Once you have your first drum kit purchased and setup, with a bit of practice you will soon find yourself getting around the drums and cymbals well. As your skills develop, it will not be long before you start looking for ways to expand the palette of sounds you are able to produce with your kit. It is at that point that you might decide that it is time to accessorize.
Every drummer likes more things to hit and an all-time favorite is the cowbell, one of the most popular percussion instruments to ever find its way into a drummer’s arsenal. Mississippi Queen by Mountain and All Right Now by Free are just two examples of tunes that without a cowbell, you just cannot play the song and do it justice.
Cowbells come in a variety of sizes and the tone they produce depends upon size. Larger cowbells, as would be expected, produce a lower, darker tone. Smaller, thinner, cowbells have a tinny, higher-pitched tone that can still be useful as a novelty. Most quality cowbells have a long sustain. This helps them be heard from a distance. Remember that the intended setting of a cowbell is off in a field somewhere attached to the neck of a cow.
Actual cowbells for cows have a clapper welded inside that strikes the bell when the animal moves. When used as a percussion instrument, a leftover drumstick from a broken pair works well. When striking a cowbell, use the butt or shoulder of the stick to get the best tone unless the tone you are looking for is the novelty sound that can be obtained with the tip of the drumstick. Strike the bell on the edge and give it a good whack. You will chew up the stick quickly but that is just part of the deal. There is plenty of great music to be made by pounding out a straight quarter-note pattern during a rock groove or following the clave in a hot Latin number.
To moderate sustain, percussionists, and singers who want to contribute to the rhythm section, typically hold the cowbell in one hand and the striking stick in the other. When mounted around a drum kit, the cowbell’s sustain has to be moderated in other ways. Gaffer’s tape can be wrapped around the outside or a small rag can be stuffed into the mouth of the cowbell. There are no rules when it comes to muffling percussion equipment. Whatever works, works.
Decades ago, a common companion to the cowbell was the woodblock. This instrument is just what the name says it is; a small, rectangular block of wood usually with a slit cut into the block along the top of one side to create a soundboard. The woodblock served as an “old school” way to play quietly on the backbeat.
Use of the woodblock in this way has been replaced by the cross-stick or rimshot though use of the woodblock in orchestra settings is still viable. In the middle of the previous century it was not unusual to see a mounting device designed to hold both a cowbell and woodblock at the same time that could be clamped onto a bass drum hoop.
The snare drum is the signature voice of the drum kit. So what do you do when you would like to speak with a slightly different voice? Add another snare drum of course.
The side snare, as it is commonly referred to, is usually a smaller snare drum that is placed to the left of the hi-hat, or in the case of left-handed drummers who switch the kick and snare around, to the right of the hi-hat.
The drum is used to offer a different, usually higher-pitched, snare back-beat or for fill work, etc. Some drummers have a side snare that is very similar to their main snare. It’s all about what sound you are trying to provide to the music. Once again, there are no rules here.
Certain accessories are what might be referred to as a “twice a show” sound. Perhaps the chime tree falls into this category. A chime tree is usually comprised of one or two rows of round metal bars varying steadily in size from left to right and hung vertically from a horizontal wooden stick. This instrument is typically mounted on a cymbal stand and played with a stick or metal striker in a sweeping, steady motion, from one side to the other. This creates a pleasant wind chime-like sound in either an upward pitch swing or downward pitch swing, depending on the direction the bars are struck.
The sound always gets the attention of the audience and makes for a nice way to transition from one section of a song to another or to bring a song to a close. You have to be careful though. This is a great sound about twice a night but much more than that and it loses its uniqueness.
The chime tree is standard issue in most professional percussion setups. It is an easy way to add a percussion flavor to a drum set and a beautiful sound to your palette.
Rototoms and Octobans are different instruments that serve essentially the same purpose: to extend the pitch/tonal range of your drum kit. Rototoms are single-headed drums made up of a rim mounted on a metal frame configured in such a way that you turn the rim to tune the head up or down. This allows you to tune the drums to a pitch fairly easily.
Octobons are a Tama product where several drums with tube-like shells that have the same diameter but different lengths are placed together on a stand. The drums produce different pitches, as would a set of Rototoms, but are tuned with tension rods like conventional drums.
The compact design of these drums make them a convenient way to add more options to your tom work since four or eight of them can be added around the kit without taking up the real estate necessary to add that number of toms. A similar product, Deccabons , is offered by ddrum.
Your non-drumming friend or partner will ask, “Why does that drummer have a bass drum up in the air like that?”
Your snappy answer is simply, “That’s not a bass drum. It’s a gong drum.”
What is a gong drum you ask? As the name implies, it is a drum played like a gong. More specifically, it is a bass drum-sized tom drum, suspended such that it can be struck with sticks like a tom. The tuning is typically low of course, given the size of the drum, and the drum is allowed to sustain, thus the “gong” moniker.
No large rock drum kit is without one. Check out Neil Peart with Rush or Todd Suchermann with Styx. Both have a gong drum prominently displayed to the drummer’s right, suspended above the floor tom area. For an extreme example, check YouTube for videos of a band from the 1960’s-70’s called Spirit. Their drummer, Ed Cassidy, used two large concert bass drums that he referred to as “field drums,” one on either side of the kit. He can be seen and heard playing them in live versions of a tune entitled Nature’s Way.
Buddy Rich had one. Ed Shaughnessy, original drummer for The Tonight Show, also had one. Stewart Copeland, drummer for The Police, routinely used two. Yes, splash cymbals are everywhere and you can put them to use too.
Splash cymbals are the small, high-sounding cymbals typically used in the front of the kit due to their quiet, high-pitched tone. All the cymbal companies make them and lots of drummers use them. Listen to “Wrapped Around Your Finger” by The Police for a good example of Copeland’s use of the instrument.
The placement of specialty gear around a drum set is partially controlled by the ability to access the instrument, as well as the nature of the sound it makes. Instruments with low volume and a high-frequency tone can be heard better in non-amplified settings if they are mounted high and forward on the kit. In amplified settings with proper microphone placement, this is not as much of an issue.
Splash cymbals are the low-volume alternative to crashes. During soft passages of music, they can be very useful in adding subtle emphasis. Use mallets to roll into soft crescendos behind a singer. For a more assertive sound, couple the splash with a snare hit.
For a really assertive sound, hit the snare and go for the china cymbal at the same time. A china cymbal typically has a bow that is turned-up a few inches from the edge and a triangular bell with a flat top. This type of cymbal is usually mounted upside down on a cymbal stand and played by striking the underside of the cymbal at the ridge created by the turned-up edge.
The sound is commonly referred to as “trashy” because many of these cymbals sound more like a trashcan lid than a cymbal. Well-known rock drummer Carmine Appice places a china-type cymbal or two high above the front of the kit and plays them on the upbeat (the “and” of the beat) as if they were the bell of a cymbal. This might be another accessory that you will want to use sparingly.
A favorite accessory in this category is the mighty gong. Every rock drummer who has dreamed of putting together a concert-level drum kit dreams that it will include at least one large gong. But it is not just an iconic feature of large rock drum sets. Gongs have a long history of use in rituals, meditation, and music. The instrument can be traced as far back as 2000 B.C. and is present in Chinese history beginning around the year 500 A.D.
Gongs have a complex sound structure and what seems like endless sustain. To properly “play” the gong, one must first set the gong in motion by lightly tapping the surface in a circular pattern. Once this is done, take a large soft mallet and strike the gong with a firm swing. Your ears will be rewarded for your efforts. Gongs truly produce a sound that is both intense and peaceful at the same time.
There are many, many styles and sizes of gongs. Spend some time reading online about gongs before you make a purchase so that you understand the available options and how those options might impact the sound you are trying to achieve. This will help ensure that you identify the right gong for the right purpose and sound and steer you to an instrument that you just might own for a lifetime.
When electronics drums were first introduced in the late 1970’s, the sound they produced was unique to say the least. A few hit songs featured the pitch-bend tom or one of the other limited tones these machines could generate. If you wanted to get that sound, you needed that particular electronic kit or module. Outside of professional cover bands and studio drummers, the kits were hardly worth the expense.
Fast-forward almost four decades and it is a different world electronically for drummers. Today’s modules offer high bitrate sampling and memory storage unheard of just a few years ago. Triggered loops and backing tracks have become the standard of top-level touring groups around the world.
The basics here are that you can play pads that produce tones through an electronic module, connect triggers to your acoustic drums which will fire off the sounds of the module, and/or use the module as a way to store or trigger pre-recorded samples and tracks to supplement the sound of your drums or your band.
Models and standards can change quickly so do your homework to get up to speed on what is available and keep your finger on the pulse of the industry so that you stay apprised of new capabilities.
For a true drummer at heart, there is nothing better than spending time playing a set of drums and cymbals to your favorite music or with a band. Accessorizing your kit to add more sounds will make the experience even better. As you add capabilities, you create “your sound” and this will make all the difference in your character as a drummer and what you bring to your music projects.
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