Have you ever wondered what the different types of drums are? Or have you wondered what type of drum is best for any given musical scenario? Do you want to know what sort of drum is best for rock or pop music, for orchestra music, or for acoustic music? Well, you’ve come to the right place.
This article will break down what the many types of drums are, how many different types of drums there are, and what each type of drum is designed to do musically for whoever is playing the instrument. Drums are often considered the heartbeat or the driving force of any song.
Because of that, there is a huge variety of drums out there to choose from, because every song and every musical genre needs the right kind of heartbeat to make it click. As you explore what kind of drum might be right for you or most interesting to you.
It is important to consider what kind of music drives your own heartbeat and how that can be matched, repeated, and played back to you by one of these instruments listed below.
How Many Types of Drums Are there?
There are many different kinds of drums, honestly far too many to cover in a short article like this one. However, drums can be broken down into three basic categories. The first is the modern drum set, which we are all familiar with from pop music, rock music, jazz music, and most popular music in general from the last several decades.
The second category is orchestral drums. These drums are used in orchestra and symphony settings and are often quite large with much more resonance. They are designed to be heard over and amongst tens to hundreds of other instruments. The third category is the acoustic and more traditional drums that come from cultures worldwide.
These drums are often made of wood and animal skin, have an earthier sound, and are of significant cultural importance to music traditions all over the world. It is fairly straightforward to break down the components of a modern drum set or the percussive elements of an orchestra or symphony.
However, when it comes to the many-varied drums of the world’s hundreds of cultures, it is impossible to cover them all. This article will focus on just a few of these kinds of traditional drums that have made it into pop culture, modern culture, and popular acoustic music.
However, to break down these various types of drums a bit further, it is worth mentioning a few more things.
In a modern drum set, there are four types of drums: the bass drum, snare drums, floor toms, and rack toms. There are also specific drums used in orchestral or symphonic classical music settings, and there are three main types of drums used for those settings: timpani drums, concert snare drums, and concert bass drums.
Expert Tip: There are also a variety of popularized drums from around the world that have been developed throughout human history. These include tabla drums, congas, cajones, djembes, and bongo drums.
As I mentioned above, there are of course more varieties of drums around the world, but these five from around the world have been popularized and modernized.
All of these different types of drums are unique in their own way, so when you are looking to play or purchase a drum, it is worth knowing what these different drums sound like and what each kind is most useful for in the various genres of music that use percussion instruments.
So What’s the Difference Between All These Drums?
There are many differences and differing uses for the various types of drums in the world. The rest of this article will take time to briefly break down what these different drums are, what they are made of, and what they are most commonly used for in their respective musical traditions.
However, the bottom line is that all of these drums differ significantly from one another in sound, style, and make.
The Modern Drum Set
The modern drum set has been an essential piece of modern music since the 1940s. It is most commonly composed of five drums (though the number and setup of a drum set can vary significantly), which make up the standard drum kit. The five drum set is made up of a bass drum, two rack toms, a floor tom, and a snare drum.
These drums are played using mallets, sticks, or brushes, not by using your hands as many of the traditional drums from around the world. Drums in a modern drum kit are usually made out of wood, metal, plastic, other synthetic materials, or some combination of all of these materials.
However, drum shells are most often made of wood, particularly if it is a higher quality drum set with a higher price point. More and more drum sets are being constructed entirely out of metal or synthetic materials, which definitely give a more metallic and synthetic sound to the drums.
The bass drum is the largest drum in the set and it sits directly on the floor, it uses a pedal with a pedal beater or mallet to strike the drum and produce a deep booming sound. The bass drum is often the low and driving heartbeat of a given song.
The bass drum is called the bass drum because it resonates with the lowest tone, but it also functions as the base to the percussive harmony made by a five-piece drum kit. Everything else builds on the bass drum.
Rack toms are a type of drum that has an open and resonant sound. The rack toms together with the floor tom are tuned in such a way that they descend in pitch. This descending set of pitches creates a variety of ascending and descending percussive sounds.
These drums often are suspended on a rack above or attached to the top of the bass drum.
The floor tom has the deepest sound of the three tom drums and therefore has a deeper booming resonance (though it still has a higher tone than the bass drum). It sits on a tom stand with legs or sometimes is attached to a cymbal stand.
Finally, the snare drum. The snare drum has a bright and snappy sound and is associated with the driving force of modern pop music. There are snare wires on the underside of the drum that create the crackly sound so iconic to the snare drum.
It is easy to think of what a snare drum sounds like by thinking about that iconic military or drummer boy drum sound. That is the crackly sound of the snare drum.
The modern drum set is of course an essential piece of most bands in rock, pop, jazz, and other popular modern genres of music.
Expert Tip: Any genre of modern music that is not acoustic or classically based usually requires a drum set for the sheer volume and variety of exciting and driving beats that are an integral piece of a well-played drum set.
Because the drum set includes so many different percussive sounds all in one place, it has become a staple of modern music and the foundational heartbeat of many modern music genres.
Orchestras and Symphonies also utilize drums and percussive instruments to enhance and drive their classical sound. Percussion is the heartbeat of any song, and classical orchestral and symphonic arrangements are no different than pop or rock music when it comes to needing a steady or driving beat to bring consistency and backbone to a song.
Drums can also provide a mood or a setting by emulating the sounds of certain cultures or certain scenarios like a military march or other familiar percussive sounds. Just like the modern drum set orchestral drums to use a mallet, stick, or another tool to make the percussive sounds on the drums.
Timpani is huge copper drums (there are usually four of them in a typical symphony setting), which are tuned by a foot pedal to the desired pitch. Timpani is struck just a few inches from the edge of the drum by a mallet, and the drums produce a booming, large, and resonant sound.
If you imagine what a large copper barrel being struck might sound like, that is the kind of resonance that comes from the timpani. These are by far the most common and most well-known percussive instruments in the orchestral and symphonic music worlds.
They are enormous and therefore very easy to see from the audience’s vantage point when attending an orchestra performance.
Concert snare drums offer up a similar snappy and crackly sound to that of a modern snare drum in a drum set, but they offer a wider range of dynamic options from very soft to very loud. They also provide that class militaristic drummer sound associated with drummer boys or movies that feature a gallows scene.
These snare drums have a wider range of possibilities than a modern snare drum because of their dynamic versatility. However, basic sounds are quite similar to the crackly and snappy sound that we all associate with snare drums.
The concert bass drum is an absolutely massive drum (sometimes up to 40 inches across) used for long, loud, and sustained percussive notes. There is very little dampening in a concert bass drum and so they have a long and deep sound rather than a short percussive sound.
These concert bass drums usually rest on a large stand or are sometimes suspended on a frame and they are played with a large mallet.
Orchestral and symphonic drums are often larger and have more dynamic range or more tuning capabilities in order to match the key and sound of the rest of the orchestra. And, because they have to be heard over tens to hundreds of other instruments, they have to offer an acoustic dynamic range that a regular drum set does not.
Drums From Around the World
Apart from the modern drum set and the various percussive instruments of the orchestral world, there are also a wide variety of drums from around the world that have become staples of modern music-making.
Although there are far more drums than the ones mentioned here when it comes to the traditional drums of cultures from around the world, these five are easy to single out as popular drums in many forms of modern music that are common around the world, not just in their cultures of origin.
Tabla drums are foundational to the Hindustani style of music popular in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. Tabla drums originated in the Indian subcontinent, and have remained a staple in music from that region for centuries. Tabla drums consist of two drums. One is a smaller drum called the Daya that is tilted and played on the right.
It has a higher tone and is usually made of wood. The other drum is called the Baya, it is slightly larger, sits upright, is tuned to a lower pitch, and is usually made of copper. Both are one-handed drums that are played with your hands, rather than with a mallet, stick, brush, or other tools common to the modern drum set or orchestral drums.
Conga drums came from Cuba and originated in Afro-Cuban styles of music. They are tall, single-headed drums that look like tall skinny barrels. They are usually made of wood and played by hand. They are not quite popular to use in various styles of Latin music, and they are a favored style of the drum for percussionists.
They have a woody, earthy, percussive sound. Congas are constructed out of a relatively thin wood shell and need to be mounted on stands to be played if more than one conga is being used.
Cajons are box-shaped hand drums that the drummer sits on top of and percussively beats the sides bare-handed by leaning over and down. The Cajon originated in Peru and has become one of the most popular styles of the drum to use for acoustic performances, particularly live acoustic performances.
The Cajon creates quite an array of percussive sounds depending on where the percussionist strikes the instrument. It is extremely versatile, which is part of why it has become so popular for acoustic musicians and groups.
The djembe is another popular drum in modern music and it originated in West Africa. It is a rope-tuned percussive instrument and is carved from hardwood with a rawhide animal skin drum head. The instrument plays a huge part in some African cultures and is popular at celebrations like weddings.
Expert Tip: The djembe is usually clenched between a seated percussionist’s knees and played using the hands. It has an earthy and woody sound as well and can produce a variety of tones depending on which part of the drum head is being used.
Bongos are two individual but connected drums called Macho and Hembra. The bongos are Afro-Cuban drums that also have an earthy, woody sound with a variety of percussive possibilities depending on which part of the drum head is played. The drums are usually made of wood with rawhide drum heads.
The larger drum of the two is considered female, the Hembra drum, while the smaller drum is considered male, the Macho drum. Together they create a percussive harmony. The drums are played between the knees of the percussionist, or mounted on a stand and played that way.
These drums are also played with the hands rather than with a mallet stick, or brush.
As I mentioned before, there are way more drums to cover from around the world than just these five, but I selected these five because they are so common in genres of music that have become globalized rather than staying localized.
However, there are always more drums to learn about and this is just a starting point to think about the kinds of acoustic drums you may want to explore in your own musical journey.
All these Drum Types
All these different types of drums are wonderful and interesting musical instruments. However, they definitely all have specific purposes and do not necessarily cross over to other genres or styles of music super easily. The modern drum set is most useful for all things pop, rock, jazz, and other forms of modern popular music.
Orchestral drums are of course best suited to orchestra and symphony settings where the music is classical and the instruments are both acoustic and classical. Many of the drums from around the world that have made their way into popular modern music are best suited to acoustic music.
Your drum choice will depend significantly on the kind of sound you are hoping to achieve, as well as the sort of music and musicians you are hoping to play alongside.
No matter what you choose all these percussion instruments have something unique to offer, and music is often more textured and interesting when it has a strong heartbeat provided by a percussionist.