Shop Talk

The Evolution of the Tom-Tom

From Chinese Noisemaker to Essential Instrument

by Mark Cooper

To most drummers today, the tom-tom is an indispensable part of the drumset. Aside from cymbals, the toms are the drummer’s main tools for adding color, drama, and excitement to a performance. Throughout the years, the sound of these drums has played a crucial role in popular music.

One of the earliest popular performances featuring the toms came from swing drummer Gene Krupa and his rumbling floor toms on the iconic 1936 hit “Sing, Sing, Sing.” Krupa revolutionized the role of the drummer with his energetic and aggressive style and was one of the first drummers to incorporate toms into popular music.

The Chee Foo Era

Chee Foo tom from Leedy's 1933 catalog
Chee Foo tom from Leedy’s 1933 catalog

Prior to the swing era, the tom-tom evolved very slowly. The earliest versions were imported from China by American drum companies in the early 1920s. These old relics had pigskin heads, which were permanently attached and could not be tuned. Sometimes referred to as “Chee Foo” tom-toms, they were offered in various sizes usually ranging from 10″ to 15″ in diameter. The heads were generally painted with colorful Asian motifs like dragons, birds, and flowers. These drums were used mainly for special effects, along with cymbals, bells, temple blocks, whistles, and birdcalls.

In 1922, the Ludwig & Ludwig Drum Company produced the first drumset with two fully tunable tom-toms, which were mounted on top of the bass drum. The kit was called the Jazz Combination. The ad in Ludwig’s 1922 catalog claims that the new drums would “put pep in a dance orchestra.” Most drummers of that time didn’t believe the hype. The double-tom configuration failed to catch on, and the Jazz Combination drumset was soon discontinued.

As the ’20s came to a close, the tom-tom was gaining in popularity, and more variations were introduced. Around 1928, Leedy offered “Giant Chee Foo” toms, which were somewhat barrel shaped with permanently attached heads. These double-headed drums were available in 9×13, 12×14, and 16×16 sizes and sat in tripod stands. Giant Chee Foo toms were soon offered by Ludwig & Ludwig as well.

American Standards

The year 1930 saw Leedy’s introduction of the first American-made tom-toms, which were advertised as being “superior in every detail to the ordinary Chinese models.” Unlike earlier Chee Foo drums, these cylindrical instruments were made from laminated 3-ply wood and had heavy reinforcing rings. Special tripod stands held the drums in place. Thick, close-grained steer hide was used for the heads, producing an improved tone and holding up to weather conditions much better than pigskin. These new toms could be ordered in various pearl and sparkle finishes. They were later called “China type” tom-toms.

The following year, full-size tom-toms that could be tuned were offered for the first time by Leedy and by Ludwig & Ludwig. These Full Dress drums were offered in what would become industry-standard sizes—9×13, 12×14, and 16×16—with batter heads that were permanently attached to wooden hoops. Timpani-style T-rods and threaded lugs attached to the shells, enabling tensioning of the top head only. The resonant heads, which were permanently tacked to the shells, were made from thick pigskin. This new design was to be the answer to the problem of humidity affecting the toms’ tone. The 1933 Leedy catalog proclaims, “Now it’s your turn to laugh at Old Man Weather!”

By 1935, most drum companies were offering toms with tunable top heads. But in order to project his new sound, Krupa needed drums with fully functional heads that could be tuned properly. In 1936, Slingerland proudly introduced Radio King Separate Tension Tunable Tom-Toms. These new drums were futuristic in appearance and design, with dual rows of art deco–style tension casings, twin “Harold R. Todd” internal tone controls, bright chrome-plated hoops, and flashy pearl finishes. The drums were constructed from three plies of mahogany and poplar with thick maple reinforcing rings. These new Radio King toms proved extremely popular, and the company was soon churning out four- and five-piece drumsets in record numbers.

Before long, other drum companies, like WFL, Leedy, Gretsch, and Ludwig & Ludwig, were attempting to catch up with Slingerland’s innovative new drums, and by late 1937 they were offering separate-tension, fully tunable toms. In 1940, Leedy became the first company to attach adjustable metal legs to the sides of its larger toms to replace the old-style tripod stands. Oddly, Ludwig & Ludwig, Slingerland, and others didn’t follow suit until 1946.

1920s Slingerland sea green pearl tom, 1930s Leedy white marine pearl Full Dress tom, Late 1930s Slingerland white marine pearl Radio King
1920s Slingerland sea green pearl tom, 1930s Leedy white marine pearl Full Dress tom, Late 1930s Slingerland white marine pearl Radio King

Hardware Upgrades

One of WFL’s most important contributions to the evolution of the tom-tom was the triple-flange metal hoop. First appearing on snare drums in 1937, these new hoops were quite different from the straight, single-flange, or double-flange versions that were in use at the time. The outwardly flared third flange reduced wear and tear on drumsticks while giving the drums a unique appearance. The company began installing triple-flange hoops on toms around 1949. In 1955, Slingerland began producing its own version of the triple-flange hoop for its futuristic-looking Sound King drums. Sound King hoops were made of brass and featured a rounded top flange that turned inward.

In 1958, Rogers designed the new Swiv-O-Matic tom holder, which was a big departure from the old-fashioned rail-mount holders that had been in use since the ’40s. Rogers’ holder was based on a ball-and-socket design that could put the tom in almost any position. It took nearly a decade for Slingerland to abandon its rail-mount system for a ball-and-socket design, called Set-O-Matic. Although heavier in weight and less adjustable than the Rogers holder, the Set-O-Matic worked quite well and gave Slingerland drums a distinctive look.

Toms manufactured by Gretsch were somewhat different from those of the competition. In the late ’30s, the company’s Gladstone line featured separate-tension toms constructed with 3-ply shells with reinforcing rings. After World War II, Gretsch began building shells without reinforcing rings, which no other company was doing. These shells were cross-laminated, which gave the relatively thin maple extra strength and stability.

The Concert-Tom Craze

Aside from developments in tom holders and gradually sharper, more precise bearing edges, the toms of the ’60s differed little from those produced in the previous two decades. When rock ’n’ roll began to dominate the airwaves in the late ’60s and early ’70s, larger and louder drums were in demand to compete with the amplified music. As a result, single-headed concert toms, or melodic toms, were designed to provide extra volume and attack. In 1972, Ludwig launched its Octa-Plus outfit, which featured an array of single-headed toms ranging in size from 6″ to 16″. These melodic toms were popular with many drummers and can be heard on numerous recordings.

The legendary studio drummer Hal Blaine played a custom-made fiberglass version of the Octa-Plus, known as the Monster Kit, on many hits, including Paul Revere and the Raiders’ “Indian Reservation,” which features extended triplet tom fills. Other notable drummers, like Carmine Appice, Keith Moon, Karen Carpenter, Kenney Jones, and Nigel Olsson, played concert-tom setups during that era.

The ’70s also spawned some bizarre tom designs, like North Drums’ horn-shaped fiberglass models. North claimed these odd-looking, single-headed toms projected like horn-loaded speakers, producing increased volume, separation, and depth of tone. A typical North tom had a 10″ batter head and a bottom bell measurement of 15″.

Power Toms and a Return to the Classics

By the ’90s, the concert tom was on its way out, as drum design was changing to bigger, deeper toms that challenged existing industry standards. Most American, European, and Japanese manufacturers began producing these “power” toms with lower diameter-to-depth ratios. Sizes like 10×11, 12×13, and 13×14 would become popular.

By the late ’90s, drum designs, especially in terms of toms, had come full circle. Traditional sizes and designs of the ’50s and ’60s were regaining popularity, and the nostalgia-driven movement toward old-school drums inspired Slingerland to produce the Legends Signature series, which featured drums similar to those played by Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich.

The twenty-first century has seen even more interest in vintage-style sounds. Around 2005, Ludwig introduced the Legacy series, which features classic 3-ply shells. Gretsch recently released the Brooklyn series, which is a throwback to the thin 6-ply toms with no reinforcing rings the company used in the ’60s. And custom shops like C&C, GMS, and RBH offer their own takes on classic tom shell designs.

From its humble beginnings in the ’20s, the drumset tom-tom has undergone numerous changes, makeovers, and reinventions. Its early role as a special effect has transformed into an essential element of nearly every drummer’s setup.