I originally wrote this guide because a number of people had asked me about buying a drum kit for a Christmas present. Now, nearly three years on, I find I'm still being asked for advice, so I thought I'd again update the guide for Christmas 2008. I 'm delighted that so many people have read my guide and have found it useful - please remember to add your vote, too, if it's been useful to you! It makes it all worthwhile continuing to monitor and update the Ebay drum scene and this guide. The guide gets longer every time I revise it, so I've split it into various sub-headings which will, I hope, make it more user-friendly and save you time.
My experience has been gained from nearly 50 years of playing (rock, pop, jazz, big-band, orchestral) and thirty years of teaching! There are many pitfalls, and these are often exploited by sellers in wording designed to mislead those who aren't knowledgeable. The usual Ebay rules apply, of course, especially "If it looks too good to be true, then it's probably a scam!" You nearly always get what you pay for. There are good deals to be had, but be wary. If at all possible, go and see the drums before a final bid. Prices always inflate in the couple of months up to Christmas - if you can wait till January/February you'll find prices significantly lower on all musical instruments. Of course, if you want to sell a kit, late October to December is a good time. Remember, too, that a drum kit is large and cumbersome to transport. Many cars don't have back doors which open wide enough to take a 22inch bass ('kick') drum, so don't get caught out when you go to collect!
I make no claims to be infallible! I buy and restore old drums, mainly Premier, but even I have been caught out once or twice by deceptive photographs and misleading descriptions! Some people do hideous things to old drums, in an attempt to update them. Slapping silver Hammerite on to the insides of old Gretsch shells to simulate the original silver paint and to cover up the filler used to blank off dozens of drill holes from previous hardware fittings was one of the worst I've come across - the drums had been re-wrapped and all had coated heads, so you couldn't see inside in the photos! These were colanders, not drums!
Some specific points to know and look out for when buying a drum kit:
Sizes and configuration
A standard drum kit is usually five drums - bass drum, two top (suspended) tom-toms, a floor tom with legs and a snare drum (wood shell or steel). Drums for rock music are traditionally bigger sizes (24 or 26 inch bass) whilst jazz kits are often the smallest (18 or 20 bass). The most popular standard configuration is 22 bass, 12 and 13 suspended toms, 16 floor tom. One very modern trend is to have only one suspended tom and two floor toms. Bass drums have also become deeper front to back (20 years ago, nearly all basses were 12 or 14 inches deep, whereas now 16, 18 or even 20 is not uncommon). Fashions change, and several bands are now playing the shallower toms popularised in the 1960s (see the repro 'Pictures of Lily' Premier kit), rather than the deeper 'power' toms of the late 70s and 80s. There are also many single-headed concert toms about (usually old from the 1970s when they were fashionable) - these are fine if you need volume without fine tuning, but will never allow you to achieve the natural depth and tone of a double-headed tom. Remo's 'Rototoms' provide a cheap and effective way of achieving the same results as concert toms.
Shells, finishes and heads ('skins')
Drum shells can be made of many different wood types, producing different sounds, and vary in price accordingly ('named' woods, eg birch, maple, mahogany or oak, etc.tend to be more expensive, whilst cheaper drums tend to have multiple wood plies, often with a posh wood ply on the outside!). Some drums have wood lacquered finishes (generally more expensive) whilst most have thermoplastic covering, sometimes called 'Nitron', in many different colour ranges (metallics, glitters, pearls, plain colours). You can also find fibreglass, acrylic plastic or steel shells but these are less usual, and often expensive. Don't be too worried about battered looking plastic heads - they are fairly cheap to replace and there are some good deals on complete new sets on Ebay (Remo, Aquarian, Evans are some of the leading brands). Take note that some drums made before the early 1970s were 'pre-international' sizes. Pre-international drum heads are still available, but are inevitably in fewer ranges and more expensive. It is worth pointing out that a new set of good quality heads can make a cheap end drumset sound very good. In my view, heads are at least as important as shells in getting the sound you want.
Tatty looking shell finishes aren't necessarily a problem as a new set of ready cut plastic wraps is quite affordable and can be applied by most people with basic DIY skills. Search for 'drumwrap' on Ebay, or have a look at the Highwood Drums website where Gareth is just going into drumwrap supplies. Undamaged (ie not cracked or warped by damp) shells, fittings and quality of chromework are important. All older chrome 'pits' and shows signs of wear, though very fine wire wool and car chrome cleaners can be quite effective. Premier have always had a reputation for high quality chrome work. Some drum kits are sold as 'shell packs'. This means they only have the drums and no hardware. There is a growing trend for sellers to sell the snare drum separately as this tends to command higher prices when not part of a kit shell pack. Beware of old snare drums - they may be described as 'vintage' and 'collector's item', but these often mean worn out! The mechanisms can become sloppy after years of use, particularly true of some of the 'parallel action' and 'floating' snare mechanisms.
Hardware (stands, mounts, etc.)
This will normally include a hi-hat stand (pedal cymbals), one or more cymbal stands, mounting for the suspended tom toms (usually on top of the bass drum), legs to hold the bass drum steady, legs for the floor tom, a bass drum pedal and possibly a stool (or 'throne'). How you sit is very important, both in terms of drumming quality, and the future health of your back. A growing trend is to have isolated supension mounts for the toms - this means the shells remain undrilled and should therefore resonate better (different companies have different types, and be wary because they aren't always compatible across different makes). Sometimes, fashion-conscious drummers have retro-fitted these mounts to old shells which have already been drilled which defeats the object somewhat! Check the shells of the kit you're buying to see it hasn't got holes where you don't want them (remember a re-wrap can cover a multitude of previous hardware mounting attempts!) You should remember that secondhand drums will generally have taken quite a hammering over the years! The hardware will reflect this - it is designed to hold the kit components up, not let them down! Screws, nuts and bolts may be missing or loose; chroming may have flaked off in wear areas; mountings may have cracked. There's always hardware for sale, new and secondhand, on Ebay. Cheaper, 'budget' brands are often less durable and spares are impossible to obtain. Stands may be double-braced (stronger but heavier) or single-braced (lighter duty and lighter weight). A reputable brand single braced stand is often stronger than a cheap 'budget range' double-braced. Look out for the 'Gibraltar' range - quality products at very reasonable prices, even new. Gibraltar is now distributed by Fender in the UK (these guitarists get everywhere!) and I have recent personal experience of first-class customer service from them in obtaining spares. Some drummers use 'rack systems'. These are separate stands on which all the suspended drums and cymbals are mounted. Pearl and Gibraltar make good racks ( I have used a Gibraltar rack for 15 years, and it's never let me down). Gibraltar also produce good isolated suspension mounts for toms at affordable prices. And, no, I don't have shares in Gibraltar!!!
Careful drummers protect their investment, so look out for secondhand kits which have cases with them (may be fabric bags, fibreboard or tough plastic hardcases.) It is essential to protect cymbals in cases or padded bags - they can be quite easily damaged in transit. Remember the hardware should be cased too if the kit is going to be moved about. Soft, fabric cases are quite cheap to buy and are often sold on Ebay as full sets. There are currently full sets of drum bags on Ebay at under £50. I use 'Hardcase' products, produced in Chesterfield, Derbyshire, and I believe this is as good as it gets.
Drum and cymbal brand names
There is a 'street-cred' issue with drum kits for most young drummers on their first kit. They often like to emulate the drummer in their favourite band (Joey Jordison of 'Slipknot' must have increased 'Pearl' sales massively!) Drum companies spend a fortune in endorsing the top names of the day, hoping to pull in extra sales by association. Most of the famous manufacturers produce different drum lines at all levels of the market. Top names include: Premier, Pearl, Tama, Drum Workshop, Gretsch, Yamaha, Ludwig, Remo, Mapex, Slingerland, Sonor, Orange County, Trick, Brady, Ayotte, .... . Many of these have low end ranges produced in the Far East, but nevertheless of good quality, and increasingly the high end ranges are produced out there too where volume manufacture and better quality control is reducing overall costs. There are some very good smaller British companies producing bespoke drums at surprisingly reasonable prices, eg Highwood (Wakefield), Richmo (Stoke on Trent). After-sales service is important if you need a particular bolt, wingnut or fitting (and you will!) Particular examples of good 'starter' kits include Premier Cabria, Premier Olympic, Pearl Export, Drum Workshop Pacific and Yamaha Rydeen. There are many so-called budget starter kits which look bright and shiny at very low prices - some of these are not designed to last and will not survive normal wear and tear for very long. The world's largest container ship docked in Britain in December 2006, and a large proportion of its cargo was cheap Chinese drumkits! Cheap hardware, in particular, tends to strip threads, bend and collapse after a period of use. Be wary of names which don't mention any of the 'big' manufacturers. The same applies to cymbals.
The 'big' names - Avedis Zildjian (or just Zildjian), Sabian, Paiste, Meinl, Ufip - all have 'budget' ranges which are pretty good for the money. These are machine-made, cut and stamped from brass. Examples include Sabian Solar and Paiste 101 ranges. However, cymbals are a lifetime investment for most established drummers who will eventually buy higher end cymbals which are much more expensive but which will last a lifetime, with care. More expensive cymbals are made of brass -based alloys, and are often named after the alloy, eg B8, B20, Mn20, etc. The most expensive cymbals are hand made, being machine lathed and then hammered by hand to obtain the appropriate tone. Cymbals may look dull and dirty, but this doesn't necessarily mean they won't play well. You can buy proprietary cymbal cleaners from most drum shops (including on Ebay). The cleaners will also remove the inks used to put the black printed name on the cymbal, so be careful if you want to keep the logo! Sabian actually sell an ink pack with stencil to reapply a Sabian logo and another Ebay seller has recently started to sell a similar kit for all brands. Never buy cracked or 'keyholed' (worn around the centre hole due to friction against the metal stand) cymbals - they're scrap metal! These are often advertised on Ebay, quite cheaply, telling you that there's only a tiny crack which makes no difference to the sound! A tiny crack in a cymbal will grow and the cymbal will always sound cracked - some people cut or drill damaged sections, but this is an act of desperation and will rarely allow the cymbal to sound as it should. A good starter cymbal set would be a pair of hi-hat cymbals, a ride cymbal and a crash cymbal. Special cymbals like splashes and chinas can be added later if the drumming bug really bites!
Sticks, brushes, 'hot rods', etc.
You'll need something to hit the kit with! Generally a pair of sticks is a good place to start. There are good cheap wooden sticks about, but check quality by rolling the stick on a flat surface. If it's bent, reject it. The more expensive sticks, like Vic Firth, Promark, etc have better quality control! Hickory sticks are most common, being generally flexible, and less likely to break. The wood grain in them does, however, tend to shred with constant hitting on metal hoops (I use a pair a gig!). Oak sticks are hard and durable, but will snap more easily when hit hard on a metal hoop. I use wooden (hickory) sticks on my acoustic drums, but have a pair of excellent 'Ahead' aluminium sticks, with replaceable outer plastic sheaths, which I use on my Roland electronic drums with mesh heads. The Ahead sticks absorb some of the impact of playing on rubber pads and are less tiring on the wrists!
And finally...... (at last, you say! Well done if you've got this far!).
I have been appalled to see so many examples of drum sellers being economical with the truth. One guy sold a kit described as a 'Premier Thunder'! The kit was in fact a cheap, and well-battered Thunder starter kit with a Premier logo bass drum head added! There's another one currently on sale which is an old Premier kit with a Drum Workshop front head! Don't be fooled by what the bass drum head says - it can be changed quite cheaply. You can even buy self adhesive logos on Ebay to apply to your own front head for under £2. Remember all reputable drums have a badge (usually metal) on them. If in doubt, ask the seller for a closeup digital photo of the badges! If they're not there, you don't necessarily know what you're buying. Equally, of course, disreputable sellers can add badges from other kits - these can be bought readily on Ebay. Another guy recently sold a kit which he said was a Premier Genista with 10 drums for £300! Impossible! When I questioned this, he said he thought it was from the expensive Genista range because he'd seen the same colour in an old catalogue! They were actually re-covered drums from a cheaper Premier range. Also, earlier this year a guy in Scotland tried selling a Premier APK shellpack which he claimed to have paid £800 for in 1993! If he paid that then, he was robbed! £350 would be nearer the mark, and as these drums were fairly tatty (he said the chrome was flaking) they'd be worth about £150-£200 at most today. Not surprisingly, they didn't sell. One of my favourite ads for being economical with the truth was the one selling a drum mount 'in satin grey finish'. What this really meant was that all the shiny chrome plating had flaked off! Another seller who was hoping for a Christmas bonanza said his kit was 'adjusted and tuned by a New Zealand drum tech.'! So how many famous New Zealand drummers can you name?!! Of course, it's always 'Buyer Beware', but sometimes sellers verge towards dishonesty. Finally, always be wary of the words 'vintage' and 'classic' - these can be very expensive (as in cars!) if you don't know what you're doing. A good website to use for reference is called DRUMARCHIVE.COM where there are dozens of old catalogues from different manufacturers, so you can probably check the description of the kit you're watching.
A postscript on noise!
One of my neighbour's sons has just got a drum set (with my help, I should add!). Drums are noisy, but there are ways to avoid problems:
a. Buy a set of cheap 'silencer' pads - available on Ebay, and from most music stores.
b. Fit a set of mesh heads - again available quite cheaply - these make playing very quiet (as used on electronic kits), but are a bit of a hassle if you need to fit real heads again for playing gigs (you could of course buy two kits ..........!)
c. Buy a rubber practice pad, or even a rubber pad practice kit.
d. Invest in an electronic kit, such as a Yamaha DT series, or Roland TD series. You can listen to what you're playing through headphones. I use my Roland exclusively for practice at home, and for studio recording. You can use these kits live, but will need a fairly high power P.A. system to achieve the volume and clarity to compete with the band. Rolands in particular still seem to be commanding premium prices as we run up to Christmas 2008, but you really do get what you pay for, and no wonder demand remains high.
e. Buy a set of acoustic earplugs! - joking aside, drums and especially cymbals can damage hearing, particularly over many years. It's the high frequencies from cymbals which are particularly damaging - tinnitus over several hours/days after a gig is usually the first sign damage is occurring. Repeated regularly, the damage will become permanent. I always wear acoustic earplugs when gigging with my rock band, though I've recently started to use some Vic Firth sound isolating headphones which allow monitoring as well. Jokes about deaf drummers are very common, but sadly true. Pardon?!!
Good luck in your search for a good drum kit - there are lots out there, and some real bargains! Hope this helps. Do get in touch if you have questions - can't guarantee I'll know the answer, but I probably know someone who does!