The history of the modern drumset is truly an American story. Drums are some of the oldest instruments in our history.
In the late 19th century, military style marching bands were the popular form of American music. Due to the American Civil War (1861-1865), every town had bandstands and every military unit had their own marching band. After the war, marching bands would play in both parades and indoor events. Each ensemble required 2 or more drummers to play the bass, snare, and cymbals in each drum section. At this time, only one person was able to play a single instrument.
In 1865, drummers started to experiment with ways that allowed one drummer to play multiple parts. This resulted in “double drumming.” The drummer would place the bass drum on a floor stand and use a chair for the snare drum. Using this concept, one drummer could play both the bass drum and the snare drum simultaneaously. By 1876, double drumming becomes the dominant style in marching ensembles and orchestras. In this era, the drumset only consisted of a bass drum, snare drum, and a cymbal.
In the 1890’s, the rise of ragtime lead to a new style of playing. Drummers began to improvise more, but were still quite limited in the variety of different sounds they could make. At the same time, waves of immigrants were coming to the United States bringing their own musical instruments. Drummers would often find ways to incorporate these instruments into their drumsets. These added instruments were often called “contraptions” or “traps” for short. Many drummers would experiment with their own combinations of instruments to create their unique drumset. These drummers became known as “trap drummers.”
In 1909, the modern bass pedal design was patented by William F. Ludwig. Crude versions of bass pedals existed even as early as 1840, but were rarely used. A common design in the late 19th century was the “overhang” pedal. This pedal had a string that connected it to a contraption that hung from the top of the bass drum, but was hard to control and very clumsy. Many drummers preferred double drumming instead of the overhang pedal. The Ludwig pedal is still the basic design that lasts until this day.
In the following years, drummers still needed to find a way to play quieter, as they were playing with easily overpowered acoustic instruments. In 1913, a drummer came across a peculiar item…a flyswatter. In those days, the flyswatter was a stick with metal bristles that fanned out. With this device, drummers could still play their rudiments while keeping their volume down. A surprising solution! Flyswatters became such a popular tool for drummers that drum companies began producing them and they later became known as “jazz brushes.”
In the 1910s, a common arrangement of the drumset consisted of a bass drum, snare drum, a China cymbal, a Turkish cymbal, a Chinese tom drum, Chinese or Korean wood blocks, and cowbells. Many of the Asian instruments had been included in the drumset since the 1890s. In 1927, specialized drummers begin to provide sound effects for screenings of silent films and a whole series of unique traps were invented to bring the story to life. The silent film era quickly came to an end in 1929 when the first talkies were screened. Sound effect drummers were put out of work overnight.
In 1930, the high-hat cymbal became a fundamental piece in the drumset. Prior to the invention of the high-hat, drummers would often have to “choke,” or mute a cymbal after striking it. This required two hands and was quite tiring. As a result, a series of cymbal contraptions were invented to keep the beat. One early version of the high-hat was the “low-boy” cymbal, which was a set of 2 small cymbals that were operated by a foot pedal. The low-boy cymbal got its name as the cymbals were close to the ground. Eventually, the height of the low-boy was raised so that the cymbals could be struck with the sticks. After this major invention, the high-hat became the primary method of keeping the beat for the band.
Over the years, the “trap” set evolved into the standard 5 piece drumset which consists of a bass drum, snare drum, 2 tom-toms, and a floor tom. It is typical to see hi-hat, crash, and ride cymbals in a complete set.