How to Choose a Drum Set

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A common conversation I have around Christmas time each year goes something like this: “Hey, you play the drums, right? I want to buy a drum set for my child/grandchild/husband/etc., but I don’t know what to buy. What kind of drums should I buy, where should I buy them, and how much should I expect to spend?” I’ve had this same conversation so many times that it inspired me to write this article. So in the future, when people ask me, I can simply send them a link to the article, they can go read it, and (hopefully) find answers to their questions. As you’ll see, this isn’t an easy question with a quick and easy answer. Asking “what kind of drums should I buy?” is similar to asking “what kind of car should I buy?”, so it evokes a necessarily lengthy response.

This first thing you should know when buying a drum set is this: most sets that you buy are not 100% complete. In other words, they often don’t include every piece you’ll need to make a complete set. So after the initial purchase, there may be some important accessories you’ll still need to buy, which can add to the cost significantly. That being said, let’s look at the various components that make up what we commonly call a “drum set”:

Drums:

  • Bass drum – This large drum (sometimes called a “kick drum”) sits on the floor and is played with a foot pedal. It’s typically equipped with some built-in legs (also called “spurs”) that keep it sitting upright and prevent it from rolling around. The bass drum may include some hardware attached to the top of it to hold one or two mounted toms.
  • Snare drum – This is a shallow drum with wires (“snares”) stretched across the bottom head, which gives it its distinct “crack” when the drum is struck.
  • One or more Toms/Floor Toms – A tom is a smaller drum that’s suspended above the bass drum or from a stand. A floor tom is a larger drum that has legs attached to it that let it sit on the floor, or it may also be mounted on a stand (making it a “stand-mounted floor tom”).

Cymbals:

  • Hi-hat cymbals – Two cymbals that sit one on top of the other, atop a stand with a foot pedal (the “hi-hat stand”) that lets the player move the top cymbal up and down.
  • One or more Crash cymbals – These cymbals are used to add dramatic accents, such as at the end of roll or fill.
  • Ride cymbal – This is a large cymbal that is used interchangably with the hi-hat cymbals to drive the beat of the music.

Hardware:

  • Snare stand – This is the stand that holds the snare drum.
  • Hi-hat stand – This is the stand (with foot pedal) that holds the hi-hat cymbals.
  • Tom stand/s – if the toms aren’t mounted above the bass drum, they will need to be mounted on a stand. Some floor toms are also stand-mounted instead of having legs attached to them.
  • Cymbal stands – These can be straight or boom stands, that extend their horizontal reach.
  • Bass drum pedal – This is the foot pedal that is used to play the bass drum.
  • Throne (seat) – This adjustable-height stool gives the drummer something to sit on while they play.

If the set that you are buying doesn’t include all of the items listed above, you may need to buy them after the fact. Just to give you a rough idea, the following list contains some price ranges if you need to add on any of these items after your intital purchase. Note that if you’re buying several or all of these items new, you can sometimes save some money by buying them in a pre-assembled hardware or cymbal pack, instead of buying each item individually.

Prices for add-on items:

  • Snare stand: $40 to $100
  • Hi-hat stand: $75 to $150
  • Cymbal stand: $40 to $140
  • Bass drum pedal: $50 to $200 for a single, $200 to $600 for a double pedal
  • Tom stand: $75 to $150
  • Throne: $40 to $150
  • Ride cymbal: $75 to $300
  • Crash cymbal: $60 to $250
  • Hi-hat cymbals: $100 to $300

New or Used?
One important question is whether to buy a new or used set. My general recommendation is to consider buying a used set before buying a new one. In my experience, you can often find a better-quality used set which is an intermediate or even professional-quality set for about the same price as a lower-quality beginner set purchased new. Also, used sets sometimes include more accessories than what’s typically included with a new set, including hardware, cymbals, and a throne.

If buying used, you’ll also need to assess the condition of the heads (the plastic skins that are struck with the sticks). If any heads are busted or in particularly bad shape (badly dented or sunken in), they’ll need to be replaced. A replacement head for a tom, floor tom, or snare drum will typically cost anywhere from $12 to $20. A replacement head for a bass drum may cost between $30 and $40. So this, too, is something to keep in mind when buying a used set. Also remember that each drum normally has two heads: a top or “batter” head, and a bottom or “resonant” head. So to outfit an entire set with all new heads could cost you in the neighborhood of $125 to $200.

Where to Buy?
My favorite source for browsing used drums is the Guitar Center website. Guitar Center is one of the largest retailers of Musical Instruments in the world, and they have a network of stores all over the country that buy and sell used drums. The great part is this: their website will let you browse the used inventory for ALL of their stores. Just go to the Guitar Center website, click on the “Used” category, then click on the filters to drill down to the drum sets. They will normally ship a drum set for a fairly reasonable price, and if there’s a major problem with your purchase (e.g., severe damage in shipping), you can return them to your nearest Guitar Center location for a refund. But I will give you a word of caution: sometimes the pictures on the website aren’t so great, so it can be difficult to tell what condition the drums are in. The listing also may not specify if the kit includes any hardware or cymbals (they rarely do). So just be sure to call the store and ask any questions first before you buy, just to avoid any surprises.

Other good sources for used drums include your local music store, Craigslist (online classified ads), E-bay, and Music Go Round. Like Guitar Center, Music Go Round is a network of music stores (it’s technically a franchise, while Guitar Center stores are corporate-owned), but (like Guitar Center) you can browse the inventory for of their stores on their website. They typically charge more for shipping (anywhere from $100 to $150), but in some cases the price may be low enough that you won’t mind paying the extra premium for shipping. You can also call the store on the phone before buying, and sometimes they will adjust the shipping charges if they seem unreasonably high.

For new sets, you can check out your local drum shop, music stores, or any of the well-known online retailers: Zzounds, Sweetwater, Cascio Interstate, Musicians Friend, Amazon, or E-bay.

Resale Value
If you think you may want to move up to higher-quality set at some point in the near future, you may want to consider the resale value of the kit you are buying. Some brands & series will have a higher resale value than others, based on their popularity and the cost of buying such a set new. Also, if you or the person you’re buying for is serious about drumming, you may want to consider getting a better set to begin with, instead of buying cheap now and planning to upgrade later. “Buy once, cry once” is a saying that I’ve come to embrace when it comes to buying my own music gear. In other words, if you buy a high-quality set to begin with, you may pay more for it up front (which might make you cry), but there shouldn’t be a need for upgrading later on. A higher-quality, nice-looking, good-sounding set is also going to be more inspiring and enjoyable to play, which can help motivate a beginning player who might discouraged if they start out on a really low-end, poor quality set.

Quality & Build Considerations
Different woods (maple, birch, bubinga, oak, poplar, etc.) or combinations of wood (plies may be alternated or varied) used for the shell construction will have minor differences in tonal characteristics. Maple is generally thought to be “warmer” with more resonance, while birch is generally thought to be “brighter” with a more pronounced attachk. You can do a Google search on that topic, but I won’t get off into the weeds too much on it. Even more important than the specific wood that was used for the shell construction, you want drum shells that are nice and round and aren’t warped (out of round), which will make them difficult to tune and generally sound bad. Also, cheaper drums will typically include cheaper hardware. This means metal parts can strip (threaded pieces like screws, wing nuts, lugs, etc.) or even break. And replacement parts are often not readily available for cheaper drums like they are for pro-quality drums.

Drum Set Quality & Price Scale
Just like with automobiles, there are several major drum manufacturers, and each brand offers several product lines that target different levels of player ranging from the beginner through professional. To help potential buyers sort out where a particular set falls on that spectrum, I’ve attempted to list most of the major drums brands and their current product lines (as well as a few discontinued lines), categorizing them into 6 groups by quality and price. Each group should be incrementally better in quality & features, and the price reflects that fact. Also note that in reality, there may be some overlap in the price/quality of various categories, since prices are constantly changing. Also, the price ranges listed here are for buying a typical 5-piece set (kick, snare, two toms, & a floor tom) brand new, so you should be able to find a used set for a much better price and/or the price may vary based on the size of the set (e.g, a 7-piece set will be more expensive than a 5-piece set). However, this scale should at least give you a rough idea of the market value for a particular set if it were being bought new.

Disclaimer: this scale is based on my own subjective opinions about these various drums. Please don’t be offended if I categorize the brand/series that you play as “Intermediate 2”, when in your opinion they belong in the “Professional 1” category. Also note that some beginner to intermediate sets bought new may include some hardware and/or cymbals. But most intermediate to professional sets typically will not, unless you’re buying used.

Finally, as a general rule of thumb, I recommend sticking with a major brand regardless of which level you’re buying from, since their products will generally be good quality, and they probably offer some kind of service after the sale if buying new (warranty, replacement parts, etc.). The major brands include DW (Drum Workshop), Ddrum, Gretsch, Ludwig, Mapex, PDP (Pacific Drums & Percussion), Pearl, Sonor, Tama, & Yamaha. Note that are also many smaller and/or custom shop drum companies out there that make some fine drums, but those typically aren’t sold by major retailers and you don’t come across those very often in the used market, so I’ve chosen not to list them here.

Level 1 ($300 to $500) – Beginner 1
Generic Brands: CP (Cosmic Percussion), Gammon, Union, Pulse, SPL/Sound Percussion Labs, etc.
Ddrum D1 (junior/kids size)
Ddrum D2
Gretsch GS1
Ludwig Accent Drive
Ludwig Accent (discontinued)
Mapex Rebel
Mapex Storm
Pearl Forum (discontinued)
Pearl Export
Pearl Roadshow
PDP Player (junior/kid size)
PDP Z5
Sonor Player
Tama Rhythm Mate
Tama Swingstar
Yamaha Gig Maker

Level 2 ($500 to $750) – Beginner 2
Ddrum Journeyman
Gretsch Energy
Ludwig Accent CS (discontinued)
Ludwig CS Elite (discontinued)
Mapex Mars
PDP Mainstage
Pearl Decade
Tama Rockstar (discontinued)
Yamaha Stage Custom

Level 3 ($700 to $900) – Intermediate 1
Ddrum Reflex
Gretsch Catalina Maple, Catalina Birch)
Ludwig Element
Mapex Armory
Pearl Vision
Tama Superstar
Tama Imperialstar

Level 4 ($900 to $1200) – Intermediate 2
Ddrum Paladin
Mapex MyDentity
PDP Concept
Pearl Session Studio Classic
Tama Silverstar

Level 4 ($1200 to $2000) – Professional 1
DW Design, Performance
Gretsch Renown
Ludwig Centennial, Classic Birch (discontinued)
Mapex Saturn
Pearl Masters (discontinued)
Pearl Masters Custom MCX
Tama Starclassic Birch/Bubinga
Tama Starclassic Performer Birch (discontinued)
Yamaha Absolute
Yamaha Oak Custom

Level 6 ($200 to $7000) – Professional 2
Ddrum USA
DW Collectors
Gretsch Brooklyn
Ludwig Classic Maple
Ludwig Legacy Classic
Mapex Orion (discontinued)
Mapex Black Panther
Pearl Masterworks
Pearl Reference
Pearl Reference Pure
Tama Starclassic Maple
Tama Star
Yamaha Phoenix
Yamaha Recording Custom

Conclusion
Well, that’s it. If you’re new to buying drums, this will hopefully give you a place to start, and provide you with enough information to make a more informed decision. If you have specific questions that aren’t addressed in the article, or if you think there are changes or corrections to be made to the Drum Set Quality/Price Scale, feel free to send me a message through the Contact page of my studio website. Good luck!

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