Some Really Geeky Stuff About Drums...

Drum kits come in a huge range of different colours, sizes and configurations. Below is a typical example of a modern drum kit, with each of its individual parts labelled:

The specific configuration used depends on the musical tastes of the drummer as well as the style of music being played. Let’s learn more about the individual parts of the kit.

Tom Toms
The toms that we see on modern drum kits are descended from a form of Chinese drum called Pieng Ku, which were brought the USA by Chinese immigrants and quickly adopted by American drummers who mounted them on their bass drums.

These traditional Chinese drums eventually evolved into the types of modern tom-toms that we are familiar with today.

Whilst the exact size and number of toms used might vary depending on the tastes of the drummer or the style of music being played, the smallest toms are mounted on the bass drums and are collectively referred to as rack toms. The larger toms normally come with built in legs and stand on the floor hence they are called floor-toms. Tom-toms are normally arranged in ascending order of size - and therefore descending order of pitch – and the kit pictured shows a typical set-up.

Bass Drum
The bass drums that we see on modern drum kits are direct descendant of the large marching bass drums used in military bands. With the introduction of the first practical bass drum pedal in the early 20th century, drummers were able, for the first time, to sit down and operate the bass drum with their foot.

Modern bass drums are available in a range of sizes, with drums of 18” to 24” in diameter being the most popular. The exact choice depends on the preferences of the drummer and the style of music being played.

The origins of modern cymbal making can be traced back Turkey, although the types of cymbals introduced from China are also used. To meet the needs of the modern drummer, cymbals come in a bewildering array of different models and sizes, many of which are discussed in greater detail here.

Snare Drum
The modern snare drum is a direct descendant of the marching snare drums used by the military, around the end of the eighteenth century, to direct troops in battle. Along with the bass drum, the snare drum is the heart of the drum kit. It fulfils such an important function in modern music that many drummers amass huge collections of snare drums, each one chosen and tuned to provide a specific sound. Snare drums typically vary in diameter from 10” to 14”, with 13” and 14” being the most popular. They typically vary in depth between 3 and a 1/2” and 8” although in an age were custom drums are widely available you can have drums made in virtually any conceivable size. Below is a typical snare drum with the main parts labelled:

Let’s learn more about the individual parts of the drum.

Drum Shells
Almost without exception tom-toms and bass drums are made using wooden shells and whilst snare drums also often feature wooden shells, they are very commonly made with metal shells.

Wooden shells typically comprise of several thin plies, glued together and then bent into the familiar cylindrical shape. However, at the more expensive end of the market, drum shells comprising of a thick single ply are occasionally used.

Prized for their acoustic properties, the types of wood that are most commonly used are maple and birch. However, to keep costs down less expensive woods such as basswood are often used in the construction of entry-level kits. More recently, some manufacturers have produced drums using more exotic woods chosen for their interesting sonic characteristics and unique appearance although as you’d expect, these drums tend to be more expensive.

Metal-shelled snare drums are most commonly made from a flat sheet of steel or brass, which is rolled into a cylinder, although copper, bronze and aluminium are also used. Occasionally (although this also pushes up the cost) metal shells are cast rather then rolled.

Whatever way it is manufactured, a good drum shell must be as close to a perfect cylinder as possible. At either end of the cylinder, the edge of the shell is cut into a precise point called the bearing edge, which is where shell comes into contact with the drumhead. The shape of the bearing edge contributes significantly to the sound of the drum and a badly cut bearing edge can ruin an otherwise perfectly good shell.

Tension Rods
These are the threaded bolts that hold the hoop in place and control the tension of the drumhead.

Nut boxes
These are the housings into which the tension rods are screwed. They are attached to the side of the shell and come in a variety of styles and finishes. Each of the major drum companies has their own distinctive style, so often the manufacturer of a drum can be identified by its nut boxes.

Hoop (or Rim)
This is the metal (or occasionally wood) ring that is secured by the tension rods and holds the head in tension over the shell.

Snare Strainer
Snare drums acquire their distinctive sound (and consequently their name) because unlike tom-toms and bass drums they have a series of tightly coiled wires arranged in parallel across the bottom head. These wires are called the snares and are held in place by the snare strainer.

There are several different designs of snare strainer that are currently popular with the major manufacturers and all though they may vary mechanically, they all feature an adjustment screw so that the tension of the snare wires can be controlled.


An essential component of any drum is the skin, which is stretched over the shell and struck with the stick. Drumheads, as they are now called, were traditionally made from animal hides although nowadays virtually all drumheads are made from synthetic materials such as Mylar or Kevlar. This has the benefit of making them extremely durable and less susceptible to going out of tune, giving them a more consistent sound.

Drumheads are discussed in greater detail here.