Drummers Only, Leeds and Glasgow.
“Most professionals have kits worth thousands of pounds; however, owning an expensive kit doesn’t make you a better drummer. A great drummer can get music out of a cardboard box and a Quality Street tin”.
Buying a drum kit is a bit like buying a new kitchen in that the options are often overwhelming: there’s just so much choice! Yes, you can go to a drum shop and buy whatever they have in the window, but I believe being forewarned is forearmed! How to choose a drum kit is aimed at those entering the drum market for the first time. Hopefully, it will demystify some of the terms that crop up. I fully encourage you to do your own research; however, this article provides a little bit of guidance to get you started.
In my capacity as a drum tutor, new students or their parents often ask me the same questions:
- which brands should I consider?
- what are rock and fusion kits?
- should I buy an acoustic or electric kit?
- should I buy new or second-hand?
- how much should I spend?
The answers to these questions vary from person to person and for that reason what follows is by no means the definitive word.
Which brands should I consider?
There are many fine drum manufacturers and most of them cater for the beginners’ market. Brands to consider include Yamaha, Sonor, Mapex, DW, Tama, Pearl and Ludwig. Yamaha also make electric kits, as do Roland, Alesis and Carlsbro. Cymbal manufactures include Sabian, Zildjian, Paiste, Meinl, Bosphorus and Istanbul. Good cymbals are expensive but fortunately beginners’ ranges are available, such as Zildjian’s ZBTs.
What are rock and fusion kits?
Many drummers learn on a standard five-piece kit, meaning their are five drums. Retailers usually market them as either rock or fusion kits:
- Rock kits usually comprise a snare drum (14” in diameter), bass drum (22”), two mounted toms (typically 12” and 13”) and a floor tom (16”).
- Fusion kits are usually smaller: snare (13” or 14”), bass drum (20”), two mounted toms (typically 10” and 12”) and a floor tom (14”).
Consequently, rock and fusion kits don’t just look different, they sound different too. As a rule of thumb, the wider the drum, the deeper it will sound (although there are many other factors which influence the sound). Therefore, rock kits can be tuned deeper/lower than fusion kits. Regardless, both kits will require a set of cymbals; typically a pair of hi-hats (usually 13” or 14”), one or two crash cymbals (roughly 14”-19”) and a ride cymbal (20” – 24”).
Acoustic kits can be fitted with volume reduction/mute pads to reduce noise levels. Brand names include Vic Firth who have a range of mute pads in rock and fusion sizes. I used to use QT pads on my bass drum and cymbals. You can also fit your kit with mesh heads like the ones made by Pearl. These dramatically reduce the volume of your kit, but feel more realistic to play than pads. You can also get quieter cymbals like Zildjian’s the low volume series. A kit fitted with these and mesh heads will be quieter than a kit fitted with pads.
Should I buy an acoustic or electric kit?
Unfortunately, this Drum Kit Buyer’s Guide is not going to tell you, but here are a few things to consider.
Practicalities aside, an acoustic kit would be my first choice. The reason why is quite simple: there’s no substitute for the real thing. A good acoustic kit is a beautiful thing to play. You’ll never have the same experience playing an electric kit. The sound of a wooden drum is determined by a wide range of factors including the type of wood used in the shell construction, the thickness of the shells, the number of plies, the depth of the shells, the finish (e.g., varnish, wax or wrap), the type of heads used, the tension of the heads, etc. The sound of a drum can be changed dramatically just by using different heads. All in all, you get the real deal with an acoustic kit.
Unfortunately, though, acoustic kits are not always the most practical choice. Firstly, they’re bulky and take up a lot of room; secondly, they’re awkward to move about; and thirdly, let’s face it, they can be very loud – even when fitted with volume reduction pads.
If you buy and electric kit, you’ll also need to purchase either an amplifier or headphones… or both. Amplifiers allow you play at volume, so use headphones if you want to practise in the middle of the night without upsetting your neighbours. Electric drums are essentially velocity/touch sensitive pads, so they are more compact and don’t weigh as much as acoustic drums. As a result, you are less likely to do your back in while carrying them from your car, down the road, to the venue, up two flights of stairs and onto the stage. One of the fun aspects of electric kits is the range of sounds they store in their ‘brain’; press a button and your rock kit turns into a reggae kit, a jazz kit, a Latin American percussion section, a xylophone, etc.
If this all sounds pretty good, the downside to electronic kits is that the pads are often smaller in diameter when compared to their acoustic cousins. Check if the pads are rubber or mesh. Rubber pads have a different stick rebound to normal heads. Mesh heads feel more like the real thing. At the budget end, electric cymbals can be pretty disappointing, especially the hi-hats which usually fail to replicate the experience of using a ‘real’ hi-hat. If you’re buying a budget electric kit, consider buying a real hi-hat. There’s some great information about the latest electric kits here.
If space is a problem but you don’t want an electronic kit one option is the Traps kit. Like electronic kits they don’t have shells so they are very compact but because they use real heads they give the same stick rebound as a normal acoustic kit. They are acoustic; however, you can buy them fitted with ‘mesh heads’ which produce hardly any sound but still feel like a real drum.
The upshot of all this is that you have to consider your options carefully. If you live in a small flat, with neighbours above, below and to the sides, it’s only fair to them that you buy an electronic kit and some headphones. An acoustic kit fitted with volume reduction pads is fine if you have the space and your walls are thick enough, although, obviously you can play without the reduction pads if your house is detached and you have tolerant neighbours (the advice then is to wear ear protectors).
Should I buy new or second-hand?
Really, the advice here is to do your research thoroughly and ask lots of questions. Whilst new kits will invariably cost more than their second-hand counterparts, at least you won’t have to worry about the condition. I was once caught out on Ebay when I bought a second-hand kit on impulse in spite of the seller reassuring me it was in amazing condition for its age. The kit arrived in poor packaging (actually, £50 worth of poor packaging!), it was dirty and the heads were dented. I ended up taking it all apart to clean and spent a further £25 on replacement heads. I could have saved a lot of time and money by asking the right questions:
- is the kit clean?
- does it have new heads?
- is it dented or scratched?
- are any parts missing?
- will it be packed securely?
- what if it arrives damaged?
In short, If a seller can’t answer these questions: AVOID THEM!
To help with your research, try and find out when the kit was made and the model / serial number, then use Google to get an idea of its true value. Ultimately, you could save yourself a lot of money. The following tables compares the pros and cons of both options.
You’ll be the first owner of a nice and shiny new kit!
Shops often have deals on entry-level kits.
There are a wide range of kits to choose from.
Usually, there will be a 12-month warrantee.
It’s usually possible to get spare/replacement parts, should you need them (hopefully you won’t).
Its value will depreciate as soon as it leaves the shop.
Not exactly a ‘con’ but you pay for what you get. Entry level kits won’t be of the same build quality as their professional level counterparts.
Kits don’t normally come with cymbals although you may find offers which include them.
There are bargains to be had – but do your research before you commit. (Find out the make and age of the kit. If using Ebay, get the seller to send you pictures and describe accurately the condition. Scour Google to get an idea of its value.)
Kit might be damaged/dirty.
Choice is limited to whatever is being sold, so you might be waiting a while for the kit of your dreams to show up.
Postage costs on Ebay are sometimes too high.
Sellers are sometimes economic with the truth!
Replacement parts maybe hard to locate.
How much should I spend?
This really depends on how sure you are about becoming a drummer. If you’re buying a new kit for your 6-11 year old and don’t want to spend too much in case they give it up after a couple of months, then consider buying a starter/entry level kit (£200-£399) like the Mapex Tornado III. These may not be handcrafted or custom built but they’re fine for a young beginner. The sound of these kits can often be dramatically improved by replacing the stock heads with good quality heads, e.g., those made by Remo or Evans.
If you can afford to spend a little bit more then you can get a kit that’s going to last a good few years and sound pretty decent. A better sounding, more robust kit is probably going to cost about £450+. Zildjian, Meinl, Paiste and Sabian all make affordable cymbal packs containing all the cymbals a beginner needs (i.e., a set of hi-hats, a crash and a ride), probably costing an additional £120 – £200. If you’re lucky you may be able to get a cymbal pack thrown in as part of a deal.
Of course, you can spend as much as you like on a kit. Most professionals have kits worth thousands of pounds; however, owning an expensive drum kit doesn’t make you a better drummer. A great drummer can get music out of a cardboard box and a Quality Street tin. You really only need a high-end kit if you’re planning on recording and performing at a professional level. As a beginner, that’s a little way off.