From my many clinics and solo appearances in the U.S. and in other countries, I have had the opportunity to hear literally scores of big-band drummers and observe their equipment. I’ve seen many common errors in size and type of drums and cymbals, and so I would like to offer some helpful tips in this area of equipment choice.
A 22″ bass drum seems to be the best size, as it will work in either a big-band or small-band, simply by changing the tuning. I mention this because many players need a drum which will work in both situations. By big-band. I am referring, of course, to a contemporary big band that plays jazz, rock and Latin charts. The drummer in this type of band needs a bass drum sound that is good for all of those styles. In short, this is the situation of a typical “today” drummer.
Many big-band drummers, such as Buddy Rich. Louie Bellson, Butch Miles and myself, prefer a 24″ drum for the added power, but I have never used that size for a small-band gig and I don’t think most players would want to either. I use a double-bass set in big-band work, and I have a 24″ and a 22″ drum. On combo gigs where I play a smaller, 5-piece set, I simply take the smaller bass drum.
Like many other big-band drummers, I prefer a wooden beater for the extra definition it produces. In small-band, a hard felt beater sometimes gives a more mellow sound.
Either a 5″ or 6 1/2″ snare does a good job. The drum should not have the muffler cranked up too tight (a common fault) or have heads that are so heavy that the drum sounds dead. Snare drum heads with center spots do not have the necessary power for big-band, although I like center-spot heads on toms. Occasionally, I see a drummer trying to make do with a 4 x 14 snare, but it doesn’t have the gutsy sound that’s needed. The choice between a wood shell or a metal shell is personal—both are good.
Many 5-piece sets have 8 x 12, 9 x 13 and 16 x 16 toms as standard sizes, and these are fine for big-band work. The best thing to add on for added color would be two or three small rock-type toms. If adding two, 8″ and 10″ are good, and a 6″ could be added as the third drum. I definitely think that all toms, except the small rock toms, should be two-headed, because of the fuller sound they produce. The rock toms could be single or double headed. It would be good to try out both types before making a purchase.
The best sizes for big-band ride cymbals are 20″ to 22″ in a medium-heavy weight. I get wonderful results with Zildjian’s Rock 21 ride. It gives a great jazz sound and has an oversized bell for rock and Latin sounds. A 20″ medium-heavy Ping cymbal is also a good (and popular) choice.
18″ medium to medium-thin crash cymbals work very well with big-bands. They are strong enough for accents, and they don’t sustain too long, so that they can be hit repeatedly.
I like 15″ hi-hats with a heavy bottom and a medium top, but 14″ is also a popular size. It is very important that the hi-hats produce a strong “chick” sound when played with the foot.
Even when the drums and cymbals are decent, it is very common to see a drummer working too hard with little results because the sticks are too light for the job. I cannot over-state how often this mistake is made. The result of too light a stick is little or no definition on the cymbal, and a drummer who has to play harder than necessary. A stick of the proper weight will do more of the work for you, so you can conserve your energy for when it’s really needed.
A good stick weight is 2 to 2 1/4 ounces. Some of the sticks in that area are: 5B models in most brands; Ludwig Buddy Rich, Joe Morello and Ed Shaughnessy models; and Pro-Mark 707 and Billy Cobham models. There are others equally as good, but the above list will at least give you an idea. Remember that a good, solid stick produces a fuller sound—not just a louder sound. That’s the important part. A drummer with good control has no problem playing softly with a solid stick.