Percussion manufacturers and designers are constantly inundating the percussion world with new hardware and new designs on old hardware. Most drummers, when they visit a well-stocked drum shop, feel like a kid in a candy store. Although there has been a great deal of significant equipment improvements and additions made throughout the eighty-year plus history of the drum set, there has also been the appearance of various gimmicks, most of which surfaced briefly only to later sink out of sight. Patented in 1927, the collapsible bass drum was supposed to be a godsend to the working drummer but it found very little popular success. Likewise, the doubledrum outfit of the early 1900s was designed to benefit the drummer playing one-night stands. The large parade-size bass drum had a trap door in the shell which allowed the snare drum and all other traps to be stored inside.

Some hardware, like the plug-in heating element which was used to keep calf-skin heads from absorbing too much moisture, served a terminal but useful existence until the invention of plastic heads. Chinese cymbals, once commonly used by New Orleans and Dixieland drummers to later be completely discarded by swing and bebop drummers, have now a revived interest and are being used by some jazz and fusion drummers. Other accouterments, such as the drum head pitch modulator and various synthetic drum sticks, simply haven’t been around long enough to he adequately evaluated.

“Over the years, drummers have been playing exceptionally well with very crude equipment,” remarked drum shop owner Ken Mezines. “The durability of the hardware of the drum set has been constantly improving. Some of the best inventions have been the development of a better bass drum pedal, better tom-tom mounts, and better cymbal stands. Particularly notable are the mechanical items like the mechanisms that move the hi-hat and bass drum pedal.”

 

There is an intertwining relationship among the expertise of the individual drummer, the demands and requirements of new musical styles, and the inventiveness of the manufacturer/designer—each is influenced by and dependent upon the other. Part One of this two-part series (MD Nov. ’81) looked at an overview of the evolution of the drum set as a whole. It also contained brief comments on early drum companies, drum catalogs, and a few drum shops.

Part Two individually examines the evolution of each instrument within the drum set.

Evolution of the Drum Set 1

 

SNARE DRUM

The most common snare drum in use around 1900 was made of a brass shell plated with nickel or chrome, wood hoops, calfskin heads, and gut snares. It was usually six to seven inches deep, had no built-in tone control, and the vent was often just a hole punched in the shell. The date of manufacture could often be seen by looking through the vent hole. Tensioning was usually controlled by tubular lugs placed around the circumference of the drum. Although some early snare drums only had single tensioning, most featured separate tensioning.

By around 1930, spring-loaded tension casings came into use and these are still the most common type used today. Prior to this, many tension rods were stripped as a result of the hoop not being lined up perfectly with the lugs. The spring gave some flexibility to the position of the lug nut and helped prevent this problem.

For most of the snare drum’s existence in the drum set, brass shells have been more desirable than wood, and in the early twentieth-century were also more costly. Recently, the trend has been to wood shells constructed with multiple plies. The plexiglass shells, which became popular in the ’70s partly for appearance sake, have been declining in popularity.

Wood hoops with a metal shell were at first most common. The first all-metal snare drum was manufactured by the Ludwig Drum Company in 1911, and by the ’20s, metal hoops had largely replaced the wood hoops. By around 1950 the flanged metal hoop had been developed.

There have been two basic designs in the mechanism to loosen and tighten the snares. The screw-type snare strainer consisted of a screw which loosened and tightened the snares up and down and was in use in the early 1900s. The date of origin of this device is 1886 and probably even earlier. By the 1920s the throw-off switch was in use but at that time was noisy and poorly constructed. By the late 1920s a more sensitive throw-off switch was in use and is still being used today. The lever action of the throw-off switch was much more convenient than the awkward screw-type mechanism.

Regarding snare strainers, in 1885 Rowland Perry of Peace Dale, Rhode Island patented a strainer which allowed the snares to pass straight through the hoop, not cramped between the shell and hoop as was formerly the situation. In 1892 Emile Boulanger patented a snare strainer which allowed for tightening or loosening the snares without affecting the position or tensioning of the hoops. In 1905 Charles Stromberg of Chelsea, Massachusetts patented a snare strainer which was attached to the outside of the shell and independent of the hoops. Previous strainers were attached to the hoops. In 1907 U. G. Leedy and Charles Wanamaker of Indianapolis patented a strainer, which although awkward, could move the snares as a single unit away from and back to the drum head.

Snares have been made of leather, gut, wire, or wire-covered silk. Although there is no definitive answer to the question of which is better, wire or gut, when wire snares began to be used around 1908 they had a low pitch, caused by the use of fewer spirals per inch. The pitch became higher with the addition of spirals. Gut snares produce somewhat of a dry, dead sound. Snares which are a combination of wire and gut are also available. Prior to 1900 most snares were made of cloth or leather and coated with shellac to prevent the absorption of moisture.

In 1890 Henry Theophel of Akron. Ohio patented “elastic wire” snares with five spirals which was supposed to be an improved wire snare. In 1892 Emile Boulanger patented a “snare-string” which, by reason of its smoothness, was supposed to “impart a clear and distinct tone to the drum.” In 1897 George Bemis of Worcester, Massachusetts patented a new type of snare and snare strainer mechanism. The snares were made of piano wire and coated with nickel-plate to prevent rusting. He claimed that gut snares were too sensitive to changing weather conditions. In 1915 George Carnes of Rochester. New York patented a “fox-tail chain” snare which was “composed of links of wire of uniform shape that are closely woven together allowing great flexibility in the bending of the chain.” Harold Plowe of Peoria. Illinois in 1888 patented a snare drum which had snares under the top head, in conjunction with or in the absence of the usual placement of snares under the bottom head. He claimed this made the drum more responsive and eliminated any unwanted sound after the drum had been struck.

When two drummers were used on bass and snare drum, players always stood to play. With the development of doubledrumming it was necessary to be seated, and drummers at first placed the snare drum in a chair at a convenient angle to be played. In 1899, Leedy invented the first practical folding snare drum stand. Although Leedy’s stand made a valuable contribution to drum set hardware, probably the first snare drum stand was patented in 1886 by George Bemis. His stand simply consisted of legs bolted onto the drum. In 1901 Albert Hellenkamp of Cleveland patented a very complicated and awkward stand which was supposed to simplify the adjusting of height and positioning of the drum.

In his patent illustration, Hellenkamp depicts the drum with an extremely high left. Ken Mezines points out that “the reason the snare drum is traditionally positioned high left and low right is because the first snare drummers had the drum hung from a sling (as in a marching band) and it naturally hung in this angle.” He also points out that this angle corresponds to the position of the hands in traditional grip.

BASS DRUM

The first bass drum in the drum set was the large field bass drum which had previously been used in Civil War military bands. The most popular models were 28 to 32 inches in diameter, 18 to 24 inches deep, and were rope tensioned. Rope tensioning on the bass drum continued to exist even after this method was no longer used on the snare drum. Up to the 1940s the diameter had been gradually decreasing to an average size of 22 inches in diameter with a depth of 14 inches. During the 1950s there was a growing interest in using even smaller bass drums of 18 to 20 inches in diameter.

The large and cumbersome early bass drum gave rise to developments attempting to make it less burdensome without diminishing its size. The collapsible bass drum was patented by Boyle in 1937 and was supposed to be what every working drummer was looking for. Another model was designed with a trap door in the shell to allow accessories to be stored inside.

Early bass drum heads were frequently painted with multicolored drawings and had a light inserted inside the shell. This light had a two-fold purpose: to illuminate the head design and to remove moisture from the calfskin head. Gene Krupa was one of the first drummers to display a patented head design with his initials. This type of bass drum head design became the norm for many subsequent drummers.

Early bass drums were positioned by spurs which were clipped on to the hoop. One of the first patents for this device was dated 1888. In 1912 Albert Maphet of Los Angeles patented a hoop-attached mount which consisted of four short folding legs which had pointed ends in order to more firmly hold the drum to the floor. By around 1950 telescoping spurs had been developed.

Evolution of the Drum Set 2

TOM-TOMS

Early tom-toms were imported from China and came in a variety of sizes. Since they did not have legs, the very large drums were often placed on timpani stands or hung vertically from a device very similar to the modern gong stand. The smaller tom-toms were either clip-mounted onto the bass drum or hung all around the drum set. The vertical positioning of the drums allowed them to be played like the bass drum and to show off the paintings appearing on the drum heads. Each head within a single drum set had a different painting. Because the early drummers’ equipment was often used for novelty effect, the placement of tom-toms positioned in this manner increased the visual and theatrical element of the performance. Usually no more than four tom-toms were used. The drum heads were tacked on and made of pigskin. Theodore D. Brown has also noted that “strung through the middle of the smaller drums were several wires which gave this drum a characteristic buzz when struck.” The drum heads were occasionally made of thick leather or rubber.

Tom-toms were first mounted onto the bass drum by being placed onto an arm which stuck out from the bass drum. By the early 1920s the ratchet mechanism had been developed and allowed the tom-tom to be mounted on the bass drum hoop or mounted onto the bass drum shell. This device was not very flexible. Around 1950 Slingerland introduced the Ray McKinley tom-tom holder which consisted of a curved bar with a sleeve which allowed the tom-tom to slide down over it. This device allowed the drummer greater flexibility in positioning the drum and also allowed him to disassemble the set faster. In the late 1960s a ball and socket device came on the scene and allowed even greater flexibility and movability in the positioning of the tom-tom. Today, a variety of specialized heavy-duty and durable tom-tom mounts are being manufactured. The early floor toms were placed in a basket or cradle. Floor toms with legs came out during the late 1940s.

The first Chinese tom-toms had two tacked-on heads. Although these drums had no tension rods, they could be adjusted by wetting the heads and placing a light bulb under it. During the early 1920s tom-toms were being made with metal hoops and tension rods. The top head was tensioned while the bottom head was still tacked on. By the early 1930s, double-tension drums were used.

The choice of whether to buy tacked-on heads, singletensioned heads, or double-tensioned heads was often an economic one since all three types were available at this time. The double-tensioned heads were substantially more expensive while the tacked-on heads were cheaper.

Around 1970, concert toms were being used with drumsets. They contained one tensioned head, with the bottom of the drum open. They are sometimes called melodic tom-toms and may be tuned to a specific pitch. They are often found in groupings of up to eight drums and range in size from a diameter of 5 1/2 to 14 inches and a depth of 6 to 16 inches. The absence of a bottom head is designed to allow more projection with less ring, and to aid the use of microphones. This concept has been taken one step further by the Staccato Drum Company whose shells have a turned out and flared bottom in an attempt to add even greater projection. North drums have a similar design. Variable pitch tom-toms called Roto-toms are of recent origin. These shell-less drums allow the pitch to be changed by simply rotating the drum.

CYMBALS

Although drummers of the early 1900s had the availability of K. Zildjian cymbals from Turkey and cymbals from China, the heavier Chinese cymbals were preferred because cymbals then were used primarily for novelty effect and only rarely to accent melodic notes. The Chinese cymbals with a slightly raised square bell and turned up edges also produced a more deadened sound which was particularly desirable for recording purposes. Sometimes rivets were placed around the circumference of the cymbal much like “sizzle” cymbals are today. These cymbals were usually 10 to 12 inches in diameter and were often suspended freely from a holder by a leather strap. Sometimes they were attached to a large spring which was clip-mounted onto the bass drum.

After the bass drum pedal was invented in the mid 1890s, one of the first uses of cymbals in the drum set was implemented primarily by theatre drummers. This involved a cymbal attached to the bass drum which was struck with a beater connected to the bass drum pedal. The cymbal was struck simultaneously with the bass drum. This type of cymbal was often very thick and about 13 inches in diameter. Before long, this vertical cymbal placement was replaced by cymbals mounted horizontally on the bass drum so as to be struck with the drum stick.

During the 1920s, drum set cymbals were often borrowed from concert or marching bands and were designed to be used as crash cymbals. They were very heavy and had shallow bells and flat bows. By 1925 drum catalogs advertised no cymbals larger than 16 inches. Back then a 16 inch cymbal cost about $12.

By the 1920s Chinese cymbals were no longer used and gave way primarily to Turkish cymbals. After 1929, when A. Zildjian cymbals began to be produced in the United States, it was possible to get two kinds of Turkish cymbals—the K. Zildjians from Istanbul. Turkey (now manufactured in Canada) and the A. Zildjians, which are now manufactured in Norwell, Massachusetts. The K’s are distributed in this country by the Gretsch Drum Company. In the early ’60s, Paiste cymbals from Switzerland became available.

By the late 1920s, through the efforts of Chicago drummers like Gene Krupa, George Wettling, and especially Dave Tough, the open cymbal sound replaced that of the choked or closed sound. By the mid 1940s—through the efforts of Tough and especially Kenny Clarke—the ride cymbal became the principal timekeeping instrument within the drum set. Ride cymbals now are available from medium-thin to extra-heavy and in diametersof 16 to 24 inches.

The early cymbal holder which allowed the cymbal to hang freely was patented in 1909. The next type of cymbal holder was a spring-type of mechanism clip-mounted onto the bass drum. Early cymbal stands allowed only for positioning the cymbal precisely parallel to the floor. Around 1950 the cymbal tiltholder was invented and allowed drummers, for the first time, to tilt the cymbal to a convenient angle to make playing more comfortable.

Leonard DiMuzio of the Avedis Zildjian Company has noted that the swish cymbal, which was popular with big band and Dixieland drummers, declined in popularity in the 1940s and 1950s but is returning in popularity. The swish cymbal has turned up edges and can be made to sound like a Chinese cymbal. This cymbal is usually 18 to 22 inches in diameter, thin to medium in weight, and often is installed with rivets. A swish knocker is a heavier cymbal with an unusually large bell.

Other cymbals of note are: the splash cymbal, which is small in diameter (6 to 12 inches) and is used for fast crashes and quick chokes (frequently used as a novelty effect in music of the 1920s and 1930s); the sizzle cymbal, which is usually a 16 to 22 inch ride cymbal with rivets giving it kind of a buzzing sound (this cymbal was often used by bebop and especially hard bop drummers); and the pang cymbal, usually medium-thin weight and with an 18 to 22 inch diameter. It offers a 2 1/2 inch flat outer edge and produces an unusually deep, low-pitched sound. It may also include rivets.

Jeff Hasselberger, former Marketing Director for the Elger Company which makes Tama drums, noted that one of the biggest innovations in cymbal stands has been the development of a cymbal boom stand. “Drummers were making boom stands out of microphone booms and regular cymbal stands for quite a while before it dawned on us to make one from scratch,” he remarked.

Evolution of the Drum Set 3

HI-HATS

The hi-hat has a fascinating history. As previously mentioned, the forerunner of the hi-hat was the single cymbal attached vertically to the bass drum which was struck simultaneously with the bass drum by a beater attached to the bass drum beater. The hi-hat itself, two cymbals mounted parallel and facing each other and controlled by a foot pedal, originated in the 1920s. The first device was known as the “snoeshoe cymbal beater” or simply “snoeshoe.” It was also called the “snoeshoe Charleston cymbals”—probably because the Charleston was a popular dance of the day. This device consisted of a “flat board about 14 inches long, on the end of which was affixed a small 8 inch brass cymbal with the cup inverted. Another flat matching board had a second 8 inch brass cymbal on one end and was attached on the other end to the first board with a hinged spring. Across the top board was a 4 inch web strap to place the foot in stirrup fashion,” explained John P. Noonan in his article “The Hi-Hat and How it Grew” in the Instrumentalist. In the snoeshoe pedal the cymbals were mounted horizontally very close to the floor and were activated by the player’s heel while his toe activated the bass drum beater.

Although the snoeshoe pedal was introduced as a novelty, it soon became an integral component of the drum set, but not without some growing pains. At first, because of the cumbersome workings of this mechanism, it was very difficult to play precisely on the afterbeats. This, of course, did nothing to improve the drummer’s relationship with the bass player.

The second major step in the evolution of the hi-hat soon followed. This was the development of the all-metal “sock” cymbal called the “low-hat” or “low-boy.” The term sock was used to describe the sound that the cymbals made when striking each other. The low-hat sock cymbal was positioned about 15 inches above the floor. Deep cup brass cymbals with a 10 inch diameter were used.

Finally, just after 1930, the high-boy or hi-hat sock cymbal was developed. This instrument was about waist high and included 14 or 15 inch Turkish cymbals. It could be operated by a pedal to produce either a “sock” sound with heavier cymbals or a “swish” or “chick” sound with lighter cymbals. It could also be played with sticks. The latter practice made possible a variety of new rhythmic possibilities and guaranteed the lasting success of the hi-hat as an integral member of the drum set. During the 1930s, Jo Jones made the hi-hat the most important component of the drum set by transferring the role of basic timekeeper from the bass drum to the hi-hat.

A most unusual trap was the “after-beat” drum created by the Duplex Manufacturing Company. It was a pedal-operated device, sat several inches above the floor, and consisted of one or two wire brushes striking a tensioned drum head. It produced a sock cymbal type of sound and was apparently designed to function similarly as the hi-hat.

Early hi-hat cymbals were often small in diameter, about 12 inches, but had extremely large bells, sometimes taking up to as much as 80% of the surface of the cymbal. As primarily a footoperated instrument, the large cupped cymbals offered a large tonal chamber. However, as drummers became more interested in riding the cymbals by using sticks on the playing surface, the bells were reduced greatly in size and the diameter was enlarged to 13 or 14 inches.

BASS DRUM PEDAL

The bass drum pedal, like the hi-hat pedal, has had quite a colorful history. There is some uncertainty about when and by whom the first foot pedal was constructed. New Orleans jazz expert Samuel Charters in his book Jazz: New Orleans 1885-1963 suggests that “Dee Dee” Chandler with the John Robichaux Orchestra was the first to build and use a wooden bass drum pedal in about 1894 or 1895. William F. Ludwig Senior maintains that he used a wooden heel pedal made by the bass player in the Sam T. Jacks Theatre Orchestra in Chicago in 1895. All we can be certain of is that the first pedals were handmade out of wood and were activated by the players’ heel, not toe.

The “Chandler” pedal, or “swing” pedal as it was called, consisted of a bass drum beater suspended from a piece of spring steel which was bolted to the hoop at the top of the bass drum. As the beater hung down toward the center of the drum head and a few inches away from it, it was connected by a leather strap to a hinged wooden pedal sitting on the floor. It is interesting to note that even this mechanism is more sophisticated than the one Chandler actually used. It consisted of a block of wood for the beater head and a chain stretched from the pedal to the spring. By stepping on the pedal the chain (or leather strap) caused the block of wood to strike the drum head and by releasing the pedal the spring pulled it away. Accounts and descriptions of early pedals (for that matter any early drum set equipment) are rare and the preceding is a paraphrase of the description provided by Samuel Charters in his aforementioned book.

William F. Ludwig has also described using a similar device with an all-steel pedal in 1895. He explained that the steel pedal was desired to supply a good strong beat. He also explained that the all-wood heel pedal he was using in Chicago in 1894 had the wooden beater attached directly to the pedal. Neither the wooden heel pedal nor the swing pedal were very comfortable to use nor were they adept at the fast and syncopated ragtime and gallop tempos of the late 1890s and early 1900s.

The next development in the evolution of the bass drum pedal occurred in 1908 when William F. Ludwig developed an allwooden toe pedal with a shorter beater rod which was mounted on a post elevated from the floor. In 1909 Robert C. Danly, Ludwig’s brother-in-law, made the first all-metal toe pedal from Ludwig’s original design. This not only revolutionized pedal construction but was also the beginning of the Ludwig Drum Company.

During the first few years, all pedals were designed with cymbal strikers. Later on, since cymbals were not always desired, the striker was designed with an off-on switch. By the 1920s, due to the development of the snoeshoe cymbal beater, it was no longer necessary to have a cymbal striker attached to the bass drum pedal.

Also during the period 1905 to 1915, small compact pedals made from brass castings and with no footboard were quite popular. John Baldwin has noted that they were “activated by a small toe plate or lever.” The Schoefield was one of the more popular models. Advantageously it took up less packing space but its long beater rod and resulting slow responsiveness was a drawback.

William F. Ludwig, through his article “67 Years of Drum Pedals” in the Ludwig Drummer, provides one of the few written examinations of early pedals. He points out that the Walberg pedal, made on the East Coast, was even more compact. John Baldwin has noted that this pedal “had neither a footboard nor a toe-plate or lever. The player’s toe rested on a roller bar which activated the beater rod when it was depressed.”

About the same time, the Wright and Kackman Drum Shop in San Francisco was distributing the Frisco Heel Pedal. This was an all-wood heel pedal but with a double footboard, double beater rods, and double beater balls. Another West Coast pedal had a lock in which the player’s heel was placed in order to keep the drum in position. William F. Ludwig noted that “it had an adjustable cymbal striker, an adjustable rod for long or short strokes, and an adjustable setting for the spring.”

Prior to 1920 nearly all bass drum pedals were operated by a single tension spring. The double spring pedal, which requires a stronger foot but gives better action, was in part necessitated by the fact that bebop drummers established the bass drum as an equal and independent instrument, more so than ever before.

Although most early bass drum pedals had a solid footboard, the split footboard came into use during the 1920s and is quite popular today.

Evolution of the Drum Set 4

DRUM HEADS

Until the 1950s most drum heads were made of calfskin. Some, notably tom-tom heads, were made of tough pigskin. The animal skin heads could be quite adversely affected by changes in temperature and humidity. Dampness could cause a head to become too loose and thus unplayable. Dryness could cause it to become too tight and break. Some drums had electric heating elements which attempted to maintain a consistent temperature and humidity level. There were also other attempts to prevent drum heads from being affected by weather conditions. Adolph Sax, inventor of the saxophone, in 1863 “conceived the notion of coating the skins of drums with a solution of collodion or similar mixture containing India-rubber,” noted James Blades in his Percussion Instruments and Their History. A similar idea was patented in 1903, and in 1935 a patent was granted for a drum head which was especially designed not to be affected by weather conditions. A refinement of this idea came to be known as the “all weather drum head.”

Early bass drum and tom-tom heads were quite ostentatious with their multi-colored paintings, no two being alike. John Baldwin has suggested that these paintings were added to disguise the use of light bulbs which were necessary to control the humidity. It is just as likely, however, that it was done to enhance the novelty and comical effect of the drummer’s traps.

By the late 1950s plastic drum heads, which were unaffected by changes in temperature and humidity, were being used quite widely. Sam Muchnick invented the plastic mylar drum head for Remo twenty-five years ago.

CONCLUSION

The evolution of the drums has not always been a smooth progression. Often, a new product will enjoy widespread use for a number of years, only to eventually be rejected in favour of an older version of the same product. (An example of this is the returning popularity of Slingerland’s Radio King snare drum.) Also, because of the wide variety of musical styles, an equally wide variety of instruments can exist simultaneously. So by taking this look at the history of drums themselves, we see that in many cases the changes are brought about primarily by advances in manufacturing techniques. The needs of today’s drummers are not so different than those of the early drummers. In both cases, the musicians simply want instruments and accessories that will enable them to explore their musical ideas.

The author would like to express his deepest gratitude to Ken Mezines, whose advice was of invaluable help in preparing this article.