A Concise History of the Drumset

Ever curious about how all of those mismatched drums came together to make a set? Why does almost every rock and pop group in the world utilize a similar setup? Looking into the history of percussion and combining percussive sounds will certainly be of assistance in that regard.


The drumset is a uniquely American instrument, a living blend of European, Asian, and African influences that come together to form a vital part of our shared musical heritage. Much more than merely a timekeeping device, the drum set has evolved over the past 150 years to become a ubiquitous piece of the American musical tradition.

The history of the drumset begins shortly after the Civil War. Most professional percussionists of this era were employed either in marching bands or classical symphonies. Instrumentation was limited to a bass drum, snare drum, and crash cymbals, all of which were considered their own individual instrument to be played by a separate player. However, the rise of vaudeville and live theater acts across the postwar nation created an increased need for both economy and spectacle.

Double Drumming

It was because of this need that the style of double drumming emerged. Drummers would set a snare drum on a chair in front of them, then set a bass drum (pedalless, as bass drum pedals had not yet been invented, and usually containing a modified cymbal stand drilled into the top) on the floor across from the snare drum so both can be easily reached with sticks. This improvised setup allowed one drummer to effectively play the role of an entire percussion section.

From here, the enterprising spirit took over, and drummer-kind began their collective quest to find ever newer and more interesting sounds to add to their rigs. Early additions to the drum kit had mainly non-European origins. Chinese tom-toms, called “tack toms” for the way in which their animal-hide heads were tacked onto the wooden drum frames with nails, as well as Turkish cymbals and African cowbells, all found their way into drummers’ rigs.

The “Kit”

The drum set of today with snare, bass, toms, cymbals, and hardware took shape over the course of the 1920’s and early 1930’s. During these decades, jazz music was taking America by storm, and trap kits were evolving into something more uniform, with a foundation of snare and bass drum (now with a pedal, which was invented in 1909 by the Ludwig company) and individualized combinations of tack toms, cymbals, and smaller bells and blocks.

Around this time, one man steered the course of the drum set in a new direction: Gene Krupa, a popular big band drummer and the first true “rockstar” figure of the drumming world. He is perhaps most well known for his flamboyant drumming and spectacular drum battles, which brought the drums to the forefront of the bandstand for the first time in the instrument’s history. He also masterminded the concept of tuneable tom-toms (which up to that point had been more or less unchanged from their original Chinese tack tom designs). Krupa’s impact on the drumming world is equally evident in the look of the drum set. It was Krupa’s setup of one rack tom slightly over the left of the bass drum, two floor toms to the right of the drummer, and one snare drum situated in the drummer’s lap which has stood the test of time as the most popular drum set configuration by far.

The most recent addition to the evolution of the drum set is, much to the excitement of the drumming world, happening right now in the form of electronic drums and accessories. The first of their kind was created by Graeme Edge in 1971, and featured over 500 individual transistors channeled into six snares, thirteen tom-toms, eight bass drums, sixteen sequencers, and one tambourine. Since the 1970’s, the design and playability of electric drums has improved dramatically with the times. Electronic options for drummers now include trigger pads that mimic the feel and playability of acoustic drums. In 2019 and beyond, the electronic integration of the drumset is poised to be the next great step in the evolution of this outstandingly diverse and endlessly surprising musical instrument.

- Pat Petrus, Music Instructor at Vibe Music Academy.