The Beginner's Guide to Drum Kits

Author: Malcolm Newland  


Drums can seem overly complicated, but as with most things in life, you just have to break them down to really understand them.

This isn’t a totally exhaustive blog on everything there is to know about drums – that’d be pretty hard to do. But for all you beginners out there just trying to get the hang of the basics, this is for you. 

Different types of drums

Here’s the thing. It’s a bit simplistic to say there are only a few “types” of drums, because drums exist across many cultures and genres. Every drum variation has its own nuances in sound, quality, build, materials and playing techniques, let alone things it is played for.

But to save time and words, I’m going to bucket a few of the more popular types of drums into three categories:

  1. Acoustic drums
  2. Electronic drums
  3. Hybrid sets.


Acoustic drums

Acoustic drums produce sound through vibration across a stretched membrane or drumhead. In layman’s terms, they’re the more tactile drumming experience that you attribute to your Dave Grohls, Ringo Starrs, Buddy Richs, and Charlie Watts’. 

Some of the more common variations of acoustic drums are:

  • Bass drums
  • Snare drums
  • Tom-toms
  • Floor toms
  • Tenor drums
  • Marching snare drums (used by, you guessed it, marching bands for that iconic staccato sound)
  • Bongos (a set of two small drums played with the hand)
  • Timpani (large, bowl-shaped drums that are played with mallets)
  • Bodhrans (a type of Irish drums played with a beater)
  • Djembe (African drums played with the hands)
  • Tabla (small pairs of drums that create a high-pitched sound)
  • Hang drums (played with the hands, produce a more melodic sound).

Acoustic drums can be made from a number of materials but the most common you’ll see are wood, metal and acrylic. 

There are a couple of factors I’d say to keep in mind with acoustic drums.

The first is that acoustic drums are larger and louder than their electronic siblings. Like, your neighbours will know when you’re practicing loud. Maybe even complain if you’re practicing at certain times of the night loud.

Beyond noise, you need to consider literal space. Most drums won’t just sit neatly in the corner of a room or be a tidy decoration for your living room — they’ll eat up space quicker than you realise. Even when you pack them down, drum cases or bags will still require storage space, and you need to ensure they stay cool as heat can warp or crack your drums past the point of repair depending on the materials of your drums. A good rule of thumb is to store your drums at a temperature you’re comfortable with yourself.

The second and biggest factor with these drums is the maintenance they require. From drumhead replacements and repairs to tuning and cleaning, acoustic drums need ongoing love to last. They can and will last you years, if you’re willing to invest in the upkeep. That also means playing your drums properly – poor technique can wear your drums down fast. 

Are acoustic drums good for beginners?

It depends entirely on the brand, kit, sound, and experience you want. It’s not that beginners shouldn’t or can’t use acoustic drums, but rather that they’re a little less forgiving to play than electronic. The better question is how much you’re willing to spend, because kits can range from a couple thousand dollars to tens of thousands.

We always recommend coming in store and trying out a drum kit that you like before you buy. Drum lessons are also a good way to build up the coordination, limb independence, and rhythm skills needed to play an acoustic drum kit. 

Electronic drums

As the name suggests, electronic drums use digital technology to produce sound. Most use rubber or mesh drum pads that trigger a sound when struck. Usually an electronic drum kit includes a mix of:

  • Drum machines
  • Percussion pads that allow you to play backing tracks, synth sounds, and samples
  • Electronic samples, aka pre-recorded sounds that are triggered by hitting the pads
  • Drum trigger modules that convert acoustic drums into electronic drums.

One thing to consider with electronic drums is that you won’t get the exact same experience as acoustic kits, in terms of both feel and sound. They are designed to provide a different drumming experience. You do, however, get greater control of volume, less maintenance, cheaper customisation and in-built learning tools. 

Electronic kits have many of the same considerations as their acoustic big brother. They’ll take up space, and as technology, require maintenance.They are overall lower maintenance than acoustic kits, but often less customisable. 

Are electronic drums good for beginners?

Yes! Arguably, the electronic drum kit is more beginner-friendly than acoustic. They’re relatively compact and portable, and you can also connect them more easily into music production software. Plus, you can play them with headphones for total volume control. (No pissed off neighbours.)

Remember that you’ll still need to familiarise yourself with all the electronic components of the set, so there’s a learning curve to both. We often recommend them to young players or those who are looking to play more with the type of sound they can produce when playing. 

Hybrid drums

A hybrid drum kit combines electronic drum equipment with acoustic drums and cymbals. They’re used to create acoustic sounds with electronic kits. 

Say you’re looking for the authentic feel, response, and sound of acoustic drums, but enjoy the wide range of sounds you can synthesise with electronic drums. Hybrid kits allow you to blend both drumming experiences, generally for a good price. 

However, hybrid sets have a bit of a learning curve when it comes to integrating and understanding all the electronic components. 

Are hybrid drums good for beginners?

Again, it all depends on your specific needs and preferences. Don’t let your excitement overlook that you still need some basic knowledge of drum kits and playing techniques to get the most out of your kit. 

It’s best to talk to the professionals if you’re seriously considering a hybrid drum kit. They’re less popular but an interesting way to set up your drums in a customisable way. I’m always happy to talk about what kind of drums best suit your needs, over the phone, via email or in store.

Understanding the drum kit

For a true beginner, the drums can be overwhelming. Playing requires more coordination and concentration than the great players make it seem. So, you want to have a good understanding of the foundations of your kit. 

First thing to know: each drum in the kit serves a unique purpose and has individual characteristics. Depending on brand and material, there’ll be even more nuances to each drum. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s talk about your drum kit.  

Bass drum

The bass drum (or kick drum) is the largest drum in your kit. It’s played using a drum pedal that you operate with your foot. Most commonly, the drumheads are made from plastic, however historically drum heads were made of calfskin..

The bass drum is what provides that deep heartbeat of any rhythm. The exact sound can vary depending on the size of the drum, the beater used, and how it’s tuned – but it’s some kind of deep, booming sound. You’ll usually play it on beats 1 and 3 in 4/4 rhythm.

As it’s technically a type of tom-tom, the bass drum can and should be tuned. This can be done with your drum key using the same principles of drum tuning that apply to any tom-tom.

The size of the bass drum will affect the tone and projection of the sound. In some cases, it’s more common to go for a smaller (as in jazz) or larger bass drum (common in rock music)

The only time you’d see the bass drum not sitting on the floor is in a marching band, where it’s mounted and worn by a player. Marching drums are also struck on either side using larger beaters. 

Snare drum

The snare is one of the central drums in your kit. Placed between your knees and played with drumsticks, it produces a sharp staccato sound distinctive of backbeats, accents and ghost notes. That’s all down to the series of stiff wires held under tension against the lower skin of the drum.

A snare drum will always have a batter (top) head, which you hit, and resonant (bottom) head that you should never hit. Most are made from either wood or metal and can come in a variety of sizes. The smaller the snare drum, the tighter, more high-pitched the sound. Larger snare drums create a deeper, resonant sound.

You’re not limited to just drumsticks with snare drums. Wire brushes and other beaters can also be used to create different tones and sounds, which is thanks to the sensitivity of the snare drum. 


Toms or tom-toms are the smaller drums that sit above the bass. The number of toms on a kit can vary, but generally they’re called tom-toms because you’ll see two mounted toms and one floor toms. Generally speaking, mounted toms range between six and 14 inches in diameter while floor toms go up to 24 inches. 


The toms support the melody of any song. 


The two stand-mounted cymbals in your kit are known as the hi-hat. They’re played with a foot pedal (separate to the bass).

Hi-hats can produce a couple of distinct sounds:

  1. A crisp sound when the cymbals are closed using the pedal.
  2. A more shimmery sound when played with drumsticks.
  3. Modified sounds by changing the pressure of the pedal.

They make up the backbone of the groove, keeping time.

Crash cymbal

Crash cymbals are large, thin cymbals that sit above the toms or on separate stands. As they make a loud and explosive sound (in contrast to the softer notes of the hi-hat) they fill in the dramatic moments of the song. 

Ride cymbal

The largest and thickest cymbal of the kit, the ride cymbal creates textural, rhythmic patterns in music. It’s the closest to you and again played with drumsticks. 

The ride maintains a beat, playing a steady ride pattern. Very few players don’t have a ride, but that doesn’t mean it is essential for your kit. They’ll likely last you the longest of your cymbals based on how they’re played – point is not to hit as hard as you can (despite what some drummers do). Every cymbal has its maximum volume.

Other accessories

Depending on your kit, you may also add some extra instruments and accessories. For example, you might like to include:

  • Practice pad
  • Drum mutes (for volume reduction)
  • Drum throne (aka a seat)
  • Drum key (to loosen or tighten tension rods)
  • Stick bag
  • Drum bag or cases
  • Cymbal cases
  • Ear plugs or headphones. Drums are loud, in case you haven’t realised! Pete Townsend had 50% hearing loss because of how loud The Who played. 

To round up

The last thing I’d recommend is getting your first kit set up properly for you. I’m always happy to set up kits that I deliver myself, and walk new players through any obstacles. Drums need tuning, and having a professional set up your kit for you will help you start off on the right note. From there, tuning is all about practice, a drum key, and good listening.

Your drum kit should reflect you and the type of music you like playing. Don’t worry so much about what looks the coolest or what your favourite drummer has – start with what you need, and work from there. 


Make a joyous sound!



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