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Why the Drum Set?

Updated: May 10, 2021

Ever wonder why we set up the drums the way we do? Why do we go “boom, bap, boom-boom, bap”? They may sound like silly questions but sometimes, ”Because that’s the way we’ve always done it,” isn’t enough.

The drum set is a collection of percussion instruments that could be arranged many different ways but convention dictates one way (mainly). Of all the percussion instruments that could be (and sometimes are) incorporated into a kit, it’s mostly comprised of European instruments. Why is that? To find the answer, we must go back to mid 19th century America.

As a money saving practice, theaters often hired one person to play parts written for three or more percussionists. They accomplished this by setting up everything they needed within reach and used their feet to play the bass drum (hence the name “kick drum”). Fast forward to 1909, when Ludwig & Ludwig patented the first commercially successful bass drum pedal. That marked the birth of the modern drum set.

The contraption (or “trap” set), with its Chinese toms and tray of sound effects, was especially popular in vaudeville theaters. Vaudeville was entertainment for the working class. It featured affordable variety shows with dancers, singers, magicians and comedians. Percussionists added sound effects to accentuate the action on stage. Orchestral musicians did not consider the contraption a legitimate instrument and didn’t take it seriously.

Around the same time, a new style of music called jazz was taking the world by storm. Jazz drummers embraced the trap set and with it, created a new style of drumming. This brings us to why we play the way we play.

Before jazz, marches performed by military brass bands were the rage and John Philip Sousa was “The March King”. One of his most famous marches is “The Stars and Stripes Forever”. A signature of the march is heavy quarter note beats on the bass drum. This is still how popular dance music is played today.

The main difference, however, is the backbeat (heavy 2 & 4 on the snare). In marches, the snare is played on the upbeats, like a polka. This was far too uncool for jazz musicians. The backbeat has its origins in black gospel music, with choir members clapping on 2 & 4. Since most jazz musicians grew up in church, they brought that backbeat with them to the southern honkey-tonks where they played.

Use of the hi hat and ride cymbal has it’s roots in African drumming. They serve the same role as a shekere, or “shaker”. They’re the thread that holds the rhythms of the other instruments together.

So there you go. European and Chinese instruments played with a combination of marching band and African rhythms. Next, we’ll discuss some tips and tricks to solid timekeeping.

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