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Some drums.

The drum is a percussion instrument with a very long history. It has been played (and is still being played) in almost every part of the world, in almost every society on earth. One thinks of the way African tribes and other cultures of the wilds of this planet are sometimes stereotypically portrayed on Western TV. We see them pounding drums, reliant on rhythm, not just for entertainment, but for communication. To beat a drum is an ancient and tribal human instinct.

Meet Some of the Family

Simply put, a drum is a hollow cylinder with tanned animal skin stretched over the opening at the top of it. A drumstick or mallet is often then used to beat upon the drum skin, sending a sound reverberating around its hollow body. This sound is the drumbeat.

There are lots of types of drums and lots of different ways of playing them. Animal, one of the funniest characters in Jim Henson's Muppet Show, provides a most exaggerated and highly entertaining example of playing the modern drum kit, thrashing it as he does with his sticks. But you can also use your hands to beat out a sound on a drum. Those '50s and '60s groovers, the Beatniks, were supposed to have enjoyed sitting around, late at night, in smoky venues playing bongos1, man.

The family of percussion-related instruments is a big one. In it you will find an ensemble of strange-looking objects all just waiting to be hit, such as woodblocks, shakers, maracas, and a host of brassy symbols.

As for the drum itself, well, it comes in a variety of colours and sizes. Generally, the larger the drum, the deeper and more resonant its tone.

The Bass Drum

The big bass drum - the largest of the percussion family - is always beaten with a mallet. This large drum is meant to have its drum skin exposed to audiences and passers-by. For example, if it's part of the drum kit in a rock band, the front of the bass drum will often have written upon it the name of the band in bold letters. The drummer then operates the drum by using a foot pedal that activates the mallet that whacks the skin, producing a big 'booming' sound.

The bass drum often appears in parades and is carried in front of the drummer who is supposed to keep a steady beat by rhythmically thumping either end of it with the mallets he holds in each hand. Usually the bass drummer carries an image of his school's mascot on the drum skin. This commonplace practice of using the bass drum skin as a canvas for political or boastful advertising can possibly be attributed to older traditions. This kind of promotion might well have stemmed from ancient practice in countries like Ireland, where Celtic knots were painted onto the skin of a drum. These smaller, flatter Celtic versions of the hand-held bass drum are called bhodrans (pronounced 'bo-rons').

The Snare Drum

Come they told me

'Little Drummer Boy' - Davis/Onorati/Simeone

The snare drum, our smallest member of the drum family, is heralded in the above Christmas time song of old. The gift of music is all that a little drummer boy can offer to the newborn saviour.

The sound produced by the snare is a crisp one, and well-sought after, and not merely just to push brave troops ever onward. In recent decades, the mere sound of a well-played snare will drive lovers of music to 'air-drum' a drum solo. And the words 'Drum-roll, please' (a drum-roll is almost always played on a snare drum) is a trite cue that an important act, witticism or punch line will soon be played out.

Quads and Timpani

The quad, a set of four drums, is another member of the drum family, and small enough to carry in a marching band. Each individual drum is attached to the next, and are tuned as separate notes, or tones, adding an important layer to the drum section. These are played with a padded mallet, to enhance the 'round' tones of the quad.

Another drum played with a padded mallet is the large timpani(kettledrum), found commonly in heavier-pieced orchestras which need the backing of this large and magnificent drum.

Drum Break

Many people like to knock a drummer down a peg or two. Here are a couple of 'drummer' jokes that have been brought to the attention of this Researcher:

Q: What do you call someone who hangs around with musicians?
A: A drummer.

Q: What do you call a drummer who doesn't have a girlfriend?
A: Homeless.

Famous Drummers

To be a rock and roll drummer means that you must have a mastery of many instruments at once. Ringo Starr, a member of the Beatles, is a favoured worker (by some, not everybody2) of the drum kit. Given a solo spot by the Fab Four, he is probably best remembered as the man who sang 'Yellow Submarine' and 'With a Little Help From My Friends', songs written for him by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Ringo did, however, write some of his own songs, including 'Octopus' Garden'. Mmmm...

Other famous drummers are Ginger Baker, founder of Cream as well as Keith Moon of The Who, and Doug Clifford of Creedence Clearwater Revival . Don Henley of the Eagles is credited for not only providing the vocals but also the composition to such classics as 'The Best of my Love', 'Hotel California' and 'Heartache Tonight', among others. Phil Collins is another singer/songwriter whose home is in front of a drum set. He had been best known for his work in the group Genesis, until his successful soundtrack to Disney's Tarzan in 1997. Composing for Disney (and using various percussion instruments) he is arguably in the class of other Disney songwriters, Elton John, and Michael Bolton...

Foo Fighters frontman David Grohl was at one time a drummer for Nirvana (led by the late Kurt Cobain), a popular Seattle band that altered the face of rock and roll in the 1990s.

Perhaps the greatest exemplar of the modern rock drummer is the late John Bonham, drummer with Led Zeppelin. His energy, wild 'attack' and absolute mastery of the kit has oft been imitated by others but seldom, if ever, bettered.

So Now You Want to be a Drummer

You need to understand where and how to practise if you wish to excel as a drummer. Rock 'n' rollers (especially drummers) are reputed to be quite loud and wild, but in truth, good musicianship comes through practice. Soundproofed basements are the best places, but if this is an impossibility, money will allow you to treat yourself to a few drummer-practising luxuries. Among these are practice pads, headphones, and cymbal mufflers. Remember drummers, practice pads reduce the volume of your playing, and keep your roommates and family a little happier about living with you.

1Bongos are two small drums attached to one another, sitting side by side, and played while placed in the lap.2When John Lennon was asked by a reporter if he thought that Ringo Starr was the best drummer in the world, he replied: 'He's not even the best drummer in The Beatles'.

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