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Bass drum

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


A bass drum is a large drum that produces a note of low definite or indefinite pitch. There are three general classifications of bass drums: the concert bass drum, the 'kick' drum, and the pitched bass drum. The type usually seen or heard in orchestral or concert band music is the concert bass drum.The 'kick' drum, struck with a beater attached to a pedal, is usually seen on drum kits. The third type, the pitched bass drum, is generally used in marching bands and drum corps. This particular type of drum is tuned to a specific pitch and is usually played in a set of three to six drums. (To separate "double bass" from the orchestral instrument)


It is used in orchestral music, concert band music, marching music, and throughout 20th century popular music as a component of the drum set.

A Yamaha Bass Drum pedal.
A Yamaha Bass Drum pedal.

In popular music, the bass drum is used to mark time. In marches it is used to project tempo (marching bands historically march to the beat of the bass). A basic beat for rock and roll has the bass drum played on the first and third beats of a bar of common time, with the snare drum on the second and fourth beats, called "back beats". In jazz, the bass drum can vary from almost entirely being a timekeeping medium to being a melodic voice in conjunction with the other parts of the set. In classical music, the bass drum often punctuates a musical impact, although it has other valid uses.

An orchestral, or concert bass drum is quite large, about 36" in diameter, and is played with one or sometimes two large, padded mallets. Usually the right hand plays the drum and the left hand muffles it. When played with both mallets, a knee or forearm can be used for damping.

Many different timbres, or sound-colors result depending on how where the drum is struck. Implements used to strike the drum may include bass drum beaters of various sizes, shapes, and densities, as well as keyboard percussion mallets, timpani mallets, and drumsticks. Concert bass drums can sometimes be used for sound effects. e.g. thunder, or an earthquake.

In a drum kit, the bass drum is much smaller, most commonly 20" or 22" but sizes from 16" to 24" are quite normal, with depths of 14" to 18", although some brands have made 20" sizes. 26" in diameter is not unusual in a big band, and extremes both larger and smaller are sometimes seen. It is usually more heavily muffled than the classical drum, although it can be a bit "boomy". But this can be stopped by placing a pillow or a blanket against the back head to produce a shorter "thud". It is played using a pedal operated mallet, which a right-handed drummer will conventionally operate with the right foot. Sometimes the front head of a bass drum has a hole in it to allow air to escape when the drum is struck for shorter sustain. Muffling, such as pillows and blankets, can be installed through the hole without taking off the front head. The hole also allows microphones to be placed into the bass drum for recording and amplification. In addition to microphones, sometimes trigger pads are used to amplify the sound and provide a uniform tone, especially when fast playing is too difficult.

One of the many ways to use the foot to hit the pedal is the "heel-toe" motion, where the drummer first puts down the heel and rolls onto the ball of the foot. This method uses a rocking motion and makes it easier for the drummer to hit the pedal quicker.

Double bass

A double bass drum pedal, for use with a single drum
A double bass drum pedal, for use with a single drum

In some forms of jazz, rock, hardcore punk, progressive rock and many forms of heavy metal, particularly thrash metal, metalcore, power metal, black metal, progressive metal, avantgarde metal and death metal, two bass drum pedals are used, one operated by each foot. Originally two tuned bass drums were used for this, but a double pedal on the same drum using an extension mechanism (see illustration) is now more common, particularly due to the significantly lower cost. Although a double pedal will help conserve space, drum resonance is affected by having two beaters playing one drum which is why many drummers, particularly, nearly all of the well-known practitioners, will opt for the classic two bass drum setup. Some drummers have also experimented with two different bass drum tunings, sometimes combining this with double beaters so as to have more than two pedals. With two feet playing bass drum, many of the techniques of snare drum playing (such as rudiments and rolls) can be performed on the bass.

With many double bass drum pedals the common use of a hi hat drop clutch is used to be able to hit the hi hat and it not ring. This allows the drummer to use the double bass and the hi hat at the same time. This is very common among double bass drum players.

Recently, drummers have been able to buy a single foot double pedal. It acts like a single pedal, but it hits on the downstroke and the upstroke. This allows the drummer to perform fast bass beats while keeping their other foot free to use the hi-hat. In addition, drummers can also get a triple kick double pedal, which combines the single foot double pedal with an extension mechanism for the third pedal, which is operated with the left foot.

Double bass drum techniques were first used by artists such as Ray McKinley as far back as the 1940s, and then further pioneered by artists such as Louie Bellson in the 1950s and popularised in the 1960s by Ginger Baker of Cream and Keith Moon of the Who. In certain types of metal, the drummer plays a constant stream of rapid-fire notes on the bass drum, and the ability to play evenly at extremely high tempos is prized (as exemplified by Canadian band Eudoxis whose bass drums measured six feet in length). While metal drummers are stereotyped among some as focusing excessively on double bass speed, other metal drummers of various genres, such as Tool's Danny Carey, Dream Theater drummer Mike Portnoy (who could also be classified as progressive rock drummers), ex-Blind Guardian drummer Thomen Stauch and Cryptopsy's Flo Mounier are also known for varying their double bass patterns and using them to interact with the other drums in a complex and creative manner. Additionally, some drummers, such as death metal drummer Derek Roddy and rising death metal star Tim Yeung are notable for being able to execute complex bass drum patterns at very high speeds while playing independent patterns in the hands.

Additionally, many extreme metal drummers use a combination of fast-double bass drum patterns, the snare, and the cymbals to create an extreme blast beat sound. The hyperblast style, exemplified by Flo Mounier, is an example. Blast beats on the double bass drums combined with a more standard thrash-pace rhythm on the snares and toms are more common among thrash metal and particularly European power metal. Of course, there are exceptions to both the aforementioned generalizations.

Some metal bands have turned to using trigger pads, although this practice is frowned upon by some fans and some drummers, some of whom might be unaware that the trigger is merely a sensor that produces a certain sound assigned from a sound module, once the head has been struck by the drummer's foot or stick. It allows drummers to focus more on speed and less on volume: because at very rapid speeds it becomes impossible for the legs or feet to make as large motions as when playing slowly, the volume of the bass drum hits necessarily diminish. Triggers will produce a sound whenever the bass drum head is struck, making it so a drummer can gently tap on the head at a very fast rate and still create the sound of a full-on fast drumbeat.

This method has been accepted by many contemporary grindcore and death metal bands who aim for speed that cannot be attained by conventional drumming techniques. There are various reasons why triggers are advantageous. One can always have the desired sound at any time, making them almost essential for somebody who plays two bass drums, for it is impossible to tune two drums to precisely the same note, since no drum is ever identical as the other (not even in case of same brand, model and dimensions). Even players using a double pedal experience this to some degree, as the two beaters hit different spots in the head. In addition, at extremely rapid speeds, the sounds produced by the bass drum, being at a very low frequency, will often become indistinguishable and the effect will be a rumble rather than a series of notes. A triggered bass drum sound often has an audible treble portion, called the "click" due to its sound, guaranteeing that even at high tempos each note will be clearly audible (this can also be achieved by substituting the usual felt beater head with one made of wood or rubber). Triggers are also useful for touring bands who play concerts night after night in venues with different acoustics and various levels of sound quality. The triggers make one less hassle in preparing for death metal concerts, which often feature very large and expensive drum sets played in small, cheap venues.

However, using triggers has its drawbacks. The triggers can be notoriously difficult to calibrate in the beginning: often before calibration a trigger will either produce a flurry of notes from only one hit, or will produce only a few notes when many hits are made. Using quality triggers and spending a large amount of time fine-tuning the sensitivity of the triggering equipment is almost always necessary. Furthermore, triggering necessarily diminishes the potential for dynamic playing: whether the drum is struck softly or heavily, the signal produced by the transducer will be at a constant volume (though some dynamics are possible, depending on the type of trigger used). Whilst in some cases this is desirable, such as in a death metal band, where the use of dynamics is less needed, it is not in a different and more sensitive setting such as jazz or fusion music. Finally, a triggered bass drum will almost never sound like a real bass drum, even if the sound produced by the trigger is a recording of a real bass drum, as subtleties of individual hits are lost due to the uniform sound produced. In order to alleviate this to some degree, often a recording drummer will choose to employ a mix of trigger and microphone when recording the bass drum.

A few bands use drum machines to obtain bass drum speeds impossible for human legs, but this practice is not well received by fans and musicians who consider it cheating.

A bass drum in a drum kit
A bass drum in a drum kit

The most common method of doublekick playing is a "heel-up" technique: the pedals are struck with the ball of the feet using force primarily from the thigh as opposed to the ankles when using the "heel-down" technique. Most drummers play single strokes, although there are many who are also capable of playing doubles or paradiddles.

A more difficult method is the "heel and toe" technique: the foot is suspended above the footboard of the pedal and the first note is played with the heel. The foot snaps up, the heel comes off the footboard, and the toes come down for a second stroke. This method is much more difficult and tiring than running. However, once mastered it allows the player to lay down very rapid rolls on the bass drum. Noted players include Mike Justian, Nicholas Barker, Tim Waterson , Danny Carey. The technique is commonly used in death metal and other extreme forms of music, but there are musicians such as Thomas Lang or Virgil Donati that employ it for various styles and are also capable of performing impressively complicated solos on top of an ostinato bass drum pattern. Lang, for example, has mastered the heel-toe technique to the extent that he is also able to play dynamically with the bass drum and to perform various rudiments with his feet.

Many drummers use a drop-clutch mechanism in order to disengage the top hi-hat and free both feet while double bass playing. This results in the hi-hat producing a closed sound until the hi-hat foot is available. The mechanism is disabled by fully pressing on the hi-hat pedal again. Another solution to produce closed hi-hat sounds is by mounting an X-hat on the kit, thus leaving the main hi-hat for the open sounds.

Marching bass drums

James Island High School Bass Line
James Island High School Bass Line

The "bass line" is a unique musical ensemble consisting of graduated pitch marching bass drums commonly found in marching bands and drum and bugle corps. Each drum plays a different note, and this gives the bass line a unique task in a musical ensemble. Skilled lines execute complex linear passages split among the drums to add an additional melodic element to the percussion section. This is characteristic of the marching bass drum as opposed to a bass drum in a concert band its purpose is to convey complex rhythmic and melodic content, not just to keep the beat. The line provides impact, melody, and tempo due to the nature of the sound of the instruments.


A bass line consists of between four and six musicians, each carrying one tuned bass drum, although variations do occur. Smaller lines are not uncommon in smaller groups, such as some high school marching bands, and several groups have had one musician playing more than one bass drum, usually small ones, with one mounted on top of the other.

The drums are typically between 16" and 32" in diameter, but some groups have used bass drums as small as 13" and larger than 36". For example, the Purdue All-American Marching Band uses a bass drum approximately 8 feet in diameter that they claim is the "world's largest drum" [1]. The drums in a bass line are tuned such that the largest will always play the lowest note, the closest smaller one will play a higher note, and so on, with the smallest drum playing the highest note. Individually, the drums are tuned higher than other bass drums (drumset kick drums or orchestral bass drums) of the same size, so that complex rhythmic passages can be heard clearly.

Unlike the other drums in a drumline, the bass drums are generally mounted sideways: the two drumheads don't point up and down, but left and right. This results in several things. First of all, to ensure that a vibrating membrane is facing the audience, bass drummers must face the end-zone (outdoor groups usually march on a football field; indoor groups in a gym: in either case, the drum head still points toward the audience) and so are the only section in most groups whose bodies do not face the audience. Consequently, bass drummers usually point their drums at the back of the bass drummer in front of them, so that the drum heads will all be lined up, from the audience's point of view, next to one another in order to produce optimal sound output.

Playing a marching bass drum

Since the bass drum is oriented very differently than a snare or tenor drum, it is played very differently. The drum is mounted essentially on the chest, with the heads pointing to the left and to the right. The arm is bent at the elbow and the forearms are held parallel to the ground and nearly parallel to the drum head. The hands hold bass mallets in such a way as to place the center of the mallet in the center of the head.

The motion of the basic stroke is either similar to the motion of turning a doorknob, that is, an absolute forearm rotation, or similar to that of a snare drummer, where the wrist is the primary actor, or more commonly, a hybrid of these two strokes. Bass drum technique sees huge variation between different groups both in the ratio of forearm rotation to wrist turn and the differing views on how the hand works while playing. While most groups conform to the German grip, there is great debate as to whether or not the fingers should support the motion of the mallet by opening or closing or not.

However, the basic stroke on a drum produces just one of the many sounds a bass line can produce. Along with the solo drum, the "unison" is one of the most common sounds used. It is produced when all of the drums play a note at the same time and with a balanced sound; this option has a very full, powerful sound. The rim click, which is when the shaft (near the mallet head, usually) is struck against the rim of the drum, either solo or in unison or, fairly often, in unison in the lower four drums while the top bass plays a normal accented note. Rimshots are rare and usually only happen on the top couple of drums.

The different positions of the typical 5 man bass line each require different skills, though not necessarily different levels of skills. Contrary to the popular belief that "higher is better," each drum has its own critical role to play.

Bottom, or fifth bass, is the largest, heaviest, and lowest drum in the drumline. Consequently, it is used frequently to help maintain pulse in an ensemble and is thus sometimes referred to as the "heartbeat" of the group (the bottom bass was also often referred to as the "thud" bass in days bone by, indicating that many of their notes were the last one at the end of a phrase). Although this player does not always play as many notes as fast as other bass drummers (the depth of pitch renders most complex passages indistinguishable from a roll), his or her role is absolutely essential not only to the sound of the bass line or the drum line, but to the ensemble as a whole, especially in the case of parade bands.

Fourth bass is slightly smaller than the bottom drum (generally two to four inches smaller in diameter) and can function tonally similarly to its lower counterpart, but usually plays slightly more rapid parts and is much more likely to play "off the beat" - in the middle rather than at the beginning or end of a passage.

Third bass is the middle drum, both in terms of position and tone. Its function is usually that of the archetypical bass drum. This player rarely starts or ends phrases, but plays an integral role in the actual rendering of complex linear passages.

Second bass has arguably the most difficult job in the drumline. This players parts are very likely to be directly adjacent to the beginning or end of a phrase and less likely to be on a beat, which is highly counter-intuitive, especially to a new player. Sometimes this drum can function about the same as the top drum, but usually the second and top drummer function as a unit, playing very rudimentally difficult passages split between them.

Top, or first, bass is the highest pitched drum in the bass line and usually starts or ends phrases. The high tension drum heads allow this player to play notes that are just as taxing as those of the snare line, and often the top bass will play a part in unison with the snare line to add some depth to their sound.

Audio samples

  • Bass drum (file info) play in browser (beta)
    • Audio sample of an unmuffled bass drum from a drum kit, 54 KB
    • Problems listening to the file? See media help.

External links

  • How To Record The Perfect Kick Drum Sound- Tips on recording your bass drum
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