The history of the drum kit is a long and involved one, but the important thing to remember is that the drum kit is quite literally just a "kit of drums". Drummers have used a wide variety of different bits n' pieces to make up their kits over the years, and some of them have become so widely used and accepted they have become a "standard piece" of the average drum kit. Although these standard pieces have often developed quite considerably from the original item, it is important to remember that what we see of a drum kit today is really a collection of separate instruments with sometimes separate histories.
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The recent trends in a drum kit's make up, and consequently some aspects of popular music, seem likely to be closely related to those in marching bands. The "kick" or bass drum, and the snare drum are obvious examples of percussion instruments which also exist in a marching band line up, and toms are not too distantly related to "tim-toms", "quads" or the tenor drums. The high-hat's connection may not be so obvious, but with a little imagination, its not too hard to see its relation to a pair of hand-held crash cymbals. One might even go as far as to correlate the increase in popularity of the "choked" stroke used with marching cymbals, with the gradual dominance of closed high-hat for time keeping over the increasingly outmoded ride cymbal.
The snare drum is probably the most important part of a drum kit, and is often nicknamed "the steering wheel", partly because of its size, shape and position, but also because of its importance as the primary control of the drum kit. There are many different types of snare drum, which are used in different circumstances, but a drum kit snare such as the one pictured here, is typically 14 inches in diameter and around 6 to 8 inches deep, with a medium to heavy batter (top) head tuned fairly tightly. All snare drums have their roots firmly tied to the military, and marching tradition even though the marching snare drum of today has progressed quite a bit from its origins.
The bass drum of a drum kit is often referred to as "the Kick". This is partly because it is played by the foot pedal, although it is also to differentiate it from the bass guitar or acoustic bass in a band. With plenty of high volume levels it can be difficult to hear what someone is shouting, so it is wise not to have two things with similar names.
The size of the kit-style bass drum can be between 18" and 24", the smaller sizes being
preferred in jazz music, and 22" being the most common.
Another way that a drum kit bass drum differs from the larger ones found in Drum Corp or Orchestras, is the sound produced. The kit bass drum is usually dampened quite heavily to prevent the sound from "booming". The dampening turns it into more of a dry "thud" sound. This dampening is particularly important for the larger drums, but some drummers (usually those who use smaller bass drums) prefer to keep dampening to a minimum so a distinct tone can be heard. The dampening can be done in a number of ways, like a felt strip placed over the inside of the skins, or even an old pillow inside the drum!!
Drum kits can have a whole range of tom toms - from a single drum, to many assorted toms of varying size and type. Although it depends on the player and the musical style, the toms are usually played less than the other drums, being mainly saved for a solo, or the occasional fill or break. A standard five piece drum kit has three tom toms - a floor tom, and two rack toms. Rack toms are those that are mounted on a rack or stand, or on the top of the bass drum. A floor tom is so named because it has its own three legs which allow it to stand up by itself on the floor.
Cymbals come in an enormous range of size and type, and the range is growing all the time. It seems like almost every week we see the arrival of a new type of cymbal or similar. Here I will just name a few of the most important that have become fairly standard in use. Find great bargains on cymbals easily.
The high hat is probably the most important cymbal in a modern drum kit, and is actually two cymbals that work together. The bottom cymbal is slightly heavier and rests upside down on the stand. The lighter top cymbal is the right way up and is attached to a rod which runs through the center of the stand, to a pedal which is operated with the left foot. There are several sounds obtainable from the high hat using a combination of striking the top cymbal and opening and closing the gap between the two cymbals.
The most common sound we hear these days from the high hat, is when the top cymbal is struck while it is firmly clamped to the bottom cymbal with the pedal. This is what we call a "closed" sound.
It is probably safe to say that the high hat evolved as a mechanical version of the hand held crash cymbals we still see in drum corps and orchestras today.
Typically around 18" to 22" in diameter, a ride cymbal has a relatively dry sound, as its function is primarily time keeping. We tend to play faster passages of notes on the ride cymbal, so the drier sound is essential for clarity. In recent times the high hat has partially replaced the function of the ride cymbal, as its closed sound is shorter and crisper still, although the ride still comes in as the second most essential cymbal for drummers.
Slightly smaller than a ride, a crash cymbal is typically in the 14" to 18" range. A crash is usually designed to have a full bodied sound as it tends to be played with a single stroke which then dies fully away before the next.
A crash/ride cymbal is exactly as its name suggests, a combination of crash qualities and ride qualities in one cymbal. The crash/ride is unlikely to perform either function extremely well, but has become a very popular cymbal sold with budget priced drum kits as it can give a version of both sounds without purchasing two cymbals and two stands. Crash/ride cymbals are usually 18" in diameter.
Splash cymbals are like a small version of the crash cymbal, and usually fairly thin. They come in a large range of sizes from 6" to 15" in diameter, and although the sound produced is full bodied, it has a very quick attack, and very short duration.
China Type Cymbal
China cymbals are very distinctive both in their sound and appearance. Their shape is such that the lip of the cymbal is 'bent' so that it curves back upwards in the same direction as the 'bell' or 'dome'. The bell itself is usually much smaller than that of other cymbals and tends to have a fairly square profile. Because of this the china type cymbal is usually mounted "upside down" with the top of the bell going down on the stand. The shape is also responsible for the unique sound of the cymbal which is quite "trashy". It typically has an extremely fast attack and relatively short duration.
China type cymbals can come virtually any size, (I have seen china cymbals from 6" to 26") although 18" to 22" seems to be the most popular range.
Roto Toms have become a fairly popular addition to many drums kits, partially because of their unique sound which adds a useful texture to the kits repertoire, but also because they are tuneable to a distinct tone which can be useful in some songs.
Roto toms began life as a cheap version of the orchestral timpani for use in schools etc where size and expense made the real thing impossible. They use a single thin head stretched over a cast aluminium hoop rather than a shell. They are called "Roto toms" as the tension on the head (and therefore the pitch) can be altered simply by rotating the drum on its support rod.
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