The History of the Drumset
Drums are among the most ancient and diverse of all musical instruments (Jaffe 2). The power of the rhythm and drums has long been respected (2). The drumset however, in its current configuration, is a relatively recent addition to the percussionist’s repertoire. It has only been in existence since around the 1930s (Aldriage 5). This information introduces the question of how did the drumset evolve to its current condition? In his book Guide to Vintage Drums, John Aldriage states “the evolution of the drumset has been a ‘one step forward, two steps back’ proposition from the start, with trends coming and going and repeating themselves later” (30). That statement just barely begins to illustrate the extensive past behind the history of the drumset.
The influence that Africa had can be traced back to the drumset’s earliest forms. That influence was originally brought over by the North American slave trade. The slave trade brought over new percussion ideas and instruments. When Americans saw those instruments they began to create different versions of them, which would later evolve to be part of the percussionist’s repertoire. For example, the dundun. The dundun is an hourglass-shaped, two-headed drum whose twin heads are laced together by thongs of gut or leather (Hart, 52). By manipulating the tension on these thongs a player can alter the pitch of the tone he is making, thus enabling the dundun to “talk”, or produce tones that sound like words (52). This allows him to communicate with neighboring tribes (52). Americans took this idea and converted it into a single-head drum, constructed of brass, in which a foot pedal altered the pitch of the drum. This drum was first called the kettledrum and was later renamed to the timpani drum (“Early Percussion”).
Another influence to the drumset was the symphonic percussion instruments.
These instruments originated in the European area. They spanned a wide array of instruments such as mallet percussion, timpani, bass drums, woodblocks, cymbals, “knick nacks” used to create sound effects, and many others.
The last main influence to the drumset was the early (1790s-1890s) marching percussion instruments. The primary reason for a marching percussion section was to provide a tempo for troops to march along with. Every modern army at the time developed a drum language to control the flow of the troops, whether they were marching between camps or in battle (Hart 51). The two primary instruments in this section were the snare and bass drums. This required a minimum of two players.
Up until the late 1800s bands required 2 or 3 percussionists to cover all of the parts. In the early 1900s percussionists began to play with brass bands. To accommodate the lack of space, a “set-up” to have one drummer play three parts was created (Falzerano 22). Drummers used elements from around the world to create a new instrument originally known as a “contraption”, later shortened to the “trapset” (Hart 184). The early configuration standards for a “trapset” consisted of a snare drum, bass drum, and a cymbal that were all struck with the drummer’s sticks. Later on drummers began ransacking the percussive inventory (184). They took elements from all over the planet (184). “The first addition to the drumset after the bass drum, cymbal, and snare drum were the sound effects” (Aldriage 11).
The most important of the sound effects added to the trapset were the chinese toms. They were relatively thin and about 10 inches in diameter. On each side they had a batter head that was held to they shell of the drum by tacs. On each individual head there was a painting of various chinese figures. (Barclay, Lecture)
Shortly following the new additions they began to develop ways to simplify their playing and to involve their legs. This included the first and probably most significant addition to the percussionist’s repertoire, the bass drum pedal. The first bass pedal was patented on March13, 1894 (Barclay, Lecture). The bass pedal now allowed the player to use both hands to strike other aspects of his/her “trapset” rather than using one hand to strike the bass drum. This opened a much wider range of what an individual was now able to accomplish.
When the bass pedal was accepted, the design to make a pedal to operate the cymbals was created (Aldriage 5). The first design was dubbed the snow-shoe and was simply a pair of shoe shaped boards with cymbals attached (22). The invention of the snow-shoe led to a more suitable and modern design that stood approximately 10inches off of the floor (22). I t was nicknamed the “low boy” and was first manufactured by the Walberg and Auge Co. (22).
With all of these inventions and other additions a trend was starting to be revealed throughout the drumming community. Around the 1930s the new standard configuration consisted of the cymbals, snare drum, bass drum, and both foot pedals (Aldriage 13). Also around this time the name was slightly altered again. It was changed from the “trapset” to it’s current name, the drumset. But the changes did not stop there.
Many alterations were made to the current design and configuration to make them more effective. For example: around the 1960s the “low boy” was replaced by the hi-hat (Falzerno 23). The hi-hat was a more modern and practical device that was and is still used today to control the tension between two cymbals held together. Another change occurred with the chinese tom-toms. They were gradually dropped in favor of either single headed tunable toms, or more modern looking toms with tunable top and bottom heads (Aldriage 12). The standard a drumset player uses now ultimately depends on the type of music they play (Barclay 1). Even as of right now the options for the modern drumset are endless. But as with any instrument, a long history of developments have and will continue to be made to the drumset.
Aldriage, John. Guide to Vintage Drums. Vermont: Not So Modern Drummer, 1994.
Barclay, Jim. The Evolution of the Drumset: From “Baby Dodds to Dave Weckl. LaPorte: Author, n.d.
Barclay, Jim. The Evolution of the Drumset: From “Baby Dodds to Dave Weckl. Lecture. LaPorte High School. 24 March 1999.
“Early Percussion”. Not So Modern Drummer 24 Feb. 1997. Online. 1 May 1998.
Falzerno, Chet. “The evolution of the hi-hat.” Not So Modern Drummer . n.d. Rpt. in Vintage Drums. 1994.