History of the Drum Set Part I: The Evolution of the Tom

Editor's Note: If you're new to this series, make sure to check out History of the Drum Set Part II: Snare Drums Through the Years and Part III: The Shape–Shifting Bass Drum.

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 was coalescing into a complete unit during 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

Usually 8 to 14 inches 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

1940's Slingerland Radio King Tunable Toms

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.

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

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 the high–SPL environment of close–micing, 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.

Ludwig Single-Headed Melodic Toms

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 L.A. 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 U.S. Eventually, Ludwig sat up and began to take notice.

1979 Ludwig Vistalite Octa-Plus Outfit

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

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

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 (which we’ll cover in future installments of this series), it owes much to this humble little drum once imported from the far East.

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