How to Play the Bass Drum: The Basics

The Bass Drum is a noble instrument and unfortunately it is often maligned by non percussionists because it looks easy to play and it is often classified as a sub instrument like the spoons or something.

I’m here to tell you that the Bass Drum is a fantastic musical instrument, and so are the spoons for that matter, and it is one of the most important instruments in the percussion family. A well played bass drum in a well written piece of music is magical and the player responsible for playing the bass drum should do everything he or she can do to make it sound as good as possible.

The bass drum is a big round drum and it’s easy to play incorrectly because of its and seemingly rudimentary origins. It is easy to play if all you do is smack it, but if you really want to play music there is a lot to pay attention to and a lot of practicing by the player to make it sound its best.

The bass drum must be in good condition to sound its best. The heads must be free of holes or dents and the drum needs to be tuned well.

How to Tune the Bass Drum

Luckily most bass drums will keep in tune without too much maintenance problems. This is of course if we’re talking about a drum with synthetic heads. If you have a bass drum with real calf skin for heads then you’ll have to spend much more time adjusting the drum on an ongoing basis. But, for now, let’s just concentrate on drums with plastic heads which are really the most common.

  1. Tune both heads of the bass drum down to their lowest pitch. Tighten the head by turning each lug one turn at a time and in a chris cross pattern on the drum, so if you imagine the bass drum as a clock face you tighten at 12 then 6; 3 then 9, etc. The drum head should only be as tight as it needs to be so that any wrinkles are gone from the head.
  2. Then you tighten the drum only one or two more turns of each lug. That’s usually enough tightening to make your drum sound low and resonant.
  3. You don’t want it flabby sounding and you don’t want it to sound like it has a definite note like the timpani.
  4. Since there are two heads you should tighten the side that you don’t play on a smidgen higher than the side that you do play on.

Bass Drum Heads

Remo makes a great bass drum head product and they offer several options. Nuskin, Renaissance, and the Fiberskyn 3 are all great bass drum heads. Take a look at these descriptions from Remo about the differences in their Concert Bass Drum heads.

renaissance bass drum head Renaissance Bass Drum Heads
Renaissance® concert bass drumheads feature a specially treated textured Mylar® film which provides warm open resonant tone with remarkable consistency. Available in a single ply 10-mil Ambassador® weight, as well as a two ply 12.5-mil Emperor® weight.
fiberskyn 3 bass drum head Fiberskyn 3 Bass Drum Heads
Fiberskyn® 3 concert bass drumheads are the most popular in the world due to their well-balanced combination of projection, attack and warmth. Available in different weights from medium to extra heavy, Fiberskyn® 3 are well-suited for virtually all applications.
nuskyn bass drum head Nuskyn Bass Drum Heads
The most technically advanced concert bass film, Nuskyn® offers a pure, dark, warm sound with long sustain. Made with single-ply 10-mil Mylar® film. Preferred by Johnathan Haas, Principal Percussionist of the American Symphony and Educator at NYU, Julliard, and the Peabody Conservatory.

 

If your drum has calf skin heads you need to take a little more care of them because they are susceptible to the weather and air conditioning. If it is really dry where you live then you might have to dampen the head in order to get a note on the drum low enough.

Don’t use too much water, though. If you make the drum too soggy it won’t sound like a drum at all and it will be more like playing on a wet piece of toilet paper than a musical instrument.

Use a mist bottle or a damp sponge and put only a little bit of water on the head at a time to make sure that you don’t overdo it. If you have a head that is too wet, either because you put too much water on it or it is really humid you’ll have to dry it carefully with a lamp or even a hair dryer.

Bass Drum Beaters

There are plenty of bass drum beaters available on the market made by some very skilled craftsmen and musicians. The traits of a good bass drum beater are that it has some weight to it so that it can get the big head of the base drum to vibrate properly.

In your mallet bag you should have a general bass drum beater good for most of your playing, a couple of soft roller mallets and a very hard beater for those times when you need very clear articulation.

Who makes good bass drum beaters?

A Putnam Mallets
These are great mallets with several models from which to choose. The chrome plated steel handled series are very heavy and are designed to get the most sound out of the bottom range of the drum. A Putnam makes a bamboo series of beaters that are very finely crafted and overall these mallets are on the higher end of the price range between $54 and $89. Great mallets for the series professional

Vic Firth
Vic offers the Sound Power series and the Tom Gauger signature beater. Both lines of mallets are made from wood shafts but the Gauger series has a uniquely shaped handle that balances well for playing. The Sound Power mallets average cost in the $27 range depending on which mallet you buy and the Gauger mallets are about $10 more per mallet with average cost of $36.

Encore Mallets
Encore bass drum beaters are very economical and their line of beaters is limited to a General and a softer pair for rolling. These are ideal for a middle school program and cost about $28 for the General and $38 for a pair of rollers.

Mike Balter Mallets
Mike Balter makes a fine line of bass drum beaters that cost between $25 and $30 and the company offers quite a variety of mallets from which to choose which includes a graduated set of four, a nice pair of fluffy rollers that will last a long time and a double ended stick for one handed rolling. Balter’s most expensive stick is the double ended at $38. This is a good alternative for a professional or series student or a high school or college band or orchestra program

Cooperman
Cooperman Fife and Drum makes some marvelous wooden beaters so if you’re looking for a solid pair of wood beaters you can’t go wrong with one of their wooden beaters for $35. This is a specialty mallet and not necessary for everyone to own, but they’re a nice addition to the professional’s mallet collection.

Grover Percussion
Grover has a wide selection of beaters on both bamboo and maple shafts. These are very good quality beaters that any professional would enjoy using.

Innovative Percussion
Innovative offers some very, well innovative bass drum products. Some have added weights and the hardest beater is made from a super ball. Great, heavy, quality mallets with a wonderful sound. They are big, but they sound amazing. The cost for the mallets in this series range from $25 to $35. All series percussionists love Innovative mallets for the variety they offer.

JG Percussion
Solid bamboo handles with chamois covered ball ends are a great matched pair of very hard beaters for pieces like the Rite of Spring. They are light because of the bamboo, but very hard sounding. A terrific specialty pair of beaters for $50

Malletech
Malletech has a series of 3 bass drum beaters that cover the sound producing spectrum well. $33 for two of the pair and $50 for the well balanced double ended stick.

Liberty
Very economical for the student, middle school, or casual player. $19.95

Playing the Bass Drum: Finally, Let’s Get to How to Play Bass Drum!

Watch this video for some good tips!

Always play musically!

That’s the rule of thumb to follow for any instrument and especially when the bass drum is involved. Otherwise you’ll sound like a caveman in a prehistoric parade and no one wants to listen to that.

For general playing the bass drum should be played just off of the center of the drum.

You want some tone, but you also want a sound that is short. Your stroke comes from your elbow movement and wrist. You want some weight behind the stick and your wrist alone isn’t heavy enough.

The bass drum needs some muffling otherwise it’s just too boomy sounding without any rhythmic clarity. The technique that I’m most comfortable with in muffling the bass drum is to put my foot on a low chair, stool, or the bottom of a snare drum stand so that I can rest my right knee against the head just below the center of the drum.

When I strike the drum I can adjust the level of dampening I do by either having it touch the head completely when I hit the drum, only slightly, or not at all and then touch the drum with my knee after the strike to define the length of the note that I’m playing.

Since there are two heads on the bass drum you need to do something by way of muffling the other head. I place my left hand on that head while I play and I can adjust the level of ringing by how much or little I touch the head.

Using a towel in your left hand or a sheep skin mitten that some people use can be used to muffle the playing head if you don’t want to use your knee.

If you play on a tilted or flat drum you will need to use a towel because your knee won’t work. If the opposite head is ringing a lot you might have to tape a muffler to that head so that the sound will stop when you want it to.

Playing Music with the Bass Drum

As I’ve already said, Always play musically. When you play a simple march on the bass drum part is usually just a constant boom boom boom boom on all four beats of the bar, but as a musician you can really do a lot with this simple rhythm.

You should listen carefully to the rest of the band with whom you are playing and actually sing along so that your booms actually follow the musical line and the phrasing of what everyone else is playing.

If you take bass drum playing seriously you will always be recognized as a wonderful musician.

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Comments

  1. Thanks for the article! My son was invited to play the bass drum part in my amateur orchestra. He is a 7th grader and is in his first year of beginning band as a drummer. We are performing Beethoven 9 and he’ll need a bass drum beater. There are so many options and price ranges, that I’m really confused. Can you offer any guidance?

    The brass and percussion struggle not to overpower the woodwinds and strings.

    Thanks!

    • Thanks for the great question and I’m glad to hear that your son is able to play with your orchestra.
      For Beethoven’s 9th the bass drum needs to be articulate but not too loud especially at the beginning of the march. Therefore I use a very hard mallet and I dampen the drum with my right leg on the batter side and my left hand on the resonant side and playing the drum very near the center of the head.
      A suggestion for a mallet would be http://www.groverpro.com and the BDM 3 Ultra Staccato Bass Drum Mallet. Or, http://www.steveweissmusic.com Vic Firth Tom Gauger TG07 Bass Drum Mallet – Ultra Staccato.
      The cymbals for this piece should be on the small side so they don’t overpower the rest of the orchestra especially at the beginning of the march. 15″ cymbals would be a good choice and then switch to larger and louder cymbals at the ending if you want.
      The timpani mallets should also be very hard. I use Ultra Staccato mallets for the 1st and 4th movement and for the second movement I use wood or some cork mallets with chamois covers. For the 3rd movement I use some softer mallets.
      Have a great performance!!

  2. Hello,
    I really want to join the drumline at my school (to be specific, I want to play the bass drum). I have no type of experience with being in percussion and I would hate to waist time on even attempting to learn how to play if it’s not going to help me. Now, I know how to march because I am currently in color guard and during band camp we learned how to march correctly. So that’s really not the issue.
    But i was just wondering…would it be possible for me to take lessons and learn how to play the bass drum?

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