There’s something uniquely satisfying about the deep, resonant timbre of a great-sounding bass drum. And it’s easy to identify the highly distinctive bass drum sounds of Ginger Baker, Lars Ulrich, and John Bonham, which have been forever imprinted upon our drummer’s DNA. Sure, drum size, head type, and tuning all contribute to that sound, but what about the pedal? Would those great foot patterns have even been playable if their pedals weren’t up to the task? The answer is simple. No, they wouldn’t.
For decades, bass drum pedals were largely ignored. Sure, companies offered a few different models, but most had very similar designs. On the one hand, the bass drum pedal William Ludwig created a century ago shares many similarities with pedals today. But on the other hand, modern pedals offer a staggering number of options.
Don’t feel bad if you’re baffled by the feature list on modern pedals: Ninja bearings, aluminum and titanium parts, Variable Drive Adjustment, interchangeable cams, zero latency U-joints, hex drive shaft, longboard vs. split board, Accelerator vs. Linear cams, and so on. Some features make a huge difference in feel, while others are pretty subtle. For this analysis, we’re going to look at some of the features that can make noticeable differences in your personal relationship with your bass drum pedal.
Fig. 1. An example of a beater’s convex curve.
Bass drum beaters come in a wide range of styles and have a surprising number of features for an item that is essentially a mallet. The size and shape of a bass drum beater can affect the sound. A larger head will generally produce more volume from a bass drum. A flatter surface can bring out a bit more attack, although few are truly flat. Most beaters feature a subtle convex curve to compensate for the slightly varying angles that the beater may strike the head (Fig. 1). A completely flat beater could strike the head at an angle and eventually dent it, which is why many beaters with a flat contact area have a swiveling head.
Most beaters traditionally have used a stationary beater head because of its simple and economical design. However, since the depth of bass drum hoops aren’t standardized, and the angle at which the beater strikes the head varies from one pedal to the next, it makes a lot of sense for the beater to swivel (unless the beater is ball shaped).
The material that a beater is made from works in tandem with its shape and size to define your bass drum sound. A harder surface like wood or plastic will give you more attack, while a softer surface like rubber or felt will offer a quieter, rounder sound. Some specialty beaters made from soft lamb’s wool found favor with jazz drummers for the warm tone they coaxed out of bass drums.
Fig. 2. A multi-surface beater.
Otherwise, many felt beaters are nearly as hard as wood beaters, so the differences between them may not be quite as noticeable as you might expect. A soft beater will usually not have the durability of a harder one, so rock drummers often use felt beaters that are dense and solid. But even wood, acrylic, and plastic beaters will eventually show wear. Many years ago I took a look at metal drummer Mike Terrana’s rusty, road-beaten pedals at a clinic. He’d gradually worn about a half-inch of plastic from the front of his beaters, but didn’t replace them because he’d grown accustomed to their unique weight.
Cleverly, some beaters rotate to offer different playing surfaces (Fig. 2). These can vary by surface material, size, and shape. Some offer two choices, others offer three or four. While most drummers choose one and leave it set that way, these other optional surfaces can be useful for gigs with different volume requirements.
Fig. 3. Beater shaft with counterweight.
While a heavier beater will produce more volume, it can also bring out more low-end from a drum. Smaller beaters often work better for quieter gigs and with smaller bass drums. Some beaters are fitted with memory locks that enable users to set their ideal beater height. While it’s tempting to fully extend the beater for maximum volume, it’s important to consider the diameter of your bass drum. A fully extended beater will strike close to the sweet spot in the center of a 26" behemoth, but will land far off-center on a 16" Yamaha Hipgig bass drum. A counterweight (Fig. 3) can be used to modify the “weight” of the beater. Sliding it up or down the beater shaft will alter the feel from light to heavy and change the volume of the drum.