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Guide to Drums: 23 Types of Percussion Instruments

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 9, 2020 • 5 min read

The percussion family of instruments offers almost limitless possibilities for drummers.



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What Are Drums?

Drums are percussion instruments that make sound when a player strikes a drum head—a stretched membrane attached to the instrument's frame or drum shell. This makes drums a type of membranophone.

For most of musical history, drum heads were made from animal parts such as goat skins, but today's drums almost always use plastic composites for their drum heads. Drummers play drums by hand or with beaters like mallets, drumsticks, rods, wire brushes, and foot pedals.

6 Parts of a Basic Drum Kit

Fans of rock music, pop music, country, R&B, hip hop, and jazz may be most familiar with drums in the context of a drum kit. The core components of a drum kit are:

  1. Kick drum: Also known as a bass drum, this large, deep-sounding drum sits on the floor. The drummer plays it with a foot pedal.
  2. Snare drum: A snare is a bright, trebly drum that features metal snare wires running beneath its lower drum head. Typically, the drummer plays the snare with their non-dominant hand. Larger, body-mounted snare drums are a mainstay of marching band music.
  3. Floor tom: This deep, low-pitched tom-tom drum stands on legs near the drummer's dominant hand.
  4. Rack toms: The hi-tom and low-tom are a pair of tom-tom drums suspended above the kick drum. These drums produce a higher-pitched sound than the floor tom.
  5. Tambourine: The tambourine is an optional part of a drum set, either mounted as a standalone instrument or placed atop a high hat. Though it may have a drum head, the tambourine produces sound via its zils (or jingles)—metal discs mounted around the tambourine frame. Some players opt for a pandeiro, which is a close relative of the traditional tambourine.
  6. Cymbals: Drum kits also include cymbals such as the hi-hat, ride, and crash. These instruments are not technically drums; they are idiophones, which make sound by vibrating the entire instrument.
Sheila E. Teaches Drumming and Percussion
Sheila E. Teaches Drumming and Percussion
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5 Types of Drums in Classical Music

Classical music orchestras feature robust percussion sections. Some include standard five-piece drum sets, particularly for twentieth- and twenty-first-century classical music. More commonly, however, classical music relies on the following drums.

  1. Bass drum: This type of drum is similar to the bass drum in a standard drum set, but it’s much larger in diameter. A classical bass drum hangs from a frame, and the percussionist strikes it with handheld mallets.
  2. Tenor drum: Higher-pitched than a bass drum but lower pitched than a snare drum, the tenor drum is round and of medium depth. The percussionist plays it with a mallet or a drumstick.
  3. Side drum: In classical music, a side drum is a snare drum—usually with its snare disengaged. Side drums feature prominently in most contemporary classical music, whether or not they're part of a standard drum set.
  4. Bodhran: A bodhran is a traditional Irish drum that percussionists sometimes use in orchestral music. It resembles a tambourine without any jingles, and the drummer strikes it with a small beater. Most bodhrans are still made with real goat skins.
  5. Timpani: Also known as kettle drums, timpani sets consist of massive drums that stand on the floor. The player strikes them with felted mallets and adjusts the timpani pitches using a foot pedal, which loosens and tightens the drum heads.

Typically an orchestral timpanist plays only that instrument, but an orchestral percussionist may be responsible for many different instruments. This includes idiophones such as xylophone, marimba, wind chimes, glockenspiel, gong, and tam tam.


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5 Common African Drums

The vast continent of Africa has produced many different types of drums and a wide array of drumming styles. A few African drums are particularly common in the mainstream of world music.

  1. Djembe: This goblet-shaped African hand drum rests between the player's knees.
  2. Talking drum: An hourglass-shaped drum with drum heads on either end, the talking drum gets its name from the notion that it can mimic sounds of human speech.
  3. Slit drum: Also known as a log drum, the slit drum is not actually a membranophone but rather an idiophone made from a hollowed log.
  4. Ngoma: This barrel-shaped drum sits on the floor and is struck with large wood beaters.
  5. Udu: The udu is an idiophone resembling a hollow jug.

4 Iconic Drums From Afro-Cuban Music

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The drum traditions of West Africa and the Caribbean are deeply intertwined, and many membranophones that originated in West Africa found worldwide popularity in various styles of music collectively known as salsa. Famous Afro-Cuban drums include:

  1. Congas: Congas are tall, deeply-pitched drums that stand on the floor or on study chrome hardware. Drummers play them by hand.
  2. Bongos: Bongos are hand drums that come in different sizes, but they are smaller than congas. A bongo drum produces a higher pitch than a conga.
  3. Timbales: Timbales are small, metal-frame drums mounted on a stand. A traditional timbale player usually has two drums they play with beaters, plus cowbell and perhaps a woodblock.
  4. Cajon: Originating in Peru, the cajon is a hollow wooden box that usually features internal snares on one side. The player sits on the cajon and strikes it with their hands.

3 Traditional Indian Percussion Instruments

The Indian subcontinent may have fostered the oldest drumming tradition still in use. Key percussion instruments that appear in traditional Indian music include:

  1. Mridangam: Thought to be the oldest type of drum still in use, the mridangam contains two drums faces—a left face and a right face. Traditional mridangam players apply a mixture of flour and water to the left face to lower its tone when playing.
  2. Tabla: Typically paired with a sitar, the tabla is the most common percussion instrument in traditional Indian music. Tablas consist of two drums; a male drum that produces a bass tone and a female drum that produces a tenor tone.
  3. Ghatam: The ghatam is a clay vessel that resembles a pot. The player holds it in their lap with the opening facing toward them and strikes the surface of the instrument with their hands.

Want to Learn More About Shredding on the Drums?

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