Buying a Drum Kit: a short guide


Buying a drum kit. If you’re thinking about getting a drum kit for yourself or for a young drummer in your family and feel you don’t have nearly enough knowledge or experience to make good choices, the following guide will help you through the process. This guide assumes you’re relatively new to the world of drumming and drum shopping, so we’ll start from the basics and work our way up. The guide also assumes its audience is the drummer him- or herself. If you’re the parent or guardian of the drummer this guide will help you make the choices you need to make, and guide your drummer so he or she will be as satisfied as possible.

Make sure you’re ready to buy. If you’re just beginning, make sure you really want a drum kit. Take a few lessons, get a practice pad and work on some exercises. A drum kit’s an investment, and it’s a very good idea to make sure you’re going to stick with drumming for awhile so the investment pays off. Consider borrowing, renting or finding a practice space with a kit to test your commitment to a drumming life.

Find some personal assistance. Drum kits can represent a substantial investment and there are a lot of variables to take into consideration. If it’s at all possible, bringing an experienced drummer along with you on your shopping trip(s) is enormously helpful. Nothing replaces the personal experience they have in performance, in knowing what does and doesn’t work, what’s more important and what less, what brings frustration or pleasure in the working life of a performing drummer. And maybe just as important, they have experience with buying instruments and music stores and the people who work there. Many drummers are personable and generous and may be willing to help out the up and coming generation out of the goodness of their hearts. You could also consider paying a drum teacher their standard lesson fee to meet you at the music store and provide some expert advice.

The sound’s the thing. If you like the sound of a drum kit you’re much more likely to be happy with your choice. If you don’t like the sound, you’ll almost certainly regret it. And if you’re not an experienced drummer, you may not really know the drum sounds that are right for you. Drum kits have significantly different sounds, and there are dozens of variables that make a difference in the sound. Shell material, size, tuning, drum heads, sticks and tips are just the beginning. You’re going to have to try out, by actually playing, a pretty large number of drum kits to start to learn about the sound you like the best. And you’re going to have to learn to go into a music store and play one after another. It’s a really good idea to actually look at and play a drum kit you’re considering purchasing. If you’re buying based on a photo and eBay description, you should still play different drum kits to get an idea of what you like. And buying a kit without playing it should probably only be done by someone with confidence and experience.

What’s in a drum kit? Basically, a kit is drums and hardware. The standard kit has five drums and cymbals. The drums are: a bass drum, the big drum that sits on the floor and gets hit with a mallet attached to a pedal; a snare drum, which sits on a stand right in front of drummer and has metal snares on the bottom head to produce a characteristic buzzing sort of sound; mounted toms, two drums attached to the bass drum and used for accents and rides; the floor tom, bigger than the mounted toms, this drum stands up on its own legs. You’ll also need stands, mounting hardware, a tuning key and accessories like drumsticks, cases and the like.

What about cymbals? Cymbals are traditionally not bundled together with a drum kit but are purchased separately. If you’re buying a used set from another drummer, the drums and cymbals will already have been assembled. Cymbals will represent a substantial part of the cost of your set and often make the most important contribution to the tone and sound of the whole set. The standard configuration looks like this: a crash cymbal, used to provide accents and crescendos; a ride cymbal, used for continuous “riding” pattern; a Hi-hat, a pair of cymbals mounted horizontally on a stand equipped with a pedal to open and close them. They all need stands and specialized bits of hardware. Good sounding cymbals probably have more influence over the sound of a drummer than the actual drums themselves.

What about electronic drums? Electronic drums certainly have some persuasive selling points. Most serious drummers maintain that the feel and the sound of what might now be called “analog drums” will never, and should never, be replaced by anything electronic. That being said, other drummers swear by them. There is very nearly infinite variety of the different drum and percussion sounds each instrument can make when it’s hit with a drumstick. If you’re going to be recording, electronic drums have the advantage of feeding directly into the board, avoiding a whole raft of complications that come from setting up microphones for a drum set. And you can use headphones so no-one but you can hear you when you practice, which is sometimes an important feature for a drummer practicing in a residential setting. On the flip side, no-one else can hear the drums unless they’re connected to a sound system, and you’ll need monitors to hear yourself when you’re playing live. Electronic drums are not appropriate for jazz.

Are there other considerations besides the sound? Good question. Everything should be substantial and of high-quality – you want your set to last and not require a lot of maintenance and replacing of parts. If it feels flimsy or shoddy, keep shopping. Consider resale value: name brands tend to retain more of their value. Size matters: if you’re going to be transporting your drums to gigs you’ll want to make sure you can pack it into the vehicle you have in mind and will appreciate good quality cases with handles.

What sizes for what styles? The standard rock kit consists of: 22″ bass drum, 12″ and 13″ rack toms, 16″ floor tom and a 14″ snare drum. A fusion kit has: 20″ bass drum, 10″ and 12″ rack toms, 14″ floor tom and a 14″ snare drum. A jazz kit often has an 18″ bass drum, and a single 10″ or 12″ rack tom. A jazz kit uses a smaller bass drum because it’s used more as an accent instrument than for laying down a heavy beat. A metal or hard rock drummer may have a very large bass drum (or drums) to get a deep, punchy sound.

How much money for how good a kit? Our guide comes down on the side of buying on the less expensive end of things for the beginning drummer. There’s always the chance that drumming won’t last. If it does last, more experience will make the choosing of the trade-up kit a lot clearer. Also, some people feel that a less expensive kit encourages the development of better technique as the drummer tries to get a better sound through playing well that he might otherwise get for free from more expensive and better sounding instruments. You should definitely not pay much more than $900 for the whole setup, and can often get it for less. If you’re feeling confident or have expert assistance, buying used can save you a lot of money and is especially attractive if you have the chance to inspect in person and play. You might benefit from this rather hard-headed guide to drum shopping prices and negotiations:

Hopefully you’re now feeling better prepared to go out into the marketplace and find the perfect drum kit for this stage in your drumming journey, or the drumming journey your child is setting off on. Drumming is a fabulous activity and can be extremely rewarding. We wish you the best of luck on your own journey.


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