Jazz Drummers Workshop

The Music of the Drums, Pt. 2

by Barry Altschul

Today’s music has developed to the degree that anything conceived can be used if it’s done musically. The basic drum has changed considerably since the days of the stamped pit and the slit log drums of Africa. The drum set developed out of the conceptions and needs of mainly Black Americans, who played the music that was given the misnomer “Jazz.” 


In the late 1890’s the drummer with trumpeter Buddy Bolden put something together that enabled him to play the bass drum, snare drum and a cymbal simultaneously. In 1908, W. F. Ludwig further developed this and created a bass drum pedal which became standard equipment in the early 1920’s. Side drums, descending from the medieval “tabor,” evolved into all metal separate tension snare drums with either calf hide or metal heads. The hi-hat stand was developed around 1922. It was known then as the “Charleston cymbal pedal,” or the “low-boy” or “snow shoe.” Its utilization started around 1926. With these innovations, it became possible for one person to play a full drum set: Snare, bass, hi-hat, and cymbals. It then became a personal choice as to additional drums and percussion instruments used. Tom-toms came into popular use in the 1930’s, a period in which drummers like “Papa” Jo Jones helped streamline the modern drum set. Jones also developed and augmented the use of brushes (invented around 1926) as well as, the hi-hat, to help the band swing rather than merely for textural/coloristic effects. Percussion instruments started to be used in Afro-American improvised music which throughout the world, is regarded as the classical music of America.

As far back as the 1920’s, drummers like Baby Dodds, Zutty Singleton, Sonny Greer and others, utilized tympani. gongs, woodblocks, sirens, ratchets, and various other percussion instruments. The re-introduction of these percussion instruments in today’s music is not an outgrowth or innovation of the music. Sounds of all sorts were used as part of music for quite some time.

Sound and it’s quality has always been a great part of one’s personal expression. Sound becomes a factor in distinguishing one instrumentalist from another. This applies to every instrument, whether reed, string, or any other. One’s sound develops as one grows musically. The basis of this sound is you. You can play the sounds you hear in your head. They are waiting to be brought out of the drums.

First, you must have a concept of how you want to sound, and how that sound feels. Then comes a process of experimentation until you find the sound that best expresses you. After that, it is a continuing process of change, according to personal concepts, feelings, and growth. One of the physical things you should experiment with is tuning your drums. This will help manifest your sound which will bring out the melodic aspect of your rhythms.

There are as many ways of tuning as there are people who play the instrument. But, there are three general areas of skin tensions.

1.) The bottom skin tuned tighter than the top skin.

2.) The top skin tuned tighter than the bottom skin.

3.) Equal tensioning of the top and bottom skins.

Before you start tuning, I suggest you take your drums completely apart, all hardware, screws, etc., until you are down to the bare shell. Then put it back together again. You will see how a drum is made, what might hurt or help its sound, and learn how to fix your drums. Then, find out what tensioning allows the drums to sing out best, taking into consideration pitch, ring, and overtones. Then, tune the top and bottom skins to the same pitch. I might tune the bottom skin slightly tighter (sharper), because when sound travels, it has a tendency to sound a little flat.

I tune my tom-toms and bass drum with both skins the same pitch. The overtones, produced by the skins being tuned to different pitches, will be cut out and you will have a pure note or tone. Then I tune the drums to each other, making it so that no matter what combination I play them in I can create a melody. The smallest drum produces the highest note, and the largest drum the lowest note. When this is accomplished, you will understand the purpose for having two skins on a drum. First, it gives a certain sound quality. Rounder and more complete. Secondly, the bottom skin is for the permanent tone; the top skin is for fine and quick tuning, as well as, for stick response. I tune my drums to each other rather than to any melodic instrument. This might otherwise get in the way of, or lock a sensitive soloist into the harmonic and/or melodic mode that the drums are tuned to.

My snare drum is tuned for sound. You must experiment for the sound and response that you desire. The same principles apply to the snare as to the other drums. How one tunes the drums depends a great deal on what type of music is being played. High tuned drums produce a distinctiveness, clarity, a quick attack, and a more pointed sound. Tuning the drums lower produces a bigger, more embracing sound, meatier, and richer. Tuning real low, where there is almost no tone, produces a flat sound that is almost physically felt.

There are many dampening systems available to reduce ringing, ranging from nothing, to drums stuffed with pillows and paper. I like a drum to ring just enough so the tone is complete, but not long enough to ring into the other drums as I’m playing. When tightening the skins, make sure that the tension is equal all the way around the drum. You can check this by striking the skin close to the rim near each lug making sure the sound is the same all the way around. This also helps to produce a pure tone, less overtones, and lessens the possibility of the drums becoming warped.

Remember that the individual sound you make through your instrument is a great part of your personal expression, and should be taken just as seriously as every other part of your development in becoming a more creative, aware and complete musician.