How To Have A Killer-Sounding Drum Kit For Under $500

By JJ Jones

We all know playing drums can be an expensive endeavor. If you’ve done any drum shopping at all you’ve probably realized that buying high-quality new drums – and the requisite hardware and cymbals that are sold separately – can quickly add up. Fear not! Below are the easy steps to putting together an awesome-sounding kit for less than $500.

For $200-$300, buy a used drumset on craigslist! While we all love getting new things, brand-new drums are often 2-3 times the cost of getting the same kit used. The critical factor is that used drumsets usually include the hardware and cymbals, which can save a ton of money from buying them new and separately. I regularly see Tama Imperialstar, Pearl Export, or equivalent mid-range kits, with decent hardware and cymbals, for around $300 used. And often the seller can be talked down in price, especially if you offer cash. (Absolute requirement of buying on craigslist: ALWAYS bring someone else with you to a seller’s house, and if possible, meet them somewhere in public.) I’ve also seen these kinds of used drumsets include high-ticket items like: a boutique snare, a nice DW or Iron Cobra kick pedal, an expensive hi-hat stand, or an old vintage cymbal, that are worth the entire asking-price of the kit.

The other option to buying used is to get a brand new entry-level kit that includes hardware and cymbals, typically around $400. The cymbals on these drumsets are always low quality, so you’ll want to replace them at some point, but buying a new kit is a fast & easy way to get a fully functioning drumset the day you walk into a store to buy it, since it saves you the time and hassle of scanning online posts for a deal on craigslist, driving to the buyer, negotiating price, etc, etc. The drumswill be lower quality than one of the mid-level kits I mentioned above, but by following the steps below, you can make it sound great.

Three Fast and Easy Steps To Making a Cheap Drumset Sound Good:

1) New heads. This is crucial. Any drumset will sound better with the installation of a new set of heads that are properly tuned and muffled; meaning even the lowest quality drums can sound good when the heads are replaced. And, replacing just the top heads alone can make a huge difference and will only run you about $100. (Be prepared to spend almost $50 of that on a new bass drum head — it’s expensive, but worth it!)

2) Tuning. We’ve all heard how important tuning is to making your drums sound good, but as anyone who’s tried knows, it’s a lot easier said than done. If you’re unsure how to tune your drums properly, take them into your local percussion shop or Guitar Center and ask the drum staff to help you — as long as you also buy your new heads from this same place! Almost any drum shop will be willing to put new heads on your drums and give the them at least a basic tune, for free. Go in when you’re not in a rush since they’ll have to help other customers during the process, find a no-attitude sales associate, ask nicely, and be willing to wait while they take the time to help you and explain what they’re doing.

3) Muffling. This step is so important! Unless you’re playing jazz, almost all drums need some kind of dampening to get rid of unwanted overtones (applying thicker 2-ply heads heads will help with this as well). For about $10, get yourself some “dampening gels” called Moongels or Drumdots, which are are cheap & easy, work well, and look good. Or, go the old-skool route for free and fold a small strip of paper towel into a square and apply to your head with a strip of tape on each edge of the square. Place the square on the head near the rim, and apply as many as you need until the drum sounds good.

→ ALSO: and this is critical, dampen your bass drum head too! Take off the resonant head (head that faces the audience) and put an old towel, blanket or pillow inside and up against the bottom third of the batter head, then refasten the resonant. (Or, if you don’t want to take off the head, prop a large pillow against the front of the resonant head!) Then tune both heads as low as they will go while still having a tone and with no wrinkles in the head. ←

JJ Jones is an internationally touring, Berklee-trained drummer and educator. She has played with folk-pop darlings Girlyman, singer/songwriter Lucy Wainwright Roche, comedian Margaret Cho, LA’s riot-pop band WASI, and Egyptian revolutionary Ramy Essam, among many others. She is the founder of EmpowerDrumming.com

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