Evolution of the Drum Set

It is 1865 and the American civil war has ended, African slaves were freed and began to contribute to the drumming world in terms of rhythms and primitive percussion instruments. Also in America, the place for a drummer in theatrical settings and orchestras was developing where there was a snare drum. But the main thing was marching bands before jazz, blues pop rock etc. The first multi-drum set up was born in the marching bands, this concept from marching band was known as double drumming where you played snare and bass drum as a combination, but just with sticks, this was even before the invention of a kick pedal.

It’s now 1890 in America and Ragtime was invented, it had a new syncopated feel from the New Orleans style and it became the most popular music in America. Although marching band was still the main thing and was rudiment based, Ragtime became more popular due to its dance feel. There is still no ride cymbals or hi-hats at this time so drummers got creative with what they had hence the New Orleans feel, other than just the marching feel. Immigration then started in the late 1800’s and people from all different backgrounds started to come to America, people from Africa, China and so on and this is where the early signs of the drum kit develop. Percussion contraptions are brought from in immigration such as cymbals, bells, and toms hence the original name ‘Traps Kit’.

1901 Ludwig patent the first proper bass drum pedal as we know today although their different pedals invented such as the overhang pedal this was clumsy and hard to use and early marching drummers and ragtime drummers actually preferred to play the bass drum with sticks. The first Ludwig pedal had a much larger beater than today as bass drums back then where usually 28, 30, 32”  so a larger beater was required. The beaters were usually made of lambskin.

1912 Brushes were invented as drums were too overpowering, as in 1900 there were no microphones, sound systems etc so drummers need a way to play quietly. The brushes were actually derived from fly swatters, which was the original name for brushes. They were very popular through the 1920’s and 30’s and still to this day are used a lot where brushes are now an art form as opposed to just playing what you would play with sticks.

1917 the original Dixie land jazz band go to New York and make what is first regarded as the first early jazz recordings. They combine marching band rudimental feel and combine with swinging ragtime feel with wood blocks (China), cowbells and cymbals (turkey) So the early drum set is born combining the bass drum, snare drum, kick pedal and blocks and cymbals. There are still no hi-hats or ride cymbals. The drummers start to swing their rudiments.


1919-20’s US Congress pass a law called prohibition, so now people can’t drink alcohol. It’s illegal so lots of underground clubs are formed also called ‘speakeasy’ This is are of African-American people would hang out and jazz bands were formed and evolved. Chicago is the birthplace of first big bands consisting of drums, piano, clarinet. The radio was invented but no TV or movies yet although silent movies were a big thing and drummers would get work doing these films and would be responsible for things like gunshot noises, birds flying, doors closing, trains moving, horses galloping and lots of different other noises. So the drum set developed even more for theatre. Known as a traps drummer a drummer would need his drums to do certain sounds. By the end of the 1920’s the silent era was coming to an end as movies began to have sound.

1929 is a big year for drumming but more importantly the world, there was the global depression. So many people had to jobs as there was no work, Jazz was kind of a savor for a lot of people and it began to become really popular previously it was considered an outlaw thing but the big band really lifted spirits for people and made people happy. As there were radios the bands could get aired such the Benny Goodman band it really became big in the mid-1930’s and an important addition to the drum kit was the tom-toms in the 1930’s but also the hi-hats and china cymbal. The hi-hat eventually became the main timekeeper before it used to be a choked cymbal but this required both hands. There were some previous variations such as a ‘low boy’ and ‘hand socks’ but he hi-hats evolved. The hi-hats had a new sound and became the benchmark sound of Big Band.

Gene Krupa considered the first big star of drumming made the drums famous by becoming not just a timekeeper but just as important as any other soloist in the band. The tom-tom was a small Chinese drum that couldn’t be tuned and Gene went to his company Slingerland and produced the first double tune-able tom-tom where he made the record ‘sing, sing, sing which features big beefy tom-toms which were never heard before so he was the pioneer of the modern tom-tom as we know it and made them a real feature of the drums.

1941 different things happen African American jazz musicians begin to stop playing jazz music just for dancing, Harlem gives birth to be-bop jazz. Drummers like Max Roach and Kenny Clark get tired of the big marching band bass drum and hi-hats so they change the cymbal configuration, they started to keep time with a cymbal instead of the big bass drum which was lighter and allowed them to play melodies on a much smaller bass drum. The cymbal eventually evolved into the ride cymbal.

1948 Rhythm and blues evolved post world 2. It had a dance feel on the floor tom like the big bands but these bands were much smaller as the electric guitar and bass guitar was invented so drummers could now start laying into the drums more and start playing a lot heavier. Microphones and sound systems were invented so drummers could start hitting a lot harder and the heavy backbeat was formed along with the heavy shuffle. So we have gone from the big swing kit to the small bebop kit to a more modern kit where the crash cymbal is invented.

1952 is an important year, as a new way of playing is invented the ‘double bass drum’ usually associated with rock and metal but it was a strong connection to Louis Bellson who pioneered this concept. After winning the first Gene Krupa drum competition he gave birth to the double bass drum concept. Drummers used this concept through the 50’ and 60’s and even today is used a lot.

1954’s Rockabilly was formed in Texas it took the style of country music, an acoustic style from Europe, and added drums. Slap bass was a big feature which was used to keep the rhythm as there were no drums, but the first big hits of rockabilly featured brushes as they didn’t want the drums too loud. Rock and Roll was also invented. For teenagers and some cool things happen or the drums. The shuffle becomes more flattened out. Drummers like Earl Palmer start to rock out produce a straight-eighth groove with big fills and start hitting their crash cymbal on beat one. So you start getting bigger cymbals for that loud crash sound.

1964 Rock and Roll has been around for 10 years and we have all the elements of the drum set in place, bass drum, snare drum, toms from high to low and big cymbals. This is also the year of the British invasion with such bands as the Yardbirds and the Beatles and latterly The Who and the Rolling Stones who were being influenced by  American swing, jazz, rhythm and blues and rock and roll music. The Beatles featured live on TV, and a nation of drummers seeing Ringo Star playing matched grip and up until now, everyone played traditional grip derived from the marching bands. So the drummers would tilt their snare as they played traditional. Ringo opted to use the matched grip so he could get more power from his snare so now through the 1960 everyone is wanting to play like Ringo so matched grip become the default and still is today.

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