The drumset is unique among contemporary instruments. It’s a truly global invention, with most of its individual parts originating many thousands of years ago, in the far corners of the globe.Yet its current familiar form didn’t really exist until well into the twentieth century, making it the youngest major acoustic instrument in existence.
In this special MD report, we trace the drumset’s origins back through antiquity and show how its disparate roots came together. Then we speak with performer/educator Daniel Glass, who shares the rare insight he’s gained through years of investigation into the development of the modern kit.
You have to travel pretty far through time and space to identify the roots of the modern drumset. Author Matt Dean sifts through 7,000 years of history and dozens of world cultures, revealing the instrument’s complex origins.
The drum is the most powerful instrument in existence. It’s also most likely the oldest, having provided humans with a tool for religious ceremony, hunting calls, courtship, battle, social bonding, rites of passage, communication, and entertainment for tens of thousands of years.
Today the drum exists in many forms around the world, and in every culture. But it’s the modern drumset—the collection of percussive instruments that allows one person to create multiple rhythms simultaneously—that we inevitably think of when the word drums is mentioned. For many, it seems positively strange to imagine popular music without the drumset and its telltale snare, pedaloperated bass drum, tom-toms, hi-hat stand, and array of cymbals. But the unique arrangement of these parts came together so recently that much of the kit’s evolution is still within living memory.
Despite the fact that archeologists have been able to date Belgian Paleolithic tools that may have been scrapers (like those used with a guiro) from 70,000 years ago and Crimean Neanderthal bone flutes from 100,000 years ago, the earliest drum is much harder to pinpoint. The materials used in its construction were wood from our trees and skin from our animals, which would have perished many thousands of years ago without a trace. The first definitive evidence of the drum originates in western Asia; religious texts are excellent sources of information on early musical instruments, and the Bible and the Koran offer evidence of drumming. One example from the Old Testament, Psalm 68:25, reads, “Among them were the damsels playing with timbrels.” So here we find evidence of frame drums being played—and that it was the women who were the drummers.
For all the great and productive qualities promoted by the drum, the Bible also alludes to its darkest hour in the hellish area of Tophet in Jerusalem. It’s suggested that this region may have been named after the tof drum, owing to the fact that these instruments were furiously beaten to hide the screams of the children who were being burned in huge fires as a sacrifice to the god Moloch.
Beyond these stories, we look to advanced societies, such as those in Mesopotamia and Egypt, for concrete evidence. Here in the cradle of civilization, the first writing appeared, in Sumerian culture. In this early language the Sumerians used the name ub for the drum, as the word roughly translates as open container, in this case a drum shell.
Frame drums can be seen on Mesopotamian artwork as early as 2700 B.C., in round and rectangular versions. In fact, frame drums became prevalent across the globe, from the Sami shamans of northern Europe, with their spiritual runebomme, to the women of Greece, playing their frame drums to help crops grow, to Ghanaian drummers, with their tamalin, which may have originated as a grain sifter.
So, how do we get from these rudimentary examples of the drum to the modern kit? The drumset is generally thought to be a product of Western civilization, with its individual parts emerging from America and Europe. And though the snare drum can be traced back to European battlefields, tom-toms in fact originate in China, the bass drum finds its roots in western Asia, and cymbals come from Turkey. The drumset truly has global parentage.
THE BASS DRUM
Drums that provide low frequencies and the pulse within music are numerous across many cultures. The Ghanaian Asante people’s kete drums include a large, booming single-headed barrel instrument. The Garifuna people, who traveled from Africa to Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua in the late eighteenth century, used two main traditional wooden drums: the small treble drum known as primero and the larger bass drum known as segunda. But the bass drum as we know it made its way through Turkey and into Europe in the form of the davul, which itself may be viewed as a descendant from even farther east, as the Arabic tabl.
The davul was a double-headed cylindrical drum consisting of a narrow shell and wider heads, which hung in front of the player, allowing him to beat each head comfortably with a stick in each hand. V-formation rope tensioning was applied to the two membranes, which sat upon wooden shells with counterhoops made from animal skin. The two heads were from different animals, such as lamb and goat, to create a distinction in sound. This was further enhanced by the playing method, which involved a thick wooden stick in the right hand playing the accented beats while a thin rod created a snapping sound with the left hand on the unaccented beats.
The davul was found within the Janissary bands that existed from around the early thirteenth century and was used to rouse soldiers in battle and send fear through their enemies with thunderous noise. A great deal of the Turkish military band was absorbed into European military usage via the Crusades, and by the eighteenth century the bass drum was even found in orchestras. By the early nineteenth century, the drum had grown in size for orchestral use and was mounted on a frame, set at an almost horizontal angle.
THE SNARE DRUM
The bass drum wasn’t alone when traveling to Europe. In accompaniment was a pair of drums called nakers (rhymes with “crackers”), whose name was derived from the Arabic naqqara. These instruments were very similar to Persian and Arabic kettle drums, except that in Europe a pair was suspended from the player’s belt, hanging in front of his upper thigh. The appearance and location of these drums led to a slang reference to male testicles, still in use today. The drums in each pair were of identical diameter (roughly between 4 and 12 inches), and both often utilized an animal-gut snare running across the top of the batter head. Depictions often show these drums being beaten using a matched grip.
Another important European drum of this period was the tabor, which was used both for military and entertainment purposes. It was slung under one arm and played with a stick in the other hand. The hand holding the drum also held a pipe, which was played simultaneously. The tabor often had a single string of gut across the batter head as a snare. The resonant head sometimes had one as well. Rope tensioning was employed with a skin tucked onto a hoop and the rope taken through the skin just above the hoop. Leather or rope buffs at the apex could be pulled down to increase the tension of the skin by pulling the ropes tighter.
The pipe and tabor soon moved on, and by the fifteenth century Swiss soldiers marched to the fife and drum. The fife’s two-handed technique necessitated a dedicated player, thus making the pipe-andtabor player obsolete. This freed up the drummer to focus purely on drumming, allowing for bigger instruments and more intricate playing techniques. The larger, heavier drum of around 20 to 40 inches deep and 20 inches in diameter had to be worn hanging at the drummer’s side, and thus the side drum (or long/field drum) was born. Often hung at a 45-degree angle, it was played using what we’d call a traditional grip. This allowed the left hand to reach over the elevated rim of the drum, which pointed away, toward the player’s right-hand side. Around this time the snare had moved to the resonant head, and we find evidence of the use of multi-stroke techniques such as flams, ruffs, and drags.
By the mid-eighteenth century the size of the drum was reduced to around 16 inches in diameter, with a similar depth. The shells were often made of oak, chestnut, or walnut, but brass was also used. Calf or sheep skins were used for the drumheads, which were tensioned very tightly via crisscrossing cords. Leather buffs were used to tension the ropes, which attached to the counterhoops.
In the early nineteenth century, Cornelius Ward employed rod tensioning, allowing the shell to dramatically decrease in depth to 8 inches, with a diameter of 14 inches. The shells became stronger, and increased tension could be applied to the skin, enabling faster and more complex playing.
By the twentieth century, in use were wire snare strands, metal counterhoops and tension rods, adjustable snare stands, snare throw-offs, and synthetic heads that were impervious to atmospheric changes.
THE FOOT PEDAL AND TRAPS
As with many advances throughout human history, it was necessity that gave rise to the drumset. The popular theater bands often employed several percussionists to cope with the snare, bass, cymbals, and various sound effects. Each percussionist required payment and space in the limited theater pit. The first breakthrough was known as double drumming, which involved positioning the bass drum close enough to the snare to allow a single percussionist to play both pieces simultaneously. Two jobs could now be carried out by one musician—but this didn’t constitute a drumset quite yet.
The major breakthrough was the ability to use the feet for playing rather than just standing. This came courtesy of the bass drum pedal. Experimentation was under way in the 1890s, with pedals that required laborious toe-heel motions to strike the drum and then pull back to the start position. Some were in the form we’d recognize—attached to the bass drum’s bottom rim—while others hung from the top rim of the bass drum with a cord between the bottom of the upside-down beater and the foot pedal on the floor.
Some of these mechanisms even lacked a pedal; the cord was attached directly to the drummer’s foot, which may help to explain the term kick drum. It took a German emigrant to devise a version with a spring to return the beater after striking the drum, suitable for widespread production. William F. Ludwig decided to build his own pedal, which turned out to be so successful that by 1910 he and his brother were mass producing metal versions under the company name Ludwig & Ludwig. The drummer was now a seated musician and had every limb at his playing disposal.
The popular drumset at this time was known as a trap kit, shortened from contraption, and was a far cry from the outfits we use today. A metal frame on wheels known as a console, or trap-tree, curved around and over the huge, marching-style bass drum, providing a frame from which everything else hung, similar in concept to modern-day rack systems. The small cymbals available at the time were hung from gooseneck arms attached to the console. Tom-toms hung alongside the contraption tray, which housed all manner of percussion items needed for the music of the day, including klaxons, cowbells, temple blocks, hooters, triangles, and whistles.
The tom-tom of the modern drumkit is a descendant of eastern Asia. Many of China’s drums are barrel shaped, ranging from small sizes to 6 feet in diameter.
The pieng gu follows the common design of a red painted shell with an elaborately decorated, varnished membrane on the top and bottom. This head is nailed on and therefore doesn’t allow for tuning. Many of the drums with such membrane attachments make use of heat to alter the tuning. The varnish also helps maintain the desired tone on these instruments.
Such a drum found its way to America and was featured on the trap kits of the early twentieth century. But this rudimentary and tonally limited piece was soon modernized by Slingerland Radio King endorser Gene Krupa in the 1930s. Here, for the first time, Krupa used tom-toms with tunable top and bottom heads. He stripped away all the contraptions until his four-piece setup included a snare, a bass drum, a 9×13 mounted tom, and a 16×16 floor tom—a configuration still favored by many drummers. At first the floor tom sat in a three-leg cradle, but soon the legs were attached to the shell, as with many of today’s drums.
The final element to find its home on the modern drumset was the hi-hat. Cymbals were already part of the kit, and the modern cymbal had been created and perfected by Zildjian, one of the most famous cymbal makers to this day. The company was founded nearly 400 years ago with a strong Armenian connection, though its first workshop was in Constantinople, Turkey.
Quickly becoming known for their superior sound, Zildjian cymbals were used by Sultan Osman II of the Ottoman Empire for daily rituals and ceremonies with the well-regarded Janissary bands. In fact, the cymbals were so well received that the sultan in the early seventeenth century had rewarded the Armenian alchemist Avedis with gifts and the great honor of having the name Zilciyan (later evolving into Zildjian) bestowed upon him. Here zil translates as cymbal, ci as maker, and yan as son of. Therefore the full name denotes the son of cymbal makers.
But it wasn’t until almost 300 years later that the conception of the hi-hat occurred. Ludwig & Ludwig’s early-twentieth-century bass drum pedals had featured an extension arm on the beater, which allowed for the simultaneous playing of the bass drum and a small cymbal clanger mounted on the bass drum rim. This wasn’t an entirely new concept, as similar patents had been registered before the turn of the century, such as Albin Foerster’s in 1888. The main problem with most of these designs was that both instruments played simultaneously, without the option of playing one of them alone, although Ludwig did introduce an alternating feature that allowed the cymbal to disengage with the kick of a lever.
As drummers’ desires grew beyond this unrefined clanging noise, many turned their attention to the snowshoe, an invention that positioned a pair of cymbals at the end of two snowshoe-shaped wooden boards with a hinge at the other end. The design enabled drummers to place their left foot in a loop on a wooden footplate and press down, causing the small cymbals to crash together in a similar fashion to the modern hi-hat. Four-limb drumming had arrived. The next step was the low boy, which often had 8-inch cymbals with large bell areas, vertically mounted 9 inches from the floor. The foot pedal enabled them to be pulled together, but the lack of height meant that this was still a purely footoperated voice on the kit.
By the mid-1920s, the simple step toward the recognized hi-hat occurred. Metal tubing was added, bringing the cymbals up above the height of the snare and enabling them to be played with feet and hands alike. The drastically tilted snare drum positioned the left hand in such a way that the stronger leading right hand crossed over the top of the left and became the hand to play the hihat. The cymbal size was enlarged to 11 or 12 inches, and the bell size was reduced to create a larger playing surface, allowing the hi-hat to become a timekeeping element of the kit for the first time. Walberg & Auge were pioneers of this design, which was also marketed by Leedy, Slingerland, and Ludwig in the same decade.
The first drum star, Gene Krupa, was closely involved in the creation of tunable tom-toms. The accompanying text from an early Ludwig catalog reads, in part, “The public clamor for something new, something different, has been responsible for many revolutionary changes in drum equipment… Drummers have turned to tunable tom-toms as a major effect upon which to base new tonal colors.”
Another early Ludwig catalog shows the development of the hi-hat, from the snowshoe to the foot-sock to something akin to the modern stand. Note the smaller top cymbal on the hi-hat, and that, contrary to the belief that each new mechanical device made the previous one obsolete, Ludwig in fact offered all three options at one time.
The modern drumset had been born.
One example of the importance that humans have placed on the drum throughout history is that of the famous sixteenth-century English sea captain Francis Drake and the side drum, which he took around the world.
As he lay dying on his ship near Panama, Drake instructed that the 21- inch-tall walnut drum be brought back to his home near Plymouth, England. Legend surrounds this drum, and it is thought that if England is ever in peril, the drum should be beaten and Drake will return to save the country. This evolved into the belief that the drum would beat itself in times of need, and reports have since suggested that the instrument was heard at such perilous moments as the onset of World War I and at Dunkirk in World War II. In fact, when the drum had been moved to a safer location during World War II, Plymouth was subsequently bombed and the drum was quickly returned to its home. People remembered the legend that the city will fall if the drum is ever moved from its rightful resting place. The city wasn’t hit again after the drum’s return, and the instrument has remained at Buckland Abbey to this very day.
Another, more gruesome example is the folktale in which the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Bohemian general Zizka, when realizing that death was upon him, requested that his skin be made into a drum so that he could lead his men into battle after his passing.
Matt Dean is a professional drummer, author, and drum instructor based in London. As well as publishing a drum blog at mattdeanworld.co.uk, he is the author of the book The Drum: A History.