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! Here is the cost breakdown of putting together an awesome-sounding kit for less than $500:

$200-$300: A used drum set on craigslist! While we all love getting new things, buying brand-new drums can mean paying 2-3 times the cost of getting them used. The critical factor is that used kits often 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. 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 mid-level used kits include high-ticket items like: a boutique snare, a DW 5000 kick pedal, an expensive hi-hat stand, or an old vintage cymbal, that are worth the entire asking-price of the kit.

$100: New heads! Can’t stress this one enough. Even the lowest quality drums can sound great with the installation of new heads that are properly tuned and muffled (more on this below). Replacing even just the top heads on a drum kit can make a huge difference and will only run you about 100 bucks (be prepared to spend almost $50 of that on a new bass drum head — expensive, but worth it!).

Free: Tuning! We’ve all heard how important tuning is to making your drums sound good, but as anyone who’s tried knows, it’s often 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.

$10 or free: Muffling! I cannot stress enough how important this step is. Unless you’re playing jazz, almost all drums need some kind of dampening to get rid of unwanted overtones. Dampening gels called Moongels or Drumdots are cheap and work well, or go the old-school route 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 paper towel square on the head near the rim, and apply as many as you need until the drum sounds good.

JJ Jones (Girlyman, Lucy Wainwright Roche, Margaret Cho) is an internationally touring, Berklee-trained drummer and educator. She is the founder of

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