Has the Drum Set Evolved to Include Too Many Toms?

Old Drummer

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An idle interest of mine is the evolution of the drum set. I gather the ball got rolling in the late 19th century with the invention of a bass drum pedal while sometime around the 1920's the hi-hat was invented. With that, together with the snare, a cymbal, and a tom or two, we got the modern drum set. Since then, my sense is that the main sound innovations have been in cymbals. Drummers today have a lot more kinds of cymbal sounds to choose from than did say drummers in the mid-20th century, so drummers today are often setting up more cymbals. However, besides cymbals, it doesn't seem like there have been many if any sound innovations. Most of the other innovations have merely improved the existing set (better quality pedals, for instance) rather than added new percussive sounds. Indeed, I'd say that the last genuine sound innovation was the hi-hat, although again the proliferation of different cymbals has increased the variety of cymbal sounds available.

And to my knowledge there has been no real sound innovation in the tom sound since, well, prehistoric times. Make a cylinder of some kind, stretch a head over one or both ends, and presto, you've got a tom. Depending on the size and shape of the cylinder and the tightness of the head, plus a few other variables of cylinder and head construction as well as the tension system, the sound of the tom will change somewhat (mostly in pitch), but at the end of the day all toms are basically going to make a thud sound.

Enter the mystery: In the early days of the drum set, it was generally thought that a couple different tom thud sounds, one high and one low, were enough, but as the drum set has evolved, drummers have added more and more tom thud sounds. I don't know what the average number of toms now is on a drum set, but I'd guess at least three, while I see not a few drummers playing with up to a half a dozen toms. And as I listen to many of these multi-tom drummers, I swear that I can't even hear a significant sound difference among the multiple toms myself. They all make roughly similar thud sounds sounds to my ears.

Plus, it doesn't seem that the drummers playing the multi-tom sets detect much difference in the thuds either. Specifically, when I watch them play fills and solos, I notice that many play a different tom with their right and left hands. This usually happens during rolls around the toms (from high to low). Instead of rolling with both hands from tom to tom, their right hand will be one tom ahead of their left hand. Now, maybe there's some aesthetic reason to want to play a lower-pitched tom with your right hand and a higher-pitched tom with your left hand, but I'm cynical (and lazy) enough to doubt that aesthetics has much to do with it. I think it's just physically easier to move your right hand to the right faster than your left hand, and that's the main reason the right hand is one tom ahead of the left hand. Moreover, I have to suspect that the reason this laziness works is because the toms sound so much alike that it doesn't matter whether you play only one or two at the same time: the resulting thud sounds will be similar enough for nobody to notice or care.

But if I'm correct about the reason for these fills and solos played on different toms with different hands, I have to conclude that these drummers have at least twice as many toms as they need. Fewer toms with a greater spread between the sounds could even be set up in a way that makes it easier for the left hand to get to them.

I'm aware that there are some songs and styles of music that are tom heavy, so to speak, and trying to fake these with only a couple toms wouldn't work well. Anyone who actually needs a bunch of toms ought legitimately to have them. However, I can't shake the feeling that the proliferation of toms has outpaced the legitimate need for them. At the same time, I wonder whether even the legitimate need for a bunch of toms reflects the cart pulling the horse. Maybe it's because drummers have taken to using too many toms that other drummers have to have too many in order to copy them?

Not least, there's the issue of what's excluded by the multiple toms. Things like cowbells and woodblocks are no longer routine parts of drum sets, although they actually offer sounds more distinctive than another tom. Real estate around the drummer's throne is at a premium, and when it's gobbled up by toms, other sounds are excluded. It makes more sense to me, for example, to add a set of bongos instead of yet another tom. At least bongos add variety to the sounds available to drummers with limited real estate.

I forget what they call dysfunctional branches in evolution that eventually go extinct, but I suspect the proliferation of toms in the evolution of the drum set is a dysfunctional branch that will become extinct. I think we can use our limited real estate more efficiently from the standpoint of the variety of sounds we can offer.

And I write this as a guilty party myself. At my tom peak, I was setting up five or six of them. But in retrospect, I mainly did this because I wanted to look like a big time cool rock drummer, not because I had any practical use for all those toms. This, in turn, goes to the issue of individual choice. Yes, drummers are free to set up as many or as few toms as they want to--even to have no tom at all--but the culture has pressured us to equate better drummers with bigger sets, and the easiest way to have a big set is to add a bunch of toms.
 

xsabers

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Haha, OK, so I responded to your rather lengthy post with the shortest answer I could muster, but I think there are plenty of examples of drummers using the various multi-tom voices incredibly well, and there are certain styles of music where multiple toms are more appropriate. Simon Phillips comes to mind.

 

Mcjnic

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Same here.
I’ve tried to do the scaled back setup ... it just felt odd. I like both a high and a medium in front of the snare. Having the two floors allows me to do a 12 14f combo or a 13 16 combo without any issues. I tension the toms with plenty of space between them. Even the 14f has a very nice step from the 13.
I keep the two high toms on a stand for ergonomic positioning with the snare ... it allows the ride to sit nicely just a little over the bass.


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Houndog

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I can certainly tell the difference when I use a lot of toms , take your hi falutin nonsense elsewhere .....
 

frankmott

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I blame Hal Blaine.

Two toms was good enough for Ringo! And Charlie Watts! And get off my lawn!!

I cut back to NO toms with my Zydeco band, and ran that way for a couple of years. It's eye-opening. One learns what's really important. I usually gig with one 15" Floor tom these days. Besides, that way the girls can see me better! (Sadly, those days are gone.)

Sure there are a few genres that require more than two toms -- Jazz Fusion and Prog Rock leap to mind -- but I think for most kinds of music, two is more than enough.

And of course, the manufacturers are more than happy to make/market/sell multiple-tom kits.

I've said the following many times on this very forum (and been treated like a war-criminal for my blasphemy):
If a drummer can't make the magic happen with just a kick/snare/hat, he or she needs to go back and practice.

Before you jump down my throat, I didn't said one must, just that one should be able. There's nothing wrong with multiple-toms (but I don't want the work!). Having said that, I see a lot of bar-band type drummers with 4-plus toms who do the same old high to low fill every stinking eight bars. Give it a rest! And get off my lawn!!
 

K.O.

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No one is forced to have more toms than they want. I recall when the octa-plus was my ideal set (except for the double bass drums) but now 2-3 toms is usually plenty enough for me. Lots of guys can properly rock a big multi-tom set though....and others, not so much. Upon listening it's fairly easy to tell who has all those toms because they need them and who has them because they look cool...but I hear far more abuse of double pedals than too many toms. A lot of monster set players I see locally seem to never hit most of their drums, more commonly I'll see someone with a three or four piece set that insists on playing a bunch of extraneous 16th notes on the bass drum in some old county song, apparently just because they can.
 

NewBeat

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You make good points about redundancy and available real estate. Not as much on the thud comment, as it depends on how one tunes.

Some drummers, yes, the toms more or less thuds and fairly similar at that (it must be a real chore to tune up & maintain 6 or more toms). However, others tune to distinct pitches with a fairly wide spread, so no thuds there.

3-4 toms seems a reasonable balance and still leaves room for other stuff.
 

Ludwigboy

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I find that it really depends on the music you are playing...if you are playing Styx or Rush, multiple toms are better but for me to cover most music, a basic 4 or 5 piece is just fine...but that's me. Especially as I get older, the less I have to haul the better so love the 4 piece sets!:happy7:
 

Fat Drummer

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I enjoyed your post, though I would say the average number of toms I have noticed being used for the last several years is once again, just two! I see it as a "what was old is new again" type situation. But that may be just the music we are each watching or listening to, or even simple geography.

I do indeed subscribe to the principle of "if you can do it on a 4 piece kit, you probably dont need to be playing it on large one". While two of my kits are just 4 piece (two toms), the other two have 4 toms (one has 3 up & 1 down while the other is 2 up & 2 down) and I enjoy them all equally. It's just a matter of choosing the right tools for the job at hand.

While I did not take your post as a rant against multiple toms, you clearly do not see a need for them while I most certainty do (again, when the situation calls for it). Rush played on a four piece kit would just become a fusion drum track. It's the spread and voicing that make his work more Prog to me.

So my answer would be a respectful "agree to disagree" type reply.
 

bongomania

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I think it is for show a lot of the time. Not ALL the time, obviously, and no offense to multi tom players here. But I can’t even begin to number the bands I’ve seen where the drummer barely touched half the kit during their gig. Heck, at every Parliament or Bootsy show I’ve seen, they had a huge array of toms and never hit ANY of them.

In those cases it’s like the big empty speaker cabs and dummy Marshall heads that rock bands use to fill the stage.
 

lrod1707

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It's nice to have a big kit. More options when you play. Doesn't mean that you use them all the time. I use all my pieces most of the time when I play. And things sometimes evolve by expansion. Some types of music just don't go with a small kit. I don't think Tom Sawyer would have sounded the same on a 3 piece!
 

stevil

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One of the cool things about our instrument is the natural variations between our kits. Most bassists/guitarist's are all doing their thing on very uniform guitars, but drummers can really put their own stamp on what they play. Or they can play the classic configuration and make it their own. My style is rather pared down, but I'm not at all normative about it. Variety, opportunity and difference rule.
 

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