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

By JJ Jones

We all know drums can be expensive. If you’ve shopped around at all you’ve likely 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 four easy steps to having an awesome-sounding kit for less than $500.

Step 1: Buy a cheap drumset. 

There are lots of decent used drumkits in the $200-$300 range on sites like eBay, Reverb.com, and craigslist. And because used drumsets typically include hardware and cymbals, buying them used saves a ton of money from getting everything new and separately. I regularly see used Tama Imperialstar, Pearl Export, or equivalent mid-range kits with functioning hardware and cymbals for around $350 on craigslist. And I’ve occasionally seen these same postings include high-ticket items like a boutique snare, an expensive hi-hat stand, a DW or Iron Cobra kick pedal, or even an old vintage cymbal — any of which are worth the entire asking-price of the kit.

The alternative to buying used is to get a brand new entry-level drumset that includes hardware and cymbals, and these are typically in the area of $250-$400 (see the Pearl Roadshow series or Ludwig Questlove Pocket kits). The cymbals on these drumsets are always terrible so you’ll want to replace them ASAP, but the upside of buying new is that you can start playing immediately, as opposed to waiting for a deal on craigslist. The drums themselves will be lower quality than one of the used mid-level kits I mentioned above, but by following the steps below, you can make them sound great.

Step #2: Install new heads.

This is crucial. ANY drumset will sound better with the installation of new heads that are properly tuned and muffled, meaning even the lowest quality drums can sound good when the heads are replaced. Remember, changing just the top heads will make a big difference and will only run you about a hundred bucks total for your snare, toms and bass drum. ($50 will be for the bass drum head alone. Expensive, but worth it!)

Step 3: Tune the heads.

We’ve all heard how important tuning is to making your drums sound good, but as anyone who’s tried knows, it’s much easier said than done. If you’re unsure how to tune your drums properly, watch some videos on YouTube and try it yourself, or take your drums into your local percussion store or Guitar Center and ask the staff to help you. Almost any drum shop will be willing to install new heads and give them at least a basic tune as long as you buy the heads from their store. Go in during a slow period, 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.

Step 4: Dampen the heads.

This step is SUPER important. Unless you’re playing jazz, almost all drumheads need some kind of muffling to get rid of unwanted overtones (applying thicker 2-ply heads can also help with this). Get some “dampening gels” like Moongels, Drumdots, or Buzz Kills, which are are cheap, easy to apply, and professional looking. Or, go the old-school route and apply a small square of paper towel with thick tape, or just use a piece of gaffer tape alone. Place the tape or gel on the head near the rim, and apply as many as you need until the drum sounds good.

And, don’t forget to muffle your bass drum! Take off the resonant head (head that faces the audience) and put a large towel, small blanket or pillow inside and up against the bottom third of the batter head, then refasten the resonant. Tune both heads as low as they’ll go with no wrinkles in the head while still having a pitch.

(If your resonant kick drum head doesn’t have a port hole, think about taking the head off and cutting one yourself using a utility knife and a coffee can as a stencil. A 4″-6″ port hole will allow more air to escape the drum giving it more attack, less sustain, and a more thuddy, rock sound. It will also make muffling easier to install and move around inside the kick drum!)

JJ Jones is an internationally touring, Berklee-trained drummer and educator. She has played with alt-pop sensation Heather Mae, folk-pop darlings Girlyman, comedian Margaret Cho, LA’s riot-pop band WASI, and Egyptian revolutionary Ramy Essam, among many others. She is the founder of EmpowerDrumming.com, the only drum education company in the world that exclusively serves women.  

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