Do you need a drum set to learn to play the drums? Can a practice pad be used as an alternative, and what are the benefits and limitations? 

You've had your first drum lesson and are itching to get home and practice your first beat or rudiment. Or perhaps you just watched an online video and are interested in diving deeper! The problem is, you have nothing to practice on. It's too soon to run out to the music store, or make a potentially expensive online drum set purchase, so your teacher has suggested a strange little device called a practice pad. It's a curious rubber pad mounted on a wood base, and it doesn't make much sound. Are these little gadgets practical for learning the drums?

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What are practice pads?

Practice pads are designed for drummers to help develop their technique. They are very good for practicing the drum set rudiments and experimenting with stick rebound. Unless you buy a practice pad set which consists of multiple pads mounted on a frame, a practice pad is an individual pad that sits on your lap, a desktop, or ideally, an adjustable stand. The pads vary in size, from about 8 inches in diameter up to the standard snare drum width of 14 inches. The playing surface is usually a rubber composite, which has been developed to give a close enough feel to playing an actual snare drum - more on that later. Pads can be single or double-sided. When double-sided, the reverse side is usually a different feel and response, which is suitable for students of marching bands and drumline, where the feel of different drum types can vary.

Do they feel realistic?

Since a practice pad is a tool to help you develop your technique, it's important that they feel as close to an actual snare drum as realistically possible. While pads offer a similar stick rebound to a real acoustic snare drum, they do not feel the same. The upside, though, is that they feel close enough to develop technique, and they are considerably quieter than hitting a real drum. Practice pads are very much like the drum pads on electronic drum sets. They are very good for developing and fine-tuning basic skills but do not necessarily prepare you for the nuances and sensitivities of the raw acoustic instrument. With all that said, if you want to work on your stick technique and practice your single strokes, double strokes, flams, or any other drum set rudiment, then practice pads are an essential tool for any aspiring drummer. Be careful - they can also become quite addictive, and you might find yourself paradiddling your way through episodes of your favorite television shows. Here are a few tips for selecting and getting the best out of your portable practice friend.

1. Manage your expectations.

Practice pads are great for developing techniques but arguably not as effective for learning beats. They are still helpful, though. If you want to learn beats and fills, you are better off air drumming your hi-hat and toms and using the practice pad as a snare drum.

2. Select a pad with an adjustable stand.

The practice pad should mirror the preferred height of a snare drum on a drum set. So much of developing technique comes from good posture, and if your pad is at an awkward height or playing angle, then good posture is hard to achieve. Placing your pad on your lap or a tabletop is not always ideal. Check out this free video on posture and positioning your drums. Ideally, select a pad that will sit on a height-adjustable snare drum stand. Pads from 12-14 inches will typically work well with most snare drum stands, whereas smaller pads will not. You don't have to buy a super expensive snare drum stand - just a very basic model that will hold a pad. Also, be aware of smaller pads that come with a stand. These are usually very basic stands that screw into the pad's base. Unfortunately, they are not particularly sturdy or as adjustable as you might think.

3. Buy a good pad from a reputable brand.

A good practice pad will cost around $30-50. Just like anything drum-related, you get what you pay for. Less expensive pads may feel clunky and emit more sound. Double-sided pads are useful for marching band and drumline students, but single-sided pads are just fine for drum set players.

Recommended pads.

We've added links to two of our favorite pads and a practice pad set. If you can't make it to your friendly local drum store, you can buy them through the links below. As an affiliate for Amazon.com, we may receive a commission if you choose to do this.

Evans Real Feel 12 inch Double-Sided Practice Pad. This pad is great if you want two different practice surfaces, as mentioned above.

Vic Firth 12 inch Single-Sided Practice Pad. An excellent pad for drum set students. Great value, great feel, and a good size.

DW Go Anywhere 5 Piece Practice Pad Set. A brilliantly designed set from Drum Workshop, which comes mounted on a solid stand. Don't forget to add a bass drum pedal if you want to use the bass pad feature.

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