The drumset is the most beautiful, expressive and magical instrument of all, and that’s my very biased opinion. I have always loved the way that they look in music stores, and can barely help myself from sitting down and playing when I see one. Playing a drum set is a totally addictive experience for me.
The dynamic range of the drums is enormous. From pianissimo to triple forte, you absolutely command attention. Elvin Jones, my favorite drummer, and a great jazz drummer, said that the drummer in a jazz trio or quartet is like the conductor in an orchestra. He sets the tempo, time signature, loudness, and “feeling”; signals when to break to a new chord, framing the verses, choruses and solos and helping build and sustain the peak in intensity of a song.
I’ve played all sorts of drums in my day: congas, bongos, frame drums, dun duns, djembes, doumbeks, dhals, and cajones, and electronics but the acoustic drum set tops them all mainly because of the infinite expressive palette it provides together with the deep involvement of the entire body. With the best drummers it’s hard to tell where they end and the drums begin, they are so physically involved in the drumming.
There is no other instrument, not even the cello or the piano that involves the entire body so deeply as the drum set. All of one’s limbs are involved and coordinated, like separate musicians who play together and create a unified song. That is what makes the drum set so magical, that it creates a unity out of the diversity of percussion instruments, each one of which could be played by a separate musician in a symphony orchestra.
Bass drum, snare, tom-toms, hi-hat, crash, ride cymbals, and cowbell. All separate instruments in their own right, all sounding unique and different but all capable of being utilized to keep time, keep a beat or a groove going or help to create a wave of sound.
What really gave the impetus for the drum set was the manufacture of the bass drum pedal and the high hat in the early twentieth century. These two modest technological advances made it possible for one person to do the job of two or more percussionists. To be able to easily play a bass drum, snare drum, and cymbals, all at the same time. This is the real basis of the drum set’s appeal.
Nowadays it is ridiculously easy to see videos of all the famous drummers playing solo and playing in bands on youtube. I recommend watching them: Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Joe Morello, Art Blakey, Elvin Jones, Tony Williams, Steve Gadd, Bernard Purdie, and many more.
You’ll be astounded at the sheer variety of beats, sounds, grooves and effects that these guys drum up, and some of them play very basic drum sets. Here is Gene Krupa . Note how puny his drum set looks according to today’s standards, especially the cymbals, but the sound is big and bold. Note how much the low tom is featured in this piece, and how magical it gets when Benny Goodman starts his solo.
The drumset used to be called the ‘traps’ which was short for ‘contraption’, because they can consist of so many different and novel noise makers. At the beginning of the twentieth century when drum sets were first constructed they often had cowbells, woodblocks, temple blocks, horns and other exotic instruments. Then in the 1920s the tom toms were added for colour and effects, and in the 1930s, the crash and ride cymbals for the driving rhythms and dynamics of big band swing. Here’s Viola Smith playing a mind-blowing drum set from the thirties.
Elvin Jones often had a very small drum set compared to Ginger Baker or John Bonham, but he has a big sound and one that is way more polyrhythmic with half the drums. There’s a bit of sixties musician humour in this video of Elvin Jones drum solo from 'Zachariah' as someone drops dead during his solo and has to be carried out of the saloon.
Rock and roll drum sets a la Elvis, and Ringo Starr were fairly simple in the fifties and sixties. But with the advent of amplified guitars, bass and keyboards, drumming became louder, and the hardware became more heavy duty. That led to the monster drum sets of the seventies with double bass drums: Ginger Baker, Billy Cobham, etc.. but more drums didn’t necessarily mean better music. For my money Steve Gadd is the best of the rock pile. He brings solid rudimental chops, a latin linear style, and true Afro-American funk together in a wonderful synthesis. Take a look at this solo by Steve Gadd.
In roughly one hundred years the drum set has come to dominate certain forms of popular music, becoming a major contributor to the evolution of jazz, latin, blues, and rock music. Indeed none of these popular styles are conceivable without the drum set. Nor would it have been possible without the great drummers who played them.