Looking for a guide to different types of drums? Look no further!
In this YMI guide to different types of drums, you will learn:
- What Are The Different Parts Of A Drum Kit?
- What Are Percussion Instruments?
- What Are Ethnic Percussion Instruments?
And Much More!
I know I’m biased, but drumming is one of the most enjoyable and beneficial activities you can do for both your physical and mental wellbeing. (It’s scientifically proven!)
The world of drums and percussion is a large one however, with every culture having a different take on what percussion instruments should look and sound like.
As a novice wanting to enter this awesome world of rhythm, it can be daunting to know what’s what and where to start.
In this essential guide, I’m going to take you through everything you need to know to start your journey in drums and percussion, and hopefully help you decide on which instruments really fire up those creative juices, inspiring you to pick up the sticks (or hands!) yourself.
So, if you're ready to dive into the wondrous world of drums, keep reading to find the right type of drum for you!
What Are The Different Parts Of A Drum Kit?
If you’re familiar with any type of western music, you’ll have encountered the infamous ‘drum kit’ (originally named drum set).
The drum kit evolved in the early 1900s as a way for percussionists to be able to play multiple percussion instruments simultaneously, alleviating the need for large percussion sections made up of one person per instrument.
This meant that band leaders on a budget only had to pay one person instead of 5 (or more!).
As the drum ‘kit’ became more common and popular it became acknowledged as an individual instrument in its own right, helping to shape the modern musical styles we have today.
The drum kit is considered as one instrument, however, it’s actually a combination of many individual percussion instruments grouped together.
Drum kits these days come in two different types, the more traditional ‘Acoustic Drumset’ as well as electronic drums (which are primarily used for practice and triggering alternative electronic sounds.)
A typical drum kit will have these constituent parts:
The Bass Drum
The bass drum, which is also known as the kick drum, is the largest instrument on the drum kit. It can come in a variety of different sizes, most commonly between 18”-24” in diameter.
It provides the majority of the low-frequency punch and, combined with the snare drum, is integral in playing drum grooves (also known as drum beats) on the kit.
The bass drum is played using a bass drum pedal. Which attaches to the rim of the batter side (playing side) of the bass drum itself.
Note: The batter side is usually the side that doesn’t have the drum kit logo printed on it.
The bass drum foot pedal is essentially a sprung lever, that when pressed with the foot, accelerates a felt beater that strikes the drum.
The bass drum has two fold-out ‘spurs’ that stop it from moving when you’re playing.
The snare drum is another drum that is essential for playing drum grooves.
The snare drum has been around for over 500 years and was originally used in the military to give orders to troops over long distances. It then became prevalent in marching bands and orchestras, to then be finally requisitioned for the drum set in the early 1900s.
It gets its name from the beaded snare ‘wires’ that are stretched across the underside of the drum.
These snare wires give the drum its military-style, creating a snappy sound that’s used to form what’s called the ‘backbeat’ in most modern musical styles.
Snare drums have a ‘snare-strainer’ that allows adjustments in the snare wire tension as well as the ability to disengage the snares altogether, which creates a more open ‘tom’ like sound.
The snare drum sits between the drummers’ legs on a specially designed snare stand, that has a three-pronged basket that cradles the drum.
Toms (also known as Tom toms) are additional drums that are arranged, usually from small to large, around the drum kit.
The higher-pitched toms that are usually mounted on top of the bass drum are called rack toms, whereas the larger toms that sit on the ground are called floor toms.
Tom drums originated as ceremonial drums that were imported to America from China and Japan in the early 1900s. They were then utilized by drum set percussionists to add textures more tonal textures to their sound.
Modern Toms that you’ll see on drum kits today are similar to snare and bass drums as they have two drum heads, a batter head (the head you hit) and a resonant head, that can be tuned to a desired pitch or sound.
In contemporary rock and pop styles, toms are most commonly used in drum fills and to change the sound of drum grooves.
Cymbals are the shiny metal discs that provide the hi-frequency sounds on a drum kit.
They are one of the oldest percussion instruments and have been known to be used in religious ceremonies since the 7th century BC!
There are loads of different types of cymbals but there are three types that make up the core of any drum kit:
A ride, a crash, and a pair of hi-hats.
The ride cymbal is the largest of the cymbals. It gets its name from the way in which you play it. Ride cymbals usually range from 20-22 inches in diameter, but can get as big as 26”!
Unlike a crash cymbal, which is most commonly struck for explosive accents, the ride cymbal is constantly ‘ridden’ with the stick. This creates a consistent rhythm for the other drums to sit underneath.
The ride and crash cymbals are both mounted on specially designed cymbal stands.
Crash cymbals are primarily designed as ‘accent’ cymbals, allowing the drummer to punctuate patterns and fills with an explosive ‘CRASHHHH!’ sound.
They can vary massively in size from 14 inches in diameter all the way up to 24 inches. They tend to be thinner than ride cymbals as it allows their sound to open up quicker.
Just like the ride cymbal, they are mounted on a specially designed cymbal stand.
The hi-hat cymbals (or hi-hats) are actually two cymbals that come together to create different sounds.
They are mounted on a specially designed hi-hat stand that allows the drummer to adjust the distance between the two cymbals with their foot.
If the foot is pushed down, the hi-hats are pushed tightly together, creating a tight ‘tick!’ sound when struck. This is called a ‘closed’ hi-hat sound.
When the drummer releases the pressure on the foot, the cymbals will move away from each other, creating a louder sizzle sound when struck... know as the ‘open’ hi-hat sound.
Professional drummers can get a great deal of musical expression just out of these cymbals alone.
Simply put, a percussion instrument is something that is struck, shaken, or scraped by sticks, mallets or your hands to create a sound.
Staying in the modern ‘western’ realm of drums and percussion, there are some very common percussion instruments that you’ll hear on pretty much all your favorite albums.
A Tamborine is traditionally a single-headed, hand-held drum, that has jingles (called Zells) fastened to its rim.
These jingles shake together to create a high pitched metallic sound, often combined with a rhythm created by holding the drum in one hand and striking it with the other.
In modern pop and rock styles, tambourines often have no drum head and are purely used for the high-pitch percussion sound created by the jingles.
Shakers are called shakers because you guessed it, you shake them!
They are instruments that are usually comprised of a closed container that has loose beads inside that rattle against the container when shaken.
Depending on how you shake the container you can create different rhythms.
You can easily make your own shaker at home. Just take an old plastic bottle (pill bottles work great) and half fill it with rice or dried lentils.
Ta-Da! Your very own shaker.
Experiment with different fillings and bottles to get different sound textures.
As the name suggests, a cowbell is literally a flat cone-like bell that is attached to a cows collar so the farmer always knows where his cattle are.
Drummer’s, being the obsessed creatures we are, decided that we just HAVE to have that sound on our drum kit!
The infamous Cowbell was born. Since the first intrepid drummer snatched their first cowbell off a cow’s neck, it has been used on thousands of famous rock and pop songs throughout the years.
No matter what type of drummer you are...you need more cowbell.
What Are Ethnic Percussion Instruments?
In the world of drums and percussion, ethnic instruments usually refer to instruments originating from ‘non-western’ regions such as Latin America, Africa, the middle east, India, and Asia.
Obviously, with the incredible amount of instruments and variations that each country has ( never mind regions!), it would be impossible to discuss every instrument in detail...this article would be 1000 pages long!
Instead, I’m going to take you through some of the most common instruments from each region. These are the instruments that you’ll most likely encounter as a beginner looking to get into ethnic percussion styles.
So, let's take a look at these different regions and their drums. Feel free to click the links below to skip ahead to the region that interests you.
Latin percussion refers to instruments that originate from central or south American countries. In countries such as Brazil, Cuba, and Chile, percussion is integral to their music and is ingrained in many aspects of their cultures.
Here are some common Latin percussion instruments you’ll find in use around the world:
The Cajon (pronounced “Ka-Hon”) has become an incredibly popular percussion instrument for drummers looking to emulate the drum beats played on a drum kit, but in a much quieter and more portable package.
Cajon is the Spanish word for box, and that’s literally what it is. The Cajon originated from colonial Peru when slaves were banned from using their traditional African instruments.
So instead they took to playing percussive rhythms on the packing crates found on their ships…
...and the Cajon was born.
Modern Cajons have snare wires strapped to the inside of the front playing surface, allowing the percussionist to emulate the snare drum sound of a drum kit, as well as the bass drum sound depending on where they strike the box.
Cajon’s are played whilst sitting on them.
Congas are tall and thin, barrel-like drums that originate from Cuba. They traditionally have an animal-skin head fastened over the top and are played with the hands.
Congas are prevalent in Afro-Caribbean music but are also very common in western rock and pop environments too.
The basic rhythm played on the Conga is called the Tumbao.
Often confused in name with Congas, Bongos are their little brother. Another very common hand drum originating from Cuba, Bongos are much smaller and more portable than Congas.
Due to their smaller size, they are also much higher in pitch and are often combined with Congas to create interesting rhythms.
They consist of two drums attached together that are placed between the knees when playing. The smaller drum is called the Macho (Male) and the larger drum is called the Hembra (female).
Pronounced “Cla-vay”, it is a percussion instrument consisting of two thick pitched wooden sticks that are stuck together to create a high pitched, rounded and woody tone.
Clave in Latin music also refers to a key rhythmic structure that runs through many different styles of Afro-Caribbean music. The most common of which is called the 3 - 2 Son Clave. Which has three beats in one bar and two in the next.
These Clave rhythms are actually found in most musical styles across the world, from jazz to rock and roll.
The Clave instrument is usually used to play these rhythms (no surprise there!)
The Timbales are similar to the bongos in that they are tow drums paired together, however the Timbales are larger both in-depth and diameter...as well as usually being made of metal.
They are played with sticks and have a high pitched sound and are able to project at a high volume.
Timbales often have cowbells mount alongside and follow traditional Cuban rhythms based around the Clave rhythmic structure.
The world of African percussion instruments is extensive and various considerably from country to country (Africa is massive!). Here are some of the most common African percussion instruments you’ll see in your local music store:
Pronounced “Jem-bay”, this goblet-shaped single-headed drum originates from West Africa. It traditionally has a goat-skin drum head and is played with the hands.
The Djembe has a full, rounded woody pitch when struck in the middle of the head, with the ability for sharp hi pitched accents when played near the edge.
Talking Drum (Dundun)
The talking drum gets its name from its ability to mimic the human voice. It has an hourglass shape with a drum head at each end that is fastened by a series of ropes.
The drum is held against the body and the pitch of the drumheads is altered by changing how much the percussionist squeezes the drum against themselves.
By squeezing the rope it increases the tension of the drum head, making it higher in pitch.
A skilled Dundun player can fluctuate these movements in pitch to emulate human speech or humming.
India has a deep and rich heritage when it comes to percussion and rhythm.
Indian classical music has it’s own complex rhythmical language called ‘Bol’ that uses a long series of phonetics phrases to create rhythmic pieces.
The Bol language is most commonly applied to the Tabla.
The Tabla is a percussion instrument comprising of two single-headed drums made out of clay, wood, or brass.
The drum on the right side (called the Daya or Dahina...meaning ‘right’) is much higher in pitch than the left-hand drum (called the Baya or Bahina..meaning left).
The drums are played with the hands, usually by striking with the fingertips, and the pitch of each drum is manipulated with the heel of the palm during performances (giving a similar sound to the African talking drum at times).
Dohl is effectively the generic name for any number of two-headed barrel drums found in India and the surrounding countries. (Examples being the Dohlak and Mridangam)
With one end played with a thicker stick, used to get a lower pitch tone, and the other end is tuned higher and played with a thinner stick. These differences in pitch allow for some very interesting and complex rhythms.
Also known as the Darbuka, the Doumbek is very similar to the African Djembe. It has a goblet shape, often made out of clay, wood, or metal with an animal hide drum head (or usually plastic in modern Doumbeks).
The Doumbek has a clear, high pitched tone, with more rounded and deep notes when struck in the center of the head and higher-pitched accents available when you move towards the edge.
As the name suggests, a frame drum is simply a drum head that has been stretched and secured over a wooden hoop frame.
Frame drums are some of the most ancient forms of percussion, originating from the middle-east, there are examples of this style of drum throughout the world.
It is played with two hands, with players able to elicit many different sounds depending on whether they use their thumb, fingers, or choose to mute the head or leave it open.
In the early 1900s, when the early percussionists were starting to put together their own drum sets, there was a constant hunt for ways to add new and exciting sonic textures to your percussion set up.
The cymbals available at the time were either from Turkey or China. The Chinese cymbals tended to be more misshapen and trashier in sound, compared to their Turkish counterparts.
Nowadays a typical ‘China cymbal’ looks like a standard crash cymbal that has been turned inside out. It has turned up edges with a tall protruding bell.
Due its shape and large hammering patterns, it gives off a short sharp aggressive sound that is trashy and often loud in volume.
China cymbals have become very popular for drum kit players in ay style of music.
The ubiquitous Gong is one of the most famous percussion instruments in the world.
Originating in China over 2000 years ago, the gong has been used in many cultures for religious events, sporting occasions, funerals as well as alarms and warnings of intruders.
The traditional gong is a hammered Bronze disc that is hung from a frame or held by hand from a rope loop. It creates a trashy sound with a long sustain (depending on the size).
The Gong also became a staple of the ostentatious drum sets of the progressive rock drummers of the 70s, such as John Bonham and Carl Palmer.
Taiko is the generic name for Japanese drums, but outside of Japan it specifically refers to the large wooden barrel-shaped acoustic drums that are used in the highly choreographic act of Taiko drumming (also called Wakaido).
These drums are often large in size (sometimes over 2 meters tall!), are played with large thick drum sticks, and have a low thunderous quality to them.
Final Thoughts on Different Types of Drums
Obviously this guide only scratches the surface when it comes to the insane amount of drum and percussion instruments that are out there.
But having a basic understanding of the most common instruments is very useful for choosing which drums are right for you (or even if you’re just interested in the subject of percussion!)
The amazing thing about the internet these days is the incredible amount of information you have available at the click of a mouse.
Most of the percussion instruments I’ve mentioned in this article are relatively inexpensive and there are heaps of instructional videos right at your fingertips.
So there’s never been a better time to get stuck into the amazing world of drums and percussion!
Also, be sure to check out some of my essential buying guides to find the best of the rest for your drumming needs.