If you are looking for a history of drums and how they became so popular, you can check it out here. Drums are some of the oldest instruments that people have created with archaic versions of them dating back to at least a couple of thousand years BC. Sri Lankans, the Aztecs, and the Chinese are among the cultures that we know used drums in ancient times.
When you think of music today, it’s hard to imagine not only a studio recording but even more so a live performance, that doesn’t use some sort of percussion instrument, with the drums being the most popular out of them. Being considered the first form of played music by humankind, it’s quite a feat that they’ve remained popular to this day.
From the beginning
As you look at the history of music, you will surely notice that drums have been playing a very important role – some might even say the leading role. Even before civilizations were created and established, our ancestors had been using percussion instruments as archeologists have discovered.
The oldest drums ever found were part of the Neolithic cultures of what is now China and they were made using alligator skins. The oldest ones date back to as far as 5,500 – 2,350 BC, which means drums have been keeping us company for literally thousands of years, back then, being used probably for religious ceremonies.
Other old drums were found in the northern part of today’s Vietnam, and they date back to the Bronze Age Dong Son culture. Subsaharan Africa has also used drums since back in the day as a means of communication when it came to covering big distances, imitating the tone patterns of the spoken language.
Similarly, in Sri Lanka, it seems that drums have been used as a way of communication across vast areas since 2,500 years ago. It’s quite amazing to think about how important drums have always been for the cultures of the world, from being part of rituals to helping communication from point A to point B.
If the first proto-drums were used for various religious rituals, as soon as civilizations started to develop and have the need to expand, drums were one of the things that warriors took with them on the field, letting them communicate across various distances and intimidating the opponents.
Drums continued to be used for pretty much the same purposes all across the globe as they became known to other civilizations, including Europeans, probably the last continent on which drums arrived. To this day drums are used in military parades, taking us back to the days when they were used to scare off the enemy.
Civilizations didn’t stop their progress, not even during their dark years, as the origins of what we’d call today a drum part can be traced back to Medieval times. Naturally, as Renaissance started to spread across Europe, so did percussion instruments, which evolved from country to country.
As a side note, while drums have been through several incarnations through the years, other percussion instruments, such as cymbals, have been kept rather similar to their ancient counterparts for thousands of years – hey, if it ain’t broke, why fix it, right? It would take hundreds of years until drums had another boom in their evolution.
Drums kept pretty much the same features after the Renaissance era finished in the 1600s and in the 1800s, drums were still all the rage in the military, but, at least, this time, military orchestras had several percussionists. This made it possible for various types of drums, like the bass drums or the cymbals to be played at the same time, by different people.
The classical orchestra was made out of several percussion elements which, to this day, have remained an important part for any drum set, including, obviously, the drums, but also the triangle, the whip, the snare, the gong, the vibraphone, the marimba, and many more that are still in use today.
It wasn’t until the late 1800s that people like inventors and musicians, at last, began combining two or more percussion instruments. In the early 1900s, there were plenty of attempts at the idea that the percussion section of an orchestra could involve fewer people than the big numbers that were used.
One of the things that would completely change the way of the drums happened in the early 20th century, when William F. Ludwig created a new and different design for the drums – today, we call that a foot pedal for the bass drum. We tend to take this invention for granted now, but it was quite a revelation back then.
This was such an important thing then (and now), because by using that invention, you had both hands free to play, at the same time, several parts of what would become in the future the drum set we know today. It’s quite amazing that it took thousands of years for people to invent something that is now used across all continents.
It wasn’t until this invention happened, that drummers could start playing their instrument by sitting down, after long years in which the only way you could deliver the sounds from a drum was to sit up. So, basically, the drum set we know now only started shaping up once the bass pedal was introduced.
It was thanks to the effort of some people that drums managed to evolve afterward at a much quicker pace. In the early 1900s, orchestras usually had really small budgets (they probably still do), which meant that one way of saving money was assigning as many percussion parts as possible to only one person.
This would finally lead to the next big moment, the one in which what we could call the first drum set ever was created. This would only happen in the latter part of the 1900s, and the drum set had three parts: a bass drum, a snare drum, and a cymbal. The first two were stand-mounted, letting the player use all three parts of the set.
Obviously, after drummers started to use this three-piece drum set more and more, they were looking for the next way in which they could improve their experience. This resulted in many experiments, and, as it happens with the vast majority of experiments in all fields, they didn’t translate to anything more than that. But one did manage to survive.
The hi-hat is the name of that invention and, alongside the previously mentioned three parts, also became an important part of any drum set, being in use to this very day. Of course, the design back then was a bit more different than what we’re used to today, but we all have to start somewhere.
The base principle remained the same, having two cymbals that face in opposite directions, and crashing together when the pedal is pressed. The sound was not unlike the one you can hear today on a hi-hat, being a sort of hand-muted sound, that, back then, of course, it was nothing short of a revelation.
One thing that changed about it was the height. In those days, this instrument, which was named a little boy, was just a foot above the ground, and it was only in later years that it started to grow in size and to actually be called by everybody in the orchestra by the hi-hat name.
Anybody who studied the history of the drums knows that Gene Krupa is one of the essential figures when it comes to drumming, and even if you don’t know his name, you surely know his contribution to the classic song “Sing, Sing, Sing” in 1937, when Big Band was all the rage.
Gene was highly energetic on stage and played really fast, making the drum, not just a background accompanying line, but an important solo sound in the band. In other words, it was him that made the drums popular as a solo instrument, a thing that, somehow, never really took off before.
You can find many recordings of him anywhere, and you will probably notice a combination of drum parts that have become the norm since then, being still in use in the music of today, which, really, if you think about it, is no small feat, considering the fact that we are talking about almost 100 years here.
Drums are still here today, thanks to Ginger Baker, Phil Collins, and Ellie Goulding, who have either created something new or made it popular with a new generation – or both!