What are toms and when are they used?

Author: Simon DasGupta.
August 18, 2022

In this article

What are toms? When and why are they used? In this article we talk sizes, shell construction, and drum heads. We also discover why some drum sets have just a couple and some have many.

  • What are drum fills and where do the tom-toms fit in?
  • How many toms does a drum set have?
  • Does the tom size make a difference to the sound?

What are toms?

These percussive heroes enable us to add so much color and expression to our drumming, and they have always been an integral part of the drum set. Most drum sets come with three, with two being mounted directly above the bass drum, and a larger floor standing drum.

Here are five useful facts for beginner drummers.

1. Toms are mostly used in drum fills.

Toms can be incorporated into music in many ways, but they are used the most in constructing drum fills.

Drum fills usually occur at “transitional points” in music. For example, when we pass from a verse to a chorus, that can be considered a transitional point. The same applies when we pass from a chorus back to a verse. We use the toms to create interesting drum combinations that mark these transitions. (Think of the classic fill from "In the air tonight" by Phil Collins, at 3:40).

Aside from their effectiveness in drum fills, toms are a lot of fun to play. These drums are an essential part of the drummer's musical palette, from the high singing pitches of the smaller drums to the enthralling low-end boom and punch of the larger floor toms.

1. The size and number of toms can vary.

If you are in the market for a starter drum set, most options will likely come with three toms. Be sure to check the product specification carefully because there are exceptions. For example, some manufacturers sometimes offer a free add-on tom, and some sets only have two toms.

Most beginners learn on a drum set with at least three toms. Jazz drummers often prefer a two tom situation, with one bass drum mounted tom and one floor tom, and some drummers have multiple toms, depending on the style of music they are playing.

You can have as many or as few as you wish, but we recommend three for starting, and as mentioned, most starter packages accommodate this.

Toms range in size from 8 inches to 18 inches in diameter, and most starter sets typically comprise of three toms; usually in a "rock" configuration of 12, 13, and 16-inch drums, a "fusion" configuration of 10, 12, and 14-inch drums, or a "hybrid" configuration of 10, 12, and 16-inch toms.

3. Toms have different tones, and the shells can be constructed from different woods.

It makes sense that the drum's tone changes significantly depending on its diameter. Eight and 10-inch toms provide the highest pitch options, 12 and 13-inch toms provide the mid-tones, while 14, 16, and 18-inch floor toms provide the lower tones.

The drum's depth makes a difference too, and deeper toms tend to resonate more than shallow drums. The latter, however, can sit lower to the bass drum and are easier to position. It's not something you need to worry about since starter packs have drums with pre-determined, popular dimensions.

Toms are mainly constructed from wood, and different types of wood have unique sound characteristics.

4. Toms can be mounted in different ways.

Smaller and mid-size toms can either be bass drum mounted (where the toms attach to the bass drum using a mounting post and tom holder) or suspended from a cymbal stand using a clamp and tom arm.

Toms that do not have legs are generically described as rack toms, regardless of how they are mounted. This is because they could be mounted on big frames called racks, more common in the 1980s and 1990s.

While you can still see them today, they are mostly used by professionals and touring drummers with many toms and cymbals. Floor toms typically have legs, and while there was once a trend of mounting larger toms from cymbal stands and racks, this is mostly the preserve of yesteryear.

5. The drum head makes a big difference to the sound.

The drum heads are the plastic surfaces attached to the drums that we hit with the stick. Known in the past as drum skins, they are no longer manufactured from animal calfskin; thus, the description has evolved.

Drum heads are always included with drum set purchases. Some manufacturers already fit them for you, and some you have to fit yourself. Subscribers to Drum Ambition can see this process in full swing in our video, How Do I Assemble A Drum Set?

These heads are basic models on many starter drum sets, and you can significantly improve your drum sound with an upgrade.

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