There are two types of people in the world. Drummers and liars who claim that there are more important things in life than drumming. If you’ve finally accepted that you’re the first kind or are shopping for somebody who’s made that decision, then the next decision has to be what drum set to get as a beginner. Choose wisely and a first drum set can be a long-term musical companion. Choose poorly and it can be that in-law you’re embarrassed to have around but afraid to tell to get lost.
Drum set choices can be mind-boggling in their complexity. They range from the super-cheap starter kit found at a big-box retail store to the professional-level sets that would look at home on a stage being beaten on by a legendary rock star. A beginner looking to make a go of drumming will probably need something in between these two extremes. Don’t worry, with the proper homework, you should be able to find a good choice no matter what your budget. Before you choose one, though, read on and find out what you really need out of a drum set. Since it might not be clear to someone who hasn’t spent too much time around drums, we’ll try to examine some of the factors that should be considered when making this monumental decision.
Anatomy of a basic drum set
First of all, what exactly is a drum set? If you’re shopping for yourself, you probably have some idea already. If you’re shopping for a gift, then it might help to understand exactly what you’ll be getting. Although the specifics vary, most experts will agree that at its most basic, a drum set should include a bass drum, a snare drum, at least one tom, and a cymbal. If you are looking for a complete, ready-to-use drum set, make sure it has at least one of each of the above components.
While shopping, you might notice something called a “shell pack.” Be careful. This is NOT a complete drum set. A shell pack typically includes only a bass drum and the toms. Mounting hardware and cymbals aren’t included in a shell pack. How many and what kind of each drum do you need? Let’s take a look at some more details below.
Bass Drum: This drum is responsible for the low-pitched (not surprising with the name bass), boom-boom-boom type sound and is played by stomping on a foot pedal. The foot pedal is definitely something to consider when looking at drum sets. Foot pedals come in a variety of configurations, but don’t need to be complicated when starting out. Look for quality. Bass drum pedals are also sold separately if an upgraded or additional one is required later.
Toms: Toms come in a variety of sizes and pitches. The smaller ones will be mounted on the bass drum or rack while the larger ones will have their own legs and be freestanding (these ones are also known as “floor toms”). The quantity and variety of Toms is something that sets drum sets apart. How many do you need? Don’t complicate things when starting off. You can always add more later when necessary.
Cymbals: There are several kinds of cymbals, each with its own characteristic sound. The three basic types of cymbals are ride, crash, and hi-hat. Let’s start with the “crash” cymbal. Strangely enough, this member of the cymbal family gets its name from the distinctive crash-like sound it makes. Crash cymbals are usually the smallest of the cymbals, but don’t be fooled — they make a large sound. Ride cymbals might be considered the basic workhorse cymbal, always there ready to be beaten and neither too big nor too small. Last in the cymbal lineup is the hi-hat. Picture the old one-man band image with the man wearing cymbals between his knees, banging them together as he plays. Now imagine how inconvenient that would be. Enter the hi-hat cymbal. Instead of one cymbal on each knee, it’s two cymbals facing each other on a vertical stand with a foot-pedal to bring them together.
Snare Drum: The snare drum is similar to a higher-pitched tom, but adds a set of wires stretched across the bottom of the drum. These wires vibrate when the drum is hit and add to the basic drum sound, creating a sound most frequently described as “snappy.” The snares can also be disengaged to produce a different, more tom-like sound using the snare strainer.
Materials: Not only do the number and type of pieces determine price, but so do the materials used in the construction of your drums’ shells. Different materials have different hardness and tonal qualities. There are many common drum shell materials in use today. Maple is a medium-hardness wood with a well-balanced, warm tone which has earned it the number one spot in popularity over the years. If you can afford it, maple is a pretty solid choice. Birch is a harder wood with a brighter and sharper tone than maple. Birch can be a good choice to provide volume and stand out above the other sounds. Mahogany is a softer wood which makes for a much warmer tone than the previous two. Mahogany would be a good choice for a lower, richer sound. If budget is more of an issue, then consider Poplar. It’s a less-expensive choice with a sound somewhere between that of birch and mahogany.
Drum Heads: Each drum has a top head and a bottom head. The top one is the surface that gets played — beaten on by drumsticks. The bottom head enhances the sound. Buying quality heads can greatly enhance the sound a skilled player can coax out of a drum. Additionally, sturdier heads will survive longer with an aggressive player who really routinely likes to beat the drums to within inches of their lives. You’ll most likely find drum heads made of mylar, although other materials exist. Thick or thin, single ply or double ply, coated or non-coated are some of the varieties of drum heads. If you haven’t already picked a favorite type based on playing style, start with a good quality, medium weight drum head. Drum heads can be changed later to suit individual playing style and requirements.
Hardware: The drums in your drum set will be mounted on legs, stands, and racks. Since the drum set will literally take a beating, it’s important to get a set with legs, stands, and racks that will hold up to the abuse and not loosen up or fall apart. Don’t forget the old saying, “you get what you pay for.” This is as true in drum sets as anywhere else.
Appearance: Drum sets are available in a variety of finishes and colors. Many drum sets are “wrapped” or covered in vinyl wraps. This is a great way for manufacturers to inexpensively apply a high-quality finish to their drums. It’s also worth noting that wraps will probably stand up better to scrapes and scratches than a natural lacquer finish would. Each brand has a distinctive logo which will be prominently displayed on the bass drum for audiences to see. Don’t sweat the logo on the bass drum too much, though, since they can be covered, redecorated, and personalized to match a drummer’s own tastes (or lack thereof).
Drumsticks & Throne: Don’t forget about the drumsticks! There are more kinds of sticks out there than drums. Sticks are designed for specific uses and come in different widths and weights, but it comes down to personal preference. Try out a variety of sticks and see what works best for your playing style. Although not required, an adjustable-height stool or “throne” is another useful addition to your kit.
Now that you know something about what makes up a drum set, it’s time to return to the original question: How to pick the best beginner drum set. Although everybody is different and there’s no single perfect one-size-fits-all beginner drum set, you should be able to find the right one for you (or your loved one). Consider what type of music you’ll be playing. Watch some music videos of artists performing the type of music you plan to play and look at what pieces they use to produce those sounds. If the drum set is a gift for someone else, get to know them and what kind of features and drums will be useful to them. This could be a great opportunity to spend quality time with family and practice your active listening skills or your secret-agent-super-spy interrogation skills. Don’t be afraid to write down some notes then compare them with the information above.
Once you’ve picked the perfect beginner drum set, you’ll need somewhere to buy it. The importance of buying from a reputable source can’t be overemphasized. Buy from a trusted dealer who will provide support before and after the purchase. Although not nearly as difficult to assemble as cheap furniture with Chinese instructions, a drum set does require some assembly. A good dealer should be happy to help with any questions you may have.
Here are a couple of links to help you take the next step in finding the perfect drum kit: