Friday, July 20, 2012

What is "The Best"?

Every time I check my logs for this blog there is at least one visitor who arrived via a search engine query looking for The best .... Most of the time it's the best snare drum, or, on occasion the best cymbal or even the best head. No matter what the specific search, it boils down to gear and usually gear that will make the visitor a better drummer. It's interesting that this blog typically attracts nearly ten times more visitors than its companion blog, Music for Drummers. Frankly, that blog contains listening recommendations that are more likely to make one a better drummer than all of the gear discussed in this blog!

If you've taken the time to peruse this blog you know that I have some pretty good drum kits, as well as some highly desirable snare drums. Here is one example of a kit I routinely play out with:

Certainly there is nothing to complain about with that kit, which is described in this post (the snare drum is a single-ply, olive ash shell snare drum tha Kevin Smee built for me.) One would think that the drums (or the cymbals - or both) were the most important components. Not really so.

For one thing, it truly is all about the drummer. And as a drummer who has played some sorry backline kits, such as the one shown below, I can attest that the drums and cymbals are not the most important pieces to a great sound. Not by a long shot. Imagine yourself behind this kit:

Aside from the acoustics of playing outdoors and your own touch on the instrument, what do you think are the most important factors for playing your best?

Answer: pedals that actually work, and heads that still have some life in them. Most drummers are on a quest for gear that will make them sound good. That part, though, is up to the drummer. So what are the barriers to sounding good? Remove those and you will - with proper skills and technique - sound good. Here are the barriers as I see them:

  • Bass drum pedal and/or hi-hat stand issues; i.e., sticks, too much slop in movement, etc.
  • Other hardware broken or in need of servicing. Examples here are bass drum spurs that will not hold the bass drum in place, brackets that will not completely tighter or have restricted movement, and tension rods that are rusted, stripped or missing.
  • Lifeless (or missing) heads. Note the backline kit I am pictured behind in the above photo. The resonant heads are missing on the toms. The other problem with that kit and a barrier to any kit is heads that have been pounded on by people with drum sticks who are not actually drummers (even if they claim to be.) Dead giveaways are heads that have what appears to be moon craters on the surface, or are so stretched that you cannot tension them evenly when trying to tune them.
Those are the major issues with any drum kit. Note that I have not mentioned anything about the quality of the drums. Even cheap drums can be made to sound good if the barriers mentioned above have been dealt with, they are properly tuned, and the drummer employs good technique. In fact, very low end kits can be easily and inexpensively modified and tweaked to sound like a much more expensive kit.

Conversely, even the most expensive kit can be brought down to the level of a super-low end kit by stuffing blankets, pillows or other resonance-killing material in a bass drum, and/or using moongel and sound rings on the other drums head. If you must use stuff like that, then you are wasting your money if you purchase any of the high end kits or snare drums, like those made by Craviotto, DW, and the like.

Trust me, it is not the gear as much as the drummer and his or her skills at tuning and playing them. Going forward I am going to post less about gear in this blog and more about technique and the care and maintenance of drums, while I concentrate most of my writing and sharing in Music for Drummers. As promised (or threatened, depending on your interest level), my next post will cover dynamics, which was touched upon in this post about tempos and dynamics, and in this short piece that introduced decibels and sound pressure levels.


Ben Arnold said...


Nice post. I know (and own) a kit like that TKO you have pictured. You are correct, it is always the drummer, not the drum that makes the music.

Mike Tarrani said...

Thanks Ben!

Dan said...

I agree that too many players get held up on improving their gear rather than their skills. I remember one drummer I played with was looking at the more expensive acoustic drum sets and settled on a great one. He thought it made him sound better and I agreed. I think the new set made him more confident in his abilities.