With so many choices as to what drum kit to buy, the question is, how much money should we spend? There is everything from inexpensive brands to really expensive signature models. Not to mention the fact that we can purchase an entire kit, or build one ourselves piece by piece. But how much money do we really need to spend on our drums, how much of a difference will it make, and just because a kit is more expensive does that really mean it’s worth the cash? Well, let’s take a look at what I believe to be the most important details regarding these questions.
First things first, let’s just get out the way the single most important factor a drum kit can ever have… the sound! Yes, the sound that you produce when playing your kit is by far the most important thing to consider.
Fun fact: Ever heard (or asked) the question, “if a tree falls over in the middle of the forest, but there is no one there to hear it, did that sound actually exist?”… the answer is YES! SOUND DOES EXIST!!! I’m sick of people asking this ridiculous question, and then telling me that I’m not “thinking outside the box” when I tell them that it does exist. Sound is the vibration of air (or other) molecules, and those molecules vibrate whether you are there to hear them or not! (That’s why in space, no one can hear you groove!). Google it!
Anyway… I digress…
Now even though the quality of your drums can have an impact on your sound, the most important factor by far in this equation, is your playing. I have mentioned before that John Bonham could play a cheap, second-hand kit, and still sound like John Bonham. And this is true for any drummer. Your ability to groove and create an interesting drum sound is much more important than the price tag on your kit. And let’s not forget one thing… the better your equipment is, the better your playing will be heard. In other words, if you take a bad drummer and put them on a bad kit, they will inevitably sound bad. But if you take the same drummer and put them on a good kit, now they will sound even worse! The reason is simple. The better kit will allow their playing to be better heard. The crisp cymbals, resonating snare and clean toms will all make the drummers playing that much clearer. So if you want to upgrade your kit in order to upgrade your sound, you will always be better off making sure your playing is as upgraded as possible first.
Ok, so now we have established how important the actual playing is, let’s talk about some gear.
There are different reasons for investing more or less money in the different parts of your kit. I will now run through the most important ones for each part of the kit.
The snare is probably the most important drum. It is constantly played and constantly heard. If the snare sound is bad, it will be uncomfortable to listen to for both the band and the audience. So it’s fair to say, if you are going to invest a large chunk of your budget, it should be in the snare. Now we don’t need to go crazy and by the latest and greatest diamond-studded, gold-plated signature model. But we do need to consider A few things. Again, the most important one being the sound. And I don’t just mean the sound of the snare when we smack it hard in the center. There are many sounds you can get out of the snare. Where we hit, the size of the drum, how hard or soft we strike, how tight the skin and snares are… will all play a role in the many different sounds we can achieve.
When choosing a snare, we need to consider a few things. What style are we playing? What kind of venue are we in? Is there going to be a snare mic, and if so, will there be many effects like reverb applied? The way a snare can sound can be very different once a microphone and effects have been applied. So all these things need to be taken into consideration, but the most important thing about the sound is that you like it. There is nothing worse than playing a snare you don’t like. And if we don’t enjoy our job, we won’t be doing as good as a job as we could be.
And of course, the sound is not the only factor. There is also durability, and feel to consider. I personally have a preference for steel snares. The way they have a little ring to them after being tuned is very appealing to me. And I have never had any issues (other than having to replace the snares) with my old Premier steel snare. I also own a 10 inch Mapex steel snare. It’s small but packs a very satisfying punch.
Along with the snare, the hi-hat is another important part of the kit. It is played even more frequently than the snare and represents the high frequencies of the beat. Its staccato nature is used as a precise measurement for the beat, tempo, and groove. Needless to say, it needs to be heard.
A good quality hi-hat is always a plus, but again, we don’t need to go crazy. So long as it doesn’t sound like a couple of pieces of sheet metal in a washing machine, your good. Unfortunately, the cheaper ones sound pretty bad, but we don’t need to go all the way to the really expensive ones to achieve a decent sound. And of course, if you don’t have a hi-hat microphone (like me), you will need to make sure it cuts through the mix and can reach the crowd and band members without having to destroy it every night. And the durability is also an issue. I have retired more than one hi-hat in my career, and I’m sure there will be more.
With the bass drum, we complete our trifecta of the groove. The snare, hi-hat and bass drum all share the same importance in coming together to create the beat. So in essence, they are the foundation, the base of the pyramid. But unlike the snare and hi-hat, with the kick, we can easily get away with a much cheaper option. A cheap bass drum, with a half decent skin and a half decent microphone, will sound just fine. Almost as good as the expensive version.
Now we have to remember that we are live on stage. With guitar amps, bass amps, and lead singers screaming down the mic. And unlike the higher end of the frequencies, the bottom end is a lot less about clarity, and a lot more about feel. So in other words, when you are rocking as hard as you can, the guitars are squealing, the bass is booming, the singers yelling, and the crowd are screaming… do you really think anyone will be able to tell the difference between your cheap bass drum, or an expensive “signature” model with a super-duper coated skin and a fancy mic? Probably not! So even though the sound is important, in the case of the bass drum, we can get a lot more for a lot less money.
Again, durability is an issue. I have a very cheap bass drum, a half decent skin, and a decent mic. Previously I was going through a skin every one to two months, but I solved the problem by using a click pad. And I haven’t needed to replace the skin in at least six months now.
Toms are really similar to the bass drum. You can easily get away with spending much less. I have cheap toms, with half decent skins, and half decent mics and they sound fine. They definitely don’t sound amazing, but they don’t need to. The majority of your playing time is spent around your hi-hat, snare and bass drum (or at least it should be). And let’s not forget, we are on a stage surrounded by amplifiers, speakers and a (hopefully) screaming audience, so all the tiny nuance’s of your toms will simply get lost in the mix.
If you are in a recording studio, then it’s a completely different matter altogether. But on a live stage, the extra money and extra effort it takes to get those little details in just isn’t worth it unless you have cash to burn, or you have your gear paid for.
One thing to remember is to make sure your toms are at a good volume. Too often I see live drummer’s hit the toms for a fill, and the sound just disappears.
The ride is a little different from the other cymbals in the sense that durability shouldn’t be an issue. At the end of the day, you are not crashing it, and definitely shouldn’t be hitting the ride that hard, so if you look after it, your ride can last a very long time. Potentially forever.
Now this doesn’t mean that you will never upgrade, or try new rides, but it does mean you could have the same ride for a long time. So in this case, the sound is really the important factor. You need to choose a ride that you enjoy playing. There is nothing worse than disliking the sound of your own ride. You also need to take a look at what styles are you playing and choose accordingly. Or you could simply pick a nice all-rounder that could cater to most styles and venues.
Remember that your drumstick will also make a difference in the sound, so you could take into account how to get many sounds out of your ride for different situations. And the price is not necessarily a determining factor in the sound you want. I was very happy for years with a certain ride I had but never knew what brand or model it was. I think the writing came off before I got my hands on it. But it was fine with the right sticks and right playing.
With crash and splash cymbals, we have two determining factors to consider: sound and durability. And the most important one is probably durability. I have seen many cymbals trashed before. From cheap ones to expensive ones, sooner or later they bite the dust.
So the first thing we need to look at is our playing. How hard do we crash? Do we strike straight down, or with a sideways motion? What sticks do we use? Are we packing and traveling with them often, or are they always on our kit? All these details play a role in the durability of our cymbals.
Over the years, I have changed my drumming to a much more relaxed and controlled style, and this has made the largest difference in the durability of all of my drums, not just the cymbals. I don’t even know what my current cymbals are, but they are not expensive, that’s for sure. But they sound absolutely fine, and with my relaxed drumming, they will be lasting quite a while.
One thing to note is if you are mixing brands or sets, you need to make sure they have a similar volume and crash length. I recently added a better quality crash to my set, but it was overpowering in both volume and length. So I simply added a small piece of duck tape to the underside of the crash. And now they all match again.
The cymbal stands all depend on two major questions… how hard do you hit, and how often do you travel with them? They need to have the weight and sturdiness to withstand your crash hits, and if you are constantly traveling, setting them up, packing them down, throwing them in and out of trains, planes and automobiles, then they will definitely need to be rugged. And ruggedness comes with a price.
As I have mentioned, my personal style is very relaxed, and I play the same venue nightly and have done for many years now, so my kit never gets moved. So I have a mix of really old cheap stands and a more pricey DW stand. And there is honestly no difference between them considering they are always in the same place. If I had to move them a lot, I would invest in more expensive ones, but at the moment the cheap ones do the job just fine.
It’s fair to say, that just like the snare drum itself, the snare stand will be under heavy use. It needs the weight to be able to stay still when being played, and the strength to withstand your strikes.
Again, the harder you hit, and the more you travel, the stronger your stand needs to be. They are under constant stress while we play, so they are one of the most common things to break. For this reason, It’s a very good idea to have a spare one.
I currently have a more expensive stand (which is actually broken!), and a cheap spare. You can easily swap the broken one for the spare, and use this one until you replace or repair the other (that reminds me…).
Out of all of the hardware, this one gets used the most. Literally all the time! So it’s fair to say, we need a good quality drum stool. It needs to be comfy, adjustable to your particular height preference, and most importantly it needs to be stable.
Cheap drum stools just don’t cut it here I’m afraid. When I was a teenager, I had a horrible stool to practice on. It was thin and uncomfortable, but worst of all, it just wouldn’t stay still! It was constantly wobbling from side to side, and it couldn’t be fixed to not spin.
Needless to say, you will have to actually sit on a stool to actually get a feel for it. But this is an area where you can definitely justify spending more.
The hi-hat pedal is a tricky one. You can definitely find cheaper options that can fit your needs, and you can also find expensive ones that don’t.
Again, durability is an issue here, but we also have an extra factor to consider in this case… maintenance. The hi-hat pedal has moving parts that (ideally) require oiling and maintaining from time to time. The better quality the pedal, the longer we can wait before needing to do any work on it.
Also remember it needs to be able to fit on your kit. You need to make sure the feet of the stand don’t get in the way of your bass pedals and the rest of the stands. And it also needs to be adjustable to your particular set up.
Bass drum pedal
In the case of the bass drum pedal (single or double), I’m just going to say that I think it’s worth spending some money here. Durability, maintenance, and feel are the main considerations when choosing a pedal.
You need something you can adjust to your specific style of playing. Again, something that will fit on your kit. And ideally, something that will last you a long time.
I have a double Tama Iron Cobra, and I love it! It allows me to adjust it to the feel I like, but best of all is that I have never performed any maintenance at all on them, and they still play like the first day I got them, just over 10 years ago! They were not cheap, but definitely worth it. Now I’m not necessarily recommending that particular brand or model, but simply trying to illustrate the importance of choosing something durable.
So this one definitely doesn’t need to be a super-glamorous signature cowbell! The one I have on my kit was a gift from a friend of my dad’s. It has no writing left on it, so I have no idea what brand it was. It’s really old, but it’s very durable.
And again, durability plays a role here. Pitch is also something to consider. Rock bells tend to have a very low pitch, but even though it suits that particular style, it’s not really suited to many others. The one I have is pitched right in the middle, and it sounds pretty much like the one in “all right now” by “Free”. And this kind of cowbell can be well used in all kinds of styles, from latin, funk, rock… you name it! And remember… when you get a fever, the only thing that can cure it is MORE COWBELL!!
It’s fair to say that your sticks are a vital part of your kit. You use them literally all the time. A good feel, good sound, and good durability are all essential, so don’t skimp on your sticks! Cheap ones just ain’t worth it!
The skins are another one that can be very personal. The sound, feel, durability and rebound all need consideration. But it’s fair to say, that if you have an expensive snare, you don’t really want to be putting a super cheap skin on it. However, if your snare is good, you may find that you don’t have to spend too much on your skin for a good sound.
In a similar way, a better skin may improve the sound of a cheaper snare… or it may not. It’s a case of experimenting. And there are so many options. Skins with one coating, double coating, different materials and finishes, some with oil in-between layers… one thing for sure is that there are no right or wrong options for your drums. I have been told before that I use the “wrong” skin for my snare, but if it feels good, sounds good and lasts a long time… then what’s “wrong” with that?
Ok… this one’s easy! You basically want to match the quality of your drums. If you have a ridiculously expensive snare, then the only way of capturing all the tiny nuances and sound qualities, will be with a ridiculously expensive microphone. And if your snare is cheap and doesn’t sound that great, then an expensive mic will just allow it’s “not that great” sound to be heard much better. Always upgrade your drums first. A good drum through a bad mic will sound better than a bad drum through a good mic.
So there we have it. A quick (or not so quick) overview of where to spend your money, and where to save on your drum kit for live playing.
Let’s quickly recap where to allocate your budget…
– Save your cash:
Bass drum, toms, crash, splash, ride, cowbell, cymbal stands, spare snare stand, tom and bass drum mics, tom and bass drum skins.
– Splash out:
Snare drum, hi-hat, bass drum and hi-hat pedal, snare skin and mic, snare stand, stool, sticks.
Now, of course, let’s not forget, that if you are NOT on a budget and money isn’t a problem, then forget all that and just buy the biggest, baddest and most expensive kit that takes your fancy. But just remember one thing… you can’t buy good drumming!
How do you allocate your budget? What do you think about my tips… am I being too much of a cheapskate? Leave a comment and let me know 🙂