Drums have been around almost as long as we have, with the first appearing in 6000BC. This musical instrument has played a crucial role in societal life and isn’t purely for entertainment. In many cultures, the drum was (and still is) used for religious ceremonies and celebrations.
In this article, we take on the rather ambitious task of summarising the main types of drums from around the world. We start with the western drum set we all know and love and then venture into less well-known instruments such as the Djembe or Udu, as well as marching band drums and others.
If you’re still choosing which instrument to play and considering a percussion instrument, this is a great article for understanding the different types out there. Or maybe you’re just curious to know more. Either way, here a simplified list of some of the most common types you’re likely to hear.
Table of Contents
Acoustic drum kits are most typically used in western cultures and are used in almost every genre of popular music. These kits don’t require any extra amplification and are very diverse, often with their size and configuration varying between each musician’s setup.
If you’ve ever watched a rock band play live, it’s likely their drummer will have been using a pretty loud kit to create an impact. In particular, metal kits include three tom-toms, with diameters ranging from 12, 13- and 16-inches, as well as a 22-inch bass drum.
The snare drum on these kits is usually 14 inches in diameter but can vary in size if the musician requires a different tone.
Overall, rock n’ roll drums are larger than those found in other kits and kick out a ton of bass and volume, to create an aggressive sound. If you fancy having a listen to some powerful drums, check out our best drum songs article, some of these guys really pack a punch.
In fusion music, two genres are combined to create a unique sonic experience. The great thing here is that fusion can include almost any mixture of music styles, allowing a band to get pretty creative. Some famous fusion artists include Frank Zapper and Santana.
In terms of kit, fusion drummers usually go for three toms at around 10, 12 and 14 inches in diameter and a bass drum of around 20 inches.
Due to their slightly smaller size, fusion drums aren’t as loud and deep sounding as rock drums, however, are more responsive to allow for faster, complex rhythm sections.
Jazz drums are the smallest type of acoustic kit and produce the highest pitch tone, with the fastest response for intricate rhythm playing.
The toms and snare drums usually have the same diameter as those in a fusion kit but have less depth, in order to achieve a more natural sound. Additionally, the bass drum is much shallower with a depth of just 14 inches, in comparison to say, those used in fusion or rock that have a depth of around 18 inches.
When it comes to decent brands, Gretsch, Ludwig and Yamaha are favorite choices among musicians thanks to their ability to produce bright, clear tones.
Virtual and Electronic Drum Kits
Electronic drum kits use sensors to receive and send the signal of a beat to a sound module, which in turn lets the equipment produce a sound.
The sensors measure the strength of each hit, so that it reacts in a similar manner to an acoustic kit to ensure the musician can play dynamically. Virtual kits are ideal if you’re looking to practice at home and need to keep the noise down, but they can also be used to record or to experiment with different sounds.
Electronic drum kits come as both beginner instruments and professional models, so their quality and cost often vary dramatically between brands.
Auxiliary Drum Sets
These are entire electric kits, plus any extras, that have built-in sensors inside the drum and cymbal units. An auxiliary kit’s volume can be controlled manually and can often be used with various Apps and recording software.
High-quality models can even be used in a live setting and work especially well in experimental types of music, thanks to their ability to adapt each drum’s tone.
Most modern E-kits use mesh heads, rather than pads so that the musician gets a realistic feel and enhanced playability. The only downside is that they can be expensive and require some technical knowledge to use properly.
Drum triggers are small devices that clamp onto the rim of a drum skin. When the drummer hits the unit it then detects the skin’s vibration via a sensor and transfers it to a connected module. The module, in turn, plays a drum sample or an artificial noise depending on the musician’s preference.
Triggers create a sort of hybrid mix of acoustic and digital tones, so can help to unlock the kit’s full potential. In particular, 90’s pop, dance and heavy metal artists seemed to love using drum triggers for the unique samples you could apply.
With that in mind, they also help with recording and mixing by reducing the need for using microphones to capture the drum’s tone.
Hand drums have long been used by different cultures across the globe, in countries such as Cuba, China and Africa.
Given their name, you’ve probably guessed already that these instruments are supposed to be played by hand, however, they can also be struck using mallets or tippers too.
Interestingly, many hand drums hold a deeper meaning when used during cultural or ceremonial events and often require a specific playing technique.
Congas are strongly associated with Cuba but actually originated in Africa’s Congolese Bantu area. They are most often made from wood and designed to be tall and thin, resembling Africa’s conical shaped ‘Makuta’ drum.
Congas come in sets of two or three, each being a different size so that the musician has a variety of high and low notes available to play with. The ‘Quinto’ drum is the smallest, ‘conga/tres’ dos is a medium size, and the ‘tumba’ is the largest.
When it comes to playing style, a conguero will usually use their fingers and hands to make Cuban carnival-style rhythms.
Bongos are Afro-Cuban in origin and are the most well-known hand drum. They are usually present in pairs, with one small (macho) and one larger (hembra) drum, and have a slightly tapered/ conical shaped wooden shell.
Nowadays, manufacturers also use fibreglass and metal to craft bongos, so their tone can vary slightly between brands.
Musicians should play the bongos using the palm of the hand and their fingertips. There are a variety of techniques you can learn when it comes to playing style, however, the bongo’s tone and rhythm is most often heard in cha-cha music and salsa thanks to the momentum the beat creates.
Tabla drums originated in India and are a pair of non-identical drums that produce different sounds.
Both the smaller and larger drums are covered in animal skin and have a tapered, cylindrical shell. The larger drum is known as the ‘bayan’ and usually has a brass metal shell, whereas the smaller ‘dayan’ drum has a shell made from teak or rosewood.
Due to the different sizes and materials used in the tabla’s shells, the bayan produces deep hits, whilst the dayan is used for higher notes. These drums are most often heard in traditional Indian music and are played in a variety of styles, using pressure techniques via the hands and fingers.
Frame drums are found all across the world in countries such as Ireland, Asia and India to name just a few and consist of a minimalistic frame and drum skin.
The skin itself was originally crafted from animal hide and allows the musician to create different sound depending on where they strike it. For example, hitting the skin in the centre will produce deep, low notes, whilst, hitting it at the edge will produce higher pitch sounds with plenty of overtones.
Pandeiros are traditional Brazilian instruments and are made using a very shallow wooden shell and animal skin. They look rather similar to tambourines, with their cooper or steel cymbalettes placed around the outer shell.
These instruments range from around 8 inches – 12 inches in diameter and are used to accompany traditional, Capoeira marital dances. They work well with vocals and other instruments, thanks to their low pitch and subtle sound.
In terms of playability, the musician should use their left hand to hold the instrument without touching any cymblettes, then should alternate between striking the skin using their thumb and fingers of the right hand.
The tambourine was designed in Europe in 1500 and has remained a popular instrument ever since, likely due to their portability.
The first models were in fact, small hand drums, with one or two layers of animal skin or intestine, stretched across a shallow shell. Interestingly, their design didn’t always include cymblettes, which contrasts with modern varieties that often use them to enhance rhythm sections of a song.
Tambourines are very diverse instruments. For example, some don’t have any skin, so are played by hitting the ring against your hand or with a stick as part of a drum kit. Whereas others can have one or two rings of jingles, and skins that are tuneable or non-tunable.
The Bodhran is an Irish frame drum, measuring between 12-24 inches in diameter and with a shell between 4-8 inches deep.
The shell was traditionally made from wood, and the beater surface from goatskin, however, nowadays manufacturers often use plastic shells and artificial skins too.
In a similar manner to the pandeiro, the bodhran only has a skin present on one side, to allow the drummer to control the dynamics of every hit. To alter the drum’s sound, the musician can move their hand about inside the bodhran to control the pitch.
As well as this, the drum itself can be tuned using the crossbar and hex key to tighten or loosen the skin. This means the drummer can play in different pitches to match up with others in an ensemble or band.
Goblet drums are also known as darbuka or chalice drums were traditionally used in the Middle East, Africa and Eastern Europe.
Goblet drums are ancient, with some historians believing they date as far back as the early Neolithic era around 3600BC.
As time progressed our ancestors eventually introduced the darbuka to the Middle East. In terms of design, goblet drums are usually made from clay, metal or wood and are hollow-shelled, so that they can produce different sounds depending on whether you hit the centre or the rim. The centre produces more power and resonance, whilst the rim produces bright, sharp tones.
Darbukas should be played whilst the drummer holds the instrument under one arm and uses their fingers and palms to strike rhythms.
African drums are an important part of ancient African tradition and have been celebrated in their culture for centuries.
Rather than simply being used for entertainment as in western cultures, African drums are often used symbolically in ceremonies and political events.
The world of African drums is very diverse and come in loads of different designs, so take a look below to learn more…
The djembe is one of the most diverse African drums out there, thanks to its ability to produce a wide range of different pitches.
The shell is goblet-shaped and made from a single piece of hollowed-out wood, with a goat hide drum skin.
Traditionally, the Mandinka people would use the trunk of a Lenge tree for its spiritual and tonal purposes. In particular, the upper body chamber creates the low bass strokes, when the whole hand hits the middle of the drum, while the long, thin lower section projects the volume.
The goatskin gives the djembe its high-pitched tone when the musician slaps their hand near the edge of the drum.
Talking drums are said to trace back to the Ghana Empire, making them one of the oldest instruments in West Africa.
Traditionally, they were used by African griots, who would play them whilst telling stories and spreading news – this was important as villagers rarely had time to read and write! So, you can see why the drum earnt the ‘talking’ part of its name.
To play a talking drum, the musician wraps their arm around the instrument’s body and squeezes it intermittently. Their other hand then beats the animal skin head with a mallet. When the drummer squeezes the drum, the outer ropes that connect the skin move, so the skin warps and produces sounds with a different pitch. It is this variation in pitch that gives the drum its ‘talking’ vibe.
The word udu originates from a language called ‘Nigerian Igbo’ and means pot or vessel.
In terms of design, however, the udu differs from traditional African, clay water pots as it has an extra circular hole on the side of its body. Because women of the Igbo tribe were almost primarily responsible for collecting drinking water, udu were often used in women’s ceremonies.
To play the udu, musicians would quickly hit the side-hole with the palm of their hand and then close the top hole with the palm of their other hand. This, in turn, would create a soothing, yet slightly eerie sound that was thought to be an ancestral voice. As well as this, you can play the udu with a little water inside to get a slightly different pitch.
Types of Drums in a Marching Band
The drums are the fundamental part of any marching band as they provide the voice and tempo for the entire ensemble. Each drum’s specific shape, size and function can vary greatly and each needs to be securely mounted to the musician via a harness.
The majority of a marching band consists of percussion and brass instruments, so let’s take a look at some of the most common drums being used here…
Marching snare drums may look similar to those you’d find on a drum kit but are in fact much different.
The shell itself is a lot deeper than a standard version and its skin is made from tough Kevlar material, which is tougher than other synthetic skins. This extra strong material allows the marching snare to withstand high tensions, which in turn provides a loud, bullet-like, piercing hit. In terms of playability, a single snare is played at a time, using two drum sticks to perform drum rolls and solos.
Tenor drums are sometimes also known as ‘quads’ (if there are four drums), ‘quints’ (if there are five drums) or ‘squints’ (if there are six drums), depending on the number in the set. Each set is connected together and attached to a mount or harness so that the player can carry it.
When it comes to tone, the tenor set gives a high-pitched vibrancy to a song and the drums are played by hitting them with either two sticks or mallets. Among a set of six tenor drums, there are four main drums and two accent drums known as ‘spocks’ or ‘shots’. These are tightly tuned to produce captivating bright, clear notes.
Bass drums come as single units and are the largest of all the drums in a marching band. Due to the wide diameter and large depth, the bass drum produces the lowest, booming note of all the instruments.
Due to its size, the bass drum is usually attached by sturdy shoulder straps, to support the extra weight. When it comes to playability, a soft mallet is usually preferred by musicians for its ability to produce a powerful, but smooth low note. Interestingly, there are pitched marching bass drums out there too. These can be tuned to a specific note, to help match up with the rest of the band.
The front ensemble of a marching band is the stationary percussion group. These musicians play several different instruments such as; cymbals, bells, glockenspiel, wood blocks and the marimba.
Cymbals make a loud crashing sound when clashed together, but can sound a little more subtle when lightly tapped.
The bells and glockenspiel give the ensemble a bright, chime-like tone when the metal bars are hit with a hard mallet.
Wood blocks give the music a little extra bright beat when struck and are usually made from teak.
The marimba works like a wooden xylophone, except that resonator pipes underneath the keys amplify the sound. The instrument itself is too large to carry, hence why it is played in the front ensemble.
As you can see, there are many more types of drums than the rock kit! If you’re thinking about learning an instrument and not sure which to choose, we hope this list has given you some new ideas. Who knows, you might just be next Djembe superstar player!