x14" Free-Floating Maple Snare

The first real quantum leap in snare design came from CB Percussion, an importer of entry-level kits and snares into the US. In the late 1970s, CB developed a method for outfitting snare hardware without penetrating the drum shell itself, increasing sustain and resonance.

Released under the CB700 series, these "Free Floating" drums were available in a variety of sizes with steel, brass, or maple shells. The lugs and strainer were attached to an aluminum ring that served as the resonant bearing edge and provided a base on which the drum shell proper would sit.

Pearl—which was involved in the manufacturing and distribution of some of CB's products—quickly took a liking to this design and licensed it for their own use. After debuting their updated version in the early '80s, they would go on to expand the offerings to include aluminum and bronze shells, along with additional sizes like the shallow 3.5x14" piccolo snare (famously used by Toto drummer and studio legend, Jeff Porcaro).

These affordable drums offered a flexibility and highly resonant tonal quality that would prove to be wildly popular with rock and metal drummers. Pearl is still making select models today, expanding their shell offerings to include mahogany and acrylic.


Free-Floating Snares

A Storied Past and Diverse Future

There is a duality in the nature of the modern snare drum, perhaps indicative of a musical landscape that seems to be of two minds. On the one hand, retro has never been hotter, as popular music continues to retread and expand upon territory first explored in the folk and rock movements of the '50s and '60s. Meanwhile, genre barriers are collapsing as musicians find new ways to collaborate with each other without respecting the boundaries of old.

For the 21st century drummer, the snare is the ultimate expression of this individuality, which is reflective of the staggering array of options available from tube lugs to offset, 5x10" to 8x15", and acrylic to zelkova wood. And yet, for all its variety, the snare has not forgotten its past, and homages to the classics can be found in product lineups from nearly every manufacturer. From the Radio King-esque solid shell offerings of Craviotto and Dunnet, to the split-shell Coliseum reissues from Ludwig and tube lug-adorned beaded shell drums from Joyful Noise (recalling the ornately designed drums of the 1920s and '30s), the snare drum is an instrument both on the cutting edge of musical evolution and positively steeped in its own history.

The Bass Drum

From the gargantuan wallop of rock gods like Bonzo and Cozy Powell to the machine gun assault of metal drummers like Chris Adler and Thomas Haake, the bass drum has cemented itself firmly into the legacy of western music.

Indeed, as one of the first few components to coalesce into the drum kit proper in the early 20th century, the bass drum's importance cannot be overstated. Its evolution from thunderous concert hall mainstay, to jazzy melodic tone, and back to a stadium-filling thud has been in lockstep with popular music and recording tech trends throughout the 20th century.

Here are a few snapshots on the bass drum's long and storied history.

Pedal to the Metal

In truth, the bass drum as a kit component can't really be discussed without first addressing the advent of the modern bass drum pedal. Without it, we may never have developed the quintessential sideways floor-standing kick drum—perhaps the most instantly recognizable feature of the modern kit.

A mid-1920s Ludwig & Ludwig bass drum pedal
A mid-1920s Ludwig & Ludwig bass drum pedal

While early 1900s Vaudeville and concert hall musicians were "doubling up" by playing both snare and bass drum parts with sticks, a pair of young Chicago drummers called William and Theo Ludwig began developing a pedal contraption that would allow drummers to use both hands to play snare parts without sacrificing the ability to play the bass drum.

Though the Ludwigs' bass drum pedal was not the first of its kind (inventive drummers had been experimenting with crude homemade wooden contraptions for some years), it was far and away the best by design—all-metal construction, lightweight and collapsible, with adjustable spring tension. Starting with this contraption, the Ludwig family name would become ubiquitous in the world of drums.

The big 28" and 30" bass drums common in the orchestra pits of the day were cumbersome enough to play already, so the pedal was an almost overnight success with working drummers due to its superior response.

Other companies quickly followed suit, and soon, small metal bass drum pedals with large lambswool beaters could be had from the likes of Leedy, Slingerland, and others. This arms—or, rather, feet—race would spark a trend in bass drum pedal innovation that continues to this day.

The Bass Drum Makes Its Voice Heard… and Seen

By the late 1920s, two and three-piece drum kits were becoming commonplace, especially in the burgeoning big band scene. The bass drum was the centerpiece of the kit, both visually and structurally, and was adorned with everything from woodblocks, traps tables, and cymbal arms to internal lights and elaborately painted scenes on the resonant head.

However, the primitive recording technology of the day wasn't really up to the task of capturing the low-end attack of such large drums, which were still usually around 26 to 28 inches in diameter. This meant that the bass drum remained largely absent from the recordings of the day, deferring to snare drums, woodblocks, and cymbals to carry the beat.

A 1930s Ludwig & Ludwig kit in Peacock Pearl. The 14x28" bass drum features factory original "Mountain & Lake" painted head

Its 14x28" bass drum featuring faded band logo and modest console rail make this 1939 Leedy kit the typical gigging drummer's setup of the era

But by the '30s and '40s, as microphones became better suited to low frequency capture, the bass drum finally made its way onto the airwaves. Anchoring many upbeat swing-era hits with a four-on-the-floor pulse, the boisterous drum was now a dance band essential, often sporting the name of the drummer or group on the calfskin reso head for maximum publicity at live events (or on the new-fangled gadget called "television").

Additionally, as the modern tom evolved and cymbal selection widened, drum companies began outfitting their high-end kits with "consoles"—massive tubular steel contraptions mounted on top of the bass drum designed to hold the drummer's growing arsenal of ancillary percussion instruments.

Any Diameter You Like

Following World War II, the bass drum—like the rest of the kit—began to standardize along genre lines and became more like the drum we know today. Big band players like Buddy Rich still favored larger 14X24" and 14X26" drums for their ability to hold high tunings and keep a deep pitch, while rock 'n' roll and blues players favored the smaller 14X22" for their attack and punch (not to mention portability).

Meanwhile, as bebop was taking its first steps, drummers like Max Roach, Kenny Clarke, and Elvin Jones gravitated towards smaller drums, tuned higher to form a more cohesive melodic unit with the toms.

Smaller kits like this 1966 Ludwig Jazzette (with 12x18" bass drum featuring a shell-mounted consolette and cymbal bracket) typified mid-century bop kits

The Gretsch Name Band outfit featured a 14x22" bass drum popular with jazz drummers

At first, the 14X20" was the go-to option. Later on, even smaller 14X18" and 12X18" drums would become the norm. Hardware had changed, as well. Gone were the massive consoles of the swing era, replaced with downsized "consolette" rails and shell-mounted cymbal arm brackets.

This diversification can be seen in the explosion of different outfits offered by manufacturers as the '50s gave way to the '60s. Kits with larger-diameter bass drums, like Slingerland's Gene Krupa Deluxe and the Gretsch Broadkaster "Name Band," could be seen alongside the Rogers Orbit and Ludwig Jazzette, which featured 20" and 18" bass drums, respectively.

In addition, the early double bass antics of showier, big band drummers like Louie Bellson meant it was also possible to order massive dual-kick, tri/quad-tom kits (see: the Ludwig Blue Note and Slingerland Duet outfits), though the price kept these out of the hands of many working pros and hobbyists.

Nearly Headless Kits

As the '60s came to a close and studio tech evolved once again, the bass drum fell victim to the same deadened, close-mic'd approach used on tom-toms.

This Slingerland Pop Outfit No.58N
This Slingerland Pop Outfit No.58N

Drummers like Ringo Starr of the Beatles and John Densmore of the Doors began removing the resonant head to achieve a more attack-heavy sound. Pillows, blankets, and felt strips were also added inside of the drum, exaggerating the effect.

The result was a far cry from the bass drum's echoing, thunderous origins, but translated to the recorded media of the day perfectly. The defined low-end attack sailed under the bass guitar and lower-register vocals beautifully.

Manufacturers did eventually offer true single-headed bass drums on some outfits, like Slingerland's Pop Outfit No. 58N and the Ludwig Standard Single Six, but these did not prove overwhelmingly popular.

Rather than ditching the front head altogether, many players ended up simply cutting holes in their resonant heads to achieve the same effect, which meant no risk of losing or misplacing reso hoops and hardware or damaging the exposed drum shell.

Bigger is Better Again

Building on the prior successes of bands like Cream, Vanilla Fudge, and Deep Purple, hard-hitting arena rock climbed towards its zenith in the 1970s with a new crop of heavy-hitters. As these drummers began looking for ways to compete with massive guitar rigs, the size of the bass drum began to grow once again.

Aside from drummers like Neil Peart and Nick Mason embracing the multi-tom, double-bass setup, players like Carmine Appice, John Bonham, and Simon Kirke were all using big 26" bass drums that wouldn't have seemed out of place on the big band stage a couple decades prior.

These larger drums made a bold sonic and visual statement that could be heard on the recordings of the day. Most notably, Led Zeppelin's "When The Levee Breaks" featured Bonham's 14X26" Ludwig echoing through the stair hall of Headley Grange mansion (along with a fair amount of compression).

Simon Kirke's 1970s Ludwig kit, complete with 14x28" bass drum and oversized toms

Kits with 24" bass drums soon became standard, like this 1970s Slingerland Super Rock

Once again, drum makers looked to capitalize on this trend by expanding their product lineups. Soon, kits like the Ludwig Pro Beat, Gretsch Broadkaster II, and Slingerland Classic Rock (which all featured 24" bass drums and multiple rack toms) could be seen alongside more traditional offerings.

By the end of the '70s, this trend had reached a fever pitch, with setups like the Ludwig Power Rock Outfit, which, in its ultimate guise, featured twin 14X26" kicks, 14" and 15" rack toms, and 18" and 20" floor toms.

Yet despite this over-the-top approach, the bass drum still had one more growth spurt to come…

From Pancakes to Beer Cans

As with the rest of the kit, the bass drum could not escape the influence of the "decade of excess." The 1980 hit and hit hard, bringing along big hair, big sounds, and bigger bass drums. For the first time ever, mass-produced kits with deeper drums became the standard.

Capelle
Photo by Counterhoop.

Power toms, marching-style snares, and deep "beer can" bass drums were favored for their reduced sustain, pronounced attack, and extreme looks. Sonor began producing 18" deep kicks in its Phonic Plus and Signature ranges, while Ludwig, Slingerland, and others stuck to a slightly more reasonable 16".

But this was still not enough for some, and French manufacturer Capelle thought they had the answer with their "Turbo" line. Anchored around insane 32" deep kick drums, this series featured power toms in sizes ranging from 6 to 20 inches and was also sold under license by the UK-based Orange company (yes, the amp brand).

Along with Italy's Meazzi and their HiPercussion series, Europe held down the extreme bass drum contingent for a time being, until a handful of prominent American drummers took note of this trend.

Alex Van Halen—who had already been joining his traditionally sized Ludwig bass drums together end-to-end for years—finally had the company produce several extremely deep kicks for his 1988 tour kit. Similarly, Eric Carr of Kiss fame began using pairs of single-headed Ludwig kicks joined together, but would go on to use custom made single-shell deep kicks toward the end of his life.

Ludwig even produced a few of these "Thunder Kick" bass drums for the public on a custom order basis, but their rarity and narrow appeal makes them extremely hard to come by today.

1980s' Ludwig Van Halen Invasion Tour kit
Van Halen Stage-Played Complete 1980 "Invasion Tour" Kit. Photo by David's Shop.

... and Back Again

Thankfully, the bass drum's excessive inflation was curtailed somewhat as the 21st century rolled around, and companies began offering a variety of depths to suit drummers' varying tastes.

Though many "standard" kits now come with 18" deep drums, what's old is new again, and kits in a range of price points—like Ludwig's Legacy series, C&C's Player Date, and the Gretsch Catalina Club—all offer traditional 14" depth bass drums for a warmer, more retro sound and aesthetic.

SJC Custom 4pc. Maple Shell
SJC Custom 4pc. Maple Shell

Today, younger drummers are discovering the depth of tone possible from shallower kicks, and older players are reliving their youth with reissues based on the classic setups of players like Bonham, Buddy, Ringo, and others.

Still, among metal and pop punk communities especially, the sonic and visual appeal of a deep bass drum with smaller diameters remains strong. Drums like Tama's Starclassic and Mapex's Saturn V (both popular with heavier drummers) feature 18" or 20" bass drum depths. The myriad of custom companies that popped up in the early 2000s (SJC, OCDP, Truth, and others) also built thousands of kits with 18" to 22" deep bass drums.

Once again, like today's snare and tom options, we drummers are spoiled for choice, living in a golden age of customization and individuality. Nearly every major drum company offers kits in every series configured around a variety of bass drum sizes and shell types.

From the ultra-retro styling and large, shallow kicks of sets A&F Drum Co's Field Series and PDP's Concept Classic, to the modern versatility and deeper drums of Tama's Silverstar and the Gretsch Renown, there's a kit out there for just about anyone, with a bass drum to suit.

comments powered by Disqus

Reverb Gives

Your purchases help youth music programs get the gear they need to make music.

Carbon-Offset Shipping

Your purchases also help protect forests, including trees traditionally used to make instruments.

iOS app store button
Android play store button
Oops, looks like you forgot something. Please check the fields highlighted in red.