The first drum sets emerged in the second half of the 1800s, at a time when drummers (and those hiring them) began to realize that there were big advantages to having one person play a bass drum, snare drum, and cymbal at the same time. Once the die was cast, the earliest drum set players quickly began adding other noise-making devices to assist them in their work, which at the time included dance bands, vaudeville-type theaters, minstrel shows, and circuses.
Many of the earliest noisemakers in show business in this country were borrowed from immigrants who brought their folkloric percussion instruments with them when they began pouring into America in the 1850s. Chinese immigrants provided many items that would become staples of the early drum set, including woodblocks, temple blocks, gongs, “Chinese” cymbals, and tacked tom toms. Greek immigrants contributed a small musical disc known as the “Greeko” cymbal. And a Turkish immigrant family named Zildjian brought with them an ancient technique for manufacturing high-quality hand-hammered cymbals that would shortly make them a household name among drummers around the world.
By the late 1800s, the term “trap drummer” emerged as a way to describe those who employed these various “contraptions” in their work (other possible origins for the term include “bear trap” and “trappings”). With the evolution of radio and silent films in the 1920s, trap drummers’ setups grew to include classical percussion like chimes, glockenspiel, and timpani, as well as Latin percussion items like maracas. With the advent of sound in motion pictures in 1927, however, the era of the trap drummer came to a quick demise. By 1930, more than 20,000 theater percussionists had lost their gig, and the job description of a “drum set player” began to resemble more closely the kind of work we do today.