Snare drums had been around for a long time by 1913, and, before radios were invented, had even been used in combat to signal troops; a commander could order a few snare drum players to play a cadence that could be heard for miles. These drums found their way into the modern drum set and before long became the centerpiece.
In 1913, Julius A. Meyer came up with the idea for a snare throw-off when an orchestra he was in played a piece for which he needed to mute the snares and play the drum like a tom tom, quickly followed by a funeral cadence played with the snares engaged. Not long after filing for his patent, every drum company was making some variation of Meyer’s snare drum “muffler.” They became standard on snare drums throughout the 1920s. The look of the models varied, including a few parallel versions, but largely they performed the same task of releasing the tension of the snares against the bottom head.
In 1960–’61 Rogers began production on its famous Dyna-Sonic snare drums, which featured a frame to keep the tension of the snares tight and had an independent throw-off that released the frame from the head. The effect of the frame was that the snares could now be tensioned as tight as the drummer liked without choking the bottom drumhead’s vibrations.
Drums have always been cumbersome to haul around and store. One of the first innovations after the advent of the “drum set” was a wheeled system of tubes to attach cowbells and cymbals, making mobility much easier. The drum rack fell out of favor with musicians in the ’50s, ’60s, and most of the ’70s, when simpler kits were in vogue. The ’80s metal scene brought back the drum rack in a completely new and flamboyant way. Besides just reducing the weight of bulky stands and clutter, these racks had an almost sculptural quality — a sculpture that doubled as a solid folded metal frame.
Since the re-emergence of drum racks, almost every manufacturer now produces a basic rack with customizable parts allowing the drummer to create their own look. Often the drum rack itself is just as famous as the drummer playing behind it. Rikki Rockett, Ray Luzier, Terry Bozzio, Scott Rockenfield, and Tommy Aldridge are well known for their over-the-top, often twisted stage setups. Hip-hop groups got into the twisted-metal look as well with the advent of The Lou Rider, a drum kit played by Snoop Dogg and Kottonmouth Kings, which incorporated a bicycle as the basic drum frame and throne. Small drum risers were no longer an issue with Greg Voelker’s rack by hanging the kick drums off the edge of the riser and giving the drummer more space. The UFO-looking Drumframe elevated the kit and relaxed the drummer into a racecar seat. There is no stopping the customizable looks created by a few pieces of chrome pipes and connections.
Early drum builders were not concerned with the overtones cause by drums given their supportive role in large ensembles and the lack of sophisticated recording technology. Drummers learned to tune around the overtones and ringing. A few higher end drum kits came with dampeners on all the drums so you could adjust to a comfortable level without the drum sounding like a towel. As many other drummers did during the 1960s, drummer George Weimmer would cut the hoop and inner part of old drum heads, leaving a 2" round strip of plastic that he would place over his new drumhead, significantly reducing the overtones and ringing. The plastic rings, however, always seemed to find ways to slide or bounce off the head.
In 1992, Tom Rogers was experimenting with gel to make an electronic drumhead. The gel-based head didn’t quite work and was more expensive than initially thought. However, during the experimentation stages, the gel was placed on a cymbal. When played, the gel controlled the amount of resonance while still allowing the tone of the cymbal to shine through. Drummers quickly learned that simply applying a small amount of “moongel” greatly reduced the amount of overtones in cymbals and drumheads, allowing them to fine-tune the resonance. The drummer could now get the customized sound he wanted without crazy amounts of muffling and tape.
The modern drum kit, as complex as it is and with an endless supply of gadgets, still has not ceased to compel drummers and drum builders to innovate. Some drummers, such as John Morrison, play solos performed entirely on pieces of the kit normally ignored by other drummers, like the hi-hat stand, while not touching the cymbals. Another great creation was Remo’s Spoxe, which effectively turned roto-tom brackets into hi-hats. Other high-profile bands, like Slipknot and Nile, continue to innovate drums and percussion by incorporating household and common items like saw blades, a boat propeller, car tire rims, and baseball bats. There are countless other drummers who often can’t afford the high price of drum gadgets invert crash cymbals to form Chinas or drill into them to create new effects sounds. Stomp! and Blue Man Group have even found a way to be percussive with brooms, PVC piping, and Zippo lighters. Street drummers even have their own niche among YouTubers by finding whatever is available — including a kitchen sink! No matter what background they come from, drummers seem to push forward new ideas and find ways to get previously unobtainable sounds through their own talents. I look forward to the next couple of decades to see what has become of drumming then.