Anatomy of the Drums – Part 4: Drum Add-ons

In the previous posts, I talked about the fundamentals of a drum set and cymbals. What is needed to play the drums. These additional instruments I add here are exactly that, add-ons to the basic set. They all produce different sounds to be used in making music. These additional instruments give a drummer a larger palette, if you will.

Concert toms are like rack toms, except they only have a batter head. The bottom of the drum is open. One reason a bottom head is installed on a drum is to cause the air inside the drum to vibrate back and form between the two heads to create resonance, or boom. Concert toms, because they lack the bottom resonance head, have an altogether different sound than double headed rack toms. Their attack is faster and they lack resonance. Marching toms are also concert toms, but their drumheads are over stretched extremely tight, giving them their distinctive sound. That, and the heads and sticks used. I never played toms in a parade. Only bass drum and snare drum. Lilac Parades for you Lombardians.

Roto-toms are instantly tunable toms. They have no shells but only a drum bearing edge, a hoop, lugs, tension rods and a drumhead. Roto-toms are designed such that if one turns the hoop, the drumhead will either tighten or loosen on the bearing edge. The drumhead tension change affects the sound. These drums are typically sold in pre-made configurations of a 6, 8, 10 inch diameter or a 12 & 13 inch. There are actually entire drum sets made of roto-toms, and I guess roto-bass drums. I had the 3 roto-tom configuration as a kid as they were an inexpensive alternative to buying concert toms. Once I tuned them to how I liked them, the drumhead tension was left alone. They helped me achieve the Neil Peart kit of my teenage dreams.

Octobans are 6 inch diameter, single head drums with various shell depths. The depth of the shell determines a drum’s pitch, instead of the diameter. There are eight octobans, a low set and a high set. Octoban is the name of Tama’s drum of that type. DW’s name is the rata tom. I have an original high set of octobans from the late 70’s/early 80’s. Stewart Copeland, Alex Van Halen, Mike Portnoy and Chad Smith use/used them.

A gong bass is basically a bass drum used as a floor tom-tom. It typically has at least a 20 inch shell with an oversized hoop with the head stretched out. These drums are very deep and very low pitched. They are similar to Japanese taikos. A 18 x 16 inch floor tom can have a low tone, but a gong bass goes even lower. The name ‘gong bass’ is a Tama invention but other companies have their own versions of a ‘gong bass’. Neil Peart and Simon Phillips have used gong bass drums.

There is always the need for an extra snare drum. Seasoned gigging drummers learn to always have a backup snare drum, in case the head breaks on the one being used. A drummer cannot stop playing as we tend to be a songs heartbeat. But having a backup snare is not necessarily the same thing as having another snare drum in the drum kit setup. Another snare, a different size than the main snare drum, can add another snare sound to a kit and a piccolo snare is a popular second snare to have. Piccolo means “small flute” but in this case, it means “small snare”. A piccolo snare drum is a normal 13 or 14 inch snare drum, but with a shallow shell of 3 or so inches. A piccolo snare has a much higher pitch than the typical 14 x 6.5 inch snare drum does and is usually included as accents in certain songs and in certain places. Piccolo snare drums will usually stand out as they have a distinct “crack” sound.

Timbales, percussion instruments originally developed in Cuba, are present throughout Latin music. They also make their way into rock drum kits. Timbales are steel shelled, single headed tom-like drums with a short shell depth of anywhere between 5 to 10 inches. They are used in pairs, and are usually 13 and 14 inch diameters, but can be other sizes. They may look like two snare drums minus the heads. Timbales are usually played with sticks but sometimes with mallets or with the hands. They are tuned much higher than a tom of that size would be tuned. When played, the drumheads, rims (hoops), and shells are all used to each make different sounds. I am not going to get into other Latin percussion at this time but will later.

Back in the day of early drum kits, a wood block seemed to always make its way onto a kit. Do you remember the wood block from elementary school music class? It is the same thing if you do. However, today actual wood wood blocks are rare to see. Most are now made from plastic, yet sound exactly like a wood one. These “jam blocks” are different sizes and shapes, each with a different sound and/or tone. Some others have tambourine jangles added or ridges so as to be used like a guiro.

Because of the SNL skit “More cowbell”, cowbells have taken on a new life. However cowbells, like woodblocks, are a staple of early drum kits. My first 1966 Ludwig 4 piece set came with a Ludwig cowbell when I was 12. I wish I still had it. I have always had at least one cowbell on my kits, and for years I had multiple cowbells. And if you do not know, there are many, numerous sizes and shapes of cowbells, each designed for a specific sound. The sound spectrum is all over the boards too. I have included a pix (lifted from the LP website) of all the available cowbells from Latin Percussion (LP), THE only Latin musical instrument manufacturer in my opinion. More cowbell? Yes there is.

Wind chimes are a common add-on for a drum kit. No, these are not the wind chimes one finds outside, waking them up at 5 AM. These wind chimes are numerous small, round bars of various lengths, suspended from above, that clang on each other to produce an octave or more of sound. The various lengths of these wind chimes each produces a different note. Typically, one uses a stick to run up or down the wind chime bars to create their sound.

Orchestral chimes are much larger versions of wind chimes but with some differences. Each metal chime is tuned to a specific note and the chimes are arranged similar to the white leys and the black keys on a piano. One strikes chimes with a mallet or hammer, similarly to how a hammer strikes a string when one pushed down on a piano’s key. Orchestral chimes are rarely used anymore in a drum kit, as electronic trigger pads are much cheaper and much easier to transport.

A tree bell, or bell tree, is a stack of many bowl-shaped bells. These bells are closely and somewhat loosely stacked, to allow the bells to vibrate on the others around them. A tree bell is struck with sticks or small mallets, moving up or down the stack to allow all or some of the bells to ring out.

Bells are thin, metal bars, each individually tuned to a specific note like orchestral chimes and also arranged like the keys on a piano. Typically bells have 2-1/2 octaves of notes. Bells are struck with mallets, usually either brass tipped, plastic tipped, or wood tipped. Bells are now usually replaced with electronic triggers. I have a student set as I like to practice with them. I was traumatized as a young student learning certain percussion instruments, especially the bells and the timpani, but that is another story. Yes, I want some timpani too…

Temple blocks are another rare drum add-on. Temple blocks were originally used in the drum kits of the 1920’s and 1930’s. Temple blocks are typically in sets of 5, arranged on a rack. Originally temple blocks were made from wood. Newer temple blocks are made from plastic, yet sound almost identical to wood ones, just like wood blocks. Today, few drummers use actual temple blocks as the alternative electronic trigger pads are cheaper and easier.

The ultimate drum add-on, at least to many it seems, is the gong. Gongs are large metal disk shaped instruments that are usually struck with a mallet to cause them to reverberate like a cymbal. Think drum solo, struck at the end while the gong stand is on fire. Or think pretty much any 70’s drummer. Yes, I want one. No fire tho.

Drum add-ons can give a drum kit more depth, more sounds and more texture. There are more add-ons than just those listed here. Many more. There are hand drums, such as congas and bongos. There are traps, which are just devices that produce various sound effects, originally used in a by-gone era. There is Latin percussion which covers more types of drums, such as Brazilian cuica, repinique and surdo drums, as well as hand instruments such as the maracas, claves and guiros. There is World percussion, which are the percussion instruments of many different cultures, such as Indian tabla drums and African djembes. There are also electronic drums (e-drums) and trigger pads, which can produce any sound that one can program into it. One could have a drum set where every drum and cymbal sounds like a different fart. My grandson Owen would love that one. All of these different drum add-ons will be covered later. All these add-ons are also what can keep a drummer broke.

Posted in Drums.