A Brief History of Drums

20 Feb 2015

Drums—technically known as membranophones—may be mankind’s oldest instrument, dating back to when humans first learned to keep rhythm.

Drums consist of a membrane (also known as a skin) stretched over an open-ended cylinder (also known as a shell) and struck with the band or a stick. Some drums have a skin stretched over the bottom of the shell as well.

Drums first appeared as far back as 6000 BC. Mesopotamian excavations unearthed small cylindrical drums dated 3000 BC. American Indians and the indigenous people of Peru, for example, used gourd and wooden constructed drums for their rituals, religious ceremonies, and various other aspects of their social life.

Before the modern era, the various drum-related percussion instruments were often played by different people.  For example, the bass drum would be played by one musician with the cymbals and snare played by others.  As music evolved, this became unwieldy and expensive.  Various attempts were made to consolidate all these instruments so that they could all be played by just one person.

The modern drum set-up evolved out of marching bands as well as the vaudeville and jazz eras. The foot-operated bass drum appearing in 1909 courtesy of Ludwig & Ludwig Co. of Chicago, which freed up the hands to play other things for the first time.  Experiments with various set-ups continued until the 1930s when a dance band drummer named Ben Duncan and a few others settled on a standardized arrangement of one bass drum, a snare, a raised tom-tom and a floor tom-tom.

The modern rock drum set-up in rock is called a “kit” which can come in many different and highly personalized configurations.

  • A typical kit is centered on the snare drum on which the player plays in time with the music.  It has wires running across the skin stretched across the bottom of the drum, giving it a sharp sound that cuts through most other instrumentation.  The snare is used in conjunction with the bass (or kick) drum, which sits on its side and is played with a food pedal.
  • The bass drum sits its side on the floor and is played with a foot pedal.
  • Kits will usually have one or more tom-toms of different diameters and depths, which are used to provide additional sounds.  Mounted toms sit atop the bass drum or on special stands.  Floor toms have their own legs and stand on the floor.
  • Drummers will use a variety of cymbals.  Crash and ride cymbals of various sizes, weights and materials are suspended from stands so they may ring freely.  Hi-hats (which first appeared in about 1926) consist of two cymbals sitting on top of each other and are used along with the snare and the bass drum to provide the foundation of the beat.  Hi-hats sit in a special stand with a foot pedal that allows the drummer to separate and clash them together for rhythmic effect.

Drums can be made from wood, metal and various synthetic materials such as fibreglass and acrylic in a variety of sizes and weights.  Each material and size comes with its own sonic properties.  The sound of a drum can also be influenced by the thickness and material of the head.  Tightening the head (i.e. increasing the tension) will produce a higher pitch.  Tom-toms with heads on the underside can be tuned to create an even wider variety of sounds and tones.  Other determining factors in the sound of its drum are the thickness, length and diameter of the shell.

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