I’m about to reveal to you the greatest set of drums I’ve ever played. Without a doubt I know these drums will “blow away” any other drum kit out there. Don’t even try to change my mind on this, because I’ve played every kind of set of drums made in the world. All of the greatest drummers play them too. OK,,, READY?!,,, The best drums ever are $#@!#!#@#!$. What!,,, you say you couldn’t hear me. I said, $#@!#@!$#@!$#. They really are amazing. You must get them or you’re just not the most hip, cool, “up to date”, stylin’ cat out there; like all of the other really happenin’ drummers who play these drums.
OK, OK, STOP!!! For those of you that know me, you know I don’t get into these kinds of discussions. There is no “greatest drum set ever.” I’ve even worked in several drum shops through the years, and this was always part of the common shoptalk. “Oh, man, you should really get these!” or “What!,,, you’ve never played those drums? They’re the best! You’re really missing it, dude.” It didn’t take long for me to realize that the art of drumming is much more than what drum set you play.
My favorite equipment recommendation is to play what you love and what inspires you. It doesn’t matter if it’s Yamaha, Pearl, Tama, DW, Gretsch, or any of the other great drums out there. Play the drums that make you want to play! When you play “that” drum kit then you’ve found YOUR instrument. And don’t let anyone “mess with your head” about it.
What makes drums sound great is a great player making great music with a great team when everything technically comes together. Now that can be a very complicated thing, but let’s stay focused on the drum issue. We could also talk about cymbals, sticks, drumheads, etc. etc., but again, we will stay in drum world for this article.
In all drum making, even with custom-built drums, there are some elements that apply to everyone. I know there are a thousand variations in the small details, but we’ll focus on the big issues. Types of wood, the sizes, the rims, and the tom mounting system of the kit are probably the biggest factors of drum sound. And this isn’t even discussing the electronic and engineering options.
First, all maple drums will probably be the first item in every company’s catalog. I happen to play a Yamaha Maple Custom Absolute series kit with aluminum die cast hoops. A 22” kick; 10”, 12”, 14” & 16” toms (all standard depths); and a 14”x5” snare. (I do have other kits and about 15 snares, but this is my primary set up.) Yes, I think they’re awesome, and have been thrilled with the sound they create. But every maple kit has very similar characteristics. They all sound “BIG!”
Maple in general is a very hard wood, but it is also very resonant. I don’t know all of the technical reasons, but they are “punchy” and have a lot of tone. In some settings maple drums can be a little too big sounding. I’ve heard some people say the sound spreads out too much, and that they keep ringing too long. So if you want a more focused, tight sound maybe you should try birch or other drums.
Birch drums, like the classic “Yamaha Recording Custom” series, are amazing too. These drums were the early sound of Steve Gadd, Dave Weckl, Paul Leim and others. They have a little more mid-range in tone and have a little tighter punch. Now, does that mean better? … No, it’s just different. Especially when it comes to the sound of the toms. Many players like Gadd and Leim are using maple kick drums with birch toms. This would give you a huge, fat sounding kick, with toms that are a little more punchy in the mid range.
All the drum companies would advertise and price their maple & birch kits as the top of the line drums. Beyond that they would start to use other types of wood, and combinations of them. Perhaps combining these popular woods with mahogany or oak or others. If you are reading drum magazines and catalogs you probably find the variations pretty overwhelming. But honestly, what I’ve observed is that when you get into the less expensive drums they all sound more controlled and not as resonant. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. In some settings you don’t what the drums to sound so huge. If you play in smaller venues all of the time, a less resonant kit might work better. I’ve used Yamaha Oak drums or other inexpensive kits that sounded awesome, but they just didn’t sound as big. The key in most settings is tuning and head selection, which I’ve written about in other articles.
You could really put together whatever kind of drum kit you could imagine with the current list of options that are available. Although I personally like to hear a drum kit with the same tonal characteristics across all of the drums. Of course next week I could change my mind. Remember, this is art!
Besides types of wood, there are also variations in size and thickness of shell we could choose from. Deeper drums will sound fatter and maybe darker. Shorter drums will be punchier. Thinner shells will sound brighter than thicker shells and so on. If the drums have die cast hoops rather than machined steel they will probably have more of a snap or cutting sound.
The best way to tune your ear to these variations in sound is to go to a shop and try a lot of different drums. Don’t be a pest, but ask the store sales people if you can take some time to try things out. Try out everything and take mental note of what make & model your playing. Be sensitive to the workers and customers and try to do your testing in minutes and not hours of playing in a store. I think you’ll get excited as you discover what sounds inspire you. It’s amazing to play drums and feel that connection to a sound.
Always keep in mind what you’ll be using the kit for. Are you recording? Are you playing in mostly large rooms or small? Is the music more rock, pop, jazz, or is it a combination of everything. Of course you may feel you need more options, but you don’t have the budget or space to own several sets of drums. So how can you pick out a kit that will work for everything? In general the standard kit I mentioned earlier really does cover all of the bases. It’s a big investment up front, but it will last a lifetime if you take care of it.
If I’m playing in smaller venues I might only use the three smaller toms, use a smaller snare, and put more padding in the kick. When I don’t have to worry about the room I use everything and let them ring. I muffle as little as possible most of the time. Drums have a voice and I like to let them speak. Again this is always subject to what the job calls for.
No matter what type of kit I use I look for the tom mountings to be some kind of suspension system. Even on a cheap kit this can make all the difference in the resonance of the toms and how easily they will tune. Mountings that attach to the shell or go through the shell will usually distort the sound or choke them. Quite often I can’t get the drums to tune properly and one or all of the toms don’t “speak” or resonate well. Unless you want that old school tom sound you have to have isolation mounting for the toms. This feature has become very standardized in modern drum building and can be found on even the cheapest of drum sets.
I hope this helps keep your mind at ease if you’ve been wondering if your drums aren’t the “best drums in the world.” Or maybe this will help you in your journey if you have been thinking of a change in kits. Again, test a lot of drums and get your ears tuned in to what’s out there.
You might just add some pieces. Maybe smaller toms or a smaller kick drum would be a good idea in a small room. It could be that a cheaper, less resonant kit is more suitable to your situation. Buying a really loud, top of the line kit and putting a lot of muffling on everything is a terrible waste of money.
If you would like to, let me know how it’s going in your journey in discovering the sound of drums. You can write to my e-mail or the FAQ section at this web site. Happy drum hunting! Oh, and remember, don’t worry about finding the best drums in the world. I think they’re in heaven with Buddy Rich. Ha!!!!!!!!