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Buying Your First Drumset

Years ago, when I wrote Drumscapes (recently released in an upgraded version called Drumcraft by Cherry Lane/Hal Leonard), I included some general drum-related content. These were responses to questions I repeatedly received from students and their families. Drumcraft was going to be too big–it’s 140 pages as it is–so I decided to cut the content from the book and save it for later. The first installment, “Picking Out Your First Pair of Sticks,” was published here on Drummer Cafe, and now it’s time to talk about the drums.

Whom to Ask

Searching for your first drumkit can be an overwhelming experience. Receiving advice from friends and family who are drummers and music stores would seem logical, but even these sources can provide skewed and convoluted information.

For the inside scoop on drumsets (including cymbals and hardware) visit your local pro drum shop. They offer a wealth of knowledge that goes well beyond the topics covered below in this article. Having said that, not everyone has a pro drum shop in their backyard. Think of the following as a drum-buyers orientation, aiming to facilitate a more pleasant buying experience.

 

Reluctance

These days, the ever-increasing images of drumming used in advertising is beginning to change this, but the drumset is still somehow not overwhelmingly considered to be a “legitimate” musical instrument. This is evidenced by the following two questions that I often receive:

“I can’t afford a drumset for my son right now. Is there another temporary solution?”

“Shouldn’t I make sure my daughter is dedicated before investing in a drumset?”

Would you ask a trumpet teacher, “Should I have my son first blow into a mouthpiece for a few months to make sure that they are motivated before we buy the rest of the trumpet?”

Of course, cost permitting, it makes the most sense to have an entire kit at your disposal from the very beginning.

Looking at this from the butt end of the stick, the drumset is unusual in that is made up of a number of individual percussion instruments. It is commonplace (and traditionally done) to start a drummer off with a practice pad or a snare kit.

Aquarian, Evans, Remo, and Vic Firth (and many others) make great practice pads in various shapes and sizes.

Note: Snare kits normally come with a snare, a pair of sticks, a practice pad, and a snare stand. The included snare stands are designed for the player to stand while playing. If your idea is to first buy a snare kit to be later combined with the other parts of the drumset, you may have to buy an additional shorter snare stand.

Noise

I hear this quite often: “We don’t want all of that noise in our house! Is there some way to avoid the racket?”

You can reduce the decibel level significantly by muffling the drums. I address this in an article titled “DIY: Homemade Mute Pads.”

Another volume-reducing solution is to use electronic drums. These are made by companies such as Roland, Yamaha, Alesis, Hart, KAT, and many others. Besides saving your ears, these kits offer some advantages over acoustic drums.

  • They often have a small footprint and can therefore fit in limited spaces.
  • They come with an assortment of preset sounds. In this way, it’s like playing a synthesizer vs. an acoustic piano.
  • Some of the electronic kits include educational add-ons such as rhythm analyzers, built-in metronomes, and inputs for connecting to MP3 players.
  • They include USB-Midi ports to connect with your computer.

The downside to electronic drums is threefold.

  • The striking surface doesn’t resonate in a very satisfying manner. You don’t get the great feeling that occurs when you strike an acoustic drum.
  • It’s more difficult to develop dynamics and a sense of touch when you’re whacking away on a pad. In other words, the touch sensitivity of the pads (though improving each year) is still not adequate.
  • Many students struggle to transition back and forth between electronic and acoustic drums. In other words, if their home kit is electronic and the school set is acoustic, it may put them at a disadvantage.

Acoustic Drums

Assuming that you’ve decided to take the plunge and are ready to purchase the real thing, here are some considerations.

  • The price of this musical instrument (including acoustic and electronic drumsets) can often be negotiated with the salesperson.
  • Starter drumsets often come in four- or five-piece configurations. This includes a snare drum, bass drum, one or two rack toms, and a floor tom.
  • Drumsets with additional toms, two bass drums, and big pile of cymbals are unnecessary for the beginning student.
  • Shell packs (drums only) often come with an enticingly low price, but little to no hardware and no cymbals. Expect to pay hundreds of dollars to complete the kit.
  • Ludwig is an example of a company that makes kits from the starter level all the way to professional grade. After doing a quick internet search, this is what Ludwig currently has to offer:

Accent (beginner’s series) – The shell pack goes for around $400 ($500 with hardware and $650 with hardware and a Zildjian ZBT cymbal pack).

Element (next step up) – shell pack around $500.

Club Date (good enough quality to be used by the gigging drummer) – shell pack around $800 (4-piece, only one rack tom)

Pearl, Pacific, Sonor, Tama, DDrum, Yamaha and other major drum companies offer starter to intermediate level models. If you can afford it, consider buying the highest quality drums possible. You get what you pay for, and if you need to sell, the kit will best keep its resale value.

Custom drum makers (also referred to as “boutique”) offer high quality drums at a sometimes more reasonable price than than the larger companies. I am an endorser of TJS Custom Drums and couldn’t be happier with the result.

Characteristics

“So why are some drumsets more expensive than others? They all look the same to me.”

The type of wood used in making the shells (unless the shells are not made of wood) is of major importance. Most high quality shells are made of plies (layers) of maple, birch, or mahogany, while inexpensive drums sometimes use manufactured wood (similar to plywood). Wood choice affects price, ease of tuning, sustain, and frequency range.

Note: Drum shells are also made of acrylic, carbon fiber, and aluminum. Although each of these options has positive characteristics, wood shells remain the top choice for most of today's professional drummers. Snare drum shells, however, are commonly made of an assortment of metal and wood types.

The size of the shell, the number of plies (thickness), the angle of the bearing edge, the quality of the hardware (including rim type), and whether or not any hardware is protruding inside the shell also affect the sound of the drum.

Deep rack toms (unusually long from the top head to the bottom head) can be difficult to comfortably position, especially for a student with a shorter stature. Bass drum diameter also affects rack tom positioning (if the toms are mounted via a bass drum tom mount).

Cymbals, Hardware, and Heads

The hardware (metal components of a drumset) varies in the quality and functionality of its engineering. Drum thrones (drum seats are called thrones because drummers are the royalty of the music world) need to be comfortable, durable, and easily adjustable. If the accompanying bass drum pedal and hi-hat stand are made in a flimsy way, you might want to reconsider buying that drumset, or accept that you may have to add on those items separately.

Starter drumsets often come with cymbals. Unfortunately, these cymbals are better suited as frisbees than musical instruments. Currently, there are a number of cymbal companies who make box sets of machine-hammered (mass-produced) cymbals such as Zildjian’s ZBT, Sabian’s B8, Paiste’s PST, and Meinl’s MCS or HCS.

Beginning students can get by with a set of hi-hats and what is known as a crash/ride. A crash/ride has the qualities of both a crash and a ride. A slightly more expensive and better alternative is to buy a pair of hi-hats, a 16-inch crash, and a ride.

Most starter drum kits come with an inferior set of drum heads. My assumption here is that these companies are attempting to eke out a little more profit. I would advise to play through these and then replace them with professional grade heads from companies such as Aquarian (my choice), Remo, Evans, and Attack.

Smart Shopping

Many times you can find good used equipment at music stores, through on-line services such as eBay (check out Drummer Cafe’s eBay portal) or Craigslist, at a pawnshop, or even by using the archaic newspaper classifieds. You have to make sure that all components are in working order. It might be a good idea to coax an experienced drummer to come with you to take a look.

Note: Check out Drummer Cafe’s Manufacturer’s Directory to find out more information about the companies mentioned in this article and much more.

Outro

One way to cope with the rather large amount of money that you’re about to spend is to recall the history of the kit. The drumset was invented in America around a 100 years ago as a combination of percussion instruments from around the world. By investing in a drum kit, you are not only supporting the arts, but also multicultural ingenuity.


Andy Ziker

Andy Ziker is a teacher and professional drummer in the San Jose, California area. He has authored several instructional books, including Drum Aerobics, Daily Drum Warm-Ups, and Drumset for Preschoolers, and The Jazz Waltz.