Drum Kits: A Short Guide to Drum Kit Sets and the Instruments Used

When it comes to identifying what drums make up a drum kit there are generally 2 camps to take into consideration;

  • A drummer: Who would generally play the drums using a physical drum kit
  • A music producer: Who would program their drums primarily using a lot less equipment such as a; midi controller a laptop and virtual programs such as VST’s. Although some music producers can use hardware such as a Roland TR-8.

In modern times where technology has shot through our lives like a comet, there’s been a disconnect between the two.

Some traditional drummers can’t bare the thought of a young kid in his bedroom clicking a few buttons and the digital music producer using a DAW can’t see the why they would waste their time and their money hitting a drum kit with a stick if they can achieve a similar result using their laptop and a digital audio workstation (…or DAW for short)

But hold on a second…

Both camps can learn from each other and therefore increase their own individual set of skills.

By studying the drummer, a music producer can learn to create more realistic feel in their music production for example and….

Studying the layout and possibilities of virtual drum kit, drummers can open up endless amount of creative options.

One thing’s for certain however, both camps need to be aware of what actually makes up a drum kit… but, as you’ll learn the answer isn’t as straight forward as you think.

What Drums Make Up a Drum Kit? 

On a traditional, standard drum kit that has lasted the test of time you’ll typically find; a bass drum, a snare a tom-tom (or two), a hit hat and a selection of cymbals.

Standard drum kit

But – if everyone used the same drums, with the same sounds in the same setup, things would get pretty boring, rather quickly.  

So with that in mind, each drum kit – whether physical or virtual can, and often does, take on a different shape. There are whole host of other percussive sounds that can be added to the ‘recipe’;

What Drums Make Up a Drum Kit? Mix and Match Your Sounds

  • Bongos and Congas
  • Claps
  • Percussion Elements
    • Cowbells
    • Tambourine
    • Chimes
    • Wood blocks
    • ‘Clicks’
    • Rim shots
    • Maracas
    • Bells
    • Triangles
    • Gongs
  • Organic Sounds
    • Spanners
    • Boxes
    • Buckets
    • Tins
    • And just about anything that can be percussively stuck to make a sound

What is a Bass Drum (aka a Kick Drum)

A bass drum or kick drum, is operated by a traditional drummer by using their feet.

A kick drum sits in the lowest frequency among all the sounds in a drum kit. Naturally it has very punchy sound and in dance music specifically the kick drum is used to ‘drive’ the rest of the track.

What is a Snare Drum?

Unlike the kick drum, which is by name operated using your feet, the snare produces sound after it’s been hit – usually with a stick.

Again, in electronic dance music, the snare provides a similar role to the track as the kick drum does. The snare however, covers a higher space on the frequency spectrum.

Sometimes the snare can be player ‘on top’ or at the same time of the kick drum and sometimes it can be played without the kick, or ‘on its own’.

For example, in many house genres you’ll often hear the kick and the snare played together on the 2nd and 4th beat.

In drum and bass however, producers often opt for a stand-alone snare that really punches through the mix.

What are Hi Hats?

Sticking a beat together with just a kick drum and snare will give you the very basics of a beat. Now it time for the hi-hats to enter the scene.

Hi Hats are actually part of the cymbal family but due to their build and use they tend to stand ‘alone’ in their own category.

Hi hats are again, typically played by using the stick to strike them. A drummer also has the option to ‘open’ or ‘close’ the hi-hats by using a pedal. This pedal allows the drummer to open or closes the distance between the two cymbals.

What’s the difference in sounds between open and closed hi hats? Open hi hats have a longer decay ‘tail’ to them and last longer than closed hi hat which is short and crisp.

The is is why, when you buy a sample kit you’ll often find ‘open’ hit hats and ‘closed’ hi hat sounds.

What are Cymbals?

Cymbals come in all shapes and sizes and have various different roles within a track.

Different Types of Cymbals:

  • Hi Hats
  • Crash Cymbal
  • Ride Cymbal
  • China Cymbal
  • Splash Cymbal
  • Sizzle Cymbal

Ride cymbals are often used within a song to provide or compliment the song rhythm – similar to what hi hats would do.

Crash and Splash cymbals tend to be used sparingly at the start or end of a bar for a better transition in to the next part of the song.


Toms, sit in a higher frequency range than a kick drum. The great thing about toms is that then can pitched down to mimic a kick drum; go alongside a kick drum to provide more rhythm or can tuned to fit into the melody and harmony of a track.

Toms are incredibly versatile and they can even provide your track with a unique sounding baseline.


Percussion is the name given to a group of instruments that don’t fit into the categories of; kick drum, snare, hi hats, cymbals and toms.