Updated: Sep 15, 2020
The look of a drum set affects the way you feel and think. The look affects your musical choices. The sizes of the drums, amount of drums, cymbal placement and types of cymbals - the set up! - inspires music in your head before you even pick up the sticks. There are many different options, and new innovations continue to create new sounds and looks every year. It's now common to see side snares, remote hats, cymbal stackers, bass drum woofers, triggers, pads, percussion, and racks to hang everything on. Cymbal makers have gone crazy! Square cymbals, cymbals with holes, shiny on the top/dirty on the bottom... There are a lot of choices to make today when putting together a set up for any particular musical situation. The choices you make will affect your musical leanings and help define your style and taste as a player. But it's not just the way it sounds that's important. It's the way it looks, too. The look of the set up starts the music.
A well thought out set of drums can put you in a trance as you take in its mood and imagine the sounds it would make. Are the drums big? Small? Dirty, Clean, Sparkly, Furry, Woodgrain, Clear, Coated? And what about the cymbals? Everything gets factored into the equation as you mine your imagination for the unique feel each different set up inspires. Though the possibilities are endless some of the classic set ups remain popular today. Here are some common options, and how their mere look can influence a drummer's playing:
Classic four piece with a single tom over the bass drum (doesn't have to be a Ludwig) with a crash (or two) and a ride. This drum set inspires certain types of grooves because of the way it looks. When a drummer sits down at a "Ringo" they will most often play a mid-tempo rock beat with swingy fills. If the kit is dirty with old, thin cymbals, they are more likely to play an Al Green style funk beat. Then, if they discover the snare has good touch and the hats are snappy, they will upshift into a "Stubblefield". This scenario happens almost every time.
Seeing a big bass drum creates a feeling of power, and when a drummer sits down on a large four piece kit they adjust their mood accordingly. This shift happens way before a drummer hits the drums or hears the tones. The size of the heads are fascinating - maybe a little intimidating - so they've already decided to hit harder, as if to earn the right to play them. Most drummers will start with "Kashmir" but the more aggressive will attempt "Immigrant Song" and if they have trouble playing the kick pattern on a 26" bass drum they will regroup and find their way to "Kashmir". It happens so much!
When you see a double bass kit with two racks on a stand in the middle you have to think of Tommy Aldridge and Tommy Lee. Imagine the musical ideas that would jump into your head if you were looking at two big bass drums, an 8" snare, and crash cymbals laid out flat all over the place. I've never played a " Tommy" but I think the first thing I'd try would be a simple double bass shuffle with a long fill on the crash cymbals only.
Jazz kits are sexy. Picture an 18" kick, a snare, and a couple small toms. The cymbals are two 20" rides and a pair of dirty hi-hats. The snare head is filthy from wire brushes. Everything is set up low. Oh yeah. Be-boppy. Me likey.
Nowadays people are taking advantage of sounds from all over the world. Because of the endless options, "Globetrotters" are always different but tend to feature smaller, higher pitched drums and cymbals, and often include congas, dumbeks, bongos, bells and woodblocks, timbales, etc. (Extra credit to the drummers who turn a djembe sideways into a bass drum.) Because every "Globetrotter" is unique you have to take it in first visually and poke around a little before deciding what to play. But odds are, when you eventually settle into a groove, it will be influenced by the "samba-like" feeling you got in your socks when your eyes first caught trace of cowhide.
A five piece kit. Two toms over the bass drum and a floor tom. It's a classic set up. Sometimes a small one, sometimes a big one, we decide our grooves based on the diameters. Sometimes people will take a "Star" and move the rack toms one to the left so that the high tom is above the hi-hat and the low rack is over the bass drum on the hi-hat side. When a drummer puts the high tom "in the flats" this set up is called a "Flat Star". Unless its a small size kit, then it's a "Flat Smoothie". If the drummer adds a tom to the hi-hat side of a 5 piece (or, a gate to the fence), it's called a "Gated Star'". Note: If you add a floor tom to a "Star" it's called a "Double-Decker". If you add a floor tom to a "Ringo/Bonham" it's called a "Side Car". What if you add both a high tom and a floor tom to a "Star"? "Full House"! Simple really.
When you add two small toms to the hi-hat side of a five piece they call it a "Gunner". This is because, by raising your arms to hit drums above the hi-hats, it looks like you're holding a rifle. Note: Add a third tom over the bass drum and a "Gunner" is now becoming a "Salmon Run".
The "Salmon Run"
If the set up has toms grouped by size in terraces, say 8" and 10" over the hats, 12", 13", 14" over the kick, and floor toms low to the other side, that's a classic "Salmon Run". Neil Peart had a red Tama "Salmon Run" in the 80's. I had a dream once that I was sitting behind that kit and it smelled like Cherries.
The "Chester": Two bass drums, four racks, and two floors. This is a tried and true set up for drummers with roadies. A "Chester" allows one to make a lot of music by providing many things to hit. But you'll need a big stage, and help in and out of the venue. Other variations of "The Chester" include:
- The "Simoneer": Comes with octobans and matching china cymbals.
- The "Lombardo": A "Simoneer" with more crash cymbals.
- The "Full Moon": Comes covered in sweat. (no hi-hats)
The "Pro Shop"
"One with everything, please!" Some set ups look like an entire drum department. If you see more than two bass drums, two snares, and a full complement of toms you might be looking at a "Pro Shop". If it has more than two ride cymbals, two pairs of hats, or any cymbal shapes you don't recognize, you are most likely looking at "Shop". If you see Orchestral percussion (Chimes, Timpani, Gong, etc.) you are definitely looking at a "P.S.". If you're not sure check to see how many pedals there are on the floor. If it looks like a church organ down there you know what you've got. "Pro shops" are rare because they require a lot of effort to move, and are most often found permanently fixed in locked rehearsal rooms and basements in private homes.
Four toms spread evenly across a single bass drum, hoops touching in descending order. Nice looking set up, especially with concert toms.
The "Hitch Hiker"
Double Bass drums, two floors, one rack tom in the middle. "Thank you, Mr. Bellson, may I have another?"
Any 5-7 piece drum set that has toms out of order as you move down the kit. Kenny Aronoff plays a "Quirk". So does Jimmy Chamberlin. Mick Fleetwood has been playing a "Quirk" for years! Mick really makes that "Quirk" talk!
When it comes to putting a set together the sky's the limit. The only rule is to make sure your choices enhance the music you play. What you see when you look out over the kit is a consideration that will influence your performance just as much as the head tuning and cymbal sizes. "How do I want my bass drum to sound?" is a good question. So is "Do I go with Sparkle or Woodgrain?"
I took this theory too far one time and embarrassed myself in front of another drummer. I had just cleaned my cymbals for the first time in years and was telling a drummer friend that the cymbals were "so shiny they actually seemed to sound brighter." And he said, "You got all the dirt out of the grooves. Of course they sound brighter." "Oh, yeah." I said. But really we were both right. The shiny cymbals felt brighter, too, even before I played them.