A drum kit, or trap set, is a group of various percussion instruments commonly played with mallets or sticks. A full kit often includes a bass drum, snare drum, and tom-toms, along with various cymbals, bells, and wooden blocks.
During the American Civil War, military bands were an important part of maintaining troop order and morale, providing entertainment as well as timekeeping for various drills. In the years following the war, civilian bands were established in municipalities of all size, often performing outdoors for parades or holidays.
Typically, these brass bands included at least two percussionists playing cymbals, bass drums, and snare drums, which were mounted with rattles made from wire or gut beneath the drum head. As more concerts were held indoors, the need for multiple percussionists decreased and musicians developed ways to play different drums at once.
In 1898, U. G. Leedy created the first adjustable snare drum stand and in 1909, William F. Ludwig developed the first spring-loaded, bass-drum pedal. Both inventions allowed drummers to play their instruments from a seated position and improved their ability to multitask with other percussive instruments. By 1918, the Ludwig company was selling a complete drum kit, called the “Jazz-Er-Up,” which included a large bass drum, a snare, a wooden block, and a cymbal.
Following World War I, live music performances became a popular American leisure activity, particularly those featuring smaller bands playing contemporary music. These groups were hired to play in hotels, restaurants, vaudeville clubs, and silent-movie theaters; to accommodate these smaller spaces, fewer percussionists were required.
During the 1920s, drummers began using the first double-cymbal contraption known as the “low-boy” because it rose less than a foot from the ground. The low-boy was activated by a foot pedal that brought its two cymbals together, and eventually grew to the two-foot tall “sock cymbal” and the hi-hat of today.
The adoption of both the foot-activated bass drum and hi-hat resulted in a technique known as four-way independence, or four-way coordination, that was unique to the modern drum ...
Yet in the 1930s, the world’s first drummer superstar, Gene Krupa, entered the spotlight while performing with the Benny Goodman orchestra, playing on his stylish, white, marine-pearl drum kit. Krupa stripped down the typical stage setup to a four piece kit, replacing his trap board console with a mounted tom-tom over the base drum. Around the same time, companies like Leedy, Gretsch, and Ludwig began selling more modern versions of the Chinese tom-tom, improved with tuneable drum heads.
Krupa also made the drum solo into an art, particularly during Benny Goodman’s 1937 hit “Sing, Sing, Sing.” His popularity served to standardize the drum kit used by modern drummers, as Krupa settled on an arrangement of four drum sizes—a snare, base, and two tom-toms—that allowed him to easily move between each instrument.
Due to metal shortages during World War II, percussion companies modified their designs to create products including mostly wood components, though this was a short-lived solution. After the war concluded, drum manufacturers caught on to the affordable miracle of plywood and began using the thin sheeting instead of the traditional hardwoods like maple, mahogany, and walnut.
Drum production was forever altered in the 1950s with Remo Beli’s invention of the synthetic drum head, replacing the tanned calfskin used for centuries. Plastic drum heads stayed in tune much better, and were adopted by many drummers, though the rich sound and longevity of calf heads was impossible to match with plastic. The nylon-tipped drum stick was also invented shortly after, which gave drummers a wider variety of sounds to work with.
As music became electrified during the 1960s, with rock and roll hitting its stride, percussion instruments were improved to increase their sound capabilities. Cymbals became heavier, tom-toms had their lower heads removed, and the number of drum-shell layers, or plies, was often multiplied to keep up with the amplification of other instruments.
The Beatles’ 1964 appearance on the Ed Sullivan show caused a spike in demand for Ringo’s four piece Black Oyster Pearl kit, designed by Ludwig. The following year, other industry leaders like Gretsch and Slingerland added a second tom to the set, mounted on the bass drum, creating the standard five-piece arrangement.
In the mid-1970s, Ludwig debuted a line of acrylic drum shells, and by the late '80s, some companies were selling custom shell packs that included shells for a bass, snare, and tom-toms for home assembly. Around the same time, Japanese manufacturers like Yamaha, Pearl, and Tama also rose to prominence. Finally, the electronic drum kit was introduced, greatly reducing the space needed and volume created by percussionists, while also allowing a greater variety of sound effects.