The value of large drum sets versus smaller kits – Drum Set Lessons in East Brookfield, MA

By Tim Kane

STURBRIDGE, MA – The sort of small clubs and practice spots I currently play at require a 4-5 piece, tightly assembled drum set with no more than 5 cymbals.

No gongs, second kick drum, effects pads, or octagons are possible, or there would not be any room for the amps and guitarists – let alone our cases and cords.

Call it a frustrated experiment, but I decided during my summer vacation to conduct a “drumvention” of sorts in my garage.

I assembled a 16-piece (cymbals not included) “mega kit” by combining every single piece of drum equipment I own. The drum kit expansion project took about three hours to construct, but it provided me with some very valuable lessons and challenges – and lots of fun.

I combined both of my drum sets, a five-piece 1979 Rodgers Studio 10 series, one 1950s vintage Pearl tom, and a 2010 six-piece Gretsch Maple shell series, with two Matador timbales, pair of LP bongos, stationary tamborine, assorted woodblocks, cowbell, wind chimes, hand percussion instruments, and 9 Zildjian and Paiste cymbals, including a cool double highhat set-up. I also needed about 10 boom stands and 3-4 Tama hardware clamps to pull all the cymbals, toms and percussion altogether.

Whew. I get tired just listing all of that gear.

In comparison, my mega kit was built in the spirit of Neil Peart’s last tour kit. While mine is nowhere close to his kit’s quality or quantity, I did borrow a few key elements that Peart talked about in his recent instructional video, “Anatomy of a drum solo”, which I highly recommend you watch. The heart of Peart’s kit – snare, kick, center rack tom, ride, and first floor closely resemble a traditional jazz kit.

If former Frank Zappa drummer Morgan Ågren of Sweeden can play a three kick-oriented drum kit, I can at least attempt two bass drums. Terry Bozzio, another great Zappa drummer and current Drum Channel resident musician, plays at least a 24-piece kit on some concert tours. Hec, even PBS Seaseme Street drummer “Animal” (Ronnie Verrell) played a double kick set. That said, John Bonham and Charlie Watts were most comfortable behind a simple 4-piece.

Drum set largesse beyond a 10-piece kit, however, is declining in popularity today. A random drum kit PR photo sampling I conducted of the world’s top 25 celebrity drummers found online at (an awesome web resource for drummers, by the way) reveals that they play an average of 6-piece drum kits.

What is more interesting about these posted kit photos is several trends I identified. More and more drummers today are integrating a second pair of closed highhats above their first floor tom. Some just clamp them tight to boom stands while others use more sophisticated hydraulic cords to enable double HH foot pedals. I tried this concept out at a recent gig and it provided me with additional drum fill phrasing freedom, and the ability to use both closed and open highhats while playing double kick drum patterns.

Another trend I found while perusing drum set PR photos was that at least half of the drummers whose kits I studied are now using a floor tom to the left of their main high-hats. I have employed this strategy for years and it offers a wonderful off-beat accent tool – not to mention a back-up tom in case a head breaks.  Holds a beer and set list quite nicely as well. Just don’t hit said left tom while beer is on head.

There is also a growing interest in elevating a 8 or 10-inch rack tom above the high-hats, too. I am seeing many drummers orienting 3-4 rack toms centered above the kick drum these days. And finally, my highly unscientific analysis revealed that two floor toms to the right of the snare is more the norm today than the exception.

So how does this all relate with my mega kit experiment?

What I learned from the procedure is you need a lot of practice to handle that many drums. Detractors in the past have said large kits hide the imperfections of the drummer while he or she cannot cover up behind a 4-piece.

Not true. I make as many mistakes behind either.

You pick the kit that matches your style and tastes. Bill Cobham sets up a 10-14 piece kit regularly in jazz/fusion realms. And he actually uses all of those drums. I watched a recent warm-up video of Billy practicing at the famous Long View Farm Studios in North Brookfield, MA and he plays everything to perfection.

The challenge I have with a 16-piece drum kit is navigation at faster tempos. You need to be quite mobile to work a kit this size and still keep the beat. I did find a distinct advantage in tuning and control while playing two different kick drums versus using my transmission highhat double kick drum pedal on one. Both kicks and their respective pedals respond differently. I actually found it easier and more controllable to play double kick patterns on two bass drums versus one.

The best thing about a larger than life drum kit is the endless possibilities with solos. The triad of toms and second snare to my left in this photo link here make a beautiful “solo” zone, if I shift my right hand foot to the left hand kick drum. Likewise, the timbales I dangled above my two right-hand floor toms offer many options for creativity.

I am not overwhelmed by the size of mega-kick, but it is just not practical for the types of gigs I play. Suffice to say, my two young sons love playing it – this time together.

Enough about my grandiose experiment, though. Please share your own drum kit set-up realities and dreams with this drumming community blog.

 – Tim Kane is a published writer/editor and professional drummer of 30-plus years.

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