Drums are as old as history, and possibly older—there’s probably a cave drawing somewhere depicting a guy happily jamming away. Cymbals, too, are so ancient that they figure prominently in the Old Testament.
The drumset, on the other hand, was born just a little over a century ago. Its creation was made possible by the development of the first commercially practical pedal. Introduced by Ludwig & Ludwig in 1909, the pedal allowed a single drummer to replace individual bass drummers, snare drummers, and cymbal players in bands and orchestras. And thus the evolution of drum gear was initiated.
Not surprisingly, much of that evolution has been a response to changes in musical trends. As demands on drummers have increased, so too has the variety and sophistication of drum gear. Today, we have more choices than ever before.
As Modern Drummer celebrates its fortieth anniversary, we thought it would be fun to look back at some of the important milestones in the history of drum gear—especially those that came on the scene during the MD years. Enjoy!
By Rick Van Horn
Fundamentally, most drums are simply cylinders with some sort of membrane stretched over their open ends. Of course there are exceptions, like single-headed North drums, with their distinctive horn shape, and Staccato drums, whose shape simply defies description. Both were first depicted in 1977 issues of MD.
But overall, the evolution of drums has mainly involved variations of material, size, and construction method. Shells have been made of wood, metal, acrylic, fiberglass, PVC, and even glass—and sometimes combinations thereof. “Traditional” diameters and depths of the 1950s and ’60s gave way to “power” sizes in the ’70s and ’80s, only to return to shallower and smaller “fast” sizes in the ’90s. We’ve even seen completely shell-less drumkits, like the PureCussion RIMS Headset, which was introduced in the April 1993 issue of Modern Drummer.
“Specialty” drums hit the market big time in the late ’70s. These included Remo’s Rototoms, which saw their first MD mention in April of ’77, as well as Tama’s Octobans and gong bass drums (both seen in the October ’78 issue). These unique instruments became signature kit components for stars like Terry Bozzio, Billy Cobham, Stewart Copeland, Bill Bruford, and Simon Phillips.
Variations on all these themes are available in astounding abundance today, from major manufacturers and custom craftsmen alike. It’s now possible to obtain virtually any size, look, and sound of drum imaginable.
When Buddy Rich appeared on the first Modern Drummer cover, in January 1977, his cymbal setup included one ride, one set of hi-hats, two crashes, a small splash, and a “swish” cymbal. Some rock drummers of the day used more crashes, but Buddy’s configuration was pretty typical.
The ensuing years have seen tremendous experimentation when it comes to rides, crashes, and hi-hats. Rides have ranged from pingy and clear to dark and washy, and with a big or small bell—and sometimes none at all. (Zildjian’s Flat Top ride appeared in MD’s inaugural issue. The company went to the other extreme two decades later with its Z series Mega-Bell ride.) Hi-hats have swung between small and large diameters, with mixed or matched top and bottom, and with crimped edges or holes in the bottom cymbal to prevent airlock (examples include Paiste’s Sound Edge hats and Zildjian’s Quick Beats, respectively, both introduced in August of ’79). Crashes have ranged from paper-thin to ultra-heavy. And sometimes—as in the case of Sabian’s eight-sided Rocktagon, launched in the September ’85 issue—they’re not even round.
But again, these are all essentially variations on an established theme. It’s in the area of special effects that the most striking innovation in cymbals over the past forty years has taken place.
In the ’70s and ’80s, Stewart Copeland, Manu Katché, Phil Gould, and others brought splash cymbals into the rock pantheon, often mounting several different sizes and weights around their kits. Variations followed: Paiste Bell cymbals, which were essentially thick splashes, debuted in the May/June ’79 MD.
China cymbals gained popularity in the mid-’80s, largely due to their use by drummers like Neil Peart and Billy Cobham. Wuhan Lion cymbals and LP Rancan Chinas were heavily advertized beginning in the December ’85 issue. China models were subsequently developed by all the major manufacturers.
In March of 1989, Zildjian introduced the EFX Piggyback. This 12″ ultra-thin cymbal had a China-style profile and was expressly designed to be stacked on top of another cymbal. Sabian’s B8 Pro China splashes (September ’91) were thin and quick when played on their own and featured inverted bells to make them stackable.
By August of ’92, we saw entire special-purpose lines, like Sabian’s El Sabor series for Latin players. Hard-rockers got Z Oriental Trash Chinas (October ’93) and Z Oriental Trash Hats (August ’94) from Zildjian. These were joined by Sabian’s Rocktagon splashes in December of ’94, Meinl’s wavy-edge Lightning crashes in April of ’95, and Zildjian’s Zil-Bels in December of ’95.
Special effects entered a new age in November 2001, when Meinl’s Generation X series introduced pairs of cymbals, including the Safari crash, designed to be stacked atop each other. And in April of 2002 Dave Weckl and Sabian combined to create the HHX Evolution series, which included the O-Zone crash—the first cymbal to have holes cut in it to produce a special sound. Since then we’ve seen China-profile cymbals riddled with small holes (Meinl’s Filter China, August ’02), cymbals with slots as well as holes (Zildjian’s EFX models), and Paiste’s recently introduced Swiss series, which appear to feature more air space than metal. Who knows what’s next?
The single greatest innovation in the history of drumheads happened more than two decades before MD’s first issue appeared. That was the mid-’50s introduction of the synthetic head, which replaced the calfskin models that had been used for centuries. Marion “Chick” Evans is credited with the invention; Remo Belli is credited with taking it mainstream.
The earliest synthetic heads were single-ply, general-purpose models. But by the late ’70s the demands of rock music had led to twin-ply heads designed for greater durability, as well as for the muffled sound that was prevalent at the time.
Remo and Evans (and later Ludwig, Aquarian, and Attack) heads were made of Mylar or a similar plastic film. But that wasn’t the only way to create synthetic heads. Cana-Sonic fiberglass heads debuted in the April ’78 MD and lasted for quite a while. Duraline Superheads (August/September ’79) were made of Kevlar (used for bulletproof vests) and were touted as being unbreakable. Hard on the hands and very limited in sonic range, Kevlar heads didn’t prove popular on drumkits—but they totally took over the marching-drum market.
Because Modern Drummer was brand-new in January of 1977, that first issue understandably carried very few advertisements. But there was one incredibly significant ad. It depicted the single product that can be credited with launching today’s gargantuan hand and drumset percussion market: the Latin Percussion fiberglass conga.
Afro-Cuban congas and bongos made of wood had been on the music scene for generations, but they were generally imported (which made them expensive) and handmade (which made them somewhat fragile). LP’s fiberglass congas, on the other hand, were less expensive and much more durable than wood models. They were also louder and more penetrating, making them especially applicable in the context of amplified music. And because they were made of fiberglass, they could be offered in “sixteen beautiful finishes,” which gave them eye-candy appeal. They were congas for the masses, and they revolutionized hand drumming, laying the foundation for the explosive popularity of ethnic drums of all kinds that we see today.
By the October/November ’79 issue, MD was carrying plenty of ads, including one for LP’s Everything rack. This was the first stand-mounted device available to multi-percussionists for putting all of their bells, blocks, chimes, triangles, and other “toys” in one convenient—and hands-free—playing position. Drumset players soon wanted in on the action, which led to a slew of devices from different manufacturers for mounting tambourines, bells, and blocks around a drummer’s kit.
Percussion chugged along quietly for a generation, focusing primarily on traditional instruments like congas, bongos, and timbales, used mainly by professional musicians. But in the early ’90s the drum-circle movement changed all that. These activities involved people who just wanted to bang on portable hand drums for the sheer fun and social interaction of it. Ethnic drums like West African–style djembes were just the ticket. But like the original Cuban congas, imported djembes were expensive and hard to come by.
Enter the Remo company, which, as was stated in the July 1995 MD, “dove head-first into hand drumming.” Using synthetic Acousticon shells and Fiberskyn heads, Remo created djembes, ashikos, and even some totally original instruments, all designed to provide good sound, light weight, and low cost.
The other major percussion companies quickly saw a market for djembes. Meinl wood models appeared in MD’s August ’95 report on the Frankfurt Music Fair; a Toca fiberglass djembe was shown in the April ’96 issue; and LP Bantu “African style” (djembe-like) drums debuted in May ’96. For several more years, djembes dominated the hand-drumming scene.
By 1997, hand drumming—and what was now called world percussion—had exploded to the point where Modern Drummer ran a major supplement on the subject. It included a treatise on the health benefits of hand drumming, playing tips, and a showcase of ethnic instruments from large and small manufacturers around the world. In May of that same year, MD’s NAMM Show report listed more than two dozen manufacturers offering hundreds of percussion instruments.
Significant among those instruments was one of Peruvian origin, offered by Gon Bops. Its name in Spanish described it perfectly: a box. This was the cajon. Easy to play and super-portable (it acted as its own seat), the cajon quickly supplanted the djembe as the go-to percussion instrument for social gatherings and “unplugged” band performances. Its unique sound lent itself to all sorts of recording situations as well. Over the next decade the cajon was offered in literally hundreds of styles, materials, and specialty designs. Today it’s a mainstay of most major percussion brands, including Meinl, Tycoon, Pearl, LP, and Toca.
Aside from the nylon tip, which was introduced by Regal Tip in the late ’50s, drumsticks have remained essentially unchanged from prehistoric times until today. Of course, variations on the basic theme have ensued over the years, including shafts that are square or feature bulges, various textured grips, and even lighted tips.
As rock drummers hit ever harder, stick breakage became a concern. Enter the synthetic model. Brands and materials came and went from the late ’70s on. Riff-Rite graphite sticks, Duraline Kevlar sticks, and Veri-Sonic aluminum-and-nylon sticks were notable among these, but they ultimately didn’t last. The two that did are by Aquarian (May ’81; made of special composites and graphite) and Ahead (April ’92; aluminum shafts with replaceable nylon tips and sleeves).
Wire brushes were developed in the ’20s for low-volume playing. Plastic variations evolved from there. But then came “unplugged” performances by rock groups in the ’80s. Sticks were too loud; brushes weren’t loud enough. The answer was something in between: bundled dowels wrapped with tape. The January ’85 issue of MD carried a small ad for Branches—which withered under that name. But when Promark introduced the same item as Hot Rods in January of 1987, the implements instantly became indispensible for all kinds of medium-volume situations. Today multirods are offered—in many varieties and with many derivations—by every stick manufacturer.
Nowhere has there been as much drumming-related innovation as in the area of hardware. Big and small items of every description have been created to improve the way drumkits are assembled, supported, and played. Given the sheer number of choices—and meaning no slight to those not included—here are the four that we deem the most important.
Memriloc. The Rogers Memriloc system (shown in the January ’77 MD) featured special fittings that mated in order to secure the height and angle of stands, booms, and mounting arms. This enabled drumkits to be set up, broken down, and set up again quickly, with everything in the same place. The revolutionary concept was eventually adopted by every hardware manufacturer.
R.I.M.S. The Resonance Isolation Mounting System (October/November ’79) allowed any brand’s drums to be suspended from their holders without anything penetrating or connecting to the shells. Volume and projection were increased dramatically, and “isolation mounting” soon became another industry-wide feature.
Double bass drum pedal. The first device for playing one bass drum with two feet to appear in MD was the Sleishman Twin pedal, from Australia. It featured a footboard on either side of a centrally mounted beater yoke, thus also centering the drummer directly behind the bass drum. It debuted in the October/November ’80 issue and is still sold today.
The Zalmer Twin (August/September ’82) was the first to put
two beaters on a “master” pedal and link it to an outrigger-style “slave” pedal—which in this case was connected by a heavy but flexible cable.
But it was the DW-5000 double pedal (February ’83) that popularized the double-pedal concept. Initially this model featured a totally separate yoke fitted with a bent-shaft beater to strike the bass drum closer to the center. The slave pedal was connected to the yoke with a solid universal-hinge axle. Later DW models—and dozens of others—connected the axle directly to a second beater on the master pedal.
Drum rack. The first product designed to simplify the mounting of drums and cymbals was the Collarlock system. Starting with 1″-diameter tubular horizontal bars connected to existing cymbal stands, then later adding freestanding legs, the system debuted in Canada in 1978 and was first advertised in MD in the February ’85 issue.
In late 1982 drummer Jeff Porcaro and drum tech Paul Jamieson collaborated on a totally freestanding rack that incorporated rectangular bars with special clamps to hold cymbal-boom and tom-holder arms. Pearl quickly picked up the design, and the DR-1 drum rack debuted in the August ’93 issue.
Between these two systems—and all of their descendents—drummers gained a way to simplify complex setups, neaten up their stage look, and lighten their hardware bags.
The April 1977 MD mentioned electronics as “the wave of the future”—but in that case was referring mainly to the modification of acoustic drum sounds with sonic effects like reverb, phase shifting, and even wah-wah pedals.
MD’s third issue (July ’77) featured the debut of the Synare Percussion Synthesizer. Looking like a black flying saucer with a foam-rubber top, it offered four user-modifiable sound sources. January ’78 saw the Pollard Syndrum, with its Kevlar head and disco-friendly “swoop” sound.
October ’79 introduced a new name—Simmons—with a drum synthesizer. The famous Simmons V Pro Kit, with its hexagonal, plastic-topped pads, debuted in April of ’82, with the modest claim of being “the world’s first electronic drums.”
Throughout the ’80s the seemingly inexorable development of electronics continued, with ever-improving pad kits from Simmons, Dynacord, Tama Techstar, Ultimate Percussion, E-Mu, and others (all shown in the October ’84 issue). At the same time the LinnDrum entered the fray, followed by the debut of MIDI drum “brains” and interfaces. This led many to wonder whether live drumming would even continue.
But by the early ’90s a sort of leveling out had begun. Companies offering electronic kits now focused on “drummer friendly” designs. Among these was the Swedish company ddrum, whose pad kits featured digital sound sources, drumhead-topped pads, and easy-to-understand operation. In March of ’95 MD’s reviewer called the high-end ddrum 3 “arguably the most advanced electronic drum system ever invented,” adding that it was “more tailored to a performer’s needs than any other sampling system today.” The ddrum 3 cost a lot, however, and the later ddrum 4 didn’t bring the price down enough to keep the line successful, despite its advantages.
The electronics giant Roland entered the fray in the early ’90s. In July of 1994 the pro-level TDE-7K pad kit had rubber pads and a pretty impressive array of sounds and functions—perhaps a little too impressive, given its cost and relative complexity. Roland quickly corrected that with the introduction of the TD5-K, which was simpler, more affordable, and in many ways actually more advanced than its larger sibling. The company also introduced the stand-alone SPD-11 Percussion Pad, which was the perfect add-on item for drumkit players who wanted access to electronic sounds.
In 1994 Yamaha was also getting busy, introducing the TMX drum trigger module, whose sounds could be accessed via electronic pads or triggers on acoustic drums. Yamaha touted it as being “drummer designed, with an emphasis on playing, not programming.”
August of 1994 saw the debut of the Korg Wavedrum, which could be considered the first electronic hand-percussion instrument. With its flying-saucer design, single pad, and dozens of digital percussion sounds of every description, it was a big hit with top-level pros—but was too expensive to appeal to the mass market.
There were lots of pad kits in the May ’96 NAMM report. Most didn’t last, but the Yamaha DTX system did, and it became a favorite with electronic drummers. As described in that MD issue, it featured “a 500-sound brain, four onboard mixer faders, a continuous hi-hat controller, choke-able cymbals, and a user-friendly sequencer.”
But it was in MD’s May 1997 NAMM report that Roland introduced a pad kit that changed everything: the professional V-Drums system. Its quiet, easy-to-play-on mesh heads were a quantum leap over rubber surfaces and set a new standard for electronic pad design.
In the ensuing years music has exploded stylistically, offering dozens of opportunities for acoustic and electronic drumming. Triggering sounds from acoustic drums is still popular, as is the use of the dozens of available sound-sample libraries as a resource for composition, recording, and live performance.