Beginner’s Guide to Playing Drums

So, you're looking to learn the drums - arguably the best instrument around (yes, I'm biased). But how do you actually get started? What equipment do you need? How do you go about nailing your first beat? We explain all of this (and a whole lot more) in our handy beginner's guide to playing drums!

Will Brook-Jones

Will Brook-Jones

If we’re talking all things drums, we’re going to need to start with the basics…

What are the Different Parts of a Drum Kit?

Bass Drum

The bass drum forms the backbone of any drum kit. It’s the biggest drum in any set and can be made from woods like mahogany, birch and maple. They’re sometimes even crafted from metal. When played with a kick pedal – single or double, depending on your preferences -, it projects a deep thud. Out of every element of the kit, it’s arguably the most important piece as it provides yourself (and any accompanying musicians) with a sense of time and rhythm. Bassists especially will use it as a sonic focal point, allowing them to lock in with your playing. This is important for any rhythm section that’s worth their salt.

Snare

The snare is an integral part of any beat. It’s the centrepiece of not just your kit, but much of actual music itself – no matter the genre. Depending on tuning, it will usually deliver a sharp crack. This sound will also be influenced by the kind of material your snare is made from. The most popular kinds are birch; maple; poplar; walnut; mahogany; beech; brass; steel; aluminium; titanium; or copper.

A snare (and your bass drum and toms, but more of them in a second) usually features two types of head: a batter and a resonant. The batter head is the surface that you play on. It turns the energy created by any strike into sound. Your batter head will also affect durability, the level of rebound, volume, tone and attack. The resonant head sits on the bottom of the snare. As its name suggests, it resonates. This works in conjunction with the rest of the drum, amplifying frequencies that are produced by hitting the batter side, as well as the ones emanating from the shell itself.

Toms

Most kits will feature two kinds of toms – both floor and rack. The rack toms are also sometimes referred to as ‘high’ and ‘mid’ toms respectively. However, some drummers will actually remove the ‘mid’ tom, resulting in a more minimal setup (you can see this in the photo below). You should think of toms as sonic flavouring; they’re usually used during a drum fill (a series of strikes progressing around the kit). Your toms can also be used as the basis for a beat too.

Hi-Hats & Crash/Ride Cymbals

A hi-hat consists of two cymbals – a bottom half and a top half. They sit together. Both are positioned on a stand with a pedal. This pedal allows you to open and close the cymbals as you see fit. Along with a ride cymbal, they can be the basis of any beat. Speaking of ride cymbals, they will usually be the largest cymbal you use. They boast a big surface area alongside a prominent bell. Both offer different sounds, allowing you to mix it up depending on the musical scenario you find yourself in. Crash cymbals come in many different guises and are used to accent your beats, delivering a sudden burst of sound when struck.

How do you Tune Drums?

Tuning is an essential skill that’s worth developing if you want your drums to sound good (and actually maintain their sound too). Many drummers work out their own unique technique when it comes to tuning, but it’s usually influenced by a similar method that I’ll outline here.

Firstly, you need to make sure that your tension rods are tightened to a similar level. Now you’re ready to get started proper. Starting from the top, you’ll want to give the first tension rod a full turn. Then, you’ll need to do the same for the tension rod diagonally across from it. This can then be done moving around the drum in a clockwise direction.

You’ll want to have a stick handy to test that the sound meets your requirements while you tune. Your sound will all be down to personal preference at the end of the day; if you find it’s too tight, go back and loosen the rods; if you still find your sound is too loose, keep tightening them. The head should then be smooth without any wrinkles in it once you’re finished.

This technique can be applied to your bass drum, toms and snare. For the bass drum, you can also put a towel, blanket, bedding or pillows inside it to further alter your sound.

Which Drum Kit is Best for a Beginner?

Electronic vs Acoustic

But what kind of kit is actually going to be suitable for you, I hear you ask? Well, it ultimately depends on your own preferences and what you think you’re going to be using it for (be it practice or playing live etc). Both acoustic and electronic drum kits come with a whole list of pros and cons, with many beginner models available at a similar price point in both categories – making it even more difficult to decide! We’ve tried to outline the positives of both below…

Electronic

  • Great for quiet practice: sounds are projected directly into your headphones. However, it must be said that rubber pads are not completely silent. Mesh pads are a lot quieter though. If you don’t want to drive your neighbours or family mad, then an electronic kit is probably the best option.
  • Smaller footprint: most electronic kits are much smaller than their acoustic counterparts. This makes them easier to fit into even the tightest of spaces. It also allows you to pack them away quickly and easily when they’re not in use.
  • Increased portability: many electronic kits are attached to a rack-style system. This makes them easy to fold down into one flatpack-like unit. You’ll be able to transport them easily if you need to (unlike acoustic kits which require individual cases for each piece).
  • More features: a multitude of drum and percussion presets to choose from; customisable kit sounds; the ability to upload your own samples; integrated training functions (which can be especially useful when you’re just starting out); easily play along to your favourite tracks; shall we go on? Most electronic kits contain a selection of features like this that just aren’t possible with a traditional acoustic kit.
  • You don’t have to tune them!

Best Electronic Drum Kits for Beginner's

Acoustic

  • Better playability: an acoustic kit feels a lot better to play – it just does, no matter what some people might say. You’ll appreciate the natural sound, feel and response that only an acoustic kit can offer. However, many brands are getting closer to mirroring the characteristics of acoustic sets with their latest all-mesh, electronic offerings.
  • Performing live: if you’re looking to play on a stage with other musicians, an acoustic kit is the way to go. It delivers a sound and visual spectacle that gig-goers have come to know and expect. It’s been the choice of most live drummers for over 100 years for good reason. However, many electronic kits do now offer a suite of connectivity options allowing you to plug directly into a PA system or amplifier.
  • Recording: in a studio (or home recording scenario) you’re probably going to want the most authentic sounds possible. Acoustic kits are arguably better in that regard; it’s true though that lot’s of electronic kits now feature sounds that rival their traditional cousins. Plus, you can plug directly into your favourite DAW (digital audio workstation) with many new electronic kits. This ensures you can seamlessly record your ideas onto your laptop or computer.

Best Acoustic Drum Kits for Beginner's

No matter which type of kit you decide to learn on, you should be able to easily translate your skills from one over to the other. Who knows, you might even end up having an electronic kit for practice purposes and an acoustic one for your live shows!

How do You Hold Drum Sticks Properly?

Once you’ve found a brand and size/weight of drum stick that you’re comfortable with, you’ll want to make sure you’re holding them correctly. There are two main ways of holding drum sticks properly. You’ll either lean towards a matched grip, or a traditional grip. It’s all dependant on what works best for you.

Matched

Matched sounds just like it suggests; you’ll be holding the drum sticks in exactly the same fashion with both of your hands. Each thumb will sit on the stick across from your index finger. However, you should try and maintain a loose grip as this will give you far more control. A tighter grip will make your playing more rigid, and can also cause problems later on with your hands and wrists.

Traditional

Traditional is the preferred grip of jazz drummers and percussionists in marching bands etc. Your left stick should sit in the area between your thumb and index finger, resting on the lower section of your ring finger. The tip of your thumb can then be lightly rested against the first knuckle on your index finger. Your other stick will sit in your right hand with a matched grip as explained above.

Best Drum Sticks for Beginner's

How Do I Learn to Play the Drums?

But just how are you going to go about *actually* learning the instrument? Well, that’s ultimately down to you. It’s true when they say that everyone learns in a different manner – be it visually, auditory, or via a combination of the two. The most popular ways of learning drums are as follows…

  • Using/learning to read notation (e.g. sheet music).
  • Via drum tab (a simpler, streamlined version of notation).
  • By ear – playing along to your favourite tunes and working out the beats yourself etc.
  • With the help of a teacher; this is recommended if you want to develop the correct technique (however, it’s not for everyone).
  • Self-teaching.
  • Watching online video tutorials.

There’s really no “one size fits all” here, as it were. You’ll find that what works for you might not necessarily work for one of your drumming peers.

Drum Tutorials on Andertons TV!

Speaking of video tutorials, our very own Colin has put together a useful series for our Drum Department’s YouTube channel! Titled the ‘Beginner’s Guide to Drums’, each episode covers a new beat or technique for you to tackle. You can check out the full list of episodes available (including the very first) below.

Anything Else?

There are two pieces of gear that can be incredibly important at the start of your drumming journey: a practice pad and a metronome. As you know, good timing is a key part of any drummers’ skillset. A metronome is essential if you want to maintain a consistent tempo while you play. With both analogue and digital variants available, they can be the ideal practice companion. You might hate using one at first, but it will be extremely beneficial to your playing in the long run.

A practice pad will go hand-in-hand with rudiments. Rudiments are essentially patterns that form the building blocks of drumming. Within the drumming community, it’s regarded that there are around 40 which are important to master. Each is made up of an entirely unique pattern and rhythm that is played using both your right and left hand. These can then be harnessed at a later date, becoming a seamless part of your playing when you decide to sit down behind your actual kit.

Metronomes & Practice Pads for Beginner's

Best Songs to Learn on Drums for Beginner’s

Now that you’ve hopefully worked on your timing and got a few basic beats/rudiments under your belt, one of the best ways to further develop (and solidify) these skills is by applying them to an actual song. Personally, I found that I improved faster by attempting to learn tracks from bands that I liked – even if they seemed way beyond my ability level at first!

Here’s a selection of accessible tracks for you to get started with:

  • AC/DC – Highway to Hell (or literally anything AC/DC related for that matter)
  • The Cult – She Sells Sanctuary
  • The Hives – Hate To Say I Told You So
  • The White Stripes – Seven Nation Army
  • Lynyrd Skynyrd – Sweet Home Alabama
  • The Strokes – Last Nite
  • Queen – Another One Bites the Dust
  • ZZ Top – Sharp Dressed Man
  • Whitesnake – Here I Go Again
  • Deep Blue Something – Breakfast At Tiffany’s
  • James – Getting Away With It (All Messed Up)

It’s also worth trying to play with other musicians as much as possible – whether that be in a cover band, or one where you write your own original material. This will help you work on a whole other skillset and will no doubt refine your sense of timing too. It’ll also open you up to completely new styles and genres that you may not necessarily be familiar with. Getting out of your comfort zone musically can only be a good thing in my opinion!

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Will Brook-Jones
Will Brook-Jones

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