Make The Most Out Of A Crappy Drum Kit
Don’t let bad gear ruin your performance. Here’s how to make the best of a bad situation, and how to impress people with your craftiness at the same time.
Regardless of whether you’re at a venue with a terrible house kit, at a friend’s place, or just at home with your own crappy kit, these tips will help you get the most out of sub-par gear. Sometimes it’s rare that you’ll have the chance to play an $8,000 drum set made from exotic drum wood, but with a little ingenuity, this really shouldn’t be a problem.
One perk of being a drummer in a local band is that you’re not always able (or required) to bring your own drum kit to shows. You can usually saunter into soundcheck with a pair of sticks stored neatly in one of your belt loops, while your bandmates struggle with their amplifiers and guitars.
However, the flip side of this coin is that your ability to perform is left in the hands of the organizer or venue with regards to the equipment they provide.
At the very least, you probably bring your own cymbals and kick drum pedal to the shows you play. But with or without them, you can get caught in some sticky situations with the drums and hardware at your disposal… Showing up to a venue without your own kit can sometimes be a game of chance.
Luckily, you can get by with a little ingenuity, patience, and experience, as well as some tools and accessories that fit snugly in your stick bag. Even if the gear is terrible, there are a lot of tricks to make it work. We’ve covered exactly that, along with a number of measures you can take to maximize the potential of what you’re given.
If you’re ever faced with a terrible drum kit, this information will get you through. As well as applying to crappy drum kits at venues, these tips will help you get the most out of your own kit if it’s a cheap one.
Checklist / guide to the essential tools here (cymbal felts, hi-hat clutch, pedal, key, multitool, some spare tuning rods in case drums are missing them or you need to attach the snare strainer, duct tape, a kickblock?, spare sticks (not just for playing, but for missing floor tom legs or a makeshift cymbal stand, etc)
The absolute essentials: Bring drumsticks and a drumstick bag
Usually you’ll bring a lot more. But in some cases where everything is supplied, the absolute bare minimum to bring is drumsticks. Bring more than one pair, too. Not just for the obvious (breaking a stick), but also for some of the other gig-saving tips we’ve got further down this page.
Along with sticks, a drumstick bag is a super essential piece of equipment. And it’s far more than just a bag to hold your sticks: A well-stocked drumstick bag also holds a small arsenal of other essential drumming equipment that will help get you through any show.
A lot of the important gear mentioned below will easily fit in your drumstick bag, so make sure you’ve got a decent bag to store it all in.
More essentials: Bring a drum key and a hi-hat clutch
Even if you can’t bring cymbals or a kick drum pedal, you must at the very least bring a drum key and hi-hat clutch to every gig.
First up, the drum key is obvious: It allows you to set the kit up as close to your usual setup as possible, making the house cans much more user-friendly. It will also be your savior when it comes to getting a palatable sound out of them, and to help ensure everything is tight and sturdy before you start the show.
Keep at least one drum key in your stick bag, and another with your car keys, to ensure you have one wherever you’ll have a drum kit in front of you.
Next up is the hi-hat clutch. This one can sometimes be forgotten or overlooked, but it’s one of the key weaknesses of a house kit. It’s extremely common for house kit hardware to be beaten up or missing parts. A lot of these issues can be easily dealt with (and we’ll cover more of that later), but without a hi-hat clutch you can trust, you surrender an incredible amount of sound control and feel.
If the hi-hat clutch is missing or broken, it can often be game over for a big part of your drum sound. As drummers, we naturally (and often subconsciously) keep time with our left foot. It can really throw you off your game if you have to start thinking about it all of a sudden, and it can be a huge distraction to be constantly fighting a bad hi-hat clutch.
A hat-hat clutch is small enough to fit in your pocket, and can really make or break your show. An absolutely incredible (and inexpensive) hi-hat clutch is this one: Gibraltar’s quick-release clutch. It’s worth checking out if you need to pick up a spare to keep it in your stick bag or cymbal bag. It allows for super-fast installation and removal, it fits almost any hi-hat stand, and it’s built like a rock. To be honest, it’ll probably replace your main hi-hat clutch.
At the very least, bring the clutch from your own kit whenever you’re playing a show… just be sure you don’t lose it or leave it on the kit when you’re done!
Get the best out of house cymbals
It should be said that along with a drum key and hi-hat clutch, cymbals are high up on the list of things to bring to any show. But when that’s not possible, you’re going to have to make the most of what’s available.
Test the cymbals at soundcheck to see what they actually sound like. Sure, it might say ‘ride’, but does it sound like one? To dampen any unwanted ringing or strange tones, you can use Meinl cymbal tuners, or just some well-placed duct tape (which you should also keep in your gig bag).
Play around with the cymbals, and consider how you can get the best out of your songs with the setup available… Even if it means changing how you play.
For example, does the ride sound better when played a certain way? Is it more effective when you play that really heavy part on the open hi-hats instead of the weak crash? Is it better just to work with one crash instead of two? If there are any cracks or dents on the cymbals, can you set them up so you don’t strike the affected area?
A meticulous drummer will always find a way to get a reasonable performance out of average gear, and these experiences will serve you well in the future. More than one person has said that John Bonham could play any drum kit, and it would still sound like John Bonham. So approach every kit like that.
Cymbal sleeves and cymbal felts
Another essential when it comes to cymbals: Always bring a few spare cymbal sleeves and felts. These are extremely cheap (seriously – around $10 gets you everything you’ll ever need), and they can make all the difference if the venue doesn’t have any. They’ll easily fit in your stick bag, so ensure you’re stocked up.
If you don’t have any cymbal sleeves and felts, you’ll risk cracking your cymbals. Obviously this is especially important if you’re using your own cymbals. Plus, metal-on-metal very rarely creates a desirable sound.
While we’re on the subject of cymbals, let’s touch on stands. Sometimes cymbal hardware just doesn’t work.
Maybe the cymbal stand simply won’t lock straight anymore… It’s common to find wing nuts that no longer work (the thread is gone), missing wing nuts or screws, or even snapped stands and broken legs.
In all of these cases, you can easily tape a drumstick like a splint to keep the stand straight and upright.
If there’s no way to mount a cymbal, you can also tape a stick to the top of the stand, then mount the cymbal on the stick! As well as doing this with broken cymbal stands, you can tape a drumstick to just about anything to create a cymbal stand if you don’t have enough. Use a spare mic stand, an upside-down bar stool, or anything else you can find that’s tall enough for the job.
Check the sturdiness of the gear (how to adapt to problems)
Okay, now we’re moving on from cymbal stands to the rest of the hardware.
When you’re playing in pubs and clubs, most of the time the drum kit you’re supplied with is really old. Hardware has often been broken, repaired, welded, and mix-matched, and it’s not uncommon to come across a few loose screws across the kit.
Use your drum key to go around the drum set and tighten up the hardware as best you can.
Even better, get a drummer’s multi-tool like this one, to have all of the essential drumming tools (including a drum key) all in one… You’ll be able to fix just about anything you come across, and it could save a stand or drum collapsing mid-song.
Screws too loose…
Soundcheck is the perfect time to test the sturdiness of the house drum kit: Check for anything that comes loose under force, and anything that moves around excessively.
Once you’ve put everything where you want it (and it’s tightened up with your multi-tool), grab the duct tape from your stick bag. Use it to hold in the wobblier bits of hardware on the kit, or to act as surrogate cymbal sleeves if you forgot to bring them. If you’re not sure what kind of duct tape to bring, this is a great one for drummers: it’s solid, easy to tear, sticks well, and doesn’t leave a sticky residue when you remove it.
While you’re checking the hardware, take a quick look at the bass drum beater. Make sure it’s not loose (you don’t want it flying off mid-song), and also check its condition. If it’s falling apart, some of that duct tape might help.
If the beater is in really bad shape, you might need to replace it. A spare bass drum beater is another easy-to-bring piece of gear that will always fit in your stick bag. Check out our guide to the best beaters here, to find the right one for your sound.
Screws too tight…
As well as loose screws or gear, you’ll sometimes come across the opposite problem with house kits: Hardware that is far too tight and won’t unscrew. This is especially common for wingnuts on cymbal stands. Luckily, you can usually hit the nut with your stick to loosen them up. If you’re really struggling to loosen (or tighten) a wingnut, put two sticks around it to create more leverage when you turn it.
Keeping the kit in one place
It may not just be the little screws that can’t stay still, but the whole kit. This is often a problem for hard hitters who are used to hammering on their home kit which sits on a thick rug and cannot be moved.
When propositioned with a lightweight kit on laminate flooring it can be a battle to keep it all together. The first thing to do is to accept it and play lighter (hopefully you’ve been working on your dynamics). Don’t just try and battle through with your usual thrashing style (this never ends well). Instead, adapt to what you’re working with, and optimize it.
If the drum kit is sliding around, there are a few ways you can restrict it. For example, you can tie a rope or cable around the kit and through your stool, so that your bodyweight is holding everything down. If the local bar doesn’t have these things close by, try making a roadblock for the kit with anything heavy you can find (beer kegs, fire extinguishers, a hardware bag). Otherwise, you might be able to put a foldback or amp in front, to stop that drum kit creeping away as you play.
You can also carry a kickblock, which will anchor any bass drum as long as you’re on carpet.
What happens when essential hardware is completely missing?
Often stands or legs are missing. In some cases you’ll just need to live without it, but some equipment is more important than others. First up, drumsticks can make perfect floor tom legs if one (or all ) of them are missing.
What about something even more essential: holding up your snare drum?
Sometimes you’ll have to sacrifice one piece of hardware to replace a more important missing piece. For example, if you’re missing a snare stand, turn your floor tom upside-down and adjust the legs so the snare can rest on it, and so it’s the right height.
Alternatively, turn your drum stool upside-down to use as the snare stand. Sure, you’ll need to grab another chair to sit on, but this is better than being stuck with no snare drum at all.
Tune the drum kit as best you can
They say you can’t polish a turd, but when it comes to drumming on crappy kits, you should definitely try. Admittedly, if the skins have been beaten to death over many years, getting a decent sound out of them is going to be tough (but not impossible).
The vital thing on really hard-to-tune kits is learning how to tune the drums relative to each other, using the hardest-to-tune drum as the starting point.
It may be that the floor tom only sounds reasonable when tuned lower. In this case, you’re going to want to tune the rack toms accordingly. Play them together in grooves and fills with the floor tom, and experiment with them until they complement each other.
If you’re struggling to eliminate unwanted ring or resonance, use your duct tape to dampen the drums by taping a small amount on the edge of the skin and adding more until you get the sound you want.
Alternatively, bring some moon gels. They give similar results to duct tape, but they’re easier to adjust, they don’t leave any residue, and you can quickly take them off when you’ve finished your set. Another option is to place your wallet on the snare to reduce the ringing. For more on dampening, see our complete drum dampening guide to become an instant expert.
Tom and snare drum tips
If you’re blessed with a 5-piece kit but only use a 4-piece, you have the luxury of choosing between the best of the two rack toms for your show.
Normally it would be recommended that you use the closest sized tom to the one you regularly practice with. However, this might not always be the best option. It may be that you just can’t get a good sound out of the 12-inch tom, the 14-inch tom’s drumhead is in better condition, or it sounds much sweeter when played in combination with the floor tom.
In these cases, don’t stay married to your standard practice, and always go with what sounds best.
For the snare drum, there are a few steps you can take to maximize performance.
First of all, check the snare wires and snare throw off for damage and usability. If the wires are crooked and can’t be bent or fixed, experiment with tightening and loosening them to see what sounds best. It’s often the case that by tightening the damaged snare wires you can quickly eliminate some unwanted rattles or ringing.
If things are really bad and the snare wire straps are broken, a straw is a top replacement (grab one from the bar!). Otherwise, you can also cut up an old drumhead to create snare wire straps.
To help with poorly-maintained snare drums and toms, keep some spare tuning rods in your drumstick bag. Rods are incredibly cheap, they take up almost zero space in your drumstick bag, and they can be an absolute life-saver if the house kit is missing some.
Tell your band and the venue owner about any issues
Remember to let your bandmates know about any significant problems you’re having, or any changes you’ve decided to make to the set as a result.
Unfortunately, as a humble local musician, you don’t have the luxury of eagle-eyed personal roadies to pick up on an issue as soon as it arises during the show. Because of this, it’s really helpful if your singer knows that the ride stand is loose and might fall over, so he can pick it up if it does. And your guitar player won’t be caught off guard if you let him know that you might simplify a kick drum pattern because the pedal is not responsive enough.
A band performance is a team effort, and effective communication can help harness a harmonious and understanding atmosphere within yours.
You may also find that your bandmates can actually help. People in bands tend to be pretty creative, and may come up with less obvious solutions to your problem. Having said that, you may be just as surprised at how quickly your bandmates can simply produce tape, screws, carpet, or even just ‘a heavy thing to hold it in place’. It’s vital that you make the most of being in a band, and share the struggles together.
Leave it like you found it (or leave it even better)
Despite the fact that much of the drum kit might be falling apart at the seams, you should take care of what you’re borrowing, and leave it in at least the same condition as you find it.
You could also highlight some issues and easy fixes for the owner, such as buying new drumheads, lubricating the hi-hat rod with oil, purchasing a rug, or even finding a better-quality used drum set to replace the current one.
It’s mistreatment over many years by drummers that makes venue owners reluctant to invest in new gear. So be respectful of anything you’re borrowing, and spare a thought for tomorrow night’s drummer!
Be prepared, and be prepared to go with the flow
If you’re regularly playing shows without bringing your own gear, you really can’t be surprised when you’re asked to play crappy kits.
It’s pretty much a rite of passage for any aspiring drummer, and it’s the result of logistical and cost issues that are beyond your own control.
Instead of complaining and using it as an excuse for a sub-par performance, come prepared to deal with it.
Learning to get a tasteful sound out of bad equipment will accelerate your progress as a drummer. It will help you to develop your professionalism, your relationship with sound, as well as your relationship with your chosen instrument. So brush up on your knowledge of the mechanics of drums and hardware, and carry the helpful accessories highlighted in this article.
Treat your stick bag like a tool kit, and adapt your setup and playing style to extract the most from any given piece of kit. This will help ensure that your band sounds as good live as they do in practice, regardless of the drum set you’re using.
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