When looking to buy an acoustic drum kit, there’s a lot to know. After all, you’re technically purchasing 8 or so different instruments – each drum has its own sound and each cymbal has its own sound. And then there’s hardware!
Purchasing acoustic drums can be a bit of a head scratcher, so we’re going to break it down for you.
Here are the things you need to consider when purchasing a drum kit:
Drum kits come in a variety of sizes and the size of each drum greatly affects its pitch and tone. The larger the diameter of the drum, the lower the pitch. The depth of the drums also adds to its tone – shallower drums produce a thinner sound and deeper drums produce a fatter, more powerful sound. A jazz kit with shallow toms and an 18″ kick drum will not cut it in a rock band – believe me when I tell you that. Similarly, a large rock kit with a 24″ kick and deep toms is going to get you kicked out of a swing band pretty quickly. Since this is going to be your first kit and your music tastes may change over time (or maybe you’ll end up in a covers band), we’d advise sticking to what is sometimes known as a fusion size kit:
Snare – 14×5.5
Rack tom 1 – 10×8
Rack tom 2 – 12×9
Floor Tom – 14×14
Bass drum – 22×18
Don’t worry about sticking religiously to these sizes, but as a guide, this is a good starting point.
The shell material determines the tone of the drum and its dynamics. Here’s a brief guide to the most common woods used and how they sound:
- Mahogany – A soft wood that is soft, warm, and deep
- Birch – A hard wood that is bright with a sharp attack and very loud!
- Maple – Pretty much dead in the middle of mahogany and birch in terms of tone, attack, and volume
The shell is made from ply rather than solid wood and the number of ply dictates the tone and volume of the drum. A thin shell (4 ply) will have great tone, but little volume. A lot of jazz kits have thinner shells to provide more resonance and sustain as volume is not too much of an issue considering what the kit has to compete with in terms of other instruments. Medium thickness shells (6 ply) aren’t quite as resonant and warm sounding as drums with thinner shells, but they project better. Medium thickness shells give you a good balance between resonance and volume. Thick shells (8-10 ply) resonate far less and are not as toneful or warm as thinner shells, but they produce much more volume and are necessary for louder music such as rock and metal. Thicker shells also provide a more focused sound than thinner shells, which generally produce more overtones (harmonics of the drum world).
A drum has two heads (also known as skins): a batter head (top head) and a resonant head (bottom head). The batter head is the one you hit with the stick! The bottom head will resonate sympathetically with the top head (once hit). Think of these heads as the strings of a guitar – without them, the instrument would make no sound. And, just like guitar strings, you can choose from a huge array of drum heads to suit your playing style and sound. Heads do wear out and will need to be replaced over time, but they are inexpensive and readily available.
Cymbals can be fairly expensive but they are as important as the drums themselves. When pricing a drum kit, remember to include the price of a decent cymbal pack. A decent beginner drum kit can sound very nice with good, properly tuned drum heads. Cheap cymbals sound like bin lids and there’s nothing you can do to improve them other than turning them upside down and putting fruit in them. Cymbal packs are great for beginners as they are attractively priced and include everything you need to get started – crash, ride & hi-hats. Cheap cymbals have a higher tin content, and I’m sure you can image how amazing a tin can would sound if it were repeatedly beat with a stick. More expensive cymbals have a much lower tin content and have a much more pleasing sound. Drummers tend to mix and match their cymbals and buy a lot of them, but beginners need nothing more than a basic cymbal pack.
Things to be aware of…
Drum kits do not usually come as complete set-ups. If a kit is advertised as a ‘shell pack’, this means drums only – no cymbals, stands, or pedals. And, sometimes, no snare either. It is quite common to buy a shell pack with matching snare, and for the cymbals and hardware to be sold separately.
Decent kits come with decent heads. Cheap kits come with cheap heads. In order to get a cheap kit to sound halfway decent, you could put good heads on it, but it’d cost you around $300 for a full set. Therefore, don’t buy a cheap kit – spend that extra $300 and get a good one.