Rhythm and timing are arguably the most important elements of music! Listeners will often put up with spotty-tonality (Bob Dylan’s raspy-nasal out of tune voice “adds character” to his music), but it’s pretty rare for listeners to enjoy music that is performed in a sloppily-out-of-time-and-out-of-control kind of way.
A fairly simplistic and broad description of music that I like is “organized sound.” And I also like to describe “rhythm” as events happening in time (sonic events if we’re talking about music, like we are today!). Counting (one way or another) is really the only way I know of to help you keep track of time and understand rhythm.
How to Count?
Out loud! Yes, it can be embarrassing to add your voice to music you are working on, but it’s so important because it will help you internalize the rhythms you are practicing and play the music more precisely and confidently in the future. Eventually, you won’t have to count out loud every time you learn new music, but many musicians I know (myself included) count out loud when they are practicing particularly difficult rhythms.
A former drum teacher of mine used to say: “Some people have perfect pitch. Nobody has perfect time.” It’s true, some people can tune a guitar completely by ear, and name every single note in a chord, but – while some people have better natural timing than others – timing is something that musicians can continually improve throughout their lives.
The drum set (aka the drum kit or trap set) as we know it came to be in the United States in the early 1900s for vaudeville shows. The fact that the trap set could be played with all four limbs made it extremely popular and it rapidly became a fixture in American music and spread to popular music from all over the world.
The drum kit’s United States’ origins is why drum sizes (diameter of the heads and cymbals, and depth of the shells) are listed in inches even though most countries don’t use American units of measurement.
A basic drum set is a collection of percussive instruments: typically a snare drum, one or two rack toms, a floor tom, kick drum, hi-hat, and a cymbal or two. Unlike many instruments, the drum set can fill out the entire range of human hearing, from the deepest lows to the highest highs.
The snare drum sits squarely in the middle of the standard drum set. Its diameter is typically 14 inches, and it is often around six inches deep (shallower than the other drums). The top head (or skin) of the drum is called the batter head (it’s the one you hit!) and the bottom head is called the resonant head (the sound reverberates off of it!) – this is true of all drums in the kit. But what gives the snare it’s signature sound is a group of metal wires called “snares” stretched across the resonant head of the drum. These snare wires can be tightened, loosened, or bypassed completely to change the sound of the drum with the “snare strainer” or “thrower,” which is a mechanical device on the side of the drum that holds the snares in place.
The snare sound occupies the middle frequency range of the drum set and often functions the same as a clap (generally people clap along with snare drum part of a groove).
The snare drum developed as a means to communicate military commands across a battlefield and while marching – so they were designed to have a sound that cuts through a noisy atmosphere and across long distances. Because this function also works perfectly for cutting through a mix of instruments, the snare has been repurposed into all kinds of modern music, and often provides the backbeat (clap-along part).
Dylan Wissing demonstrates classic snare drums from throughout the last 100 years.
The kick drum (aka bass drum) is the lowest sounding drum of the kit and is also the lowest positioned drum. It sits on the floor in front of you and is played with your right foot (on a righty-drum set). A mallet attached to a pedal strikes the batter head of the drum. The diameter of the drum is around 20 inches and the depth ranges from around 14 to 20 inches. The kick sound provides a low thump that people can tap their feet to. In many grooves the kick drum locks in with the bass guitar or bass synth, accenting the important notes that they play.
The late great John Blackwell’s legendary bass drum techniques.
It is often up to you as to how many toms you want in your kit. A standard pop drum kit has at least one rack tom and a floor tom, however it’s not uncommon to have more of both. The rack toms are often mounted on top of the kick drum, but sometimes they are mounted on cymbal stands or placed on stands of their own. On kits that only have one rack tom, it is normally positioned above and behind the snare drum so that you can easily hit it with both sticks. Rack toms are generally 12 or 13 inches in diameter and at least 6 inches deep.
The floor tom has leg attachments so that it sits on the floor to your right. It’s normally 14 to 16 inches in diameter and about 14 inches deep.
The toms are used in heavier grooves and fills because they have a deep sound, occupying the low to high mid-range.
Phill Collins’ epic Tom Fill in “In the Air Tonight”
The hi-hat is a fascinating instrument with a huge range of sound.. It is two small cymbals (often 14 inches each) mounted on a stand with a pedal that allows you to control the top cymbal with your left foot. You can smack the top cymbal into the bottom cymbal in a variety of ways to produce a range of sounds: from splashy to crisp. And then you can also play it with your stick, tightening the hats with more or less pressure on the pedal for different articulations.
The hi-hat is positioned to the left of the snare drum (often close enough so that it floats over the left half of the snare drum). Its sonic range occupies the high frequencies of the kit and is frequently used to “keep time,” (that means play a steady pattern).
Bernard Purdie demonstrating a tight hi-hat groove with some open hi-hats thrown in.
A standard drum set usually has a ride cymbal and/or crash cymbal. Both the crash and ride cymbals are similar in size (around 20 inches in diameter), but the ride cymbal is thicker and designed to have a nice “ping” sound when struck with the tip of the stick. Like the hi-hat, the ride cymbal is often used to keep time. This is where the ride cymbal gets its name: you “ride” on it to keep time.
The crash cymbal is most often used for a special kind of accent called a “crash.” You crash a cymbal by striking it on its edge with the shoulder of your stick, often hard. The crash cymbal is designed with crashing in mind, and typically has a rich and heavy attack with a high-frequency, long shimmery decay.
You can crash a ride cymbal and ride a crash cymbal, but a heavy ride cymbal has a slower attack and more wobbly decay when crashed, and a light crash cymbal has a more washy, less articulate attack when struck with the stick tip like a ride. There is a cymbal type called Crash-Ride, which is on the spectrum in between the two cymbal types.
The crash cymbal is typically suspended on a stand above the left side of the kit, hovering above the rack tom, or above and between the hi-hat and rack tom. The ride cymbal is usually positioned lower on its stand on the right side of the kit, and floats between the rack tom/s and floor tom.
If you have more than two cymbals, it’s pretty common to place them at different height levels and positions around the kit: experiment and find the places that feel most natural!
Dan Mayo surrounded by interesting cymbals
One of the many ways a drummer can develop a unique voice behind the kit is by adding different percussive instruments to their kit. Shakers, side-snares, electronics, mounted bongos, are just a few instruments that can be used to expand the sound of your kit.
Advancements in technology throughout the 100+ year existence of the drum set have expanded the range and role of the instrument.
Sunhouse is a recent technological advancement that has given drummers a voice in electronic music by translating the acoustic sound of the drums into a powerful digital controller, and allowing them to use their skills on the drums to produce music for modern pop genres.
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