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History of the Modern Drum Set

Updated on January 8, 2013

Most people are aware that drums have been around for a long time.  Drums of various types have been used throughout the history of civilization by numerous cultures for thousands of years.  They have been used historically for a variety of purposes other than music, including military and religious.  What many folks may not be acquainted with is how the standard drum kit used in modern bands today came about.

As is the case with many of the innovations of the last 300 years, the modern drum kit originated in the U. S.  The individual pieces that currently comprise the modern kit were originally played separately by different individuals until the late 1800’s.  Brass bands were the most commonly used instrument ensembles in the U. S. in the second half of the 1800’s.  It was typical for every town in America to have a local band of this type.  Originally playing largely outdoors for parades, fairs, and picnics, eventually the bands moved indoors for concerts which usually decreased the space available for musicians and their instruments.  This led to the requirement of having drummers play two or more percussion instruments at one time so that fewer drummers would be needed. 

The invention of the first drum pedal in the late 1800’s enabled one drummer to play all the percussion pieces.  Soon the idea of adding cymbals and other sound effect percussion pieces became popular.

The development of the drum kit is also closely tied to the development of jazz in New Orleans since rhythm was an integral component of jazz.

A basic modern drum kit typically consists of 4 to 6 drums:  bass drum, snare drum, and two to four tom-toms.  This same kit usually includes a hi-hat cymbal pair, a ride cymbal, and at least a couple of crash cymbals.  In the mid 1930’s, Gene Krupa—the world’s first drum super-star—essentially arranged the placement of the pieces that make up the modern drum kit.  Each of these pieces has a history of its own.

Tabor snare
Tabor snare
Modern snare drum
Modern snare drum

The Snare Drum

The snare drums traces back to a medieval drum call the tabor, which was a hand held, portable snare and struck with one stick.  It had a single gut snare strung across the bottom.  It was originally used in war along with a wind instrument.  The development of the drum rudiments (paradiddle, flam, drag, and roll) coincided with the development of the snare drum and its use for military purposes.  Sanford A. Moeller, creator ot the “Moeller Method” of drumming and author of the book The Art of Snare Drumming insists that it is essential to study military drumming in order to master the snare drum.

The snare drum became more sophisticated in the late 1800’s.  Emile Boulanger and A. G. Soistmann obtained patents for improved hardware for mounting and tuning snare drums.  U. G. Leedy built the first adjustable snare drum stand in 1898.  Prior to that, drummers had to hang the snare over the shoulder or set it on a chair.

1930's drum kit
1930's drum kit
Modern Ludwig Drum Kit
Modern Ludwig Drum Kit

The Bass Drum

The bass drum was first used in European music in the 1700’s having been borrowed from the Turks. It eventually migrated across the Atlantic to America. As mentioned previously, the invention of the foot pedal in the late 1800’s enabled drummers to use all their limbs to play various pieces. These early pedals, however, required the drummer to reset them after each strike.

In 1909, William F. Ludwig, a drummer from Chicago, designed the first spring driven bass drum pedal. This revolutionized the drum set and many drum aficionados insist that this is when the modern drum set was born. Drummers could now use all of their limbs to play various percussion pieces at once in a more efficient manner. The Ludwig family started a company making foot pedals for drummers everywhere.

In 1918, the Ludwig Company was first to begin marketing complete drum sets consisting of a bass drum, snare, a cymbal, and a wooden block. Later it added tom-toms, cowbells, 2 tone blocks, and a triangle. Ludwig also improved the designs of and marketed numerous other instruments.

After World War I, live music became much more sought after. Large orchestras were hired to play in hotels, theatres and in the silent movies. In the 1920’s and 1930’s, all sorts of unusual gadgets and gizmos were added to drum kits including bells, whistles, animal sounds and other sundry sound effect devices which were available for order in catalogs. The term “trap set” developed from the contraption these devices created. The gadgetry arose from the need for drummers to supply various sound effects needed in early movies and theatrical plays. The gadgets were placed on a console placed above the bass drum.

Gene Krupa, the first super star drummer
Gene Krupa, the first super star drummer
The Benny Goodman Band of the 1930's
The Benny Goodman Band of the 1930's
Modern tom toms
Modern tom toms

Tom Toms

The tom toms used on drum kits came from China although Native Americans had constructed a similar instrument. The name “tom-tom” came from Great Britain where it was simply used to describe a child’s toy drum. Any drum without the snare coils under the head is technically considered a tom tom. Congas and bongos also fit in this category.

Gene Krupa, the first drummer to become an international star, stripped all the gadgetry from the early 1900’s drum kit as well as the console they were placed on and positioned his smaller tom-toms in their stead, giving the kit a more sophisticated look. Thereafter, the gadgetry was considered ‘quaint.’ The largest tom was mounted on a cradle and stand similar to the snare drum. Soon legs were added to it. This came to be known as the floor tom or deep tom.

Krupa did a famous solo on his deep tom-tom during the song ‘Sing, sing, sing’ played with the Benny Goodman Orchestra in the 1930’s (See YouTube video below). This was a major turning point in the centrality of the drummer in a band. This set the precedence for the extended crowd-electrifying drum solos of future bands and made Gene Krupa a household name. Krupa also popularized the ‘rim shot’ whereby the drummer hits the rim and head at the same time which gave a loud crack that cut through the music. Drum hardware eventually had to be redesigned to accommodate rim shots since the drums of the day caused drummers to frequently break their sticks.

Prior to the mid-1950’s, all drum heads were made of calf skins. In the late 50’s, Remo Beli invented the synthetic drum head which was much easier to keep in tune than the calf head but did not tend to last as long.

The nylon drumstick was also invented in the late 1950’s by Joe Calato, though Buddy Rich was never sold on it and continued to use wood tips.

Modern Zildjian cymbals
Modern Zildjian cymbals
The sock cymbal
The sock cymbal
The low boy or low hat
The low boy or low hat
Modern hi hat
Modern hi hat
Electronic drum set
Electronic drum set

The Hi-hat

The first predecessor of the hi-hat was the ‘clanger,’ a small cymbal mounted on the bass drum and which was struck by a metal arm extending out of the bass pedal.

This developed into the ‘snowshoe’ or ‘sock cymbal’ which consisted of two foot-shaped boards hinged together with cymbals bolted on each board facing each other, manufactured in 1919 (see picture).

Shortly thereafter came the ‘low boy’ or ‘low hat’ during the roaring 20’s which was a low to the ground form of the hi-hat (about 12 inches high) operated with a foot pedal like the bass drum. This eventually developed into the hi-hat we know today when it was realized in the late 1920’s that if the ‘low boy’ was raised higher, the drummer could use both hands and foot to operate it which gave it more versatility. Thus, the ‘low hat’ became the ‘hi hat’.

Over time, the drums became smaller and the cymbals became bigger as drummers began emphasizing the use of cymbals more. This led to an extreme in the sizes for a time—18 inch hi hats and 26 inch rides, but by the time rock music came on the scene, the ride had settled to 18 to 20 inches and the hi hat down to 14 inches.


The history of cymbals goes back about 5000 years ago in the Middle East when bronze was invented by combining copper and tin.  It was initially used for military and religious purpose but gradually was turned to use in musical instruments when it was noticed that the metal made a pleasing, musical sound when struck. 

From there, the Turks developed the art of making cymbals and incorporated them into their Turkish music.  The Turks were already famous for having perfected the art of cymbal making when the Ottoman Empire began in the 1300’s. 

The central location of Turkey made it a crossroads for travel and trading on three continents (Europe, Asia, and Africa).  Turkish cymbals soon became widely used in European operas and orchestras.

In 1623 an alchemist named Avedis Zildjian, who was looking for a way to turn base metal into gold, created an alloy with tin, copper, and silver.  He began a company that manufactured noisemakers to frighten enemies in battle.  The formula is kept a secret until this day.  Now nearly 400 years old, the Zildjian is among the oldest companies in the world.

The Zildjian Company did not begin making cymbals as musical instruments until the 19th century.  Then around 1928, Avedis Zildjian III began manufacturing cymbals in the U. S.  He is credited with designing cymbals to accompany drum sets, and with giving them their names:  the ride, the hi-hat, crash and splash cymbals.

The sons of Avedis III, Armand and Robert, had a falling out when Armand was appointed by his father to succeed him as president of the company.  Robert left the company and started his own company for making cymbals named Sabian.  Both Zildjian and Sabian cymbals are highly regarded in the drum world today.

Modern Developments

In the 1960’s and 1970’s music became increasingly louder which required a change in the construction of drums. The cymbals were made heavier and thicker. The toms were made without bottom heads which increased their projection. Drum shells were increased from three or four ply up to eight ply to increase durability despite hard use.

Electronic drums were introduced in the 1980’s. Electronic drums are generally more expensive than acoustic drums but are easier on the ears of neighbors and other household members because the volume can be controlled. Electronic drums can also make a much wider variety of sounds than can tradition acoustic drums.

There is no doubt that the evolution of the drum kit has had a tremendous impact on the development of music in the past century. The skills required of a modern drummer are much more complex and varied than ever. For this reason, many years of study and practice are required to become a highly skilled drummer.

Gene Krupa doing his famous floor tom solo in 'Sing, Sing, Sing' with a bonus trumpet solo by Harry James


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