by Drummer and Music Educator, Matt Johnson

Summer is here and as we wrap up the school year, I can expect a few phone calls from colleagues saying “My school’s drums sound dead.” Then asking, “Is there anything I can do?” Or, “My boosters have allocated funds for a few new cymbals. What should I buy?” To which I usually reply, “the answer to that question is an entire clinic unto itself.” Here’s why:

What to fix or replace depends on the current status of your particular drum kit. Also, the range of musical situations that your kit will be used will dictate your specific sound goal(s). At which point, achieving those goals means choosing the appropriate drum, drumhead and/or cymbal combination for your needs. And since drums, and especially cymbals, come in a range of sizes and “flavors”, the appropriate (or desired) sound can often be a matter of personal taste. Or, at least, span a broad spectrum of sonic choices. All of that said, there is a “safe range” of both timbre and potential volume for a drum set that is appropriate for middle and high school jazz ensembles – both small and large.

But here comes the challenge of trying to offer universal help in one article. There is an endless amount of information, as well as range of opinions on every drumhead, bass drum pedal, washer and wing-nut that goes into a drum set. So I’m going to just give you a few of my own thoughts on the subject, then summarize them in a Drum Set reference sheet at the bottom of this article.

DRUMS

There are two major factors that make up the difference between an inexpensive drum kit and an expensive one ­­–– 1) the type of wood that the shells are made of, and 2) the “weight” of the hardware (stands). All major drum manufactures offer a range of product lines from “Entry-level” and “Student”, to “Pro”, “Stage” or “Tour” models, with a price-point for each. Since any of the above level of kits will be fine for your purposes, I suggest saving money witgh a less expensive “shell pack” and spending more on good stands and cymbals. Keep reading.

Also, I don’t know when it happened, but 22” (diameter) x 18” (depth) somehow became the standard bass drum size for most drum manufactures (especially kits at the lower end price-point). Which in my opinion completely overshoots the sonic needs for any acoustic school ensemble. It’s also why you’re forced to shove a full size pillow or blanket inside it – which makes it look like you added a front-loading washing machine to your band. Not to mention, all of that laundry cancels the low frequencies of the drum and leaves you with only the loud attack sound the beater makes on the head.

A bass drum should have a low, warm and resonate sound that doesn’t overwhelm the band (it also helps if your young drummer gets professional instruction on how to play with a full dynamic range on the BD – not just loud. But I digress). Which is why I always recommend buying a 20” bass drum with a 16” depth. This is an appropriate and versatile size for school jazz band. Start with a low-ish tuning and add no more than a beach towel’s worth of muffling. This will give you a good low frequency without all the unwanted volume. Tune it higher and you will put it in a nice sonic range for your combo (Did I mention that there is an entire clinic’s worth of info on each aspect of the drum set?).

HARDWARE
Cymbal Stands:

A full set of “lightweight” hardware will take a beating (no pun intended) from the day-to-day demands of a school kit. Conversely, a full set of “heavy” stands is overkill and a wasted expense. Buy a “Double-Braced Boom” style cymbal stand (a common description) for your ride cymbal and “Single-Braced” stands (boom or straight) for your crash cymbals.

Hi-Hat:

The constant, repetitive motion applied to the Hi-Hat pedal is what will eventually cause it to fail. I recommend investing in a medium to heavyweight Hi-Hat stand.

Bass Drum Pedal:

Again, a clinic’s worth of info can be opined about the bass drum pedal (the invention of which, originally intended for orchestral work, led to the development of the modern drum set. What began as an odd and unwieldy looking collection of percussion instruments, to early observers, the drum set or “kit” was referred to by some as a “contraption” ­­–– later shortened to “Traps.” Anyone remember that moniker?), so don’t get me started. Invest in a mid-line/medium-priced bass drum pedal from any major drum manufacture. Most top-of-the-line pedals are over-engineered and too expensive.

CYMBALS

Hearing a cymbal Rep describe his or her product line is like listening to a sommelier in a fancy restaurant describe the full depth and breath of his/her wine list. Cymbals are also very expensive which is why a “cymbal pack” from an online dealer seems attractive because it’s cheaper and less complicated – like deciding to just go with the house red wine. But disappointments can result from both choices.

I’ve never purchased a cymbal online – or suit for that matter – although, some do. And like what passes for a standard two-piece men’s suit, there can be a very broad range of craftsmanship that goes into making a cymbal. In both cases, the more man-hours invested, the higher the price. And like drums, all of the major cymbal manufactures offer entry-level products (the aforementioned “cymbal pack”), as well as a wide range of very expensive, completely handmade cymbals, and everything in between.

You could easily spend twice the money on cymbals, as you would on a reasonably priced drum set. So like any important investment, I recommend you seek out a professional to assist in your cymbal purchase. Beyond the sales clerk on duty, a trusted professional drummer, who can accompany you to your local music store (or drum shop, if you’re lucky enough to have one near you) and help you select cymbals (either a new set or match something new to your existing set). Your cymbals should share harmonious overtones and be the appropriate size and weight for your needs. In the meantime, I have listed my recommendations to what I believe are versatile sizes and weights for school jazz band in the link below.

HEADS

All drumhead manufactures buy their Mylar, in the identical mils (thickness), from the same company. The difference in their final products is a result of them using different mil combinations, coating formulas and the aluminum collar that is fused to the Mylar which all vary from company to company. A coated finish for top heads is a versatile choice and produces a nice warm tone for jazz. My drumhead recommendations appear in the link below.

STICKS

Here’s my drumstick tip for band directors: Buy wood-tip sticks, but regularly check your students’ sticks for chipped or splintered tips. Once there’s a chip, buy new sticks. A new, crisp tip (or bead) on the stick will produce a much more defined attack on the ride cymbal. Which is critical when trying to convey a sense of drive and intensity to your band, and hopefully, the listening audience – especially at a low volume.

Drum Set Recommendations

DRUMS

  • Major Brands: DW, Gretsch, Ludwig, Mapex, Tama, Yamaha
  • Standard 4 or 5-piece kit
  • 20” (x 14” or 16” deep) bass drum
  • 10” and/or 12” mounted toms (standard depth)
  • 14” x 14” floor tom
  • 14” x 5” snare drum

HARDWARE

  • 1, Double-braced “boom” style cymbal stand
  • 2 or 3, Single-braced “boom” or “straight” style cymbal stands
  • 1, Medium to heavy duty Hi-Hat stand
  • 1, Single-braced snare stand
  • 1, Mid-level bass drum pedal
  • 1, Double-braced throne

CYMBALS

  • Major Brands: Zildjian, Paiste, Sabian
  • 20”, 21” or 22” Medium Ride
  • 16” Medium Crash
  • 17” Medium to Heavy Crash
  • 18” Thin Crash

Extras

  • 20” or 22” China (or Swish) with rivets
  • 20” Flat Ride (excellent for combo and vocal jazz)
  • 12” Splash
  • FX Crash

HEADS

  • Major Brands: Aquarian, Remo, Evans
  • Toms: Single-ply Coated on top/Single-ply clear on bottom
  • Snare: Double-Ply Coated on top/Single-ply (thin) clear “snare” head on bottom
  • Bass Drum: Double-Ply clear on batter side/Double-ply smooth or coated on resonant (front) side – with or without a 4”- 6” port (hole).
  • Note: Bass Drum should have minimal muffling – nothing larger than a beach towel.

STICKS

  • Brands: Vic Firth, Pro-Mark, Vater
  • Recommended Sizes
  • 7A (Vic Firth AJ3 or 8D), 5A (Vic Firth 5A, 5A Extreme), 5B.

Matt Johnson is a freelance studio drummer in his 24rd year as Adjunct Instructor of Drum Set at Fullerton College where he oversees the Nation’s largest all-digital Drum Set Lab. He is also currently touring North America in “See Jane Sing” staring Golden Globe and three-time Emmy Award-winning actress, Jane Lynch. To connect with Matt, go to www.DrummerMattJohnson.com