What is a bass drum?

Author: Simon DasGupta.
September 16, 2022

In this article

The bass drum is the largest piece in your drum set and is played using a bass drum pedal. Also known as a kick drum, it comes in various sizes, shell types, and setups.

  • Five facts every beginner drummer should know about the bass drum.
  • Understanding different drum heads, shell composition and sizing.
  • How to set up and position your bass drum.

Get to know the features of your bass drum.

This feature highlights five essential facts every drummer should know to get the best out of their foot-powered boom maker! If you need help understanding any of the terms in this article, check out this resource.

1. Why do bass drums have different sizes and shell types?

The bass drum shell itself is typically constructed of several wood plies, and the type of wood makes a difference to the sound. While budget and starter drum sets usually have inexpensive woods such as poplar and basswood, intermediate and higher-end drum sets can have shells made from maple, birch, mahogany, oak, and walnut.

Maple and birch are by far the most common, with the former giving a sound that is best described as open and resonant, while birch shells are focussed with a sharper attack.

Bass drum sizes are measured in diameter and depth. The most common bass drum sizes are 22x18, 22x16, and 20x16, but many variations exist. Diameters can go up to as large as 24 inches on modern production drum sets and generally as small as 18 inches for jazz applications. Manufacturers generally list all of the available options on their websites. It makes sense that the larger and deeper the drum, the bigger the sound. Smaller-sized drums have a more controlled, punchy sound.

2. Drilled or undrilled? What's the difference?

When we refer to drilled or undrilled bass drums, we specifically talk about whether the drum has a large hole drilled at the top to accommodate a tom holder.

It is mainly the higher-end professional grade drum sets that have an undrilled bass drum, where the rationale is that the less drilling there is on a shell, the more resonance and tone there is to the drum. This, however, is largely negated by the fact that since most bass drums are fitted with some internal muffling, the resonance is largely controlled regardless.

If you opt for a bass drum that is not drilled to accommodate a tom holder, you will need an alternative solution to mount your toms, such as racks or cymbal stand-mounted holders.

3. Bass drum heads and dampening make a big difference.

It's essential to recognize that starter drum sets generally come with basic drum heads, and switching to a mainstream brand can significantly improve the sound of your drums, particularly the bass drum.

There are two drumheads on a bass drum; the batter head and the resonant head. The batter head is the head that the beater strikes and the resonant head (sometimes referred to as the front head) is the opposite head and often has a small hole, also known as a port.

Batter heads can be single or double-ply, depending on the sound you are looking for, and bass drum heads typically have an additional layer of pre-dampening, such as a plastic outer ring. For more information on drum heads, we recommend reading this article.

It is recommended that some additional dampening is placed inside the bass drum, such as a blanket or a small pillow. The purpose of this is to reduce the resonance of the drum further. Remember, a bass drum should have a low-end, short, punchy sound with minimal ring, and internal dampening helps achieve this. You don't need to overdo this - just a light blanket or small pillow (ideally something that lightly touches both the batter and resonant head) should suffice.

4. Your bass drum pedal technique can affect the sound of the drum.

In our free course preview, we discuss two very commonly used bass drum techniques for drummers: heel-up and heel-down.

Drummers generally choose to either leave the bass drum beater touching the drum head after the note has been played or release the beater immediately, and both will give distinctly different sounds.

Leaving the beater touching the drum head will produce a sharper attack with less resonance, whereas releasing the beater immediately will let the drum sing and resonate a fraction longer, with what some would argue is a more attractive tone. As mentioned earlier, given as we generally have some form of dampening in the drum to reduce that resonance, the latter point is somewhat negated.

In our experience, beginner drummers seem to handle the heel-up technique, with the beater left touching the drum head, better than the instant beater release, but the important thing is to try both and see what works best for you.

5. Bass drum spur positioning can affect stability and playability.

The legs attached to the bass drum's sides are called the bass drum spurs. Some have spikes that can be deployed to stop the drum from sliding, but be very careful of that feature on hardwood and tile floors! A small rug or carpet is always the best option so that your spikes can dig in and provide a non-slip playing situation.

It is very frustrating and impractical when the bass drum moves every time it is played, and you will experience this on harder surfaces where the spikes cannot be used.

The spurs should be angled to provide maximum resistance against slipping while raising the front bass drum head approximately one inch off the floor. The latter suggestion will give you improved playability on the batter side.

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