Do your feet always tap with the beats of a song? Do you groove with the rhythm whenever music is playing?

If you’ve been thinking about learning to play a musical instrument, you might want to consider a percussion instrument.

Some people think drums are nothing but loud, used to keep marching bands in synch. But there is so much more to playing drums than just banging a skin with sticks.

So why not explore the fascinating world of percussion and learn to play the drums?

Do You Need Your Own Drum Kit to Learn to Play the Drums?

First of all, you need to consider whether or not to buy your own drum. If you are learning a single drum, the answer is fairly easy, though high-end drums can still be pretty pricey. But what about a full drum kit? The obvious pro to buying your own drum set is that you will always be able to practice at home. The obvious con will be the cost (and the space it takes up).

To start out, and especially if you have never played a musical instrument before, you might start with a junior drum kit:

  • Bass drum
  • Snare drum
  • Hanging tom-tom
  • Hi-hat cymbal
  • Another hanging cymbal - either a ride cymbal or a crash cymbal

They cost anywhere between £150 to £500 and are good for learning simple drum beats, backbeat, and other drum rudiments.

But if you know you’re going to stick with your drumming, try a beginner kit instead. Most drum kits are easily expandable.

The big difference between a junior kit and a beginner set is that the beginner set with have a full set of three hanging toms (or two hanging toms and a floor tom, depending on whether you are playing rock or fusion.) They generally start around £400 but you can find less expensive ones if you buy used or look for special deals.

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Do you need a drum kit of your own?

Depending on whether your first drum lesson is in a music or drum school or your drum teacher is tutoring you at home, you can find yourself without a drum to play on if you don’t buy your own. Music schools often have some form of drum set for beginner students; some private tutors teaching from home will have a set of drums available for their students. This is fine for learning the rudiments of drumming, wetting your feet and finding out if drum playing is really for you.

However, you will need to practice at home, even as a beginner - and that means buying drums. Whether you are learning jazz drumming or practising your rock drum solo, you need the right feedback under your drumsticks to improve your drum play. And that means investing in a drum set.

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A personal drum kit is the only way to advance in your craft.
You might get away with borrowing drums at the very beginning, but you should really buy your own drum set. Photo credit: on Visual Hunt

If you are learning hand drumming or ethnic drum music - such as an African drum (Djembe or talking drums), conga, samba drums, or indeed anything portable, it’s more likely that your music teacher will have some that you can borrow to practice on at home. Once you reach the intermediate level, you will still need your own drum. The prices for hand drums vary greatly - bongos go for anywhere from £60 to £300, congas between £300 to £600, bodhrans average around £50.

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Practising at home without a drum set

But can you practise without having a drum set at home? To a certain extent, yes.

When learning to play the drums, you can take a series of buckets and cans about the right size and set them up like a drum kit. Dave Grohl from Nirvana is famous for using snare drumsticks to practice on pillows. It is a way for a beginner drummer to practise the moves, the rhythm of switching from one drum to another.

However, what it can’t teach you is proper stick control. The sound of the drums and cymbals will vary depending on where you hit (rim or skin), how hard you hit and what type of stick you use - regular drumsticks, padded mallets or brushes. You need to learn the difference in sound between your bass, snare and toms. And that is only possible with actual, physical drums.

Also, it’s pretty difficult to simulate a pedal. Even if you can use an old sewing machine pedal to practise your timing, you won’t be getting the physical and auditory feedback you need to improve your bass drum playing.

Electronic drum pads are quieter.
Electronic drums and practise pads are easier on the neighbours, but unless you want to specialise in electronic drums, an acoustic set is best. Photo on

Being nice to your neighbours

Do you live in a flat with thin walls and floors? Nosy neighbours, who complain at the least little cough?

It’s likely your drum teacher will nag you to use a practise pad in any case.

A practice pad is just a little rubber pad that gives acoustic feedback when struck. In short, it’s a drum without the resonance body. It’s not as loud and it is actually very sensitive, so you actually have to be more accurate on a practice pad. However, there are a number of disadvantages.

It’s portable.With only one pad, you can’t practice complex drum fills for your drum solo.
It’s quiet compared with a physical drum.You can’t practice your kick drum.
Its surface is made to imitate that of a snare drum.It only imitates snares and doesn’t give the feel of toms.
It’s wonderful for practising rudiments such as a simple drum beat, drum rolls or a paradiddle.It doesn’t have rims.
It’s very sensitive, forcing you to be accurate.While quite sensitive, you won’t be learning to listen to your drums - which have more reverb and overtones.
It’s a good way to practice showmanship drumming.You can’t practice your cymbal work.

If you can’t have an acoustic drum set at home when learning drums another option is to go for an electronic drum set. It will have the full set of drums set up like a traditional drum kit. The pads are designed to feel like a traditional drumhead when you hit them. You can play them with headphones and get a sound nearer to real drums.

However, though the sound is close, it isn’t exactly the same. On the upside, you can program a whole array of interesting sounds (canon or foghorn, anyone?).

Preparing for your Drum Lessons

When learning how to play the drums, you will find that it’s not just about drum fills and jazz improvisation. You will need to know how to care for your instrument and how to read musical notation.

Drum tuning

Do you come back from your drumming lessons wondering why your snare and toms sound different from those used by Carmine Appice, John Blackwell or Buddy Rich? It might have to do with how your drums are tuned.

Some drums are tuned to a certain pitch and left at that. Other drums are tunable during play (like tabors or African talking drums). In the latter case, your drum instructor will definitely teach you how to vary the pitch while playing.

In the former, a good educator will demonstrate how tuning the top and bottom heads will affect the sound of your drums. At the latest when you need to change the drum head, you will need to learn to tune your drums.

Pearl Drums has a handy set of instructions for tuning the common drums of a drum set. Exactly what pitch you tune them to and what drum heads you choose will depend on the musical style you are playing - rock, jazz, afro-cuban, Latin or Big Band, and of course your own personal preferences.

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Learning to Read Drum Notation

If you want to progress beyond the beginner exercises set by your drum teacher, you will need to learn how to read drum notation.

If you can already read music, it can be both helpful and a hindrance. In normal musical notation, the placement of the notes on the staff give you the note played and the type of note (eighth note, quarter note…) will give you the rhythm.

With drum notation, it’s a little different.

It doesn’t help that there is no truly standardised notation, though there are some that are more common than others. The one used in Norman Weinberg’s Guide to Standardized Drumset Notation is the most commonly used out there, but you might find yourself confronted with a completely different notation once you start getting gigs.

The basic premise remains the same:

  • The type of percussion instrument is indicated by the shape of the note. Drums are usually normal black notes, cymbals, whether hi-hats or crash are an “x”, additional percussion instruments can be a triangle or cross. Which specific instrument is meant is indicated by its place on the stave. For example, the kick drum is generally on the bottom space of the staff; if double bass drums are used, the second bass will be on the lowest bar. The snare is on the “la” or “A” space (if it were in treble clef). Drum sheet music publishers always include a legend at the beginning of the piece.
  • Additional symbols can indicate ghost notes, rolls (eighth or sixteenth note or triplets), flams, drags or ruffs.
  • Rhythm is indicated as in traditional music notation with the types of note (full, quarter, eighth etc.) Note that every drum notation is four beats to the bar unless otherwise indicated (a rare and challenging event).
Drum notation indicates beat and type of percussion.
Drum notation looks like normal musical notation but works on slightly diffreent premise. Photo credit: chi-ryu on

Another way of writing down drum beats and rhythms is using a drum tabulation, or drum tabs.

A drum tab will have a line for each of the instruments, and each strike is indicated with an o for drums or an x for cymbals. A line “-” indicates that the instrument is silent. Drag, flam, ghost notes etc. each have a specific letter assigned to them.

To advance in your craft, you will need to learn to read both drum music notation and drum tabs. A metronome is a useful tool to help you with that.

Learning how to play drums can appear daunting at first, but as you progress in your lessons you will soon get into the groove and improvise your own drum fills. And why not try a personal instructor like one of Superprof’s many drum tutors near you?

Ready, steady, go! It's time to learn how to play the drums!


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