As you enter the world of percussion music you will find that there are many different types of drums, and significant variety within each class. It’s not hard to become lost when discussing drum options with fellow enthusiasts.
That is why we have put together this guide, which provides brief descriptions of the different types of drums.
We will start with the traditional acoustic drum set and the different drums that comprise a kit, but we will also look at other types of drums such as traditional hand drums, steel pan drums, and electronic drum sets.
Acoustic Drum Set
An acoustic drum set is the standard drum kit that you see in use in most modern western bands. Most of the time when we discuss drums on this site, these are the kits we’re talking about.
While drummers personalize their kits based on the types of music they play and their personal preferences, basic acoustic drum kits share a few key components.
The bass drum is the large floor drum at the center of the kit that is played using a foot pedal with a beater, which is why it is also sometimes called a kick drum. The bass will play the low-end tone and hits out the bottom of the beat. In most basic rock rhythms, the bass is hit on beats one and three to keep time. When you are using a good set of speakers, the bass rhythm is the one you feel rumbling in your chest.
Read our guide to the best bass drum pedals here.
The snare drum sits at the heart of an acoustic drum kit but is also used by itself in orchestras and marching bands. It’s classified as a medium-sized drum, and it’s called a snare because it uses wire snares, made from nylon or steel, to secure the bottom head of the drum. The design results in a snappy sound at the high end of an acoustic kit’s range. This is the loud, clear drum sound that cuts through the other instruments on stage and highlights the role of the drum in the composition.
The floor tom is the second largest drum in the kit after the bass, usually at least 14 inches in diameter, and is placed close to the floor. Unlike the bass, which has the drum head facing forward, the floor tom has its drum head facing up like the rest of the drums in the kit. Toms are generally used for the “fills” in the beat between the bass and the snare.
These toms are called rack toms because they are racked up the same way as the snare. They will be smaller than your floor tom, usually with diameters between 8 and 13 inches, and you might have just one, or multiple. They produce their sound with two drum heads, a batter, and a resonant head, which together produce a deep tone.
The hi-hat is your main cymbal, made up of two cymbal heads that open and clap together when controlled by a foot pedal.
The crash cymbal is made from brass or bronze and produces a crashing sound when you strike it with your drumsticks. It usually accentuates the overall rhythm of a song and provides sound effects.
Read our guide to the best budget cymbal packs here.
This is the larger cymbal that is featured in many acoustic drum kits. This is another cymbal that is struck with the sticks to create a consistent and sustained noise that is ideal for accents and fills.
Splash cymbals are less common than other cymbals, and when included will provide a quick and sharp sound that is the highest-pitched. They are particularly common in heavy metal.
The China cymbal is another relatively rare inclusion in the modern acoustic drum kit but can be popular in jazz and rock music. They are inspired by Chinese cymbals and are flat, wide, and made from bronze. They can be played with sticks, but also with brushes.
Electronic drums are basically electronic versions of acoustic drum sets, with the drums and cymbals replaced with electronic pads designed to sense when you strike them and reproduce the sound of the original drum.
There are various reasons for using an electronic drum kit over an acoustic kit. They are more portable and storable than acoustic kits that require special storage and tuning every time you move them. They can also be played quietly since you can set your volume level on your speakers or use headphones, which gives you more flexibility around when and where you can practice.
You can also choose from a variety of drum kit samples to determine the sound your electronic kit will produce. You can play a kit designed for jazz one day, for heavy metal the next, and for classic rock after that.
Electronic kits are also ideal for recording if you don’t have access to a proper sound studio for your acoustic kit.
Read our recommendations for the best electronic drum pads.
Drum machines work similarly to electronic drum kits in that you can hit pads to reproduce the sounds of traditional drums, but they are not designed to be played like an acoustic drum kit. Rather, you usually pre-load samples that you can trigger with the machine.
Drum machines are often used in genres such as hip-hop and dance as well as music production. On drum machines, you can produce your own beats to play back later, or access libraries (or VST plugins) with a variety of pre-recorded beats.
Read our guide to the best drum machines here, and the best VST plugins here.
You will see various elements of acoustic drum kits in an orchestra, as well as a few specialist drums.
Timpani, also known as kettledrums, are large hemispherical drums with a membrane stretched over a large copper bowl. They produce deep resonant tones that can add a sense of tension or drama to a composition, and mark the beat for the rest of the orchestra.
Concert Bass Drum
Concert bass drums are much bigger than the bass drums of an acoustic kit, usually between 28 and 32 inches in diameter, and are played with mallets instead of a foot pedal. They produce resonant sounds that fill out the lower end of the orchestra’s musical range. They are also a fairly common element in marching bands.
Marching drums have military origins and were used to direct troops on long journeys, maintain morale, and even direct troops on the battlefield. Marching bands are now seen in a wide variety of contexts but maintain a strong military tradition. Of course, drums for marching bands are designed to be carried by the player.
Marching Snare Drum
This is the main drum of any marching band. It is larger than the snare drum you will find on an acoustic kit and produces a higher pitch. These are used to keep the tempo and provide accents that produce the distinctive energy of the marching band.
Marching Tenor Drums
Tenor drums provide the rhythmic foundation for the marching band and can be made from wood or metal. They are heavy, and there are usually between four and six in a full marching band.
Marching Bass Drum
The marching bass provides a deep resonant sound that can be heard over long distances. The drums are large, measuring 18 to 24 inches in diameter, and require two people to carry them. They are played with a thick beater with a felt head.
Many cultures use drums as part of traditional music, and many have found their way into modern bands to provide unique sounds. Think Brazilian samba, Cuban beats, Middle-Eastern music, and Irish folk music.
Congas are hand drums with African roots that are commonly used in a variety of different South American music traditions. They are tall, narrow drums that are staved like a barrel. They are often played in concert with three drums, the largest and highest playing the lead and then including a middle and low drum.
Read our guide to the best conga drums for beginners and professionals.
Bongos are a set of two smallish drums of slightly different sizes connected by a bridge and are played with the hands. They are a traditional Cuban instrument but gained broader popularity in the early 20th century. The larger of the two drums, the “hembra,” is considered the feminine side, and the smaller “macho” is the masculine side.
Find the five best bongo drum sets here.
The cajón is a box-shaped percussion instrument from Peru. It is made from thin plywood and creates different sounds based on where you hit the box and the form of the strike or slap. While they are specifically used in a number of Latin American musical styles, they are also commonly used to provide the beat for acoustic performances.
Find our recommendations for the best cajóns here.
Timbales look a lot like single-headed tom drums, but they are tuned much higher than would be expected for the size of the drum. Originally from Cuba, they are usually played with traditional drumsticks and a beat will include stick strokes, rim shots, and rolls.
A Brazilian pandeiro looks a lot like a tambourine, but it is considered a hand frame drum because it uses a tunable drumhead on a metal rim, which also holds metal jingles. It is played held in one hand and is struck with the palm, thumb, fingers, and heel of the other hand in patterns. It is commonly used in Brazilian music styles such as samba, coco, and capoeira.
This drum from the Middle East and northern Africa is made from a circular wooden frame with animal skin stretched across one side, while the other side is left open. It looks a little like a giant tambourine without jingles. It is held in one hand and struck with the fingers or palm of the other hand, creating a percussive sound with a buzzing quality.
Also known as a goblet drum, the darbuka has a goblet-shaped body and a single-headed membrane. It is used in traditional Egyptian music and is considered the symbol of shaabi music. It is rested on the legs or lap when playing and should be played with light finger taps.
Originally from Senegal, Mali, Guinea, and the Ivory Coast, the djembe is another goblet-shaped drum with a rawhide head, but it is tuned with ropes. Depending on the size and tuning, it can produce a wide variety of different sounds. It is usually played as a solo instrument over a percussion band.
Find our list of the best available Djembe drums here.
The dundun is also from West Africa and uses ropes to tune the drum head, but it is made in a cylindrical shape. It is often worn using a shoulder strap and struck with a stick. It comes in a wide range of sizes.
A batá is an African Yoruba drum that is shaped like an uneven hourglass and has a playing head on each side. It was traditionally used in religious rituals but has been incorporated into popular music traditions in Cuba and Puerto Rico.
These West African drums have an elongated goblet frame, measuring up to six feet in length, with a single cow skin head that is turned with ropes. They are usually played in sets of three or four and are often played with sticks.
The bodhrán is commonly used in Irish folk music. It looks like a large, flat tambourine, measuring anywhere from 10 to 26 inches in diameter, and is played with a stick or beater. It produces a distinctive hollow sound that provides the rhythm for dancing.
The tabor is a Welsh drum made up of a cylindrical wood shell with two skin heads tightened with ropes. It is worn with a leather strap and is played with one or two sticks. They are usually played in a group, each with a pitch range of an octave.
The batih is a Ukrainian instrument that uses the ground as its drum head. It is a thick stick that is rhythmically tapped in local folk music. Pieces of metal are often attached to the stick to create an accompanying jingling noise.
The tabla is a pair of small hand drums of slightly different sizes from the Indian subcontinent. They are similar to bongos but are not connected. The larger dayan drum is played with the right hand and the smaller bayan with the left.
The mridangam is a South Indian drum that is essential to Carnatic music. It is a long cylindrical drum that flares in the middle with playing heads at either end. The two heads are slightly different in size to produce different tones, and it is tuned with leather straps.
The taiko is a wooden Japanese drum that looks like a building cylinder. They can range greatly in size from a small hand drum to one large enough that two people are needed to play it. They are often played as an ensemble of different-sized drums.
The tanggu is a traditional Chinese drum that is medium-sized with a barrel shape and two heads made from animal skin. It is played with two sticks while suspended by four rings on a wooden stand.
Steel drums are a group of percussion instruments made from steel that are styled to produce different tones depending on where you hit the metal head. They are technically idiophone instruments and therefore not drums, which are membranophones. They are often described as producing an ethereal sound.
Steel Pan Drums
Steel pan drums are convex steel shells usually made from industrial drums. There are a number of different notes hollowed into these drums, which are played with beating sticks tipped with rubber. They originate from Trinidad and Tobago but have become popular around the world.
Read our guide to how to play steel drums.
A handpan drum is constructed from two half-shells of deep-drawn nitrided steel that are glued together around the rim to create a hollow round shape or convex lens. The top is called the Ding and the bottom is the Gu.
The top of a handpan will have seven or eight tone fields circling a central note. These are tapped with the hands to produce a rhythmic melody.
Find our guide to the best handpan drums here. A Hang is the original handpan drum, and you can read more about Hangs and the difference between Hangs and handpan drums here.
Steel Tongue Drums
A steel tongue drum is a round drum that has been tuned to produce a variety of different notes by cutting slips into the steel to create different-sized tongues. They are usually struck with small mallets.
Find the five best steel tongue drums here.
Different Types Of Drums
This guide should give you an overview of the different types of drums that dominate the percussion world, but it is by no means a complete list. Drumming is a musical element found in all music traditions around the world. Expect to find lots of fun variations as you delve deeper into the world of percussion music.
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