The original use of the drum dates back in history to inhabitants all over the world as forms of communication, in one way or another. In western Africa, talking drums date back as far as the ancient Ghana Empire. The way the drummers made their drums “talk” was determined by the drum’s construction and the tonal qualities of the local language. The pitch variations and inflections were very effective at communicating over long distances. In Sri Lanka, talking drums were the mode of communication used between state and local governments. The next natural application of drumming was its combined communication for military purposes. Drumming not only kept the beat for marching exercises, but it was a natural way to boost spirits as troops entered battle (and also a good way to intimidate the opposing armies). Fife-and-drum corps came into use by Swiss mercenary foot soldiers; thus introducing the first actual snare drum. In the English Civil War, rope-suspended drums were used to communicate orders from senior officers over the noise of the battle. Different regiments and companies were distinguished by their particular drumbeat patterns, which only they could recognize. More recently, the Scottish introduced pipe bands into their Highland regiments.
The Drum’s Voice
What you use to strike your drum head will also cause a wide range of resulting sounds. The most common implement (besides the hands) for striking drums are standard drum sticks. Rock musicians, orchestras, marching bands, etc., use them, and depending what type of drum they hit (snare, tom, or cymbal) and where on the head they hit (as in rim shots), differing sounds will result. The sticks used on base drums and gongs are called mallets. Steel drums (also known as pans) require the use of sticks with rubber tips, and sometimes their drummers use two sticks in each hand. The implement used to strike a Bodhrán (an Irish drum) is called a tipper, and both ends are shaped to strike its goatskin head. For softer effects, drummers choose soft or straw brushes.
How to Make a Bodhrán
• Use a rotary saw to cut each end of an ash plank at a 45 degree angle. The cuts should be parallel to each other, so that when bent into a circle they will come together to form a continuous scarf joint.
• Fill two stew pots with water--the larger the better, because you`re going to need a lot of water. Heat it to boiling.
• Pour boiling water over your ash plank with a ladle to soften it. You`ll need a helper to keep water boiling and help you keep pouring it over the wood as you work.
• Bend the ash plank into a loose circle whose ends overlap. You may use your hands and feet to do this, or you might enlist another helper for this job.
• Tighten three band clamps around the overlapping ends of the plank and cinch them down until the ends of the scarf joint are about to meet.
• Apply wood glue to both sides of the scarf joint. Cinch the band clamps the rest of the way down. Make sure the joint comes together cleanly, then leave it secured by the clamps for at least 2 days while the glue dries.
• Remove the clamps once the wood glue has dried.
• To mount the skin, use the marker to draw a line all the way around the outside of the drum frame, 1 inch back from the side the skin will be on.
• Soak your rawhide goatskin in water until it`s soft and flexible.
• Set the Bodhrán frame on a clean, level working surface, with the side that will have the skin mounted on it facing up.
• Place the soaked goatskin over the Bodhrán frame, making sure that the side of the skin with pores--tiny holes--on it faces up.
• Use the staple gun to fasten the goatskin in place, stapling along the line you drew with the marker. Alternate your stapling locations: In other words, staple first at 3 o`clock, then at 9 o`clock, around the rim. Then place a staple at 12 o`clock, another at 6 o`clock, and so on.
• Place the leather strip over the line of staples and use the mallet to pound upholstery tacks through the leather into the drum frame, so that the leather and the tacks cover the line of staples holding the skin in place.
• Let the goatskin drum head dry--this may take anywhere from 1 to several days or longer. Be patient and don`t touch it until it dries. Once it`s dry, your Bodhrán is ready.
How to Tune a Drum
Not all drums are tunable. You will know if you have a tunable drum by checking its rim or underside. If there are tension rods on the side or rectangular metal knobs on the inside, you will be able to tune it. Trap set drums are tunable through the use of tension rods, which are manipulated by lugs and keys). Timpani drums are tuned the same way, but their kettle resonance pitch is perfected by a mechanical pedal or roller chain system. Bodhráns are tuned from underneath, with a small Allen wrench-type bar. The skins of doumbeks or djembes (typical of Middle Eastern or African hand drums) are tuned by tightening or loosening the ropes that hold on the head of the drum.
In an orchestra or marching band, it is going to make a big difference which pitch or timbre comes from your drum. Or, depending on how particular you are about how your hand drum meshes with other instruments (including other drums), you may want to adjust your pitch so that your playing complements the others. But most people don’t bother tuning their hand drums unless they feel the skin on the head is getting too tight (dry) or loose (damp). For this reason many people choose synthetic heads that don’t crack or wear as easily. For what you may lose in the day-to-day sound of the drum, you will make up in savings on head replacements.
Tuning the lugs on a drum is like tightening the bolts on a tire--you want don`t want to go around the drum in a circle, you want to move back and forth across the drum. First, make sure your snare is de-activated. Pick a lug to start at, any one will do. Say you turn it one and a half times, be sure to turn every lug (using the tuning pattern below) the same amount to keep the skin uniform. Keep tuning opposite lugs until they are all snug. Once you get the drum head snug, it’s time to actually “tune” the drum. Grab a drumstick, and tap 1-2 inches from any lug on the drum skin. How does it sound? If it’s the sound you want, use that lug as your “guide lug”. Again you want to tune your drums by tapping opposites, making sure you are tapping the same distance from the lug as the first tap. Make sure you tune every lug has the same sound in front of it or the whole drum will sound out of pitch. All that is left now is to find the right sound for you and the music you are playing.
The Drum Kit
A full size drum set without any additional percussion instruments has a bass drum, floor tom, snare drum, tom-toms, and a variety of cymbals including hi-hat cymbals, ride cymbal and a crash cymbal. Various music genres dictate the stylistically appropriate use of the drum kit`s set-up. For example, in most forms of rock music, the bass drum, hi-hat and snare drum are the primary instruments used to create a drum beat, whereas in jazz, ride and snare patterns tend to be more prevalent.
In the 2000s, an increasing number of drummers have begun to use electronic drum pads which trigger synthesized or sampled drum sounds. This has not only eliminated to need to tune (for most applications) but has also increased the drummer’s options exponentially. When an electronic drum pad is struck, a voltage change is triggered in the embedded piezoelectric transducer (piezo) or force sensitive resistor (FSR). The resultant signals are transmitted to an electronic "drum brain" via TS or TRS cables, and are translated into digital waveforms, which produce the desired percussion sound assigned to that particular trigger pad. Most newer drum modules have trigger inputs for 2 or more cymbals, a kick, 3-4 toms, a dual-zone snare, (head and rim) and a hi-hat. The hi-hat has a foot controller which produces open and closed sounds with some models offering variations in-between. By having the ability to assign different sounds to any given pad, the electronic drummer has nearly unlimited potential for configuring many different sounding drum kits from one set of electronic drums. Additionally, electronic drummers can sample non-percussive sounds and use them as drum sounds, as is the case with most industrial music. Many see this as a great advantage over acoustic drums, as one can have a jazz, rock or ballad drum set by merely changing the kit selector switch on the module. Drummers famous for using electronic drum sets are performers such as Rick Allen of Def Leppard, Phil Collins (of Genesis), Nick Mason (Pink Floyd), Roger Taylor (Queen), and Alan White of Yes.
What to Practice
This is where the fun comes into play. Rather than starting out with an entire trap set, many rock and folk musicians will start with a tom or two, or they might start with a practice pad. You can get formal practice through lessons, or you can learn from instructional CDs. Or you can practice informally with your own music or the radio, taking note of what rhythms are being used and trying to mimic what you hear. Get a general feel for the various basic rhythms (solos and improv will come much later). If you find need to fine tune the way you hold your drumstick or tipper, don’t be afraid to go back to the instructional CD, etc., or friend who is already successful with the technique.
Where to Play
Get involved in the music scene! You don’t need to have a formal “band” to get together with others to improve yourself. Probably the simplest groups to join are called drum circles, where hand drums are used. One person will start a rhythm, and then polyrhythms are layered on top by the various players. The ideal result will be a very mature, very dimensional sound. After several minutes of this, the various layers will thin out, at which point another person is free to start another rhythm.
If you want to take your hobby to something more organized, try getting together with friends who like the same music you do. Be brave—it doesn’t need to be on a formal basis at first. Some people ask their friends to bring instruments to parties, and after a good round of appetizers and drink, they find it’s not nearly as intimidating to bring out an instrument or sing. This is a good way to find out whose sound meshes best with yours. If you have no friends who sing or play, try group lessons at a local music school to meet new people and improve your method. Or simply go to the schools and check out their bulletin boards—most schools allow their students and teachers to post business cards and opportunities on these boards. The Craigslist music section consistently has listings of people looking for others to build blues, jazz, rock, country, grunge and metal bands with them.
If classical is more to your liking, you will need more formal training. Check the internet yellow pages or your local symphony to find a teacher. Most symphonic members supplement their incomes with instrument lessons.