Drum Set and Percussion FAQ

Posted by on Jul 17, 2020 in Drumset, General Music | Comments Off on Drum Set and Percussion FAQ

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Do you have any burning questions about drums? Or even just some random thoughts you’ve never really asked about? Send them here! Below are some of the most frequently asked questions about drumline, drum set, and percussion in general. In a future article any questions received from here will be answered personally and hopefully help you out, along with anyone else that might have similar questions in the future!

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So check out the FAQ below with answers to the best of my ability. Then, email a copy of your additional questions to the contact page or directly at Patrick@PatrickRFBlakley.com

Please feel free to submit any suggestions for site content or even feel free to make requests! Need a very specific warmup or custom excerpt for your group? Try me! If I have a moment to compose something that will benefit your group I would love to help you out – and better yet, help you learn how to do it yourself as you grow in the activity! I’m all ears on this one. Email me at the address above and let’s see your suggestions and requests!


Drum Set F.A.Q.

Q: How do I set up my drum set?

A: Start with the bass drum and hihat with your stool. Sit down comfortably on your throne so that you’re balanced and have your feet out as far forward while still being able to pick them both up off the floor without leaning back, this is where your pedals should go. Now put the snare drum between your legs and make sure it fits without adjusting the pedals too much, if at all. Mount your toms so that they have a minimal angle, as flat as you’re comfortable making them, this allows the energy of the stick to go perpendicular to the drum head instead of glancing it at an angle. The floor tom should go close to your leg, but not touching. Cymbals should not completely cover the drums, but not too far away that you’re leaning forward to play them. Usually the ride (biggest cymbal) is on the right for right handed players. Keep in mind this is all personal preference, if you want to experiment and make a unique setup that’s great! Just make sure you’re not expending too much energy on unnecessary things like leaning or twisting or glancing the instruments – but even that is subjective!

Q: How many drums and cymbals do I need?

A: Again, this is subjective, as most things in the drum set world are. But it can really depend on what kid of music you’re playing. Some drummers only have a 2 piece kit with a bass and snare, that’s cool if it works for them because a good percussionist can make a small drum set speak well for them! The other side of the spectrum is that you might want a ton of different colors to choose from for each phrase you play. So there, get a big drum set then! Really in the end it’s up to you, but I would start small and utilize what you have before you experiment with bigger kits. From an audience perspective they’ll see a huge drum set and expect that drummer to play on everything all the time. This is not a fault of the audience, they just want to be entertained, and if you show up with a Lamborghini of a drum set they’re not going to be happy with you driving 25 mph. However, if you show up with a golf cart and then drive 190 mph you can bet they will be thoroughly impressed!

Q: Are drums hard?

A: This is another subjective question, but think of it this way, you’re probably already a drummer. Ever bang out a rhythm on your car steering wheel? You’re a drummer. Now, to progress beyond that, yes, it’s a little hard and a little discouraging, but what hobby isn’t? Drums, just like everything else, takes practice and if you can create the time to practice it doesn’t matter how hard it is, just battle through the rough patches and try to have fun with the stuff you’ve accomplished already! I very specifically remember the eureka moment I had when I became coordinated enough to play 3 parts at once! I literally felt myself crossing the threshold into drum set territory, and I think if you can find yourself that moment you’ll be past your first major hurdle and start to really have fun with it all! Keep in mind though, if you want to keep progressing drums is never NOT hard, but hopefully the more you uncover the more fun you’re able to have with the stuff that’s behind you on your path forward.

Q: Can a drum set fit in a car?

A: That really depends on if you’re John Stanier or Terry Bozzio. First, I would recommend drum cases, which will take up more space in the car, but you should still be able to fit a small drum set into a car with the rear seats down. I’ve done this with my gigging kit, it’s a really tight squeeze, but it’s possible. I think a standard five-piece drum set should fit in the average car depending on cymbals and stands. Now if you want to get clever about it you could take the resonant head off the bass drum and maybe fit another drum inside before you put it in a case, but it might get banged up a little bit inside. You could also consider a jungle kit or a suitcase kit, both of which are intentionally small for various reasons. A cocktail kit would also be deliberately small, but then you’d be standing up to play it all night, and who really wants to do that?!

Q: Which drum set is best?

A: This isn’t as important of a question as which drum set SIZING is the best? The brand of a drum set might change wood species or design components, but overall most ears can’t distinguish a brand just from hearing the drum. That being said, most ears have a much easier time determining the size of a drum! That means you’ll want to decide what size drums you want and then chose a company that either has that size for their kits or order the drums individually from that company. For example, if you want a big meaty thud out of your bass drum you could go with a 24″ kick, but you’re sacrificing a bit of articulation, so then you’ll need to look at bass drum beaters and drum head options. Same with the toms and cymbals too, it will all depend on the application. So I would recommend going to the nearest drum store and requesting the beating stick and hitting every drum and cymbal they have (and take notes!) Lastly, I would highly encourage you to learn about different factors that influence the sound of your snare drum, that drum has the most flight critical components and all of them will change the output sound. Start with the shell diameter, then depth. Understand how the thickness of the shell changes the sound qualities and maybe at this point you’re thinking of a custom drum. Stave shells combine two or more woods into the shell and many companies offer very artistic hardware to go with your desired sound. Last but not least, drum head choice is probably the second most important decision behind diameter and depth!

Q: Which drum set is best for beginners?

A: Let’s see, if you’re buying your first drum set (or buying one for your child for example) you’ll want to take an educated guess on how long it will be used. Are we talking a one off thing to try and see if you like it? Or have we been in the school’s percussion program for a bit and we’re bringing something into the home to practice with? In the first example I would think about a cheap starter set that doesn’t cost too much, has some single ply drum heads, and usually comes in one box. Try it out, make sure this is what you want to get into, or maybe it’s just a bit of a fad and doesn’t go anywhere. You’ll eventually upgrade the entire kit when things got serious down the road. In the second example I’d be more confident finding a name brand drum set where you can buy some good quality drums and not have to worry about upgrading them down the road, instead you could simply add on to the current kit. I would think about just a 4 to 5 piece kit (a ‘piece’ is basically just a drum). For cymbals you’ll probably want a pair of hihats, a ride, and a crash to start. Then think about adding a secondary crash down the road or some effects cymbals like a splash. The purpose of this second kit would be to invest in the future, it would not be something that someone would grow out of over time, you’d only need to raise the height of the stool!

Q: What size bass drum should I get?

A: Default size for most standard drum sets is 22 inches. You can find them as small as 18 inches usually, but the smaller the drum the less low frequency sound you’ll get out of it. Now you can also usually go as big as 24″, but keep in mind the bigger the drum the less articulation you’ll get, so there’s a sacrifice in both directions in terms of size. 22″ seems to be the sweet spot, especially for rock drummers.

Q: Which electronic drum set is best?

A: This is a difficult question because there’s so many different factors. For a short answer we can narrow it down to 2 things you need to really consider: audio and feel. Audio meaning the sound library you’ll have access to and how good or bad the sounds imitate actual drums. If you’re at the drum store don’t just hit each pad once to test them out, instead hit one pad a bunch of times in succession, see if the sounds sort of cut each other off or if the sound is super repetitive. Also see if the rim of the pad makes a different sound that the center, or if you hit it harder that you get a louder sound. On the other side of the coin, how do the pads feel? Are they a solid rubber or are they a nice mesh surface that feels more authentically real? Keep in mind if you’re going to practice on an electric kit and perform on an acoustic kit you’ll want a practice kit that feels as real as possible. Lastly, if not obvious, the more you pay the better the kit (basically). If you see an expensive kit you’ll probably be looking at one that has all the luxuries the industry has to offer, but if you’re happy with some drum pads just to keep your hands moving in the apartment, maybe that’s the best electronic drum set right there!

Q: Acoustic or Electric kit?

A: Depends on application. If you’re just practicing in an apartment then electric all day and all night. If volume isn’t an issue you’ll get more information out of an acoustic kit, in terms of learning how to tune it and maybe even mic it. Electric kits will be easier to get a nice sound, but sometimes that sound is a little too repetitive, especially on lower end kits. Acoustic kits can also be turned into hybrid kits by adding some electronic drum pads, triggers, or sample station. You can get he best of both worlds by doing this, but again, you’re going to have some potential issues in both worlds as well, technology never seems to come without problems. If you’re planning to perform with any electronic drums make sure you know how to troubleshoot issues quickly! Practice setting up quickly and see if you can find the logistical problems before you try to do it in a show situation. This very much applies to the marching percussion world! Don’t try to lean too much on electronics, especially to start your show, because if you can’t get them to work you might be up a certain creek with out a certain key item.

Q: How to tune a drum set?

A: I bet if you searched for a book online about tuning drums you’d find hundreds! So for a short answer this is a bit of a non-starter. This could definitely turn into a future article about how I personally tune my drum set, but to tune one in general with a brief answer here let’s see what I can do… 

Start with your bass drum, then your snare drum. Play a little while with just your hihat and these 2 drums, make sure you’re happy with them. Then, after that’s comfortable on your ears, move on to the toms starting at the smallest one. Now, you’ll start from scratch on all of these drums by basically removing both heads. If you’re just looking for tuning tips you can skip this part. Put the batter head (top head) on first, and set it by finger tightening the tension rods until they contact the rim. Now going back and forth across the drum head turn the drum key on each rod about 3-4 half turns, do this for all the rods in a star pattern and check the sound of the head at each lug by tapping on the drum head right next to each tension rod. Make minor adjustments to any rod that doesn’t match each other. Repeat this processes until you’re happy with the batter head. Now do the same thing with the resonant head (bottom head) until it’s harmonious with the batter head (usually not as tight). This will be done with all drums including the bass drum. Now to fine tune a drum just tap next to each tension rod and turn the drum key 1/4 to 1/2 turn to bring it up in pitch a bit. Usually I start by turning all the rods on the drum about 1/4 turn if it’s been a while since tuning. Do a similar adjustment to the resonant head but maybe only 1/8 to 1/4 turn on this one. Don’t get lazy, take the drum off and check the bottom head! Also, if you’re like me and overlap the tension rods with cymbals don’t cheat and tune around the cymbal without checking the rod underneath the cymbal!

There, your drums are perfect and you definitely don’t need to read a book about tuning and sonic physics at all! But seriously though, if you want a bit more info why not check out the question above in the marching section about tuning, then consider looking up a book if you really want to try to perfect your sound.

Q: How do I mic a drum set?

A: This is a HUGE question, so you should start by using the internet as a major resource and find different techniques and understand what you want to do and what different ideas will give you audibly. Do a search for the “Recorderman Technique” to start. But, to keep it simple and to answer the question, start with a snare mic, bass mic, and a pair of overhead mics. You’ll need a mixer and may want to get a pre-amp or headphone amp too. Mic placement is key, so play around with some placement but make sure they aren’t in the way. I’ve played so many gigs where the newer sound guys put the snare mic on the rim right next to my left leg which is literally the worst place it could go! Snare mic is dangerous because it needs to avoid hihat wash, position it so it points slightly away from the hats. Overheads are the hardest to place, because you want to get the tom sounds without being overbearing on the cymbals. This could cause you to rethink cymbal placement. Experiment! On the mixer, start with the sliders all at max volume and the gain all the way down. Sound check by hitting the drum at full playing volume (not just really hard, only as hard as you play in the songs). Turn the gain knob up until you see the clipping light flicker. Then turn the gain down just a touch so that light does not illuminate. Now you can balance the volume slider down so that you’ll get a clean sound that will never clip! Lastly, EQ the drum based on the frequency it produces, but again, have fun with this step! The bass drum you’ll want to punch up the low end, but play around with the mid range and find a sound you’re happy with. If nothing sounds good you may need to consider a different drum tuning. This is HARD, don’t get frustrated the first time, give yourself a lot of time to trial and error, and have fun with it!

Q: When to replace drum heads?

A: This is a lot like glasses, you don’t usually realize what you’re missing until you get new ones. If you’re starting to notice a bit of a dead sound and it isn’t getting better with tuning then it’s probably way past time to change them. That being said, sometimes your snare drum, being the highest tension usually, will go until it breaks. I would hypothesize that if you had two identical drums with brand new heads on them you would hear a difference, after a long while of playing them, by tuning one and changing the head of another. I think the drum with a new head would be a refreshing sound easily obtained while the used head was harder to control and loses it’s tuning more quickly. We kind of see that quite a bit in the marching percussion world.

Q: Can we have two drum sets in my band?

A: You can do whatever you want dude! It’s your band! But to answer the question, yes, I’ve seen several groups with literally two drum set players. I’ve also seen countless groups with a drum set as well as a multi-percussion or auxiliary percussion setup as well. They work together very nicely for sure! Imagine the superhuman parts you can now play with two drummers! I’d go to your show!

Q: What is some lesser known or interesting drum set terminology I should know?

A: The batter head is the drum head you hit with the stick. The resonant head is the head you don’t hit underneath (the one that resonates). A snare drum’s resonant head is call a snare side head because it’s the side of the drum with the snare wires. A piccolo snare is usually really short. A soprano snare is usually deep but small in diameter. Tension rods are the things you put your drum key on to tune, the lugs are actually the things that hold the tension rod to the shell, many people get these mixed up. Free floating drums are drums that do not have lugs that drill into the shell of the drum, the heads and tension rods “float” over the shell. A beat is pretty much just any groove. The downbeat is beat one of the next measure. The upbeat, or offbeat, is the ‘and’ counts of a measure. Upbeat can also just mean a higher tempo. Back beat is a style of groove where the snare hit is placed on count 2 and 4 of a measure. Blast beats and break-beats are styles of drumming where the snare is hit rapidly. A beat-beat hasn’t been invented yet as far as I know. Linear refers to grooves where no drums or cymbals are hit at the same time. Playing in the ‘pocket’ means you’re right in time or that it feels really good, not too fast and not too slow. Remote hat is a cable hihat that is usually placed somewhere a normal hihat couldn’t reach. A strainer is referring to the snare drum wires.

Q: How percussion instruments work?

Q: How percussion instruments make sound?

A: So the best part about percussion instruments is that they’re literally named after the word that means to strike! All percussion instruments create sound by striking them, or in some cases pressing a key that causes a hammer to strike a string as is the case for pianos. Sound waves are created when the ripples in the drum head or mallet bar are vibrated and bounced off like a trampoline. If you’ve ever watched a drum or cymbal get struck in slow motion you can literally see the ripples across the mylar or the metal. You can also create a very dead sound by striking a drum head in two seperate spots on the head, the ripples that collide will cancel themselves out and flatten the sound at that intersection point (this is called a double-stop for hopefully now obvious reasons). Now, to amplify or broaden the sound many percussion instruments use resonators which resonate the sound. Mallet instruments utilize hollow tubes under each bar that cause the pitches to resonate up and down the instrument. These bars are cut to specific sizes that are harmonious with the pitch of the bar, the bigger the bar the bigger the resonator. Drums usually have resonators too, they’re just less obvious. A snare drum or tom-tom resonator is actually its shell, and the drum head on the bottom acts similar to how a speaker would by resonating the sound waves created by the input (the batter head). Even the drum sticks themselves resonate when they strike the instrument, this is why sticks and mallets should be sonically matched so that you don’t have different tones coming out of each stick. If you lightly knock the shoulder of the drum stick against the side of your head you should be able to hear a pitch, do this with both sticks and make sure they have matching pitches. By the way, this is called Bone Conduction and you can actually listen to music through bone conduction headphones without them touching your ears at all! This works by turning the bone into a resonator, just like percussion instruments!

Q: Which percussion instrument can play a melody?

A: I think this question is hinting at the less obvious. So most people know that pianos are percussion instruments and because they have several full scales of pitches they can in turn play melodies. Mallet instruments are similar in that the marima, xylophon, vibraphone, glockenspiel, bells, crotales, chimes/tubular bells, hand bells, metallophone, and others all have a full scale of pitches and therefore can play the melody. But what many people don’t tend to think of as melodic instruments are drums, and if you have enough drums with specifically tuned pitches then you can play a melody. For example, timpani have variable pitches and many great timpani players can change the pitch accurately while playing and are able to perform complex melodies with the percussion instrument. Another example of this is the marching tenor drums or even marching bass drums, while only having 5 to 6 drums (usually) the instruments can still create a melodic phrase. Lastly, an extreme example if you’re curious, would simply be tuned tom-toms such as on Terry Bozzio’s custom DW drum set. Bozzio uses 26 tom-toms tuned to specific pitches in order to create melody while drumming. Some other more common melodic instruments you already know would include steel drums, hand bells, and some of you I’m sure know what a hang drum is (if not, look them up, they’re very relaxing).

Q: What percussion instruments are tuned?

A: All percussion instruments are tuned. Some are done less often that others such as steel drums or marimbas for example which are tuned at the manufacturer and hopefully not necessary to fix tuning once they leave the factory. Others are tuned slightly more frequently, such as piano which requires a professional tuning on a regular schedule in order for the metal strings to maintain correct pitch. Lastly, and what the question is really looking for, is drums. Drums are all tuned nearly every time they are played. The tension rods around the rim are tightened with a standard drum key (or high tension drum key for marching drums), and the drum head is stretched tighter around the shell which creates a higher pitch. 

Q: Which percussion instrument has the lowest pitch?

A: There are a whole bunch of low pitch percussion instruments, but the most obvious ones are usually the biggest ones. For example, a large timpani can bend down to a very low pitch, and concert bass drums tend to be quite large and can be tuned quite low. Now, if you want the extreme low end you can find some gigantic bass drums in some football stadiums that are sort of a prop to drum up crowd engagement. The Carolina Panthers have their “Keep Pounding” bass drum that measures 72″ in diameter. The University of Texas has “Big Bertha” which is a 96″ diameter bass drum. Purdue University claims to have the biggest bass drum that measures 120″ in diameter!

Q: Should I take lessons?

A: Depends on how serious you want to get. For anyone that is going to play percussion in school I would recommend taking private lessons at the very least to get started because you want to avoid some common bad habits in technique or have someone personally answer some very common questions for beginners. If you’re just learning to have fun then you can easily get by with just internet videos! There’s tons of great ones! Now, if you’re thinking about taking the next step in percussion (whatever that may mean for you) or you have some serious natural talent, then I would definitely recommend some advanced lessons that will help you focus your goals or talents and push you further forward very efficiently. But in the end it’s a personal decision that’s totally your call, depending what you want to put in and what you want to get out of drums.

Q: Who are your favorite drummers?

A: Too many to list, but I’ll give you the names of people that most percussionists aren’t super familiar with instead. My drum sets are inspired by Mike Portnoy whereas they can be connected into a big siamese drum set! My absolute favorite drummer is Virgil Donati. Other, maybe less popular, drummers that inspire and influence me are Troy Wright, Anika Nilles, Jay Postones, Martin Lopez, Travis Orbin, Johan Langell, Thomas Lang, Matt Goves, Marco Minnemann, Joe Sirois, Benny Greb, Josh Eppard, Jojo Mayer, John Hernandez, Adam Janzi, Matt Garstka, Ben Shanbrom, Steve Judd, George Daniel, and a huge shout out to Kayleigh Moyer. I’m sure I’ll add names to this list as I grow too, it will always be incomplete. Check out these names online though, they’re all amazing!

Q: Who invented drums?

A: Dale Doback in 2008

Got any new questions? Email me at Patrick@PatrickRFBlakley.com and I’ll include them in the next round of questions to answer! Most of these questions are answered all over the internet, so if you want to specifically as WHY something is done the way it is, or personally why I would do something a certain way let me know, those are usually the questions we learn the most from. Contact me!