How to Buy a Cheap Drum Kit That Sounds Good. It IS Possible!Part II. The last word…

Read & Run: Key Points

  • If you’re spending $300 to $500 on a new kit, the brand is not as important as common sense & patience;
  • Check the shells, particularly the bearing edges: Do they seem smooth/consistent?
  • Budget snare drums are the weakest link in the chain as are supplied drumheads. Therefore, please note that…
  • New heads, or “skins”, will dramatically transform the sound, and I mean dramatically
  • Many of today’s $799 kits are superior to revered American name brands from the late sixties and early seventies
  • Maple is not a sacred wood, nor birch. Craftsmanship, attention to detail, and finishing touches are more important. That spoken…
  • It’d be nice to have shells built from premium hardwood, or at least of semi-cured Philippine mahogany
  • Budget an extra $100 for head replacements. That pre-muffled kick head, however, will probably do the trick. Buy or make a tiny patch to prevent a hard beater from punching through the plastic/Mylar/Polyester membrane; also to focus attack.
  • Most cymbals included in a kit costing less than $500 will be sub-standard;
  • Avoid purchasing any cymbal said to be “spun brass”.
  • Buy a pre-pack of Sabian, Zildjian, Meinl, Paiste, Istanbul even; or try a Chinese-made Stagg or Dream; they’re all decent.
  • Don’t fall for any sales pitch that contradicts my observations, historical perspectives, and tips below. I’m not getting points on sale.
  • What I mean is that salespeople are likely on commission.
  • Budget for a new hi-hat stand, kick pedal within 1 year. If the kit includes only 1 cymbal stand, spend $35 on an extra, lightweight stand. Skip double-braced towers of steel, at least for now.
  • Don’t crank wingnuts super-tight; don’t crank anything super tight: nuts, bolts, skins, etc.
  • Don’t fall for the “it’s got to have suspension/cradle mounts” pitch
  • You can get a pro-quality kit in a name brand, with sub-standard hardware but decently crafted shells that’ll sound like a million bucks
  • Did I mention the heads will be boingy, plasticy-sounding?
  • Don’t fall for the notion that prices are always cheaper at big box stores
  • Small shops like this offer great discounts, too; and the service is world class (and world-wide in scope).
  • This article is already causing a disturbance because it speaks truth; the truth hurts.

Cheap Drums and Drum Kits and Cymbals: The In-depth Version

Today I will explain things you might not know but should have been told. Writers don’t like to state these things lest they offend advertisers. Strong opinions are the norm on my favorite photography site www.kenrockwell.com. These opinions haven’t cost him advertising; he makes a living from his website. He does what’s right. Calls bluffs, gets to the important stuff. I try and do the same in this article. I repeat myself, despite having edited the following at least thirty times.

The reason I go on and on is that I’m used to print: I grew up writing for magazines. More importantly, however, I’m a player, some say a decent one at that. Playing feeds writing, my way of sharing. I’ve done a lot of playing, thus the excessive word count. See, I love drums as an instrument with which I make music. It wasn’t always this way. When I was age 5 or so, it was the harmonica…the common mouth organ, literally on the front porch with my dad.  The passion for drums, however, overtook the affection for my Hohner. And below, I’m spilling my feelings, and spelling them out, so that you can get off to a good start (or return to drumming after you retire from a day gig). It’s all the same. I would feel good about life if this article guides a few of you, help you run the gauntlet that exists in music stores and drum shops worldwide. That’s the purpose of the sizeable article below. If you are a young or inexperienced drummer, you can make the sprint  with minimal trauma, beat the system by learning a little of the lore, by learning to distinguish between drum fashion and folly, and by walking tall.

Confidence springs from knowledge not tip sheets. I’ve checked every single article on the Internet pertaining to cheap, budget, modest-priced drums — call them what you will. Nobody’s interested in telling the truth about entry-level drums, namely that some of them are really good. Be patient; read what I have to say. I guarantee if you spend ten minutes with me you’ll gain precious tips on drum manufacturing and marketing you can use now — and years from now. I take strength in the knowledge that people out there, maybe in Birmingham or Bangkok, will derive strength from my experience, as it were. I use the following line from “Deacon Blues”, a track steered by drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, to excuse my lengthy drum buying thesis:  “I cried when I wrote this song, sue me if I play too long”.

How do you go about buying a cheap drumset, new or used? How do you learn what’s generally included when you purchase a drum kit? What do you need? What don’t you need? Man, it’s hard to walk into a drum store (I mean “enter” a drum store, not stumble into the brick wall outside) and deal with elder, smarter-than-thou sales people, who know so much, and play so much better, than you. Isn’t it? That’s the way I used to feel.

The clatter and bustle is a distraction to the central question you’re asking: When shopping for a cheap kit, do you settle for cheap or can you get quality? On the sales floor, what should you say? That’s the most difficult part—at least it was for me as a kid. You’re face to face with a sales clerk who’s looking down at you with this look, almost as if there’s a joke inside waiting to get out…and the joke is you.

I mean, it doesn’t have to be this way. I mean, I’ve been to Footes in London. I’ve talked to the owner of Drum Wright in England, Billy Hydes’ HQ in Australia—I forget whether it’s in Sydney or Melbourne and the rivalry between the two is such that I don’t want to make a mistake. The guys at the Baguetterie in Paris seemed nice, too. Look up “Jim Rupp”, “Jim Pettit”, The Drum Pad in Chicago. That’s just a start. Those guys are drum shop owners and they’re princes. I spent 9/11, as I’m always ranting to folks, in Japan with them. They’re solid. Great drummers and human beings. They get it and they know the dilemma of choice. Trust your local shop. And don’t dismiss bigger stores either.

In certain shops, you gotta tough it out, end of story. You tough it out by receiving knowledge, not just from me but from drummerworld.com and the drum magazines and from drummers who sound good. If they won’t talk to you, they’re having a bad day. Or they’re full of themselves or some other substance.

You have to know a couple of things about how this drum business works and get the gist of how a cheap kit contrasts with an expensive one.

That’s precisely what you’ll take home from this article: the stuff nobody tells you because “you can’t handle it as a young, beginning drummer” or because “you’re too old to learn”, referring to those of you revisiting your first love.

You don’t have to spend a fortune

You can take home a decent kit for cheap.

First thing you should know is that frustration breeds darkness, as if we didn’t know! Sales personnel are good souls but some of them wish they could be the drummers on the posters, not posers as drummers, strutting their stuff for a a few points on sale. They don’t realize there is nobility in sales, just as in teaching and other pursuits.

The way things are going today, few of us can afford an Acura or a Yamaha Phoenix drum kit—and the prices, from my perspective, are the same! We get frustrated when we read Drum Head or Modern Drummer and they’re talking in tongues. I mean, they’re talking good sense and from a wealth of experience. But it’s hard for them to bite the hand that feeds them, you know? Jeez, I know: For thirty years, as I guess I’ve told you too many times and probably will repeat below, I wrote for Modern Drummer. I edit Drums Etc, a free Canadian magazine founded by Ralph Angelillo (visit: www.muziketc.ca), host of the Montreal Drum Fest.

As we get going, please trust me, especially when I try to refrain from finger guilty parties (and to demonstrate favoritism).  I’m trying avoiding, if possible, to name names, I.D. brands for a different reason: there are many good cheap drums; no one brand has the monopoly. I mean, I don’t own budget kits (actually, I recently acquired one, seen elsewhere on this site) but if you want my druthers, I’ll speak in general terms and praise the budget offerings from Yamaha, Pearl, Tama, Pacific, and Taye. But I’ve heard so many budget kits that are fantastic it wouldn’t be fair to go further than I’m going below. I mean, it’s impossible to avoid distinguising shinola from that other stuff you scrape off your shoes.

Knowing the Territory Doesn’t Mean

Blaming China

First off, dispense with the notion that China, mainland China, is the enemy. It bothers me to hear such bar talk. Sure, China has ravaged the drum business, selling on price, price, price, and price. But the fault, dear Brutus, lies not in the stars (on that red flag) but in ourselves. We wanted cheap; we got cheap. Bet you shop occasionally at Wal-Mart. Or Target.

A high standard of quality is prevalent in most budget drums today. Good quality is a treat for those of us raised on the opposite. I remember talking circa 1977 to the late Bob Ludwig, who was a good man. He apologized for my flawed 14” floor tom (6-ply die-electric: horrible bearing edges, ply separations, shell not flat, thus drumheads never sat flat without ripples) and intimated that problems in the labor situation in the Ludwig factory neighborhood were the reason for poorly-made drums. I accepted his explanation. I was sort of joking near the end of our chat about ply separation when I suggested, “Maybe instead shipping each Ludwig kit with a pair of sticks and brushes, you ought to supply a syringe”.

He was shocked, “You mean, you’re that desperate… just because of our drums?”

“No, no, sorry,” I replied. “What I meant was you should ship a syringe and some epoxy so that we can inject glue into those gaps between the wood plies!”

Mr Ludwig took it well. Nice to see Ludwig back in the highlight. Post-Chicago it took them a while but they seem to have gotten things sorted.

Poor quality is not born of China. Matter of fact, China has learned, step by step, how to make credible drums. It took them a good while because they don’t have a culture predicated on institutionalized pops, swing jazz, and marching pits. The Chinese companies copied, poorly at first.

The problem was that North American society demanded big box stores and began to tolerate reasonable facsimiles of the quality goods they once worked hard to attain. Those facsimiles, like Rolex self-winds on Canal Street, got better and better. Took huge chunks of market share, both from American companies and Japanese, who make great drums, thanks to a guy named Hagi (I’ll tell you later about him) and a few other visionaries. Problem was, it didn’t matter that Yamaha and Tama supplemented pro kits with a few budget lines, such as Stage Custom or Swing Star. Those were too expensive, if you please. Labor costs, raw material costs, and the devaluing of the yen—all were factors. But none so significant as the root cause: demand.

Listen, in the land of Gap you can still pay $19.95 for blue jeans providing you cross the street to Target or Wal-Mart. Why would you part with $1995 for a set of drums when you could get one for $499?

Again, you wanted cheap; you got cheap. The drum community is guilty as charged. So quit bitching and moaning about China and get to know your friend and supplier. They manufacture many quality modestly priced goods that sometimes call into question the $65 pair of trousers. Why shouldn’t you pay sixty percent less for drums, all things equal? That was the operative principle that the Chinese pursued: all features equal or surpass American made goods. In one Chinese factoy, two high-end brands roll off the lines. There are walls separating the two companies but it makes you pause and wonder.

At any rate, it’s not so bad if you can purchase a Chinese-made kit for $799 that smokes a 1974 classic Ludwig kit in every respect, from materials to a better double-tom holder to quality control. Besides, Ludwig doesn’t make all that hardware in America, do they? Ditto with the other companies.

When looking for a cheap kit, forget about country of origin. Apart from abominable 4-lug 12” toms, you can safely go with most brands. That’s for now. China is like Manhattan ten years ago. Budget tenants had to move to Brooklyn or Jersey just as budget buyers will be abandoning China. China will pass the crown of cheap to India. No one knows what sort of drums India will yield. The only thing certain is that Indians won’t be slaughtering any cows in the name of budget drum sets.

The Shell and the Tyranny Therein

Cheap drums are built with cheaper shells, meaning shells constructed from less expensive hardwood, softwood, or Asian varieties from the rainforest that sound so exotic nobody can tell. Some of the shells are pressed together with the best of intents but lack finishing touches: sealed innards, for one. Wraps cover a variety of evils such as obvious flaws in wood or craftsmanship. Again, that’s not necessarily bad, especially if the same wood shells, tarted-up in a smooth lacquer stain, costs $1000 more! And push come to shove, all drums today are superior to the seeming balsa wood shells thrown together in the sixties, including some American brands I’d rather not mention. Let’s just say that for over a decade following Ringo and the first wave of Brit pop, manufacturers had trouble keeping up with the demand for drumsets. Quality control hit rock bottom.

I stand by this statement: Buying a reasonable quality, affordable-priced kit is a cinch compared to back in the day. Budget kits today are better, in many instances, than name brands people bid outrageous prices for on eBay.

Buy a budget line from a name American manufacturer these days and you’re buying a kit made in China, at least in many instances. Or somewhere other than the land of inflated wages, prices, and deflated pride in craft.

Think in terms of a few general principles.

How Much Do You Want to Spend on Drums?

Never be embarrassed if you’ve only got pennies and the other guy’s wallet is flush with C-notes. Get this: the other day, a good friend, Tommy K, gives me a call and says, “You know how last week we were talking about the old Pearl wood-fiberglass drums? Well, I just came home from Daves Drumshop and I’ve got a set right here. They’re missing a couple of bottom rims but I can fix them up quick and, besides, they’re scratchy but in good shape. The bearing edges are great.” Don’t worry if you have trouble understanding Tom’s statement. That’s what I’m here for today. At any rate, back to the bit of urban lore:

I popped the question. How much?

Fifty bucks, $50 US. Thirty quid, probably 10 Euros by now, and four thousand yen. For 12, 13, and 16” toms and 22” bass drum. No snare. This mini-drama unfolds, in some form, every day of the year in points across the globe. I’m not suggesting you lunge at cheap second-hand drums, however, unless you really do a close study. But I am saying that, new or used, cheap is not impossible.

How Much Should You Spend on Cheap Drums?

Get ready for the truth. When buying new drums, you can spend pretty much what you want to spend. The limitation is your budget. And your budget can be limited.

China has sucked the life out of the drum industry and has created a buyer’s market. If you had the money, I’d send you to my favorite DW kits or some Pearl Reference or Yamaha Oak. But you don’t want to because you’re don’t have the budget. You go ahead and buy the lower-line gear made in China. I mean, nobody’s twisting your arm, are they. Speaking of which, where was your watch made?

Eight weeks ago, during a break from rehearsals held at the back of a small town music store, I wandered out front to snoop in the product showroom. I paused at the one drumset on display, a $699 Taye drum kit finished in a pearly, seashell, creamy glaze. I’d played the more upscale Studio Maple and I’d seen other Taye kits at close range, but not this particular line targeting students. It came complete: bass, three toms, snare, hi-hat stand, two cymbal stands, pedal—everything except cymbals. The price wasn’t pro but the kit, with the exception of the heads, looked pro to me. Now in truth there may have been bits of metal here and there that weren’t top-grade, and the kit might not have stood up to a metal band tour, but if you took care of it, I’m sure it’d last years and years.

What held my gaze was the incredibly well-shaped bearing edges, clearly visible through clear heads. They were finely-sanded, into a silky smooth peak. The head sat top this edge as a guitar string “floats” atop a bridge and, untuned in the store, each tom sustained for a good three seconds when I tapped gently.

This $699 sticker, you remember, was the asking price for an mid-level kit in a small music shop. If you buy a kit from that little shop, you’d get good service should you bend your hi-hat center rod. That’s a plug for the little guy, only fair in this age of Internet shopping.

Asian wood may be easy to come by and cheap, but Asian shells are looking good. My good friend Hagi, who designed everything the Japanese company Yamaha cataloged until 2003, and I’m not really stretching the truth here, is one reason that American companies woke up and, by extension, one reason Chinese companies honor his legacy by copying his ball-and-socket tom holder, hi-hast stands, sturdy lugs, and shell designs. I think Hagi could take bamboo and form it into great shells (bamboo runs rampant in Japan and currently Hagi is involved in ecological impacts of unimpeded bamboo growth). Hagi has made amazing drums from bamboo (DW too),the point being, yet again, forget about it, all this fixation on certain wood varieties. You are buying a cheap, decent sounding kit, not the flavor of the month.

I would have played that small town Taye drumset (or similar low-priced kit from companies listed above) in any venue, from studio to stage. So what gives?

What gives is the reality that each company markets one or two gem kits in the $500 range. Really good drum kits. You need to know a few more details to walk confidently into a big box store and face-off with the sales staff.

Drumset Buying: What to Consider Before Acting

First, it is a buyer’s market. Competition has driven down prices. Increasingly sophisticated manufacturing process upgrades have caused quality to soar.

Second, don’t get snowed by some marketing pitch. Wood is wood. If it’s inferior but well-shaped into round shells with trued bearing edges, and sealed well, it’s going to be fine for years to come. The weak point will be the quality of the fittings, but these have improved vastly from the white metal contraptions of mid-sixties Asian drumsets.

Third, knowing that maple is not sacred, don’t be influenced by “pure maple” shells, as if they’re as necessary as drum sticks. In the 1970s, drum company catalogs referred to “hardwood shells” and only occasionally (eg. Rogers) did we hear about maple or any other wood. By the turn of the eighties and the decline of American companies, some Asian drum companies were proclaiming “birch is the optimum wood for drum shells because it is durable and produces the best sound”. By the turn of the eighties, The Tyranny of Maple was in full force. If a drum shell was composed of anything other than maple, it was inferior.

This last bit might frustrate you. Depending on where you live, you’ve read ads in Rhythm (UK) and Batteur (France) and Drums & Percussion (Germany) and Modern Drummer claiming that maple is king. Now they’re telling you that hybrids are in vogue—shells in which various woods, once deemed unsuitable for sonic reasons, are the gear.

Hybrid shells were what launched the American drum industry before it caught the maple bug. Mahogany, maple, poplar, bass—these were the shells drummers bought. Those woods were available and cheap. Maple is a great wood for drums. But not the only wood.Skip the following unless you want to know more about maple mythology.

Listen: Do You Want to Know a Secret?

I’m going to tell you a few truths about wood, particularly, but not limited to, maple as it bears on your purchase plans.

  • You don’t have to buy “pure maple” shell drums.
  • All maple is not equal. Premium maple originates in Canada and the northern States. This hard, unblemished, consistent-grained wood is expensive to import; thus, Asian companies pass on the expense to you. You pay more. Sometimes….
  • Companies are apt to construct “premium maple shells” from maple originating from northern China, Siberia, and locations unknown to me. Trust me, the growing conditions in these remote locations, at least in winter, are not dissimilar to those in Canada. The difference is in consistency of grain and the relative flex of the wood veneers used to lap into a shell, not necessarily hardness or sound quality.
  • The reason some of these maple varieties are muttered in the same breath as North American maple/rock maple/sugar maple is that they come from the same family, but, from a cabinetmaker’s perspective, the non-American maple is unattractive when lacquered.
  • Consequently, some companies use this “tainted maple” but wrap their shells with attractive finishes to shield your eyes from the aesthetic issues. Or they’ll incorporate an outer (and sometimes inner) veneer of, say, Japanese birch, which is more consistent, or some other pretty veneer. I believe one company is currently investigating synthetic outer veneers that digitally mirror wood.
  • Hybrid” shells originated because they were, in most instance, constructed from available woods, read “cheaper and plentiful”.
  • The revered classic shells were often cobbled together from among the following: maple, walnut, African mahogany, poplar, bass, birch, wood fillers, and thick glue. Shell interiors were sometimes left unsealed.
  • Recently-introduced shells constructed from veneers of oak (a personal favorite), walnut, ash, Australian hardwoods, and even certain softer Asian mahoganies, if shaped by capable drum makers, can result in excellent sounding drums. But you will pay a premium so avoid the exotic stuff for now. Players my age can’t tell the difference, most of them, so how are you expected to distinguish maple from, say, bubinga?

Muster confidence to confront, or ignore, salespeople who go and on (as I’m doing in this article) about the merits of some hardwood. You want a shell that is round. You can’t always verify this but you can eyeball it, feel it, and conclude things about the integrity of the bearing edges. You ought to do so, for in the realm of the drum, as Ray Ayotte says, the shell is the star front and center. Bring a drum key to the shop and, if you can’t get a glimpse of the bearing edges/interior through a transparent head, ask to remove the batter head. Feel along the edge. If it’s reasonably smooth and doesn’t draw blood, it might just be alright.

Metal Bits, Pieces, and RIMS/Suspension Cradles

Hardware is critically important to the maturing of a good drum. If the hardware falls by the wayside, the drum is useless. White metal, that soft sorry stuff of sixties Asian drums, is often obvious to the eye and finger tip. My friend, Yamaha designer (retired) Takashi “Hagi” Hagiwara, has drilled this into my head. When he took me to the temples at Kyoto, twice now, I got it. The wooden floors, some of them 800 years old, give or take 500, were smooth, intact, and survivors of decades of typhoons and tempests. The metal used to secure those floors was minimal, properly placed, and of good quality. Guess why Yamaha drums are as they are….because of Hagi’s belief that a good wood chamber held together by good quality fittings that are not extravagent, will endure long enough to mature. “I don’t build drums to last ten years,” he’s told me. “I’m thinking a drum sound matures in, oh, twenty-five years. I want my drums to last longer than that. You wait and see what they sound like in fifty years!” Listen, I’m no Yamaha apologist. I can only hope that Yamaha continues in his spirit. Last I looked, they were doing so. Hagi is not alone is his extraordinary sensitivity to vibration, pitch, rhythm, and drummers’ physical comportment behind the kit. Nor is he alone among drum makers (I’ve mentioned John Good in the same breath) who build instruments to connect the human muse to the musical manifestation. It just seemed that way for the longest time.

It is a little more difficult for you, and for me, to assess the durability of, say, the metal used in manufacturing a pedal. Metals are lacquered, coated in various colors and, even if it weren’t, it’s difficult to distinguish between aluminum and steel and unless you’re trying to chrome them, in which case the aluminum won’t hang onto the plating; that’s why we see so many aluminum drums that are brushes, sand blasted, or otherwise. In general, speaking of pedals and hi-hat stands, if they feel smooth under foot, they’re made well.

I’m Going to Take Heat for This…

And I don’t care because somebody’s got to stand up and say the following. I’m not in total disagreement with the majority. But my own actions in the following regard have been consistent with my long-held view that…

They’re Good…but You Don’t Need those Suspension Mounts

So much research, energy, and money has been spent on metal hardware myths that today it requires energy to perpetuate this myth. And money.

The myth, the operating assumption, goes like this: all good quality toms come with “cradle” suspension mounts. I’d have to agree. Take a DW Collectors’ Series or a Tama Bubinga/Birch or Pearl Reference: each kit comes with a version of a seventies-born metal cradle mount, somewhat analogous with the bungee-style web of ties that isolate mic from stand.

Indeed, you may never have to confront the reality I’m about to depict, simply because many inexpensive drums come complete with similar metal “cradles” on which toms sit, isolated from rigid tom holders. Some of these suspension mounts work wonders, especially if you tension your drum heads loosely, which, to me, is when you can really hear the difference between a drum choking, as if it was a dog resisting walking any further and you pulling optimistically. The dog stiffens. The drum, especially drums hanging on “T” style brackets, stiffen and choke and don’t bark with authority. A drum can sound perfectly good when tweaked with a key; mount it non-suspended, and the life seems to be sucked right out of the thing. Tell you what I love: the original RIMS floor tom mount: the floor tom sat (sits, I guess; it’s still available far as I know) on a cradle encircling the shell, isolated from the circular mount by rubber grommets that had (have) “give” to them.

I believe that it’s fair to cite the work of Gary Gauger, the creator of the original RIMS mounts. He’s tweaked these over the years. The patent, as I understand it, ran out but he’s still a key player in supply drum companies with mounts and accessory mounts that can encourage a tom to sustain freely. Gary will tell you that they’ve copied him but never equaled his product. Perhaps not but there are other ways to skin a cat.

I want to stress that a drum doesn’t automatically sound better on a cradle/suspension mount. Know this when purchasing pre-owned gear or new drums absent of such conveniences. In fact, in the furnace room beside my office two complete sets of chromed RIMS mounts hang on wall hooks, unused for decades. Meanwhile, I’ve cut two hundred radio and TV jingles, vinyl records, CDs, and soundtracks without them! Most of those tracks were cut on classic Camco LA vintage toms and bass drums (the snare could be any one of my fifty or sixty-strong collection; less these days because I don’t do this sort of thing on a regular basis).

The cradle mounts, in this instance “real” RIMS mounts, simply didn’t work with my Camcos, although I know that inventor Gary Gauger now has this sort of incompatibility well in hand. That wasn’t the point back then. I tried and tired. I talked to the late Larrie Londin, a sweetheart, who told me what my gut had told me. Ditto with Jeff Porcaro. I’ve experienced that, too…and with my black Camcos. Get rid of them”. At least on those Camco drums.

The point is that the cradle mounts choked my Camcos. The moment, quite literally, I removed the suspension mounts, for which I’d paid good money in the faith that they’d promote fuller sound—crazy because the tone was already the stuff of dreams—and my scarred old Camcos blossomed with dazzling harmonics and long sustain.

Tbw Camco Drums in Raven Studios No RIMS Mount

My Camcos in the Studio circa 2000 Rod Penetrates Shell

I retired the cradle mounts. Two of them went to Tommy K on trade; the others hang on nails high up the walls where they won’t poke somebody’s eyes out. They’re like antlers–trophies from a hunting trip! I finally parted company with the Camco drums, a tough jones to shake. Yes, I had become an addict. Nowadays I play two of Hagi’s customized kits; one is a Yamaha Manu Katche Kids’ Set with oak shells. The off the rack mahogany shell model is great, too. It’s extremely affordable, so there! Still no suspension mounts! I’ve got hundreds of tracks in the can, evidence that drums can sound beautiful without cradle mounts. Enough already!

If you stumble upon a drumset equipped with an old school mount (as in the photo above) and you like the look (I admit, I prefer to play a kit that meets my definition of “attractive”) and it’s priced at a bargain basement $450, by all means buy it! Incidentally, the best way to decide on sound quality is to execute basic quarter-notes, not ragged single-stroke rolls, around the toms. Any drumset will sound like crap if you don’t strike evenly and lift the stick/allow it to rebound immediately following impact. Learn to “draw out” the tone.

One Myth Closes, Another Opens

The Fallacy of the Inner Sanctum

Here’s a footnote to the last argument. Here again I part company with all of my colleagues, dear friends, and drum acquaintances. Experts will warn you that if a rod penetrates a shell, the tone will suffer. I’m sorry but I disagree. Again, look carefully at the photo and you’ll see a rod entering a 12″ Camco (LA vintage) tom.

It would be, they claim, akin to driving an SUV through a chapel.  A metal rod plunging into a tom, penetrating the inner sanctum? God forbid!

I say nonsense. That’s why I’ve posted a photo of my Camcos in a real, not basement, studio on a real session. That would be Raven St. Studios, Studio A (the big room) in Ottawa. I enjoy recording in that studio and I particularly enjoy sliding a tom to various points along a penetrating rod, thus dramatically increasing or decreasing sustain. On my “new” old, crappy Asian kit, referred to in Part I of this series, the tom holder is the same story. The tom sounds great, seriously gooood.

With a tom at the edge of a rod, you get a little wobble when you strike the drum. Perfect! That’s what you get when you strike a drum on a RIMS mount. I like RIMS, the original RIMS, just fine for certain drums. Some of the knock-offs are flimsy and, I believe, introduce spurious overtones to the mix. I really like the DW “Dolly Parton” mount, which is based on a related but different set of principles.To me, the DW mount doesn’t cut off circulation, as it were, head to tension rods. That’s another story and doesn’t detract from my argument.

Drive a Rod into the Tom, Nobody Dies

If you spy a drumset that features a tube/rod tom mount and you hear weird overtones, simply stuff the hollow tube full of plasticine, fabric, or toilet paper. Pack it tight. This will curb unwanted hardware resonance, which is probably the root cause. Slip the tom to the very end of the tube to enhance sustain. Problem solved.

I don’t know: maybe they’re manufacturing drums for dogs and cats. Or marketing them for human beings blessed with finely tweaked hearing, who can hear a pin drop on a carpet. You know, my doctor, an audiologist, did warn me I showed a dip in the vicinity of 4kHz. Maybe that’s why I’ve never been able to detect any significant advantage conferred by those mounts, at least the way I tune and the way I play, especially in a live setting. The one exception is the rare studio occasion when tuning my drums low to the point at which drum heads are ready to ripple, as we did in the seventies to emulate that thudding Elton John multi-tom thunk.

I urge you to at least consider my suggestion that a “penetrating” tom mount is nothing to get foamy about. People are starving in China, as my mother used to say.

How to Demonstrate that You are the Expert

Trust yourself. Commissioned or not, sales personnel have opinions as strong as mine and these should be considered as just that: opinions. Mine should be taken with a grain of salt, too. If I’m solid in my arguments, at least I’m honest and reasonably well informed. Toss your own perceptions into the mix.

And take it upon yourself to tighten a wingnut here and there. Maybe you don’t know everything there is to know about drums but you’ve turned a few door handles in your life and you know smooth from rough, firm from loose, and so on.

When you tighten a wing nut, does it “grab” with assurance? Does it engage fully without having to use vice grips? On, say, a cymbal stand or tom mount, you should be able to tighten to the finger-tight position, then another full turn max, end of story. Whatever the wing nut is securing, tube height or leg position, it should grab…take hold. Otherwise, on a gig you’re going to be constantly giving it an extra turn or two and, before you know it, the thing is going to strip and present a very big problem.

By the way, it’s the same thing with drum key-operated height/position controls. Bring a key to the store and perform the same experiment, as above. If you have to crank something to a tension you feel is excessive  while in the store, imagine the future!

Next, speaking of metal, remember that the heavier is not always better. Heavier can mean too much of a good thing. I remember former MD editor Rick Van Horn describing a company’s tom/bass drum mount as a “totem”. That still makes me smile.The much-lauded classic drums often came with factory mounts that weighed like feathers compared to some of today’s massive structures.

Again, I’m repeating this for good reason: Does the holder stay put? If a nudge in the showroom results in slippage, not just a little normal wobble, move on to another kit. Believe me, you can buy kits for peanuts that are solid.

The snare drum is often the prime example of the good, the bad, and the ugly. Take my late sixties Gracy brand snare drum, rather than speculate on one of the numerous modern examples. In the sixties, this drum sold in the range of $40 to $70, give or take. The shell is constructed from a few plies of ubiquitous, cheap Asian mahogany, which is softer than African mahogany (not necessarily a negative feature), and is held in-round via slender reinforcement rings top and bottom. These are shaped from non-premium wood and wood filler. Whoever did the hand and machine work on this shell, however, did a better job than I’ve seen on many American drums of the same era. Unfortunately, the snare strainer didn’t survive the voyage. Somebody along the way replaced it with an early-eighties Pearl model, very sturdy. A cheapo snare drum is transformed into a pro drum, end of story.

It’s All in Your Head

So trust your instincts/hunches. And trust in good drum heads. Never  trust a snare or tom batter head that comes with a budget drum kit (there are a couple of notable exceptions, especially Pearl and Remo pre-muffled bass drum heads).

Don’t assume drums have been tuned at the factory or store. A couple of years ago, I picked up a Pearl Reference 14×5” snare drum, almost identical to the one I was obliged to return to Pearl following my MD review of a Reference series drumset. Nobody wanted it; it didn’t sound that good. I agreed initially but I heard something within trying to get out. So I took a key out, cranked the bottom head a full turn clockwise, did the same (well, it was half a turn) to the top head…Bob’s your uncle: it’s a fantastic drum.

It’s the same deal with cheap snare drums, cheap drums, whatever. The point is that I’m patient and trust my ears through the sometimes bewildering clutter of overtones. Remember to do the same, even if it’s closing time or the building is burning and you gotta get out fast—I’m joking. Again, ensure the bottom head is tighter than the top by a good two full-turns. Bottom or snare-side heads are the most commonly ignored drumset heads, followed closely by tom heads. With regard to the latter: yes, equal tension top and bottom will ensure optimum sustain but for a beginner it’s hard to detect if the bottom is equal in tension/pitch or if it’s a few steps higher. Just try and heed your gut feeling and you’ll get the bottom head tighter. If you have the batter face-down on a carpet, sometimes the bottom head will boing a little, sound too tight when struck with a stick lightly. That’s cool; leave it. Turn the drum over. This really works on cheap drums, for various reasons. Cut to the chase: the tom will begin to open up.

Cruddy heads pit easily and when you get craters, buzzes aren’t far behind. I remember going backstage to see Jim Keltner, who was playing Massey Hall with Little Village. He showed me his kit, which he and his son Eric had decorated with stripey tape. I smiled and chided him for the dips and pits in his batter heads. He responded that the show was over and he’d take them to his room and put a candle or some heat source underneath and the bubbles would disappear. This is Jim Freaking Keltner, who can get a box of Diplomat coated heads next day, if not same day, gratis from Remo! He’s got the patience of a saint, necessary if you want a great drum sound. What does that say to you? Go slowly and learn to listen; you say you listen but do you hear? I’m slow at getting punchlines in jokes. That could explain why I’m repetitious and say the same thing twice to you, perhaps with a change of clothes in the interim. You’ll get the punchlines slowly, too. Drum sounds are that way. A drum can sound terribly ambiguous, even from room to room. An example is the pitch of the snare side vs the batter head. You’re poking this prophylactic-thin membrane on the bottom and this substantial skin atop the drum. The timbres are totally out of line. No wonder it’s hard for young drummers to distinguish pitch on an indefinite-pitched instrument.

Take your time. Be patient with yourself. Only then can you learn sufficient patience to divine pitch when the drum only utters little hints. That’s the deal about listening.

If your new kit costs under $1000, chances are a pre-pack from Evans, Remo, Aquarian and maybe Attack would solve all of your perceived problems in one fell swoop. Under this and repeat after me: New, quality heads will make a dramatic difference in tone and will bump up the longevity.

Don’t Fence Me In

Remember, when checking out a drumset, to consider acoustics. Most drummers purchase a kit, bring it home, and put it in the basement room finished in drywall. Invariably the room features a low ceiling. Low ceilings, particularly the plaster or drywall variety, make drums sound like tin cans—even $8000 kits can sound aweful. Ask someone to strike blows while you listen from a few paces. What you hear at a distance will be much better than what you hear rebounding from a low ceiling.

You’d  be amazed. You’re frustrated with your drums at home. Get those drums into a hall, however, and those weird overtones will evaporate. If you can’t wait, swap out the factory heads with Evans G2s or Remo Emperors, both 2-ply heads. The tone on toms will be instantly fatter. Try those heads on the snare batter, too. Tighten them higher than you’d think. What seems to be high-pitched at close range is perceived as a lower pitch from a distant vantage point.

That is the key to John Bonham’s drum sound (more later on that, if you’d like). He cranked the heads high. Up close it sounded like your tight batter heads in the basement. At a distance, they didn’t sound high and boingy. That’s why everybody describes his sound as rich, deep, fat, whatever, and then goes about copping his sound in all the wrong ways.

Dave Mattacks awakened to fundamental acoustic principles the night John Bonham sat in at Dave’s gig at the Troubador in Los Angeles circa 1974. At the time, DM tuned low. When Bonham played them, the low translated as “flat” and “thuddy” from where Dave stood at the back of the club. From that day on, Dave has brought up his drum pitches.

Look Ma, Six Rods

That’s what you often get on budget floor toms. Eight would be nice but six is cool, too: it means that less hardware (ie lug casings, or, as my English and Scottish pals term them, nut boxes) touches the shell and promotes an open, ambient sound.

Do not purchase a tom that has four lugs unless the drum is second-hand and is missing two of six tension rods. Where I shop, they’ll give me a tension rod if I need it. If you’re polite, they’ll give one to you for a smile.

While at the store, take stock: Ideally the snare drum will have 8 lugs/tension rods, the 12” tom 6, and floor toms 8. It varies but, unless we’re talking vintage Gretsch 12” toms, or modern ones for that matter (these traditionally have five lugs), the above is the count you need. Six will do on a 14” floor tom and six will make a snare drum sound more open; but with 6 rods, you can’t get sufficient tension on the “snare bed”, that necessary trench in the drum head underneath the snare wires. More on that another time. Some of the seminal snare sounds have been recorded on 6-lug drums. It’s more a Levon Helm finesse/folkloric thing than a John Bonham backbeat.

Sherlock Holmes’s Magnifying Glass: Look to the Edge…

If the supplied drum heads are clear, examine the wooden bearing edges to ensure they are smoothly formed into a peak, on which the head ought to float. Ripples in the drum head may be signs of a problem but most often they indicate that the drum has not been tensioned evenly. If the head is coated and circumstances preclude you from removing it, rely your touch. Press down slightly on the batter head at a distance of about an inch from the metal rim until you feel you’ve hit something: that something would be the bearing edge. Then, maintaining the same distance from the rim and the same pressure with your finger, run it in a circle around the drum. If you don’t encounter any bumps on your journey, it’s one sign that the bearing edges are what you want. Again, the head ought to rest against the bearing edge as a guitar string rests on a bridge, with no impediment (s) to free vibration.

If the wood is cobbled together firmly, with no gaps between plies, it’s not going to be life or death if it’s a maple, birch, white ash, or monkey’s ash. You can get a good sound. If in the heat of action the tension rods loosen, next time you’re at the shop, pick up a set of lug locks—plastic triangles with a center hole. You grasp one firmly and push until the drum key-end of the tension rod pokes through, like a ground hog in spring. Ensure the flat of the lug lock is aligned with the flat of the metal rim. This will keep the lug from moving: simple.

Replace any Brass Cymbals as Soon as You Get Another $199 Together

Cymbals are a whole different story, not just a section or chapter. What I’d do if I had a little money left over would depend on how “little” remained. I’d try and put together a couple of hundred bucks for any company’s pre-pack, chosen in complementary (not complimentary, as in “you look lovely today”) sets. Don’t worry if the total equals that of a pro splash cymbal. There are real deals out there and I’d seriously recommend you go on trust from a name brand such as Zildjian, Sabian, Paiste, and Meinl. Dreams, the cymbals, that is, are bargains but they are a little harder for beginners or “returning drummers” to match up.

Second hand cymbals, all green and tarnished, are always worth a poke. In fact, if you see some old Zildjian ride cymbal, sort of bumpy, and it happens to have a metal stamp with the letter K positioned to the left, maybe a little awkwardly, as if the metal stamp was applied in two passes, and if you see “Made in Turkey” or, hell, just the word “Turkey”, buy it if it’s under $100 and email me immediately.

Just kidding. Okay, email Dr Boo. Look out for those rare gems don’t let anybody pry them from your firm embrace. A 22” K Zildjian Turkish-made ride, not USA made, sells for $2000 on eBay. Conversely, I did rehearsals on a house kit and made do with first generation Sabian B8s and Zildjian Scimitars. Not too shabby. Green like the roofs on the parliament buildings in certain capital cities. They (not the roofs) were a little tinny in tone but, as British rock drummer Bob Henrit has (and many others have) stated, there are no bad cymbals.

To that I’d add a disclaimer. I’d be extremely cautious when purchasing any cymbal that’s termed “spun brass”. Guaranteed a brass, as opposed to bronze, cymbal is going to bend quickly and loose its tone.

If it were me (and it has been me!), I’d go to a reliable drum shop and purchase second-hand hats, crash, and ride. You’ll be surprised to discover that you can assemble a usable configuration of name-brand, sometimes even pro-quality, “pre-owned” cymbals for a fraction of their original sticker price.

Ask for help when choosing cymbals, which sound different at a distance. Remember, you’re beginning a long friendship with a drum shop. Don’t blurt out stuff you might regret. Show a little humility and ask for assistance. Store personnel hear cymbals day in, day out. They’ll steer you right. Just be adamant; insist that you stay within your budget. When it comes to cymbals and a modest budget, you can optimize even a $30 S/H 18” crash, of dubious quality and origin, by striking with a glancing blow and allowing the cymbal to wobble away. Similarly, getting a good ride sound is, to some extent, a matter of tapping with authority and releasing the stick. Watch any video showing Steve Gadd dead-sticking a ride: he sometimes will press and hold the stick tight to the surface momentarily. He does this to subdue wash and extract a thick attack tone. Odds are you’ll do this as a beginner for one reason: bad technique.

I know, old guys like me are always saying, “It’s not the cymbal; it’s the way you play it”. Well, it is the cymbal. And the way you play it! Remember that a good 50% of Bonzo’s sound (meaning John Bonham of Led Zeppelin, who’d be an older guy than me had he survived) was down to him playing with authority and playing properly, drawing the sound out of cymbals as if playing a fish on a line, not throttling it with the boat paddle.

A cymbal doesn’t have to made from B20 bronze alloy; the cheaper B8 bronze can sound decent. So can B12. And nickel-silver alloy, such as the old Paiste Stambuls from the sixties. John Bonham and Cozy Powell used B8 cymbals. Most drummers swear by something in the neighborhood of B20 alloy. Sometimes a shrill ride can fatten up simply by switching from your swing-era pencil stick to a firm 5A.

The Last Word: Fantasia

You ought to think about working the fish on the line as you’re stroking a ride cymbal. Or try this and you’ll understand what I’m saying: Rent the DVD of the classic movie Fantasia, an animated film set to classical and “twentieth century” legit music, surprisingly hip. If the DVD menu allows you to select scenes, choose the one featuring the sorcerer’s apprentice. The grace of his arms and hands, in sync beautifully and commanding the waves ever onward…that’s what you want when you’re striking a cymbal or drawing tone from a drum.

The Sorcerer Resides in Cuba

Playing properly with something less than a death grip on a good stick constitutes magic but it’s not trickery. Good cymbal technique is as ancient as the tides. And good cymbals can be equally unruly, seemingly out of control.

But you can summon them, command them both firmly and gently, to do the deed. Even cheap cymbals on a cheap kit. Go to Cuba, if our country permits travel to the island. Any day of the week you’ll see drummers making do with broken sticks epoxied together, taped together, and with tips long departed. Those drummers sound sweet. I brought a suitcase full of sticks and handed them out, gave them, of course, to the various drummers who performed in acts that, blessedly, closed the day at the resort near Havana where I stayed. They appreciated the gesture.

But you know what? I saw several drummers at that resort and later in Havana. Get this: All of those drummers were world-class. And each one of those drummers played on throw-away budget kits held together by a slender thread. Tom holders were welded, other metal was soldered. One tom took, say, a blackened Ambassador, the other bore what looked like a cross between a Pinstripe and an old furnace filter. Cymbals? Budget models, many of them cracked. I didn’t see one pro kit. And these guys were as good as anybody anywhere. They can’t buy a new kit for love nor money. That’s the way it goes down in Cuba.

Don’t fret your cheap kit purchase. Fret making music.

Budget Drum Kit Suggestions

Taye: the cheapest line of them all, the name of which escapes me.

Yamaha: Rydeen, Stage Custom (second-hand).

Pearl: Export and a couple of others; second-hand is good.

DW: Pacific second-hand. Made in Mexico. I’ve been to the Ensenada factory. It’s a real deal drum factory, just as Tijuana is a snake pit and everybody is a street doctor.

Ludwig: I love the Ludwig Standard line from the early seventies, Ludwig’s first attempt at a truly budget instrument. I much prefer them to early seventies regular Ludwigs.

Sonor: try the Force series, quality drums made in mainland China.

Pearl: makes many budget kits that could pass for pro.

Rogers (defunct): R360, R380

Tama: Swingstars from the eighties. I’ve never played Rockstars but if they’re as good as the Swingstars I’ve played, they are in the running.

Gretsch:  Catalinas.

I’ll add more if I think of any. Thanks Rick for the Gretsch tip.

Meantime, think of Cuban drummers.