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Pretty much every conventional band has a drummer.   They’re the backbone of the music, the driving force atop which the melody resides… the irritating band member that’s always late.   But have you ever looked at a drummer’s kit?   Like, really looked at it?

If you think about it, it’s quite an obscure set-up, right?   I mean, who thought to put two cymbals together to make the hi-hat?   And when was it decided that the bass drum should go on the floor with a pedal to trigger it?

I think it’s time to delve into the history of the Drum Kit…


B.D.K (Before Drum Kits)

In orchestras, percussion was (and is) generally performed by several people.   Marching bands similarly assigned one person to each drum, allowing them to concentrate on their part and not collapse from exhaustion as a result of hauling an entire percussive ensemble on their backs.

The first kits

When theatres were running low on money, they couldn’t afford to pay quite so many musicians, so the percussionists were encouraged to multitask, playing the snare, bass drum and cymbals by hand.

In the 1890s, some bright sparks decided to put the bass drum on the floor, fashioning rudimentary pedals to trigger them, leaving their hands free for the cymbals and snare.   It wasn’t until 1909 when William Ludwig came along and made the pedal conventional.

Hi Hats, Tom Toms and Traps

1926 saw the first Hi-Hats appearing.   Interestingly enough, they were originally called low-hats (no joke), being on the floor near the bass drum.   They were later raised so they could be played by hand as well as by foot pedal.

Chinese Tom-Tom drums were added to the mix to create the conventional drum kit that would carry on through to the end of the century and beyond.   The traditional kit then stood as a bass drum, a snare drum, 3 toms (two rack-mounted and one floor tom), a hi-hat and a crash cymbal.

The “Traps” were short for “contraptions” – whistles, klaxons and cowbells added to the kit to make them even more versatile.   While the whistles and klaxons didn’t become fully integrated, I’m sure you’ve heard your fair share of cowbells emanating from drum solos the world over.

As seen on TV

After Ringo Starr of The Beatles’ fame played his Ludwig kit on TV in 1964, the popularity of the drum kit shot up exponentially.   This is the point when rock bands started to take off left right and centre, with the percussionists emulating the famous drummer’s set-up.

Mine’s bigger than yours…

As is the nature of rock music, things grew more and more extravagant – double bass pedals were introduced for faster bass drum playing on heavier tunes.   Ridiculous numbers of toms and cymbals were added for an as-before unseen amount of versatility from the kit.

The future

And where to now?   Well more recently, drummers have taken electronic percussion on board, with sample pads, triggers and laptops adorning their kits to integrate their live sound with programmed elements and even melodic ones, as sample pads can be used for any purpose.

I have no doubt the kit will continue to expand and evolve as technology does – perhaps the conventional drum kit will soon contain sample pads next to the hi-hat, or triggers on the toms.

We’ll have to wait and see!

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3 Responses to “The History of the Drum Kit”

  1. ..or maybe one day electronic music will become so advanced we won’t need drummers anymore.. wait, that’s already true aint it? what is this world coming to?

  2. Honestly, hopefully it never gets to a point where actual people are replaced by samples. As it is, I don’t really like the fact that people don’t actually have to play instruments or even sing a tune on key because of autotune and quantizing and everything else that’s made to make music “Perfect.”

    The beauty of music IS the imperfections…the tiny little nuances created by the artist unintentionally….

    With that said…I still definitely have a passion for electronics music and precise beats…I just hope it never comes to a point where we rule out TRUE musicians.

  3. I know what you mean – I think a mix of electronic precision and more human live performances can make for excellent songs. It all depends on the style though :)

    I can’t imagine live music ever completely losing its place in our culture… but then again I’m sure 100 years ago they couldn’t imagine being able to use your mobile’s GPS app to get to the local nightclub and listen to some Dubstep. So perhaps I’m just not looking far enough ahead!

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