“Everyone knows deep in their hearts that the drums are the coolest instrument and that a band is only as good as its drummer. So I’m all for drum solos. I’m all for drummers hamming it up. I’m all for drummers standing up and kicking over the kit.” – Fred Armisen
Drums are a huge part of life in different cultures around the world. (Source: Visual Hunt)
We all know them, even toddlers like them and most of us love them. You can probably play gongs, cymbals, the xylophone, chimes, the marimba or shakers without even trying, but drums take a little more practice to be played well and are probably one of the most unique percussion instruments out there.
Yet what makes them so special is not only that novices and experts alike can have a bash at them, but that they are used so widely and by such a different range of cultures across the world. They have the ability to unite cultures and communities through the unforgettable and undeniably overwhelming sounds that they make.
Drums are an important part of popular music culture here in the UK and in the USA too, where drums sales made up huge portion of the $373 million made in market sales of percussion instruments last year. However, drumming doesn’t just stop there! Cuba, Ghana, China, Brazil, Papua New Guinea – you name a place and there is probably someone close by drumming away.
If drums were people they truly would be multicultural citizens of the Earth!
Perhaps the reason for the ubiquitousness of the drum is because it taps into something so unique to us as humans. Even young infants are able to instinctively grab a stick and strike it against a hollow object to create rhythm.
Check out our list of the top drumming movies.
Drums allow us to create music from our natural environment no matter who we are or where we are. Be it communities living far out in the Amazon Rainforest, in the middle of the Sahara desert or at the edge of the coast in stormy Cornwall!
The djembe drum is a single-headed African hand drum that is often used in classrooms and music groups here in the UK. (Source: Visual Hunt)
Before we start to consider what different types of drums that exist, it would be probably worth asking one simple but essential question.
The Oxford English Dictionary describes a drum in the following way:
“A percussion instrument sounded by being struck with sticks or the hands, typically cylindrical, barrel-shaped, or bowl-shaped, with a taut membrane over one or both ends (- ‘a shuffling dance to the beat of a drum’)”
In other words, a drum is a musical instrument essentially made up of three basic elements – a case, a membrane and drumsticks – or hands!
We can thus, begin by classifying the drums according to the basic elements listed above – drums beaten with hands and those beaten with sticks, drums made of different membranes and drums made of different outer materials.
Hand drums were probably some of the earliest drums ever to have been invented and indeed probably the earliest instrument ever to have been invented. Use of the hand drums has been shown to stretch as far back as the neolithic cultures in China that existed some seven thousand years ago.
Hand drums can range in styles, shapes, sizes and most importantly, noises.
From single drums like the tar that make quite monotonous sounds to drums with bells like the tambourine that add a jingle sound to the beat and bongo drums that consist of more than one drum, which create a more lively sound as a variety of different rhythms can be created by using two hands at the same to beat the drums.
Most people have probably heard of snare drums, but don’t actually know what they are!
Snare drums are fairly similar to other drums in that they come in all shapes and sizes, however, they have one key defining feature – they usually have wires or rope hanging down the sides of the drum. These wires tend to add another musical dimension as they cause additional vibrations to add to the sound of the membrane being hit.
There are also more drums played with drumsticks than you can shake a stick at (no pun intended)!
The main and obvious difference between hand drums and drums with drumsticks is that the latter is played with drumsticks, which are held in the drummer’s hand.
However, there are also several fundamental differences between the two. For example, the membrane of a drum intended to be played with drumsticks will tend to be a lot more robust than hand drums as the manufacturer will have envisaged the inevitable increase in the force with which the drummer will be hitting the drum skin. Another difference is that as a result of using the drumsticks, the sound output of these kinds of drums will also be much higher – they can be heard from incredibly far away distances.
Drum sticks also allow the drummer to play with clever rhythms, altering the pace at which they play the drum and making way for the world famous drum roll technique!
Some famous drums include the famous Chinese Tàigǔ, which had such a loud sound output that it was traditionally used on the battlefield to terrify the enemy.
Animal skin drums were some of the very first drums ever to be used. Many of the drums that we use today actually have their roots in traditional African drums whose membranes were made from animal skins as this was a very readily available resource for local musicians.
Although practical to make, animal skin drums are not as robust as other drums.
Synthetic drums are the drums that we use today. They can be found in the modern drum kits that you will probably see on stage if you go to see Lady Gaga live on stage.
Synthetic drums were introduced at the turn of the 19th century as they are much more robust than drums made of animal skins. In terms of manufacturing, they also posed a much more manageable method of producing percussion instruments to the public en masse for manufacturers as they could be produced in factories rather than made by hand.
Synthetic drums slowly began to become more and more popular and as animal ethics and animal rights activists began to make a voice for themselves, animal skin drums slowly began to lose their appeal.
A Buddhist monk plays a hand drum as part of a religious ritual. (Source: Visual Hunt)
Drumming is a central part of musical culture in almost all parts of Africa, from Northern Africa right the way down to Southern Africa. Musicologists and anthropologists have dedicated much time and research into the roots of international drumming culture and identified African drums as some of the earliest instruments to have been used.
In many local communities in African countries, drumming represents a chance to spend time together as a family or a community and is often undertaken during communal celebrations, such as weddings.
An enormous amount of creativity and imagination has gone into the creation of drums originating from Africa and the variety of African drums in existence is a testament to their importance in African culture. If you are interested in getting a glimpse of this variety, then you could always pop down to the Horniman Museum in London, which has a large collection of rare percussion instruments (including drums) originating from African countries on display.
Examples of African drums include:
Although we often think of African music and culture when we think of drumming. Drumming actually has a long history in Asia too where the practice of drumming has also been undertaken for thousands of years.
As mentioned earlier, the earliest drum ever to have been invented originates from East Asia (China), however, drums are also extremely popular in South Asia and in particular countries, such as, India where drumming is often used to accompany folk dances, such as the bhangra. Asian drums also come in many forms, including both single-headed and multi-headed drums as well as drums that incorporate strings into the fabric of the drum to create instruments that are influenced by both string instruments and percussion instruments.
Examples of Asian drums include:
Although they tend to be much lesser known than African or Asian drums, Middle-Eastern drums actually play just as vital a role in Middle-Eastern culture as African drums do in African culture.
There is also a huge diversity in the range of Middle-Eastern drums in existence and this is partly due to their usage. Unlike Western drums that are largely intended for pure musical appreciation, Middle-Eastern drums are used in a large number of different situations – not just for celebration or to accompany belly dancing, many drums were actually used in the fields for harvesting purposes and some were even thought to have medicinal properties that could aid people in healing the sick.
Examples of Middle-Eastern drums include:
You may have already realised it by now, but the majority of drums that we use in Europe today actually have their roots in African, Asian and Middle-Eastern drumming culture. Drumming was largely introduced to the West through African drum culture that grew in popularity in Europe following colonisation and the slave trade, which began in the 1500s. However, there are still some fine examples of European drums that have been around since medieval times, such as typical celtic and gaelic drums from Scotland and Ireland as well drums from Eastern Europe that were used by folkloric groups.
Examples of European drums include:
Reggae music is known for its use of the drums to emphasise the beat of the music. (Source: Visual Hunt)
We largely surround ourselves with popular music that is hitting the charts today without thinking about the impact of a particular percussion instrument. However, there are actually some really famous songs out there, which we would class as world drum music out and that you probably already know, but never really realised what a powerful effect the drums have.
This famous reggae tune by Kingston’s most influential reggae band features some incredible drumming by the band’s drummer, Carlton Barrett. Barrett is arguably Jamaica’s best-known drummer and he is famed for having mastered a particular drum beat style known as one drop rhythm, listen out for his drumming skills next time you turn on this tune!
What made this German 80’s classic such a hit (no pun intended!)? It might have been the catchy repetitive lyrics and the resonance of the lead singer’s memorable voice, but just as unforgettable is each beat of the drums, which reflects the fictionalised struggles for power between different nations.
This Mexican folk tune would be nothing without the catchy beat of the modern drum! This song would never reached number 1 in the US and the UK without the power of the drums to modernise the song to a mainstream audience.
Drumsticks is the term used to describe the beaters that the drummer users to strike the drum. In modern drum kits made up of a bass drum, a snare drum, and hi-hats, drumsticks are usually made of plastic, however, they can also be made from a variety of materials, including, bamboo, pine wood and even metal.
A single-headed drum describes a drum that does not have any other drumheads attached to it. Unlike drums such as the bongo drums, the drummer has only one membrane covered head to hit rather than two.