In our last blog post, we discussed the significance of dynamics and how to achieve and utilize a wide dynamic range on the drums. During your practice since then, you may have began discovering all kinds of different tones through exploring different volumes. Everybody knows what drums hit hard sound like, but few realize the enormous tonal range drums can produce at medium and low volumes.
Tone is used to describe the quality of a sound. Some descriptors of tone include bright, dark, harsh, soft, metallic, hollow, shrill, clean, glassy, distorted, etc. Like dynamics, tones are analogous to shades of colors. Many tones can be combined to create different sonic textures.
To illustrate the variety of tones drums can create, let’s think about everything in the observable universe. Kind of overwhelming, right? But there are many different scales at play; galaxy clusters full of galaxies, hundreds of millions, if not billions, of stars within each galaxy with planets potentially orbiting around each star, moons orbiting around planets, and so on. All of those things are incomprehensibly large in their own right, but they’re all composed of things much too small to see with the naked eye.
There’s an entire microscopic layer to everything around us, and without all the really tiny stuff, like atoms, protons, neutrons, and electrons, there wouldn’t be any big stuff. Timbre functions very similarly. Loud sounds are still a combination of subtler tones, but a lot of those tones get buried under noise.
Striking a drum or cymbal using various techniques can highlight particular tonal characteristics. A snare drum or ride cymbal, for example, can produce a very wide range of sounds depending on how hard it’s struck, where it’s struck, and with which part of the stick it’s struck. Layering and blending tones together adds even more dimension to music than dynamics alone.
Tonal Qualities of a Snare Drum
Let’s explore the tonal range of a snare drum. When struck directly in the center with the tip of a stick, the drum produces a full, focused tone with little resonance and a defined articulation. However, striking the snare off center by just a couple of inches results in much more resonance and a less clear attack. Articulations become less defined and resonance increases the further from the center the drum is struck. For an even wider articulation, try flipping the stick around and hitting with the butt end.
There are some less-than-obvious ways of striking a snare drum to produce all kinds of unique tones. Striking the rim and the center of the drum at the same time, called a rimshot, produces a much sharper tone capable of cutting through the air like a razor. Many drummers use rimshots to accentuate the backbeat in grooves. Striking the rim and away from the center of the surface produces rim shots that contain much more resonance and highlight overtones.
To bring out more of the tone of the drum shell instead of the heads, drummers use a technique, known as cross sticking, to play rim knocks. Rim knocks create a much more hollow, woody tone similar to that of a wood block or a pair of claves. To play a rim knock, anchor one end of the stick to the surface of the drum, approximately 1-2” from the rim. Keeping the base of your hand resting on the surface of the drum, lift the stick and strike the rim. Pivot over the end of the stick that’s anchored to the surface. Many drummers elect to hold the stick backwards and strike the rim with the butt end to create a wider, clearer tone.
Drummers can evoke many other tones from a snare drum by using different types of sticks and different techniques, like scraping the surface (perhaps with brushes), or by pressing one stick into the drum while striking the stick with the other. Simply shutting off the snares (lowering the wires from the bottom head) and applying each of the above techniques reveals even more tonal possibilities. It’s remarkable how many sounds just a single drum can create!
Tonal Qualities of a Ride Cymbal
Cymbals also produce different tones when struck with different techniques. Striking with the tip of the stick toward the outer edge of the cymbal produces lower frequencies with ample sustain. Playing a little further from the edge of the cymbal will produce more mid-range frequencies and a balanced tone, while playing on the bell in the center of the cymbal produces high-pitched frequencies.
Using the tip of the stick results in very clear articulations, which have enough definition to sit on top of the cymbal’s resonance. But there are plenty of times where drummers require volume over finesse. To get a wider articulation and a more washy tone from the ride cymbal, simply strike with the side of the stick instead of the tip. With this technique, the ride cymbal begins functioning more like a crash cymbal. Striking with the side of the stick on the edge of the cymbal will make the cymbal roar at the expense of a clearly defined attack. Playing on the bell of the cymbal with the side of the stick results in a more piercing metallic tone, which is great for cutting through loud, energetic sections of music.
All that being said, the tones a cymbal can produce greatly depend on the cymbal’s design. There’s an enormous array of cymbal sizes, thicknesses, and finishes. Thicker cymbals posses the ability to produce higher volumes and very clear articulations, while thinner cymbals generally have a lower volume ceiling with a less-defined attack.
The Light and Dark Sides
Cymbals with a shiny, brilliant finish typically produce clean, bright, glassy tones with a longer sustain. Take the Zildjian A Custom Ping Ride as an example (pictured bottom left). It’s relatively thick and has a mirror-like finish. It produces an extremely clear stick definition and it gets LOUD. This cymbal is great for rock music and can easily project sound to the back of any room. Check out a sound bite here.
Cymbals with a dull, rough finish typically generate dark, complex, dry tones with a shorter sustain. The Meinl Byzance Extra Dry Thin Ride (pictured bottom right) is essentially the complete opposite of the Ping Ride. Razor thin, unfinished, and dark, the Meinl ride creates complex, washy tones. While it can’t quite match the volume of the Ping Ride, its tonal complexity makes it an easy pick for small-room gigs. Get a preview of its sound here.
The ability to implement various tones on the drums allows for much greater musicality and depth to parts. Below are a few examples of drummers utilizing a huge tonal range on the drum set.
Jojo Mayer uses various techniques to evoke wildly different tones from the drums and cymbals in this incredibly musical solo.
In this video, Benny Greb demonstrates a few different ways to “prepare” a drum set in order to achieve various tones.
In the first minute of this performance, Jim Black uses all kinds of techniques and even different objects to strike the drums and cymbals to bring out specific tonal qualities.
Exploring different tonal properties of drums and cymbals adds another creative parameter to your drumming and music making. Through trial and error, you’ll discover dozens of unique tones and techniques to realize the full sonic potential of a drum set.