The drum kit as we know it today has undergone centuries of evolution. In all likelihood, it originates from the first instrument played by humans, as archeological evidence suggests that for thousands of years, people having been pounding and hammering on anything they could get their hands on.
Over 30,000 years ago, our ingenious ancestors managed to make drums by stretching animal hides over shell-shaped objects. Today, drum kits serve as the foundation of music, but ancient percussionists had a completely different task as percussion instruments were mostly used for religious ceremonies, communications, and hunting and war rituals. The drummer would often be on their own too, since bass guitars, keyboards and wind instruments simply didn’t exist yet.
Drums, or rather percussion instruments in general, serve a completely different purpose these days. Now, drummers basically ensure everyone else sticks to the same tempo, but percussionists in large classical orchestras were actually the first to be handed drum and cymbal notations to add expression and fills to pieces of music. Famous composers such as Mozart and Haydn often incorporated snare drums, bells and ratchets, and Beethoven even used bass drums, crash cymbals and triangles in his music.
Late 19th Century Ragtime
The late 19th century saw the advance of a new style of music: ragtime. Seen as the direct root of jazz, ragtime came with and is characterised by a different style of drumming because typical marching beats didn’t quite work when accompanying ragtime pianists. As such, musicians used ghost notes and rhythmic intervals. In the early days, drummers didn’t have access to adjustable toms or crash and ride cymbals, let alone the proper hardware required to suspend everything. Fortunately, as a result of technological advancements, a huge wave of millions of immigrants from all over the world came to the United States at the end of the 19th century, bringing along their own instruments that would later be used as parts of ‘American’ drum kits, including cymbals, wood-blocks and cowbells.
The Revolution of Drum Pedals
Maybe it were the financial cutbacks, or maybe the small orchestra rooms, but from 1865 onwards, drummers were given more space to play. As a result, drummers started experimenting with pedals at the beginning of the 20th century. These allowed them to do multiple things at once using both hands and feet, so drummers were no longer limited to so-called ‘double-drumming’ on a snare and bass with just a pair of sticks. While well-suited for marching music, this technique certainly didn’t give drummers many options. In 1909, world-famous drum maker, Ludwig registered the first patented bass drum pedal design. Pedals were seen as a significant invention and an important step in the development of the drum kit. From that moment on, drum kits not only started to look more and more like they do today, sounds and techniques modernised too. Drummers started playing the kick drum on the first and third count, the snare on the second and fourth, and a cymbal on all counts. And in terms of set-up, a hi-hat could often be found in the middle, sitting right above the snare drums while the toms would be set up almost horizontally and far removed from each other.
The Emergence of the Electronic Drum Kit
Halfway through the 20th century, the drum kit was transformed from a handful of toms and some cymbals into a complete rhythm section playable by a single person, including pedals, hardware and cymbals. But it doesn’t stop there, since, in the ‘60s, the ‘rhythm box’ was invented: an electronic device that’s able to play a rhythm. As you might expect, these rhythm boxes didn’t exactly sound very harmoniously and lacked swing, until Dutchman Felix Visser took an Ace Tone model and tweaked it with electromagnets to prepare it for live use, essentially inventing the electronic drum kit in the process. Fifty years later, the sound and playability of electronic kits has improved dramatically, even to the point where it’s hard to determine if you’re listening to a genuine acoustic kit or an electronic one.
Got any additional and interesting drum history facts or stories? Don’t hesitate to leave a comment!