History of the Drums

History plays a big role in any musical instrument. Its first uses and how it has evolved over time are interesting concepts to look back on. Drums in particular have gone through many shapes and forms over the centuries. Rhythms can be played with just your hands and feet. So, the fact that ancient civilizations created extensions of these to support heavier rhythms is fascinating. 

Where It Began 

It’s not extremely clear exactly when and where drums started. You can find so many things that occur naturally in nature where rhythms can be played on. Think of how a hollowed-out tree trunk would make a noise when hit with sticks. When thinking of it like that, drums technically started at the beginning of time. 

However, we want to know when the physical drumming instruments were first made. Well, the first recorded drums that were used were similar to bongos and were played with hands. Ancient cultures would take the skins of animals and attach them to carved out logs to get booming drums. These would be played during ceremonies and similar events. 

They’d also carve out drums from trees. One interesting percussion instrument that originated in the 16th century is the Teponaztli. These instruments were played with heavy sticks that look like turkey legs. The theory is that those sticks are actually why people refer to turkey legs as drum sticks. 

Anyway, hand drums came first, and drums that needed sticks or mallets came a lot later. In terms of cymbals, it’s believed that they’ve been around just as long as drums have. There are passages in the Bible that refer to the clashing of cymbals, telling you that cymbals were around for a long time before those events occurred. 

Military Music 

The parts of the modern drum kit started to take shape in the 1800s. The main type of music at that time was military music. Orchestras and marching bands were seen everywhere, entertaining large amounts of people and crowds.

Orchestras had multiple percussionists in a section that would play all kinds of percussion instruments needed for the composition. It was common to see up to 10 players in the percussion section. The two drums in the percussion section that influenced the modern drum kit were the bass drum and snare drum. The bass drum is a large drum that produces a deep thud when hit while the snare drum is tightly tuned and produces a higher-pitched sound.

Typically, these two drums would be played the most in the percussion section, meaning there had to be a dedicated player on each one. You’ll still see this kind of setup in orchestras today. 

Marching bands had similar instrumentation. However, the players were more mobile. They carried the snare drums or bass drums on their bodies and marched while playing. This is actually where traditional grip of sticks came from since the snare was angled when marching. 

Drumming was very rudiment-focused in military music. The rhythms were very strict as opposed to the loose rhythms of the earlier civilizations. 

The Early 1900s 

The 1900s were the biggest and most essential years with regards to the evolution of the drum kit. Military music was still popular. However, having so many percussionists in one place came at a huge cost. In order to cut down on players, something had to be done. This is where William F. Ludwig came onto the scene. You’ve heard of Ludwig drums, right? Here was the start of them and the start of drum kits as we know them. 

The Ludwig company created the bass drum pedal, allowing one player to play both the snare and the bass. It’s not an exaggeration when I say that the bass drum pedal was the biggest turning point in the early days of the drum kit. Now that you could put a snare and bass together, musicians started playing on what was called a ‘trap kit’. 

They were still used for military music at that time. The next step in cutting down on the number of percussionists in a group was to introduce a cymbal to the trap setup. This was the first iteration of the modern drum set, a snare, bass, and cymbal. The snare and cymbal were mounted on a stand, allowing the player to hit everything at one time. 

How The Hi-Hat Changed Everything 

A lot of drummers at the time would experiment with adding different parts to their setups. This came in the form of extra drums, small percussion, or extra cymbals. Most of these ideas never caught on. However, one idea became revolutionary and that was the introduction of the little boy.

What was a little boy? Well, it was the very first hi-hat device. Two small cymbals were clamped together and connected to a pedal. The cymbals raised and closed when pressing the pedal down and up. That sounds similar to the hi-hat we know and love today. However, the hi-hats on the little boy were extremely close to the ground, meaning you couldn’t play them with your hands. 

Eventually, some drummers would play the hi-hats with their hands by reaching their arm down. This lead people to design a taller hi-hat stand that would make it easier to play with your hands as well as your feet. 

At this point, the drum set had a snare, bass, hi-hat, and cymbal. Drummers were playing these setups for military music as well as some theater productions. The next big step was when jazz came onto the scene. 

Jazz and the Popularization of the Drum Set 

One of the main catalysts in popularizing the drum set was jazz music. The style became extremely popular at the time and most jazz groups had a drummer playing with them. Two huge names that became known were Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich. The two of them became icons in the music industry and led a lot of people to take interest in learning how to play the drums.

All the drum legends that we remember from that time came from the jazz scene. Every one of them had a style of playing that influenced many musicians who came after them. With the drum kit having a standard setup structure at the time, it started to become a staple instrument to have in a band. 

The drum kit gained even more popularity with the introduction of rock music. Still to this day, rock music is one of the biggest starting points for a lot of drummers. There’s something about seeing a rock drummer jam out that makes you want to do it as well. 

Rock music also sparked more innovation in drum manufacturing as they needed to get bigger and louder. Harder drum heads started getting made as well as more aggressive sounding cymbals. 

Modern Day Innovations 

Although the drastic design changes in drum sets have stopped happening, drum companies have continued to develop the instrument as best they can. People are thinking of new ideas every day and the music and instruments are always evolving. 

Some modern-day innovations would be the introduction of electronics into a drum setup. Drummers will use tools like the Roland SPD-SX to get sounds that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to acoustically produce. Although this was somewhat used in the 20th century, it definitely wasn’t as popular. 

Another modern trend would be stacking cymbals together. Drummers will take two cymbals and mount them tightly onto the same cymbal stand. That stack of cymbals will give an attacking sound with minimal sustain. It’s similar to a hi-hat, but with a bit more resonance. Cymbal stacks are something that you didn’t see on any drum kit 10 years ago. 

One recent trend that has started to pick up is to have a snare drum that doubles up as a floor tom. A deep drum will have snares at the bottom that allow it to produce a deep thudding sound. These are called fat snares and many drum companies have started manufacturing them. 

Key Drummers in History 

There have been literally hundreds of drummers that influenced the evolution of drums. However, 4 names stand out more than the others. These drummers pioneered the way for everyone else and became massive influences in their time. They’re still highly influential today to a lot of new drummers. 

Gene Krupa 

Gene Krupa was the face of the drum kit for the longest time. He had such great skills on the drums that everyone was amazed by what he could do. At that time, no one had seen anyone play drums like that yet. Before Gene Krupa, drums were purely seen as a supporting instrument in a band. However, Gene started to play a lot of drum solos, causing the kit to be seen as another solo instrument in the band. 

He’s considered as the founding father of the modern drum set, using Slingerland drums and Zildjian cymbals whenever he played. So many players saw what he was doing and then tried to emulate it themselves. That’s why his drum setup became so popular and resembles the classic setup you’ll see today. It was Gene Krupa that asked Slingerland to develop tom-toms, changing drum setups forever. 

He played with hundreds of bands over the years and recorded several albums. Unfortunately, he passed away at the age of 64 due to heart failure. 

Buddy Rich 

Buddy Rich was the other influential drummer at the time along with Gene Krupa. However, he’s arguably a lot more popular, even in the modern-day. Any person who plays drums tends to know who Buddy Rich is. This is due to his reputation as being the greatest drummer of all time. Whether you believe that or not, it just tells you how influential he actually was. 

He was a child prodigy on the drums and was already touring the U.S. as a teenager. As one of the leading jazz drummers in the world, he made several television appearances, boosting his popularity even more. 

Buddy Rich pushed the boundaries of what you can do on a drum kit. His lightning-fast playing was a sign to all drummers out there that that is what you should strive for. Similar to Gene Krupa, Buddy died in his 60s. 

Ringo Starr 

Ringo Starr was the drummer for The Beatles. Although he wasn’t the most technically proficient drummer around, he was a key member in the biggest band that has ever existed. The Beatles were so popular around the world that they would sell out stadiums in days. 

At the time, not everyone listened to jazz or knew what drum kits sounded and looked like. So, seeing Ringo playing drums opened up a whole new world to a lot of people. When listening to Ringo’s playing, you’ll notice that every one of his drum parts fit the songs perfectly. He was a great example to session drummers. 

Ringo is still alive today. However, he doesn’t do a lot of gigging as a drummer anymore. He instead does shows as a front man artist.

John Bonham 

The final influential drummer to mention is John Bonham. He was the driving force behind the band, Led Zeppelin. Bonzo was the player that revolutionized how people play drums to rock music. His sound was huge and his grooves were tight and controlled. 

He’s still considered today as some people’s favorite player. Whether you’re into jazz or rock, no one can deny the influence that John Bonham had on the drumming world. Unfortunately, he died at the age of 32 and Led Zeppelin disbanded after his death. 


The evolution of the drum kit is a crazy thing to look back on. Imagine how different drum setups would be today if the little boy was never invented or if Gene Krupa never asked for the production of tom toms. 

Next time you play drums, just think about everything that has lead to this point. It’s really amazing to picture it. 

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