Drums 101 – Understanding the Main Parts of a Drum Set

The drum set – also known as a drum kit, trap set or simply ‘drums’ –  is a term for a collection of percussion instruments that are arranged so they can all be played by one person.

You’re probably familiar with the term ‘five-piece’ or ‘six-piece’ drum kit. It’s important to note the word ‘piece’ only refers to drums and does not include cymbals and any extra hardware.

It may seem strange, but you could be using a vast array of say, twelve cymbals or cowbells, but that still wouldn’t change how many ‘pieces’ make up your kit. The most popular choice among musicians is the five-piece as it gives you a nice amount of tonal diversity but in a relatively compact package, making them slightly less cumbersome to move about.

Here are the components of a typical five-piece:

Parts of a drum set

Now we’ll look at each item in turn.

Snare Drum

Snare DrumA decent quality snare is one of the most important instruments in a drum set, as it produces a diverse array of tone and forms the center of the musician’s set up.

The snare is a shallow drum, that sits between the legs of the drummer whilst they play.

The shell is usually made from metal or wood, with a depth of 6” and a diameter of around 12”. There are also two skins present on both sides of the shell. The skin that you hit with the stick is known as the ‘batter’ side, whilst the skin underneath is known as the ‘resonant’ head.

Below the resonant head, you’ll find a set of suspended snare wires, these provide the classic snappy pop associated with the snare. The snare wires are connected via a snare strainer.

This device features a ‘throw off’ lever which allows you to switch the snare wires on or off, and a screw which can be loosened or tightened to alter the tension of the wires. Thanks to all this adjustability, you can change the level of dampening and buzz which alters the pitch significantly, hence why learning how to tune a snare drum is so important.

The drum itself is held in place via a three-armed bracket at the top of a metal stand. The legs of the stand can be adjusted, to set the snare up in a position that’s comfortable to the musician.

Some prefer their snare slightly tilted towards them, whereas others like it lying flat. When playing rhythm sections in 4/4 timing, the snare is usually hit on beats 2 and 4 of the 1, 2, 3, 4 crotchets of a bar, and is used to form the backbeat of a tune.

Bass (or ‘Kick’) Drum

bass drumYou’ve probably guessed that this is the largest drum in the kit and that it produces the lowest pitch boom.

Most bass drums are around 22” in diameter, with a depth of about 16” however, you can purchase smaller or larger varieties.

Changing the diameter of the shell changes the note’s pitch, allowing you to choose a size that works with the style of music you play. For example, a wider bass drum might work well in a doom metal band, as it produces a lower note.

The shell’s material affects the warmth or brightness of the note too. For example, wooden models will sound warmer than plastic versions.

As for the skins, they have two, one either side of the shell. One is a batter skin and takes the hit from your drum pedal, the other is a resonator skin which faces the audience. Sometimes the resonator skin has a hole cut into it so that air can leave the kit quickly after being hit, this, in turn, helps to reduce the note’s sustain, for a more defined sound.

It’s also fairly common to find an old duvet or blanket stuffed into the shell, as this also helps shorten the decay time.

In terms of setup, it should be positioned on the floor in front of your dominant limb. Because of its position, it’s played using a foot pedal which strikes the skin with a beater when you apply pressure to the footpad.

The pedal is held in place by a clamping mechanism that clips onto it and can be adjusted by tightening the spring, to add or remove tension. Whilst playing a rhythm in 4/4 timing, the bass drum is usually hit on the 1st and 3rd crotchet of a bar.

Hi-Hats

Hi-HatsThe hi-hats are two metal cymbals sandwiched together on a stand.

The cymbals come in a range of sizes, but most manufacturers produce them with a diameter of around 14”.

In terms of tonal quality, hi-hats give out a tinny, high pitched sound in comparison to the other cymbals in the set.

Hi-hats are versatile, in that they can be played both using the attached foot pedal or by striking them with drum sticks.

They’re also a crucial part of the kit, as they bring tons of sonic variety to your sound.

For example, you can:

  • Use the pedal to keep the cymbals closed together, and then tap the top with the drum stick, to produce a sharp, bright clash.
  • Clap them together, using only your left foot to create a short, smashing sound.
  • Use your foot to keep the cymbals partly open and then hit the top, to get a swishing tone with longer decay time. Keeping them fully open and hitting the top cymbal gives you a long ringing sound from just the higher plate.
  • Create a crash tone by using your foot to close both cymbals together, then quickly opening them – this is known as ‘splashing’.
  • You can also vary the hi-hat tone simply by striking different parts of the cymbal. For example, hitting the middle of the top hi-hat will produce a brighter note with less resonance, in comparison to say, tapping the rim, which produces a note that rings out for longer.

Toms

TomsThese drums are more often referred to as ‘toms’ rather than tom-toms and look similar to the bass drum, just much smaller.

Some toms have both a batter skin and a resonant skin however, unlike the snare, the resonator skin isn’t always used and there are no wires underneath.

In regards to tone, they sound deeper than the snare and allow hits to resonate for a longer period of time, but the pitch of the note they produce is not as low as that of the bass drum.

If you look at a five-piece kit, you’ll likely find it has a hi, mid as well as floor tom (see below), although, the size and model of each can vary between musicians.

For example, some of the best jazz drum sets will often use a set of toms with shells ranging from 10”, 12” and 14” in diameter, whereas rock musicians will likely use a set that is 12”, 13” and 16”.

When it comes to their setup, the mid and hi toms are usually mounted on a frame above the bass drum, via an attaching arm.

Just remember, some don’t have a drilled in mounting bracket, so the toms will have to be clamped on separate stands or attached to a rack.

It’s worth mentioning that low toms and floor toms also require a different set-up, as low toms should be mounted on a cymbal stand, whereas floor toms sit close to the floor, secured by three built-in legs which support their larger size.

During performances, toms are used to add fills between tempo changes or different sections in a song.

Ride Cymbal

Ride CymbalThe ride is positioned on a metal stand, to the right-hand side of the drum set, above the floor tom.

It is usually the largest of all the cymbals, measuring in at around 20” in diameter.

In most cases, the ride will be made from a copper and zinc alloy and have a bell-shaped middle, which can be struck with a drum stick to produce a bright tone.

Alternatively, you can hit the edge of the ride to get a lower pitch ping, with plenty of sustain. Just remember, they’re not supposed to be struck with too much force, say, as you would use to hit a crash cymbal.

As a matter of fact, the ride should be played in the same manner that you would the hi-hat, but without the foot pedal.

Performing musicians often alternate between the ride and hi-hat during different parts of a song, in order to enhance certain sections. Because the ride sounds deeper than the hi-hat and sustains for much longer, the contrast between the crisp hi-hat cymbals and washy ride tone creates a more interesting percussion section.

The type of sticks you use to hit the ride also affects the sound it kicks out. For example, wooden sticks will produce a quiet, smooth sound, whereas nylon tipped sticks will give a brighter, ping. This applies to hi-hat cymbals too.

Crash Cymbal

Crash CymbalMost crash cymbals are around 16” in diameter, so size-wise, this makes them somewhere in between the ride and hi-hat.

The material used to craft them varies, although, most manufacturers use a copper, tin alloy which gives the cymbal its loudness and projection.

Usually, a single crash is positioned above the toms via a separate, tall, metal stand, however, experienced musicians often have several, in different sizes placed around the kit.

In terms of sound, they are much louder and brighter than the other cymbals, and also produce notes that sustain for the longest amount of time.

Unlike the ride cymbal, the crash is supposed to be hit pretty hard, with the stem of the drum stick. During a gig, they are most commonly used to enhance fills or to build up tension during the crescendo of a song. But saying that, you can also apply a technique called ‘riding the crash’. This allows you to tap out rhythms in a similar style used to play a ride or hi-hat.

After you’ve gotten used to working with a crash, it can be a good idea to add a couple more, in different sizes to your kit. Having the extra diversity will allow you to further enhance the fills of song and to develop your sonic palette.

In rock or metal, for example, two or three crash hits played closed together will always make a section sound more powerful than using a single one alone.

Other Cymbals / Percussion Items

So, we’ve covered the main elements that make up a standard five-piece set including the sort of cymbals you’d expect to find, but there are still more accessories. These items are not always essential, it more so depends on what style of music you’re going to be playing.

Splash Cymbal

Most of the time splash cymbals are around 8” in diameter and function as a sort of tiny crash. They can be handy if you want to add a little extra brightness and color to your sound. The small size of these cymbals is pretty handy too, as you can easily squeeze them into gaps between other units.

Crash/Ride Cymbal

Crash/rides are the hybrid mid-point between the individual crash and ride cymbals we mentioned above. Normally, they are around 18” – 20” in diameter and are slightly tapered, with a medium weight. The really cool thing about these cymbals is that they can be played as either a ride or a crash, or as a combination of the two.

This is great news if your short on cash, as you’re basically getting two items for the price of one. In larger kits, the crash/ride can be used as a mid-point between the crash and the ride, in a way that allows your sound actually become more diverse.

China Cymbal

China Cymbal

China cymbals, come in a diverse selection of sizes with colorful names such as lion, pang, and swish knocker – some of the smallest models are only 8” in diameter, with larger ones measuring up to 24”.

In terms of structure, they are really unique, with an upturned rim edge and a bell-shaped center. Depending on the musician, they will often be mounted upside down on the cymbal stand, so its easier for your stick technique.

Usually, high-quality Chinas are made from a 20% tin and 80% copper alloy called B20, for its tonal properties.

In regards to tone, China cymbals function in a similar way to the Crash, producing a powerful, bright sound when hit.

Due to their ferocious attack, these things work well in more extreme styles of music, such as heavy metal and thrash, but can also be used in jazz and Latin styles. In metal, you would use the neck of the drum stick to hit the china really hard, whereas in jazz fusion they gently tap the cymbal with the tip of the stick.

Cowbell

CowbellsTraditionally, cowbells were used by herdsmen to keep track of their cattle whilst they roamed about in fields. The bell around the animal’s neck would produce a pleasing ring, as the inner ball swings and hits the metal shell.

As for the cowbell used in music, they’re been adapted slightly to produce a flat, clunky sound and function as a handheld idiophone and don’t contain a swinging ball, as only the metal shell is used to produce a sound. They’re also strengthened to take hard hits.

Most cowbells can be secured to the kit via a wingnut or clamp or can be set up onto a separate stand if required. Some musicians use multiple cowbells in different sizes to add some extra sonic diversity to their songs, whereas others prefer just a single one.

Smaller cowbells will produce a higher-pitched note than larger ones, and that the type of metal used will also add different musical flavors. You’re most likely to hear them played in salsa or Latin genres, and they can add some extra groove to rock music too. Just listen to ‘Honky Tonk Woman’ by the Rolling Stones or ‘Don’t Fear the Reaper’ by Blue Oyster Cult, which both use the cowbell to add some extra rhythmic flavor.

 

Electronic Parts

We haven’t mentioned electronic parts in this article, so I thought it was worth giving them a quick name check. While there are plenty of ways to dampen the sound of acoustic drum sets, electronic drums are a great alternative as you can play them at low volume either through an amp or pair of headphones.

In terms of sound and feel, they’ll never quite match up to their older acoustic sibling, however, the convenience (they hardly weight anything and can be neatly collapsed away) often outweighs the benefits of a normal drum kit. We wrote an in-depth review of electronic kits if you’re interested in reading more.

Summary

So there you have it, we hope that’s helped to clear things up. In this post, we focused mainly on explaining what each part does, not on how to set up them up. If you’re interested, I suggest you check out our guide to how to set up a drum set which gives you step-by-step instructions.

Good luck!


Featured image: Ruy Landa /CC BY 2.0

Ged Richardson

Ged is Founder and Editor-in-chief at Zing Instruments. He's a guitarist for London based gypsy jazz band 'Django Mango' and a lover of all things music. When he's not ripping up and down the fretboard, he's tinkering with his '79 Campervan.