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Five Ways to Change Your Drum Sound

Five Ways to Change Your Drum Sound

Expanding your acoustic drum sound can add colors that make your grooves more impactful and unique. Revamping your same-old percussion tones can also enrich the emotional landscape of a work, adding subtle—or not-so-subtle—touches that increase dimension, expression and musicality. Furthermore, changing things up is fun.

Take guitar players, for example. They can just saunter over to a pedalboard and, with the click of a switch, instantly transform their sound into something ethereal, punishing, texturally lavish, achingly beautiful or utterly bizarre. It’s quite annoying.

Of course, you could always beat guitarists at their own processing game by playing an electronic kit loaded with even more sounds than the typical guitar pedalboard. But even if you’re committed to acoustic drums for the moment, you can still throw some sonic surprises into the mix. It simply takes a bit of imagination and a willingness to experiment.

Here are five ways you can dive into new sounds. Sorry—none of them are as simple as stomping on a guitar pedal. But with minimal effort, you can add a fresh and original racket to your percussive menu. Read on to see how easy it is …

Table of Contents

Try Different Drum Sticks
Get New Drum Heads
Add Percussion Accessories
Swap Out Your Cymbals
Switch Your Bass Drum Beater
Bonus Tips! Try These Free Sonic Hacks
Exploring New Drum Sounds

Try Different Drum Sticks

Actually, there is a way to change drum sounds as quickly as a guitarist can step on a stompbox—just grab a pair of rods, mallets, brushes or another unique bash-and-bang device. Anything different from the conventional wood stick with a wood or nylon tip will produce an atypical sound. Furthermore, the uncommon feel of the stick may trigger an adjustment to your technique, changing your dynamic approach and attack—which adds to the timbral variations.

For example, the rebound of Promark Hot Rod Sticks will be different than that of a conventional hickory or maple drum stick. You can work the lighter, softer attack to bring out some percussive subtleties around the music you’re performing—especially when, say, backing up a singer-songwriter playing an acoustic guitar. There’s also a cool sound when playing on the rim of a snare or tom, because the rods kind of snap together to add some delicate, ghost-like notes. (The trick also works on ride and hi-hat cymbals.) So, while some drummers choose Hot Rods over drum sticks to solely diminish volume and attack, savvy players can dig into the nuances of Hot Rods a bit more to create unique sounds and musically sensitive accompaniments.  


Meinl Stick & Brush Fixed Nylon Brushes

Pictured: Meinl Stick & Brush Fixed Nylon Brushes

To really explore your inner refinement and sensitivity, try MEINL Fixed Nylon BrushesOld-school wire brushes—such as the Vic Firth Jazz Brush—are obviously awesome for “stirring the pot” swishes and trad jazz. The MEINL nylon brushes are typically louder—a boon for rock styles or busting through dense instrumental mixes—and they also sound warmer and drier than wire brushes. In addition, the nylon bristles add a nice cascading pattern on ride cymbals. The bristles also make ghost notes on the snare, snare rim and toms sound exceedingly ethereal.

Zildjian Cymbal Mallets are designed to create moody cymbal swells and reverberating crashes, and that’s certainly enough reason to have them on hand to open up your cymbal sounds beyond the usual. But you can also pretend you’re a classical timpanist and use the mallets on your toms to produce booming resonances with a strong, round attack. Perhaps even check out some orchestral timpani players on YouTube and emulate their classical percussion parts on your kit. When you’re looking for interesting ways to mess with dynamics, attack and tone, the wound-yarn heads on the Zildjian Cymbal Mallets should inspire lots of ideas.

Get New Drum Heads

Changing drum heads isn’t as instantaneous as switching drum sticks, but a new head can provide a fresh tone, as well as offer a platform for further tonal experimentation. Many of today’s drum head manufacturers have developed a number of formulations that deliver much more than a pristine replacement for a head you’ve battered to hell. For example, depending on the materials and coating used, a drum head can produce brighter, more articulate sounds, or darker, warmer and drier tones. They can unleash lively overtones or mute any ringing down to a resonant thud. Even if you’re stone in love with a particular drum head, you should still try different models to see how they might affect your playing and your overall sound. Being “drum head monogamous” can thwart sonic adventures.  

Starting with a sweet, more conventional option, such as a Remo Weather King Ambassador Coated Head, can give you a good foundation to evaluate your next move. These heads produce a balanced combo plate of resonance, attack and sustain, and are favored by players such as Cindy Blackman and Steve Gadd.

Evans G2 Coated Drum Head Pack

Pictured: Evans G2 Coated Drum Head Pack

Get slightly more depth and warmth, while retaining brightness, a balanced attack and sustain with an Evans G2 Coated Drum Head. These two-ply heads also feature better-than-average durability.

If you want to lower the volume and flatten out the tone, Remo Silentstroke heads get you there automatically, and without having to deploy external dampening. The single-ply mesh Silentstroke heads offer up to a 70-percent reduction in peak decibel levels over a conventional Remo Ambassador coated head, while also offering similar rebound and feel. Pro tip: While you can change the tuning of a Silentstroke batter head, if the dampening isn’t giving you the warm boom you want for your toms, you can adjust the tuning of the resonant head (if your drum shell has one) to bring back some rich resonance.

Keep in mind that you can tune any drum head for a high, low or midrange-y tone. Depending on your shells, going low, high or anywhere in between could bring out the best in a head or produce a timbre that’s not to your liking. So, in addition to replacing heads to change up your drum sound, remember to investigate different tunings as well.

Add Percussion Accessories

There’s no rule stating drummers should stick to their basic kits and let percussionists have all the fun with ancillary groove making. If you want to change up your sound, you should investigate adding all kinds of auxiliary percussion to your setup. Many manufacturers offer rhythmic devices that can be easily attached to your drum hardware with included or optional mounts.

One such product is the Latin Percussion NY Cowbell With Gibraltar Mount. You can add “more cowbell” all day and night with this ready-to-go setup. While you may be seduced into evoking Blue Öyster Cult’s classic “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” with never-ending quarter notes, you can also use a cowbell to perform counter rhythms, ghost notes and clangorous textures (such as simultaneous cowbell and crash cymbal punctuations).

MEINL Hi-Hat Tambourine

Pictured: MEINL Hi-Hat Tambourine

Turn your hi-hat into a multitasking percussion machine by adding a MEINL Hi-Hat TambourineThis simple but ingenious device fits onto the hi-hat rod and sits over the top hi-hat cymbal. You can hit it with a stick and/or keep it jangling by working the foot pedal. However you choose to play it, the MEINL Hi-Hat Tambourine can expand the sound, dimension and texture of your grooves.

Swap Out Your Cymbals

You may have seen a drummer trying out an entire platoon of cymbals at a local Guitar Center or watched YouTube videos of celebrity players spending what seems like hours looking for the perfect ride cymbal. Finding the right cymbals for your kit is a critical quest, as they obviously inform your percussive personality. But you don’t have to limit your search to hi-hats, rides and crashes. Consider expanding your sonic palette by also incorporating off-beat cymbals into your rig.

Auditioning designated “effects” cymbals is a good first stop for seeking the outlandish. Zildjian offers the A Custom EFX Crash and K Custom Special Dry Trash Crash. The Trash Crash produces a beautifully rude, “trash can lid” sound with a relatively rapid decay that absolutely commands attention. It can be a great choice to start off a song with a boisterous bang, or as a divergent punctuation occasionally erupting above the shimmer of your conventional cymbals. Filling much the same attention-getting role within a cymbal array, the Custom EFX Crash offers a thin, swish-ping tone with slightly more sustain than the Trash Crash.

SABIAN AAX Series Chinese Cymbal 20 in.

Pictured: SABIAN AAX Series Chinese Cymbal 20 in.

China cymbals share some DNA with trash-type cymbals as they provide a brash, crispy and shattering sound. The ever-austere Charlie Watts used a China to great effect on the Rolling Stones “Miss You,” keeping pretty much to his hi-hat until smashing into a climactic China explosion after a tom fill at 1:54 into the song. In fact, it can be argued that, given Watts’ celebrity status and his reputation as one of rock’s top drummers, his use of a China as a crash/ride in the 1970s, propelled other drummers into adopting the China-crash sound. The SABIAN AAX Series Chinese Cymbal is tight and bright, and delivers enough brassy clang to cut through just about any mix.

Splash cymbals are like exclamation points. Aptly named (and invented) by jazz legend Gene Krupa in collaboration with Zildjian, these cymbals offer a bright, ringing impact and a quick decay. For the most part, splashes kept themselves in the trad jazz arena until the immensely inventive Stewart Copeland incorporated them into his kit while playing with The Police, inspiring scores of drummers to follow suit. (Listen to “Driven to Tears” from Zenyatta Mondatta for an excellent example of his splash work.) The Zildjian A Custom Splash Cymbal produces a tight, rapid splish for those times when you want instant punctuation.

For a darker, more refined and less brash splash, check out the MEINL Classics Custom Dual Splash Cymbal. With its initial clang and slight jangle release, the Dual Splash imparts a subtle splash-with-finger-cymbal type of sound that’s quite unusual and striking.

Switch Your Bass Drum Beater

Transforming your drum sound should absolutely include your bass drum in the mix. Getting new drum heads works here, of course, but an often-ignored element can also provide some stealthy sonics. Audiences hardly ever see drum beater heads unless a fanatical videographer shoots some B-roll of the drummer’s feet. But this hidden part can be switched out rapidly—practically while your singer is going on and on about the subject of the next song or thanking the audience—and significantly change the sound of the bass drum.

Rock drummers tend to use beaters made from dense materials, such as wood, rubber or plastic, to get a beefy attack and more volume. That’s good, because if they were open to switching to something like the Vic Firth VicKick Bass Drum Beater—with an oval, felt core covered with fleece—their bass drum sound would change dramatically. Fleece isn’t just for sweaters, and in this application, the material produces a full, warm and resonant boom.

Innovative Percussion KDB-3 Brooks Wackerman Model Wood Kick Drum Beater

Pictured: Innovative Percussion KDB-3 Brooks Wackerman Model Wood Kick Drum Beater

However, if you’re not jazzed about letting go of some kick drum attack, you can go in the opposite direction and intensify the assault with the Innovative Percussion KDB-3 Brooks Wackerman Model Wood Kick Drum Beater. This signature beater of the Avenged Sevenfold drummer—a renowned purveyor of supersonic double kicks and blast beats—is built for near-instant rebound, relentless attack and monstrous punch.

Bonus Tips! Try These Free Sonic Hacks

If you’re looking for near-instantaneous creative clatter and you’re miles from a local Guitar Center, common household elements can be used to modify your sound—and for free. Ringo Starr, for instance, “borrowed” tea towels from Abbey Road’s cafeteria and draped them over his toms to dampen the resonance and ring. In fact, you can gaffer tape just about any material onto your toms (or snare) to change up the sound, so have yourself some big fun. Try wash cloths, Swiffer sheets, paper towels, bubble wrap, pillowcases, old (but clean) sweat socks or underwear, fabric totes or whatever is within arm’s length.

A super quick tonal adjustment if you use batter and resonant heads on your toms is to simply remove the resonant head. This was another of Ringo’s tricks. (In footage of the 1969 “rooftop concert” by the Beatles, you can see only the batter heads on his kick drum and floor tom.) If you do this, you’ll lose some of the rich resonance of the drum, and the overall sound can be described as flatter or even tribal.

We’ve already discussed how using mallets, rods and brushes can alter drum sounds, but what about swimming pool floaty tubes? Any material should be a feasible choice when you’re in experimentation mode, and floaties—once you carefully cut the long tubes down to a manageable drum stick size—can deliver a thick wallop. While you’ve got the utility knife out, why not try cutting an appropriate length of old garden hose to generate a comic whap? Or a cardboard gift wrap tube for a soft bop? If you’re lucky, the tube may produce a hollow swoosh before impacting the drum head. Other faux drum sticks include 1' long classroom rulers, pencils or pens, wood-crafting dowels and even large oven mitts. Raid the house to find options and have a blast beating out grooves with everyday objects.

Exploring New Drum Sounds

In a very basic sense, devising a unique, innovative, surprising or absolutely bizarro drum sound requires finding a tonal character that’s new for you. It doesn’t have to mean something as grand as reinventing the drum kit or transporting yourself to an alien planet to seek unworldly percussion instruments. Just kick your imagination into hyperdrive and embrace the strange. Try everything. Don’t assume an outcome until you’ve actually used whatever it is you’re testing. Musical history has proven that even seemingly insane ideas can have worth.

And if this little adventure through the sonic landscape of acoustic drums has changed your mind about electronic kits—that’s great. But don’t abandon what you’ve learned here, because you can sample all of your wacky acoustic drum tone tactics and load them into your e-kit. After all, when you discover some truly novel and inventive drum sounds, you should keep them coming.

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