A Little Bit Of History...

The origins of the modern drum kit can be traced back to 19th Century New Orleans, a multicultural port where diverse European musical traditions fused with the sophisticated rhythms of African slaves.

Military snare and bass drums flooded the city’s pawnshops when the American Civil War ended in 1865, and this led to an explosion in the number of marching bands. During the day, they would perform at civic, social and religious ceremonies, but at night these same musicians would play in the dancehalls of the city’s red light district, Storyville.

Second Line Musicians

Second Line Musicians

Once indoors and no longer marching, the drummers could play snare and bass drums simultaneously. To do this, they would arrange the bass drum at an angle to the right of the snare so that it could be played with sticks – a practice known as double drumming.

In 1895, however, a local drummer, Dee Dee Chandler, fashioned a makeshift pedal that enabled him to play the bass drum with his foot, leaving his hands free to concentrate on the snare.

From here, things really took off. Ulysses G. Leedy launched the first commercially available snare drum stand in 1899, while William F Ludwig developed a new, more sophisticated bass drum pedal that offered far greater speed and control. Ludwig’s wooden prototypes proved so successful that he teamed up with his engineer brother-in-law to manufacture cast metal pedals, and his ‘Speed King’ model is still in production today.

Dixieland drummer, Tony Spargo

Dixieland drummer, Tony Spargo

By 1910, drummers were expanding their drum kits with a whole range of percussive instruments that had been brought to America’s west coast by Chinese immigrants. Known as ‘traps’, these included temple blocks, which were mounted in sets on top of the bass drum, and ‘Pieng Ku’, the brightly painted precursors to modern tom toms. In addition, Chinese cymbals were either spring-mounted on top of the bass drum where they could be played with sticks, or on the bass drum hoop, where they could be struck with a specially modified two-beater drum pedal.

American drummers then turned to Turkish cymbals, which had a richer, less ‘trashy’ sound than their Chinese counterparts, and experimented with a device known as a snowshoe. This was a spring-hinged footplate with two cymbals mounted in between, which could be used to create a short, staccato ‘chick’ or a longer ‘splash’ sound.

Although innovative, the snowshoe could not be played at speed and a number of rival designs soon appeared. The most popular was Walberg & Auge’s ‘lowboy’ stand which, being ten inches tall, was able to accommodate larger cymbals. As time went by, these cymbals were raised further so that they could be played with sticks, a development that became the blueprint for the modern hi-hat.

By the late 1930s, manufacturers began to sell what we would recognise as complete drum kits. The use of traps declined in popularity, while bass drums became smaller and snares shallower. New innovations, such as tunable tom-toms, larger cymbals, synthetic drumheads and more robust hardware, were also introduced.

Fusion pioneer Billy Cobham with his multi-tom Tama set-up

Fusion pioneer Billy Cobham with his multi-tom Tama set-up

American companies didn’t have everything their own way. Japanese firms became a force to be reckoned with in the 1970s, manufacturing high-quality drums and heavy-duty hardware at competitive prices. By the Eighties, specialist companies were springing up to offer everything from deep ‘power toms’ and double pedals to electronic percussion. There are now hundreds of drum manufacturers around the world, selling an amazing array of drums, cymbals, sticks, drumheads, cases and accessories to suit every musical style and budget.