A Brief History Of The Drum Set Today's common drum kit is just 100 years old, even though drums have been around for millenia. It fell out of favor with the advent of drum machines and sampling. For many, there's no substitute.

A Brief History Of The Drum Set

A Brief History Of The Drum Set

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Today's common drum kit is just 100 years old, even though drums have been around for millenia. It fell out of favor with the advent of drum machines and sampling. For many, there's no substitute.


Hollowed logs, stretched animal skins...


SIMON: Historian and drummer Daniel Glass says humans have been beating on things since the beginning of time.

DANIEL GLASS: The idea of just hitting something hard and getting an immediate volume out of it is irreplaceable. It's so primal. It's so primitive.


SIMON: What do those drums say? Oh, BJ Leiderman, who writes our theme music - no substitute for pounding on an old-fashioned drum set even in the digital age. Allyson McCabe reports.

ALLYSON MCCABE, BYLINE: Brendan Canty started playing drums in his early teens. He remembers buying his first set from a bandmate for 25 bucks.

BRENDAN CANTY: It didn't have any cymbal stands. But it came with a couple really bad trash-can-lid-type cymbals. And because I didn't have any cymbal stands, I'd just tie them to rope and suspend them from the ceiling. So when I would whack on them, they would fly out and then try to decapitate me on the way back in.

MCCABE: Canty kept risking his life until one of his bands put out a recording. That's when he lobbied his father for an upgrade.

CANTY: He said OK. And we went and scoured the paper for weeks and weeks until we found a beautiful brown sparkle 1964 Gretsch maple set. The guy wanted $400 for it. And my dad said he had only brought 250 (laughter).


MCCABE: That vintage drum set helped Brendan Canty put punk legends Fugazi on the map.


FUGAZI: (Singing) I am a patient boy. I wait. I wait. I wait. My time is like water down a drain.

MCCABE: The earliest surviving examples of drums date back to the 6th century B.C. But the drum set as we know it today is only 100 years old. In 1918, the Chicago-based Ludwig Drum Company debuted the Jazz-Er-Up, an all-in-one set with a single-bass drum and pedal, a snare, two cymbals and a woodblock. It was a significant innovation. But historian Daniel Glass, an in-demand session drummer who's played with Bette Midler, Brian Setzer and others, says back then the function of the drummer wasn't just to play rhythm in a band.

GLASS: It was also to accompany dancers or comedic bits onstage or, as radio begins to evolve, sound effects for radio or sound effects for silent film.

MCCABE: Perched behind the movie screen, drummers played woodblocks and whistles to signal the train approaching the damsel in distress.


MCCABE: Before too long though, Glass says drummers assumed a more visible role in popular music.

GLASS: As the 1930s and the big band era evolved, the drums could really step out a little bit more and be featured a little bit more.


MCCABE: In 1935, Gene Krupa joined Benny Goodman's orchestra - setting a new standard for drummers with his flamboyant showmanship and a set that featured tunable tom-toms and foot-operated high-hat cymbal.

GLASS: People don't realize that between 1935, when the Benny Goodman Orchestra exploded on the scene, and 1964 Gene Krupa was the most popular drummer in the world.


MCCABE: What happened in '64?


ED SULLIVAN: Ladies and gentlemen, The Beatles.


BILL CARDWELL: Ringo playing on "The Ed Sullivan Show." That was my introduction to the drums.

MCCABE: Bill Cardwell went on to drum in bands using a kit not too different from Ringo's. By the end of the decade, rock drummers had assembled massive kits with two bass drums and racks of percussion. Then drum machines came along.


SLY AND THE FAMILY STONE: (Singing) It's the family affair.

MCCABE: So by the 1980s, when Cardwell began restoring vintage drum sets, he says customers were scarce.

CARDWELL: They were just interested in inexpensive drum sets that they could buy their kids.

MCCABE: But as Cardwell gained experience, he discovered that how a drum sounds depends a lot on the materials and process used to make it. So Cardwell started using vintage specs to make new drum sets. The C&C Drum Company, which he co-owns with his son, now supplies a mix of beginning drummers, big indie bands like Arcade Fire and musical legends including Ringo himself.

CARDWELL: Drums were originally to set a groove - set a backbeat, be the orchestra leader of a band - because he's the one who's setting the tempo of the band. And it kind of lost that at some point in time. And musicians have decided to go back to it. It's like they've listened to their parents' records and - yeah, this is what music should be.

MCCABE: Former Fugazi drummer Brendan Canty never quit pounding those old-school skins. And he's restoring his '64 Gretsch set for his teenage son.

CANTY: It's got this really lovely earthiness to it. It's been really heartwarming to see that drum set fuel another generation of creativity.


MCCABE: For NPR News, I'm Allyson McCabe.


YOUR MOTHER AND I ARE SEPARATING: (Singing) Having fun at the luau, having fun at my house, having fun at the beaches, having at the (unintelligible). It's big - it's a big party. It's a big - it's a big party.

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