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Twelve facts about the drum kit

By Alice Northover


Drummers are often seen as the most unintelligent and unmusical of band members. Few realize how essential the kick of a pedal and tap of the hi-hat are for setting down the beat and forming the tone of the band. So what is there to the drum kit besides a set of drums, suspended cymbals, and other percussion instruments? What’s in this basic equipment of the jazz, rock, and dance-band drummer? I searched the Oxford Index for 12 short facts about the drum kit and the drummers that make it such a remarkable instrument.

(1) Rick Allen, the drummer for Def Leppard, used a semi-electronic drum kit following the loss of one of his arms in an accident in 1984.

(2) Suitcase was once a popular slang term for a drum kit, chiefly among African Americans.

(3) Brushes have been used since the 1920s, especially in jazz and dance bands, to produce a softer sound than ordinary side-drum sticks.

(4) Many drummers were given their first drum kit at a very young age (presumably by parents with a high tolerance for noise): Baby Lovett was given a drum kit at the age of 13, Al Foster at the age of 10, Jason Bonham at the age of four.

(5) The most visible of the 1930’s drummers, Gene Krupa, had a major effect on his colleagues. The Krupa “look”, his ideas and techniques and showmanship, were dominant during that time. Krupa brought high-level discipline and energy and a whole array of new challenges to drumming. In the 1930s, while defining and formalizing a traditional swing vocabulary for drums, Krupa moved the drummer into the foreground. A technically advanced, exciting player, he had a lot to do with making the drum solo not only acceptable but musically and commercially viable.

Gene Krupa, Washington, D.C., between 1938 and 1948. Photograph by William P. Gottlieb. Image courtesy of Library of Congress. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Gene Krupa, Washington, D.C., between 1938 and 1948. Photograph by William P. Gottlieb. Image courtesy of Library of Congress. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

(6) While the drum kit is most prevalent in popular music, it sometimes appears in classical compositions. Michael Smetanin’s interest in rock and funk music is evident in the expanded drum kit sound of the percussion quartet Speed of Sound (1983). Vic Hoyland’s Dumbshow (1984) requires a male and female performer in Edwardian costume to execute minutely detailed actions on giant chessboards in exact synchronzation with a meticulously notated score for drum kit.

(7) Bebop drummers used the drum kit in new, inventive ways. In swing big bands, the drummer generally kept up a strong four-beat rhythm on the bass drum, and often on the snare drum as well. By contrast, the innovative bop drummer Kenny Clarke—soon followed by Art Blakey and Max Roach—used the bass drum only for occasional punctuation, “dropping bombs” to spur on a soloist or to provide particular emphasis. For bop drummers, the key timekeeper was the ride cymbal, a single large cymbal mounted on a stand. Drummers found it easier to negotiate bop’s often blistering tempos with light, shimmering rhythms on the cymbal than with the comparatively clumsy foot-pedal (operated bass drum). Using the ride cymbal to maintain the ground beat also freed the other parts of the drum kit—the snare drum, floor tom, high hat cymbal, and bass drum—for the drummer to use in adding fills, cross rhythms, and tonal color. Ideally, the drummer, bass player, and pianist worked as a smooth and responsive unit in support of the improvising soloists.

(8) Drum kits are an essential element of the rhythm section: the percussion, bass, and chordal instruments of a jazz ensemble, typically consisting of drum kit, double bass (always played pizzicato).

(9) A drummer’s distinct style can shape the music of a band. For example, Ringo Starr’s style became synonymous with the ‘Mersey beat’ that swept the world of pop music.

(10) Sunny Murray was responsible for the development of the colouristic, unmetred style of free-jazz drumming in which the player, rather than marking time, contributes to the collective improvisation by accentuating freely and by exploring the timbres and pitches of the various components of the drum kit.

(11) “Viola and her 17 Drums” was a solo act by American drummer Viola Smith, one of the few famous female drummers.

(12) The first product of renowned instrument maker Ludwig was a foot-pedal for trap drums.

Do you have any fun facts about the drum kit to add to our list?

Alice Northover is a Social Media Manager at Oxford University Press. She is editor of the OUPblog, constant tweeter @OUPAcademic, daily Facebooker at Oxford Academic, and Google Plus updater of Oxford Academic, amongst other things. She quit band when she failed to learn how to play the drum kit and the teacher found out she’d been faking understanding musical notes while playing the timpani.

The Oxford Index is a free search and discovery tool from Oxford University Press. The Index is designed to help you begin your research journey by providing a single, convenient search portal for trusted scholarship from Oxford and our partners, and then point you to the most relevant related materials — from journal articles to scholarly monographs.

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