Drum History From Inception To Today

Posted in Learn | Last Updated on October 4, 2018

Drum set history is über important. To know where you’re going, it often helps to know from where you came. We’re going to go all the way back to the inception of the drum set.

Before the drum set, drums have existed since the dawn of humanity. They’ve been played together in all sorts of ensembles from tribal dance settings to the symphonic orchestras of Europe. Drums and cymbals and all sorts of percussion instruments have existed since way before the drum set, but we’re going to focus on when the drum set became a drum set.

We’ll split drum set history up into several periods…

  • The Creation Of The “Kit” As We Know It
  • Jazz And Bebop
  • Rock And Fusion
  • Steve Gadd And Studio Drumming
  • Gated Reverb And The 80s
  • The 90s Onward

Creation Of The “Kit” As We Know It

Before drum set history began, percussion instruments were played separately, with one man playing one instrument. Bass drums were played by one person, a set of tom toms were played by one person, bells, cymbals, shakers, etc. Everything was divided up.

This took up lots of space on stage! When the Vaudeville era came along (c 1880-1930), budgets were low and stages were small. Shows required that the most percussion instruments possible be played by the fewest performers possible (basically, one person).

Drums, cymbals, shakers and bells had to be organized into something compact and playable by one person. This was all fun, but the real developments of our drum set history couldn’t start until Theodor Ludwig came along in the 1890s.

The concept of using a pedal to play a drum was unheard of at the time. Ludwig changed that. Before the pedal, drummers had 2 limbs with which to work. Ludwig’s first professional working model of the bass drum pedal allowed drummers to use at least 3 limbs, before the concept of a “sock” cymbal (or hi-hat) was created.

By 1914 drum kits had “contraptions” on them, or “traps that held various blocks, toms and cymbals, like the photo above (which is actually from the 1930s). Most of the accessories stemmed from the “trap” mounted on the bass drum.

At first, drummers played the new “drum set”, complete with bass pedal, while standing. However, the invention of primitive hi-hats in the 1920s (which were only about shin-height, and played only with the foot) compelled drummers to sit down and use all four limbs at once! These original “hi-hats” were actually called Low Boys at the time. They were popularized by early jazz drummers like Baby Dodds.

It finally grew into a “hi-hat” when drummers like Jo Jones and Gene Krupa wanted to play it with their drum sticks as well as their feet. A true turning point in drum set history!

By the 30′s however, the concept had become somewhat standardized with the “4 piece set”we know and love today! That would be…

  • A bass drum
  • A snare drum
  • A rack tom
  • A floor tom

Larger “floor toms” began being fitted with legs in this decade.

Double bass drum kits appeared as early as the 1940′s, made famous by Louie Bellson.

By this time, the drum set as we know it had taken the shape it would more or less stay in.

Jazz And Bebop

Kenny Clarke

Dixieland and dance bands had sprung out of vaudeville and drummers were playing time on the snare and hi-hats, using both brushes and sticks. Quarter notes were often pounded out on bass drums, as well. The cymbal, however was only being used for accents.

It wasn’t until the 40s and 50s that Kenny Clarke (drumming with musicians like Thelonious Monk) took the time-keeping up to his cymbal. He was the first to “ride” a cymbal (thus creating the ride cymbal). Accents were played with the bass drum and snare drum, and time keeping was moved up to these cymbals. Clarke was known for dropping “bombs”, or big accents with the bass drum. He spawned a whole new generation of drummers, and changed drum set history once again.

Remo Belli, founder of “Remo”, created the first artificial drum head in 1957

Bebop drummers like Philly Joe Jones, Jimmy Cobb, and Vernel Fournier, paved the way for newer jazz drummers like Max Roach, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Billy Cobham and beyond. Yet the kit remained largely unchanged.

Cymbal and drum sizes varied, but most technical improvements were done to hardware. Memory lock cymbal stands, and more maneuverable tom mounting system became available. Drumming thrived.

Rock And Fusion

Starting with Ringo Starr and the Beatles in the 1960s, drumming became incredibly popular and accessible. Everyone wanted to play the instrument. Things also got much louder!

In no time, drummers were looking for bigger, louder drums to keep up with the electric guitars and basses, and amplified vocals. Bass drums grew to 20″,22″, and even 24″ or 26″, and toms and snares grew deeper and wider. Drummers like Keith Moon, John Bonham and Charlie Watts made bigger drums famous and desirable.

John Henry Bonham rocking on his larger than average kit.

These drummers still tuned their kits rather high, but the sheer size of their drums meant deep, loud rumbling sounds could be achieved.

In the Jazz/Fusion world, Billy Cobham popularized bigger drum sizes as well as a bigger drum set (larger number of drums and cymbals). Many toms and cymbals, as well as double 20″ or 22″ bass drums were common for Cobham.

Billy Cobham playing his fusion kit. Very big!

Steve Gadd And Studio Drumming.

Before Steve Gadd, drummers used big drums tuned higher up to get those lower sounds. they relied on muffling, and large sizes to achieve a “rock” drum sound.

When Gadd came on the scene starting in the 70s, he began using very small drums. 26″ bass drums became 20″ or 22″, and he popularized the 10″ rack tom.

By tuning the drums very low, he was able to make small drums sound punchy and powerful. New types of heads, drum constructions, setups, and recording techniques all sprung out of this drum tuning/drum size revelation. He single-handedly altered drum set history forever.

Gated Reverb And The 80s

The last big drum innovations happened with Steve Gadd (in my opinion). The conventions of tuning and recording concepts remained more or less the same. There are always gradual improvements but I don’t think there have been stellar leaps in concept since then.

One of the big ways the 80s left it’s mark on drum set history was this new concept of putting gated reverb on drums. It’s a process by which the drums are made to sound artificially punchy and clean in post production. The drum sounds of Peter Gabriel and Phil Collins are notorious for using gated reverb.

The whole notion of post production enhancement really came into play in the 80s. Artificiallity started to take hold, which is why many musicians tend to dislike 80s music. I personally think everything has it’s place. There’s nothing wrong with post production!

The 90s Onward

There’s not a whole lot to be said about drum set history after the 80s. The drumset had already become it’s own instrument, and the nuts and bolts of tuning and recording had been worked out to near perfection.

Yes, as time goes on, new sounds will develop, and different things will fall in and out of fashion. But the drumset has developed it’s identity as an instrument.

That being said, some great new concepts in drumming have emerged since the 90s! Drummers like Jojo Mayer are being influenced by these artificial genres of electronic music, and playing drums in ways that would make programmers proud.

Drummers like Chris Dave are taking programmed hip hop beats from people like J-Dilla and finding ways to replicate them on the drums. The push and pull of the time on some of these grooves is incredible, and these new drummers are able to play them perfectly. It’s really something!

This has been a somewhat brief synopsis of drum set history, but I could have gone on forever. Hopefully, you have a better concept of how our instrument came into existence, and where it could be going in the future!