A brief history of drums: from ancient percussion to electronics

A brief history of drums 

Nowadays, it is almost impossible to conceive of a musical performance without the support of percussion. Drums of various types are often used in popular music, depending on ethnic, geographical and historical characteristics. Drumming, along with singing, is certainly the earliest musical expression in human history, dating back thousands of years. Nowadays, playing a percussion instrument such as the drums means creating a solid rhythmic structure that acts as a support for other musical performances, also giving them incisiveness and dynamics. In pop, as in rock and other modern genres, it is primarily the drummer who sets the rhythmic tone, to which the other musicians must adhere.Multicultural roots.

Percussion in ancient times

In the early days of mankind, the first musical instrument was definitely the voice.

Percussion instruments soon joined her, providing powerful rhythmic support and a remarkable tonal counterweight.

Many historians assert that the main purpose of percussion instruments was practical. 

In ancient times, mystical and social rituals stimulated the appearance of various musical expressions, sometimes extemporaneous, created to support them.

In the early days, such expressions were essentially concerted through the abundant use of voices and percussion. 

Remarkably, percussion has developed independently in all parts of the world.

The earliest finds of cymbals and drums date back to around the 7th century BC.

Specifically, the dishes were found in the tombs of the ancient Greeks, who believed that they had the power to ward off evil spirits.

Some sculptures and paintings of cymbals and drums, however, have been found in ancient tombs dating back to earlier Egyptian and Roman times.

On the other hand, there are numerous less ancient paintings depicting metal plates used as musical instruments during banquets and feasts.

As with everything, as civilisations progressed, percussion evolved. 

The ancestors of modern drum kits began to appear in medieval and Renaissance Europe, and soon spread and were increasingly perfected; cymbals, on the other hand, have retained essentially the same shape for thousands of years

Use of percussion for military purposes

Later, drums and cymbals, along with horns, trumpets and bagpipes, were used by armies for military training, parades and even during battles. 

The objective was to communicate effectively:

  • sending orders to soldiers even at great distances by means of 'codes' expressed musically with specific melodies or rhythms, 
  • to rhythmically accompany an unstoppable march by means of a hypnotic 'mantra', 
  • to instil courage, team spirit and belonging, to frighten the enemy.

It was the Ottoman battalions that introduced the use of plates in order to deter enemy troops.

These methods reached their heyday in the Napoleonic period and were only later downgraded; however, military corps bands around the world still endure the centuries.

The 19th century

Even in the 19th century, albeit to a reduced extent, the use of percussion instruments was often for militia purposes. 

At that time, military orchestras were composed of numerous percussionists with different roles: bass drum and cymbals, for example, were played by different musicians, as in band corps.

The percussion sections of classical orchestras also consisted of various percussion elements (each usually played by a different instrumentalist) that are an integral part of modern drum sets. 

The advent of the New Orleans style 

In the early 19th century, black slaves in North America began to assemble a kind of drum kit, putting together various percussion instruments, often picked up here and there.

Little by little, the  brass bands and the  style of New Orleans created by blacks,  Based largely on improvisation, they began to establish themselves and gain popularity, also winning over a large proportion of white people, first and foremost musicians.

To simultaneously play a double drum with one or two cymbals attached to the bass drum required the work of a single musician.

The atavistic African influences soon merged with European musical currents exported to America. Jazz was thus born.

The modern battery

The invention of the bass drum pedal

In 1909, William Ludwig invented the Bass Drum Pedal, which was the defining element in the use of a percussion set by a single performer. 

At that time it was a real 'breakthrough'; thanks to the bass drum at  pedal, both hands were free to play several percussion instruments simultaneously, defining what would soon be called 'percussion drums' and, later, simply 'drums'.

It was an immediate success that spread like wildfire.

From then on, the new drummers began to play in a sitting position in order to be able to use the pedal with more control.

The introduction of the bass drum pedal was therefore the defining element in defining the advent of drums and drumming technique.

Bicycle parts find a new use

At the beginning of history, two types of clappers developed: 

  • the one mounted on the top of the bass drum rim
  • the one attached to the bottom of the rim, as in modern drum kits 

The pedals were made of wood and were not spring-assisted, so the clapper had to be returned to the starting position using the foot. 

The spring return mechanism of today's pedals was introduced in 1910. 

In 1934, ball bearings were added to result in a smoother pedal action.

In 1950, the spring was incorporated into the frame, allowing more precise tuning of the pedal.

The next improvement came with the chain pedal, created by a New York shopkeeper, who removed the previous pedal drive mechanism to replace it with a gear and chain derived from a bicycle. 

Before that, some pedals used metal parts to connect to the drive mechanism, while others used a belt made of nylon, leather or other materials. 

Of the former it was said that he had a 'quick reaction' and of the latter that he had a bit of 'play'. 

The chain drive combined the strengths of both systems, resulting in a robust element that quickly found favour with all drummers. 

Advent of the Hi-Hat

The first set of drums and the role of the drummer, as the player of three assembled percussion instruments: bass drum, cymbal and snare drum, was then defined.

Thus began the evolution of the new instrument and the most appropriate performing techniques. 

Among the many experiments to further enrich the drum set, the ancestor of the hi-hat soon came to the fore.

The first hi-hat looked like a snowshoe

The hi-hat as we know it today is surprisingly recent and was conceived around 1930. 

Early hi-hats were mainly used to scan a varying number of subdivisions of the 'times' (from 2 to 8, also known as 'movements') of the 'musical measure' in order to define a complete and regular musical cadence, emphasised by snare drum and bass drum accents.

The hi-hat in its primordial version consisted of two small cymbals attached to two planks, one on top of the other, joined with a hinge and held apart by means of a spring. 

The upper board was attached to the foot with a sandal-like strap, which made it look like a snowshoe; hence the name by which it was called. 

The famous jazz drummer Baby Dodds, while playing on a riverboat in the Mississippi, tapped the floor with his left foot in time with the music; upon noticing this, an enthusiastic fan fashioned a pedal device with two small cymbals for him. It is said that this was how the development of the hi-hat began.

The original design, however, was a little different from what we see today. 

The basic principle was the same: two cymbals facing in opposite directions in order to collide together when the pedal is depressed. 

The sound, muffled and dry, was very similar to that of today's hi-hats.

From the floor position, by means of a rod and a mechanism the Hi-Hat (later also called the Charleston) rose to a higher position, which allowed it to be used with both foot and drumsticks, influencing and completely changing drumming styles and technique in a short time.

Modern Drums and Jazz 

In the mythical 1920s, a time when Prohibition was in force, rich gangsters began to take an interest in the great jazz bands that were so fashionable for their nightclubs.

Jazz clubs began to develop, where one could (illegally) consume alcohol and dance to the rhythm of jazz music, much of it improvised.

The drummer played a very significant role as he had to maintain the rhythm for the often frantic and offbeat music.

The Modern Set

The first pedal-operated Charleston (Hi-Hat) had by then been invented, as would soon be the possibility of tuning drums on the rim... and suddenly 'music changes'.

Undoubtedly, Gene Krupa is one of the most emblematic figures of the period: famous for his energetic and fast playing, he played an important role in establishing the drums also as a 'solo' instrument. 

He recorded much music using a drum set that was the basis for the standard  current, with bass drum, snare drum, two tom-toms (one mounted on the bass drum and another, with feet, on the floor), a hi-hat and three cymbals: ride, splash and crash.

This approach allowed for very brilliant polyrhythmic sequences, which led to the advent of some legendary drummers who wrote history.

One of these was Max Roach, author of many rhythmic reference models for jazz, which are still absolutely valid.

Whites began to imitate black Americans, also taking up jazz (which was structured in 'swing') and playing in prestigious concert halls in the United States.

At the same time, so-called gypsy jazz also began to develop in Paris.

The 1940s and be-bop

Some important changes took place in the 1940s.

Jazz began to be produced more and more as listening music, no longer just as dance support, thanks to the arrival of be-bop, characterised by very fast rhythmic scans and complex harmonies. 

The drummer began to carve out increasingly complex and important roles, as such  music also allowed the performance of certain rhythmic sequences in a solo role, through which the drummer could better express his creativity, also enriching the stylistic landscape of jazz and the drumming anthology. 

As the performance speed increased, rhythmic accents gradually became lighter and the function of the drums diminished in importance, giving more space to the Ride and Hi-hat.

At that time, drumming technology reached a great development and so did the drum trade, so manufacturers began to make new, ever more perfect models, not too dissimilar to today's drum kits.

The Age of Rock

Before 1957, all drum kits were made of deerskin or buckskin.

They were frequently forgotten and damaged due to their high sensitivity to climatic factors. 

If the weather was cold and wet, the drum tones were much lower, if it was  hot and dry, instead, drummers had to moisten the drum skins to get the sound right.

Despite their disadvantages, drum skins made of animal skins produced a special sound and tended to last much longer than those made of synthetic material, which became increasingly popular at the end of the 1950s, making tuning easier, more precise and even customised. 

The 1950s and 1960s witnessed the advent of rock'n'roll, which established the drums in a new guise that was very popular among the younger generation, contributing to the burgeoning cult of rock bands.

The performance technique of rock drummers became a little less agile but much more powerful, prompting drum manufacturers to produce ever more solid and sonorous drums.

The plates also became bigger and heavier, in line with the new requirements.

Initially, performance techniques borrowed from jazz overlapped with the nascent techniques of rock, until the latter took a divergent path to the present day.

To play in front of large audiences and keep up with the powerful guitar amps, drums capable of generating a lot of sound volume were needed.

This gave rise to drums made of different materials, including acrylics. 

Natural leather materials were permanently replaced by Mylar ones, characterised by a better response to changes in temperature and humidity, and finally with a significantly improved durability.

To add more colour to their performance, drummers added other auxiliary percussion instruments, modern, traditional and exotic, to their set.

The double pedal and customisation

At a certain point, hard-rock appeared on the music scene, followed by heavy metal and the various related genres.

The  double pedal appeared in the 1980s and has almost always been used by metal bands ever since.

Nowadays, each drum-kit can be customised to suit the drummer's needs and specific style of music.

From a basic kit, with hi-hat, bass drum and snare drum, one can now assemble an even very complex, varied and customised kit.


Meanwhile, as early as the 1960s, the emergence of electronic drums began, with the first rhythm machines developing more and more.

The original electronic generation of the sounds of these devices was later accompanied by the 'sampling' of the acoustic sounds of the drum set, either in a 'raw' version or also processed by means of processors (equalisers, compressors and ambience effects).

In order to enable touch-induced variations to be simulated, digital multisampling techniques and new algorithms for filtering the samples were introduced.

The schematic performance sequences of the first 'releases' became more and more refined and varied, up to the total 'writing' of rhythms and grooves, programmable by means of a modern DAW. 

Hand-operated electronic drum-sets (with pads), on the other hand, debuted to much curbed success, only to become more popular in the 1980s.  

Nowadays, the offer of electronic drums is enormous and includes both studio kits and concert sets.

This corresponds to the new sound requirements brought about by the modern discography, which increasingly uses traditional drumming sounds more or less flanked by new electronic sounds of various kinds.

These requirements are reflected in hybrid drum sets, featuring traditional cymbals and drums alongside pads, programmable with synthetic and sampled sounds of all kinds.

For more on the battery

Drumming Recording Editing and Mixing

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