How to set up a drum kit

I’ve found many of my new students don’t really know how to set up a drum kit (or their parents as well). They buy a kit at the music store and plunk it down in the bedroom, only guessing as to proper arrangement. And there the set sits in all its poorly arranged glory for years to come.

Bad idea.

Next to learning rudiments, it’s the single most important drum lesson students will ever attempt to master. An improperly set up kit can lead to bad technique and even injury. At a bare minimum, students most certainly won’t play poorly arranged drums nearly as well as their full potential.

Given most of my own students own real drum kits, it makes sense to learn the proper way to set up and break down a kit. And the best way to do that is well….. set up and break down your set often. Realizing most young students won’t have to setup and breakdown their kits until they join a band with rehearsal space and gigs away from home, this is where the real technique concern enters the equation. An erratically set up drum kit can literally sit in a student’s bedroom for years before that kid ever attempts the breakdown and re-setting up process. A live gig is not the place to practice.

So what are the major red flag warnings for bad kit arrangements to look out for, and what is the best process for setting up and breaking down?

First of all, the height and location of your drum seat or throne really determines everything else and is why I always set it up first in conjunction with my bass drum pedal and hi-hat stand (notwithstanding your drop carpet so the kit does not move while playing it). In my opinion (and there are differing viewpoints on this topic), the throne should be centered smack in the dead center of your drum kit arrangement. The height of your throne should allow both human legs to slightly angle downward when both feet are on the bass drum(s) and hi-hat pedals. That’s why I set up the throne with both pedals at the same time.

One additional reason is to see if your throne is too close to any back wall or staging. Once placed atop your drop carpet, sit in your throne and swivel the seat side to side with your elbows extended outward to see if anything gets in the way. Much better for that process to happen now when you can simply inch a throne a few inches forward then to have to move an entire drum set because you put the drum chair in last.

That said, I see plenty of drummers with no downward  angle of their legs who instead prefer a straight horizontal alignment. I can’t honestly tell you which angle is better. All I know is that my legs are always slightly angled downward toward the pedals from the throne. By all means, don’t ever have your legs angled upward from the throne toward your pedals.

After the throne and hi-hat/bass pedals are set, you should attach your bass drum to the pedal already positioned on the floor. Top touring pros will tell you they don’t point their bass drums perfectly straight looking outward and instead angle them slightly offset right so that both pedal feet have a similar linear angle. I  tend to agree.

Next, the snare drum should be positioned center between both pedals obviously behind the bass drum, which means it will be slightly left of your throne’s true center position. I try to get my snare stand as close to the bass drum edge hoop as possible. Many drummers slightly tilt the snare stand basket that holds the snare toward them while others prefer a straight horizontal angle of the top snare rims. Either angle is fine. Do what seems most comfortable. My thinking on snare stand height is the top hoop should be perpendicular to your waistline or belly button. That’s just a good rule of thumb. A snare stand that is set too low or too high can create drumming mechanics and navigational problems.

Now on to the toms. Which toms should be set up first? I feel the very next drum that should be added to your kit is the floor tom. Why? Because it has a very important relationship to the height and position of your snare drum. Everybody’s different, but I generally set the height of my floor tom a little bit lower than that of my snare. Having the height of your floor tom set above that of your snare will result in dropped sticks and bloody knuckles.

Next, rack toms should set up fairly easily at this point if you followed the proper kit arrangement steps, but there are a few things to keep in mind. If you’re using two mounted rack toms above your bass drum, make sure they aren’t elevated too high above the bass drum. General rule of thumb is to have bottom of tom hoops or bottom heights about 4-6 inches above your snare top and angled slightly in toward each other for easier navigation. Again, this is a matter of opinion but toms set too high or angled tend to result in dropped sticks, bloody knuckles and, well, you get the point.

Finally, I add in the crash cymbals, ride cymbal and any percussion accessory hardware. I don’t put crash or ride cymbals on the stands until after the stands themselves are placed where you actually want the cymbal to hang above your kit. Why adjust things twice? As for height or angles of the cymbals, drummers are all over the map on this one. I find the lower cymbals are hung with a decent angle downward toward your drum chair results in easier and more fluid playing. My cymbal heights on average are about 6-8 inches above any top drum head. Any don’t be afraid to hang cymbals partially over certain drums to get them closer to you. Many newer drummers have a tendency to put cymbals far and away from any drums, which is really opposite of what you should do.

The last thing to do is play your kit and refine the arrangement.

Hopefully, these tips can help you envision your own proper kit setup.