drum buyer’s guide

By Anna Cucciardo

If you’re here, you must be seriously considering investing into musical equipment, and effectively investing into the many, many lifelong benefits of making music – congrats for making it this far.

First off, please take some time to consider/visualize (and make note of) where you see yourself (or your child) as a drummer in the future, as this will most certainly effect the equipment necessary. Where might you see yourself in one year? Five years? Ten? Some possible answers include: in a rock/garage or school jazz band, in school band/orchestra, in marching band/drumline, or simply “having fun playing drums at home”. If your goals involve rock or jazz band performance, you’ll need a kit at some point. For school band or drumline, a pad will suit you fine for years. If you “just want to have fun” for now, don’t stress on any expensive purchases. That’s not fun.

Many beginning drum students do start lessons with just sticks and a pad – some with just sticks and a little creativity to find a “drum” (buckets, hardback books, pots and pans can work just fine). Since so much of drumming is done with your hands, it is reasonable to start with a trial period on some pretty basic gear before making a purchase of a complete kit. If you start with just sticks and a pad, I recommend reevaluating your equipment (and goals) in 6 months to 1 year. When the time comes for a “real” set of drums, there are many choices.

Acoustic or electronic? I highly recommend acoustic drums if at all possible, although there are certain situations in which purchasing a (temporary) set of electronic drums might make more sense. Electronic drums are really more of a toy or a practice device rather than a real musical instrument. If volume is your main concern, be aware there are many ways to silence or mute acoustic drums (including placing pads on the drums, or playing with wire or plastic brushes or rods instead of wood sticks). Electronic drums are not necessarily cheaper, plus you will eventually require a complete upgrade, should you decide to ever use drums in a performance (at school, in a club/bar, etc). They do, however, unarguably take up less physical space.

Let’s look a bit at some advice for general budgets:

$150 or less: Don’t even consider any kits in this range – just get sticks (about $5-15 per pair), a practice pad (about $25-50), some books, and a subscription to your favorite music service (Spotify, Pandora, etc.). Save up your money. Maybe buy the Rock Band or Guitar Hero video game? Seriously. The drum kit controller can actually be great for practice. It’s also a fantastic choice for anyone that “just wants to have fun”. If you’re lucky, you might be able to score a decent kit at a garage sale in this price range, just make sure you review the details below about what to look for in a complete kit.

$150-300: I might recommend an electronic kit for this range, if you are not anticipating performing on the drums anytime soon. This will allow for practicing the coordination of drum set playing, and will simplify your choices. Any new acoustic drum kits priced in this range are almost certainly extremely low quality on all aspects and not at all recommended, or perhaps you’re looking at “Junior” kit, which is for children about age 5 & under. A decent used acoustic drum kit is entirely possible to find in this range (especially for closer to $200-300). When purchasing used, check the brand and whether or not the kit comes with all cymbals and hardware. Some reputable brands that might be about $300 used include older (1980s-2000s) Pearl, Tama, Yamaha, Gretsch, Ludwig, Mapex, DW, Pacific, Premier.

$300-500: This is a reasonable price range to purchase a set of drums that can last to a semiprofessional level, especially if buying used (hint, hint). If buying new drums, you will run closer to the $500 mark to get something reasonable (and you’ll likely still have to upgrade cymbals eventually – see below for details). I have found many workable, complete used drum sets close to the $400 mark on Craigslist. Reverb & eBay are also great sources for used drums, although shipping can get expensive).

$500-1000: Many sources site $1000 as the “mark” for a complete set of new drums. This would break down to about $500 for the drums (commonly called “shells”) and about $500 for cymbals and hardware. One could easily spend over $1000 on just one aspect of a kit, making higher end sets worth $3000-5000+.

Now, let’s get into some details about what to look for with acoustic drums.

There are 3 main components of a complete drum set: drums, cymbals, and hardware. These 3 components come in a wide variety of prices, and you’ll want to get the highest quality of each component that you can afford. If you have to prioritize, I recommend starting with finding decent drums, followed by hardware, then cymbals (and upgrading low quality kits in the reverse order, cymbals first, hardware, then finally drums). When looking at new kits online, make sure that a snare drum is included, as professional level kits often do not (since many drummers frequently have a variety of snares).

Drums: they come in all varieties of sizes, colors, and materials. You’ll want at least a snare, bass (“kick”), rack tom and floor tom – this is commonly referred to as a 4-piece kit. 5-piece kits that include an extra rack tom are popular as well. Either is fine for a beginner. Do not try to save money by just getting a couple drums at a time. Avoid drums that have plastic tension rods or hoops (such as the brand Gammon).

Please be aware that each drum has a replaceable “head” (the part of the drum you actually hit). Heads are not meant to last nearly as long as the drum shells. Whether you buy used or new drums, a new set of heads (about $60-100) should be on your radar shortly. There are many resources online available to guide you on how to replace/change drum heads. Just because the heads on a drum kit are old or used (or even have holes), it does not mean the drums themselves are poor quality. Feel free to take advantage of anyone online selling used drums that does not realize the heads are so easy to change, and might discount based on old/broken heads. Moms selling kits when their kids go off to college are great targets for this.

Brands of quality include: Pearl, Yamaha, Gretsch, Ludwig, Tama, Mapex. Pacific drums are a decent choice for lower-end kits. For heads, Remo, Evans or Aquarian. 

Hardware: this includes all of the stands that hold up your cymbals, hi-hats and snare drum (sometimes tom toms have stands, but most often they are mounted onto the bass drum or freestanding on their own legs). A pedal for the bass drum and a seat (or throne) are also required for a complete drum set. The hardware is like the skeleton of a drum set. Poor quality hardware can make your drums virtually unplayable, so do not underestimate it’s value. The bonus of hardware is that you can very easily upgrade one piece at a time if you’re on a tight budget.

When purchasing complete kits (especially used) make sure all above listed hardware pieces are included. “Double braced” hardware is more durable but much heavier. I highly recommend double braced hardware for the throne, but consider it optional in general.

Brands of quality include: Yamaha, DW (Drum Workshop), Gibraltar, Tama, Ludwig. Sound Percussion seems to be the most durable brand for affordable prices on new hardware.

Cymbals: Cymbals come from a very long, interesting history. Fun fact: the first corporation ever formed in the world was Zildjian, a brand of Turkish cymbal makers!

In order to sell complete kits, lots of drum companies include extremely low quality, thin cymbals. By purchasing the lowest grade cymbals from an actual cymbal company (rather than settling for a drum company that includes cymbals in the kit), you’ll get a huge improvement in tone and durability for about $150-200. Totally worth it for anyone that plans to use the drums in any sort of performance.

A basic setup includes a set of hi-hats (2 cymbals, 13-14″ diameter), a crash (14-18″ diameter) and a ride (18-22″ diameter). It is best to have both a crash and ride, although many kits include a single “crash/ride” – not ideal, but better than nothing.

Brands of quality include: Zildjian, Sabian, Paiste, Meinel. Avoid cymbals with no brand name or that seem to bend easily or have cracks. 

Here is a link to a brand new, complete kit that I think is a great deal for a beginner (although for this price, you could get a much, much higher quality used kit).

If you are in the Livermore/Pleasanton area, I highly recommend visiting DUBS DRUM BASEMENT in Dublin to purchase your kit. At the very least, please visit them so you can feel, hear & see different drums, cymbals & hardware in person.

When purchasing drums, my general recommendation is to evaluate your short and long term goals and budget, and act accordingly. Used acoustic drums tend to be the best bang (literally, yuk, yuk, yuk) for your buck, while electronic drums can be a budget compromise in the short term, until you are ready to move into the world of performance.

If you have questions, or would like me to check out some gear you are considering purchasing, please email me at: anna@musictimeacademy.com.