Let’s get real. What is the most hardcore instrument out there? If you guessed guitar, you need to rethink your priorities. The drumset is the correct answer to this. Why? Because it takes more than the occasional finger bleed to play the drums. The entire body needs to be in constant motion. Your feet, arms, hands and most importantly – head. You need to headbang, otherwise you are a bad drummer. It is just tradition. So if you started rethinking your priorities right now, this blog post may be for you. If you decided to keep your priorities the way they are, I would like you to look at the picture below and despair, because you know – she is more hardcore than you will ever be.
What are drums?
My friend used to say that drums are the instrument that only the coolest people can play. Of course he was a drummer trying to compensate for his low self esteem. This didn’t change the fact that yes, drums are in fact, extremely cool. I mean, have you ever seen whiplash? This guy is more dedicated to his art of the cool than anyone ever. His face might look a little strange, but he makes up for it purely through his amazing drumming skills. Drumming takes dedication, pain tolerance, an incredible sense of rhythm and very strong hands. Which is why drums are one of the coolest instruments to ever grace the earth.
Now that we have the ideological pandering of the drummer crowd out of the way, let’s talk facts. Asking what is drums is like asking what is fish. There are so many varieties and types of drums that you need to be specific before you even start to formulate the question. Otherwise you are bound to end up in one kind of google hell or another. What you are probably trying to identify (and I am reaching here) is the drumset you often see in rock bands and on stages. If that is true, you have come to the right place.
The drum set is a standard arrangement of percussive instruments of different pitch and power. The standard is the combination of a variety of cymbals, hi hats, tom toms, snares and a bass drum. These are played by a couple of sticks, aptly named the drum sticks, to produce rhythmic pounding sounds that are pleasant to dance to. That is a specific enough definition I think right?
Types of Drums
Strange as it might seem to you, there are more types of drums even in the specific drum kit category. The difference lies within the technology of the drums, acoustic vs electric.
The acoustic drums are the type most romanticised and beloved both by players and listeners. These loud bangers are made exclusively for power and loudness. The acoustic drum kit is the one you always dreamed of having. They take a lot of care to construct, need regular maintenance from the owner and are very bulky, making transport hard. Yet the sound they produce is extremely powerful and always worth the trouble.
The electric drum kit is perceived to be the inferior half brother to the original. Some view it as not flashy enough, with the minimalist design of most of the electric drum kits not lending themselves well to on stage shenanigans. The sound of the electric drum kit depends entirely on the amplifier used and is often reported to be inferior to the acoustic drum kit. The people who report the sound to be inferior say it does not feel authentic. I do not agree with these people. I believe the electric drum kit has an acceptable sound and is a great portable option. To each his own I guess.
How are they made?
The acoustic drum kits take a lot of effort to make. The electric drums also take a lot of effort to make. Honestly everything takes a lot of effort to make. The thing is, the process with the acoustic drums is very different from the electric. Manufacturers have it down to a science, with every choice being a premeditated decision. Let’s take a look.
The actual materials
There are about a dozen materials that an acoustic drum kit can be made of. Wood or metal, all of these materials have a unique effect on the sound of the drum kit. One thing is for sure though – wood has a bias towards the low end of the tones, while the metal brings out the higher end. Here is a very basic cheat sheet.
Maple – Used very often in snare shells. The wood emphasizes the low end of the tones, with very flexible tuning. Makes for a great general purpose snare.
Birch – Known to be a very well balanced tonewood. Birch has a beautiful emphasis on the lows and high tones, with powerful projection.
Beech – The grain in Beech provides more powerful low end frequencies than Birch does and is just as durable, but loses out on the high frequencies. Something of a middle ground between maple and birch.
Oak – Oak is a very well rounded wood. It is very durable, with powerful projection and an all around great frequency resonance.
Mahogany – Not as common nowadays than it was in the past, mahogany has a beautiful, warm tone with a powerful mid range frequency.
Poplar – Poplar is an abundant wood that is softer than most of the tonewoods listed above. It’s sound properties are similar to that of Mahogany, yet the wood itself is slightly softer and projects less.
Basswood – Another soft tonewood with a not as powerful projection but a great sound reminiscent of mahogany and maple Often found on the inner plies of drums.
Steel – The steel snare is a sort of celebrity in the world of drums. With an incredible high frequency resonation and a long sustain, it can pierce through the loudest music. Definitely worth a look at.
Brass – A nice balance with the crispiness of the metal shell combined with the depth of brass. A balanced material.
Aluminium – Taking the best of the crisp from the steel shell, aluminium does not have the same sustain as the steel, requiring less dampening.
Copper – Used most often by orchestras because their tendency towards lower end tones while retaining a crispiness and power.
Bronze – Until recently bronze has been thought of as an exclusively cymbal material. More shells are being made of bronze though and it produces a darkish, warm tone that is pleasant to the ear.
The electric drum kit is of course constructed differently. What you get is several pads, made of synthetic material with sensors hidden underneath. Once struck the sensor takes the signal, transferring it to the “brain”: a computer, synthesizer or another instrument that allows the sound associated with the pad to be expelled through an amplifier. The result is that the electronic drum kit is a very versatile instrument. It give the player the ability to associate choice sounds with specific pads and produce music as wanted.
So how is a standard drum kit arranged? Well you need to have all of the basics covered. Usually a drum kit will contain: A Kick (bass) drum, a snare drum, two toms and a floor tom. You will also have the hi hats, one ride cymbal and the crash cymbal. This completes the basic drum kit set. Of course you can expand further on this basic arrangement, adding and subtracting different drum types for your pleasure. Add an extra bass drum or maybe some more toms? A few more crash cymbals, some different hi hat, or whatever you wish to hit with a stick. As long as you are making sound that you find enjoyable, keep adding. Just don’t forget that mastery is required.
Well, a whole bunch of things. And by that I mean you need a whole bunch of sticks. Literally. Drumsticks break faster than guitar picks are lost and that says a lot. Not only that, but you will also be needing more than a single type of drumstick. Yes there are more than one type.
Before we get to the type, first determine the size. You see, there are heavy, medium and light drumsticks. Each has its purpose, but to be quick:
Heavy sticks are often used when the drum has to be extra loud and is part of an orchestra. Such as a marching band.
Medium is were most people will find themselves comfortable: easy to control and perfect for rock and roll and most other genres.
Light is were the low volume musician will find themselves. These drums are perfect for when a jazz quartet needs to perform mellow music.
Now let’s get to the types.
First of all is the brush drumstick. These are used for low volume situations and a very specific brush effect. Made with a bunch of wires on the end of the stick instead of the usual drumstick end, these are very funky to play with at first, but easy to get used to.
The mallets are drumsticks with big, softish endings. Why? Because why not? Also because the soft cotton, cloth or otherwise allows for a unique building effect a lot of people find very interesting. You will too once you start playing with them.
The rods are something of a strange thing to look at when you first encounter them. Comprised of several elongated rods connected by thin skins, these have a sound that is somewhere in between the brushes and the normal sticks.
So you finally got around to becoming a “hardcore” musician and bought a drum kit? Good for you, but you have a long way to go yet before you can be called hardcore. Drums take years to master and intense, endless practice. Your fingers will hate you, your hands will hate you and you will hate you too while you practice. In the end though you will find salvation in the drum solo you always wanted to perform. Then you will keep practicing because you can always get better. At least that is what whiplash told me.
Thanks for the cool article about drums. I had no idea that birch wood in drums can help emphasize the low and high tones. I’m kind of interested to learn if the materials the drums are made out of make them ideal for certain genres of music.