If you want to avoid injury, sound your best, and get the maximum efficiency and enjoyment out of your playing, you owe it to yourself to start with a properly arranged drum set. Keeping in mind there are almost as many strongly held opinions on this subject as there are drummers in the world, if you understand some basic principles, finding a setup that works with you rather than against you will be much, much easier. For this little ergonomics primer, we’re using a basic 5-piece kit with a crash, ride, and hi-hat. Once you get that core setup where you want it, the sky’s the limit for the ambitious percussive architect.
The first thing you’ll want to do is get your throne adjusted to a comfortable height. This is your centre of power, so make sure you feel centred and balanced at all times. A good place to start is with your thighs nearly parallel to the ground, with your knees just below the tops of your legs. You’ll find slight adjustments either up or down will land you in the sweet spot for your particular comfort zone, while still allowing you to stay well balanced as you move around the drum kit.
Next, you’ll want to anchor the bass drum in a central spot, leaving plenty of room on either side to build out the kit, and enough space behind it for you to move around freely without knocking your elbows into walls or guitar amps. Keep in mind that your upper leg should be parallel with the drum, with a straight line running from your hip flexor all the way through to the resonant head so that energy from your hip is focused straight down into your bass drum pedal. (Fig. 1) Use the spurs on the bass drum legs to keep the drum from sliding around if you’re on carpet, and adjust the height of the legs so that the front of the bass drum is raised up off the floor a hair to compensate for the lift you’re going to get on the batter hoop when you slide your pedal clamp under it, and to allow the bass drum to resonate freely
Next you want to place the snare drum in a comfortable position. The height and angle will vary for everyone, but this may be the most crucial adjustment parameter on the whole kit since it’s the drum you’re going to be playing most often. Set it too high and you’ll be smacking the hoop all the time unintentionally; too low and your thighs will get in the way of your down strokes.
Start with something around belt-buckle height and adjust from there until you can hit rimshots and ghost notes comfortably and consistently at every dynamic. Traditional-grip players sometimes angle the snare away from the body, drum corps–style (i.e., Steve Smith). If you’re playing matched grip, though, tilting the snare just a little toward you follows the natural angle of your sticks while playing, and is the default for most drummers.
BASS DRUM PEDAL
Next, you’ll want to attach the bass drum pedal to the bass drum batter side. Most companies will include a hoop protector pad with a sticky backing that you can lay down on the hoop where the clamp grips on. You want to attach the pedal clamp right in the centre of the hoop (Fig. 4) so the bass drum sits fully stable like a tripod between the legs and kick pedal.
The beater height setting is an important and often overlooked consideration. On any bass drum under 24″, the beater will tend to hit the head above centre — as you can see on this 22″ kick (Fig. 5) — and nearly dead centre on a 24″. You’ll want to set the beater shaft in the clutch at its balance point. Just like when you pick up a pair of sticks and feel for the fulcrum, you’ll want to think in the same vein with the bass drum beater. Clamping it at the fulcrum will give it a more responsive throw and rebound off the head. At the same time, make sure the bottom of the beater shaft doesn’t make contact with the head on the backswing or you’ll wear a hole into your head before you know it, not to mention retarding the movement of the beater on each stroke.
Next comes the hi-hat, which you want to set up with the same considerations for ergonomics as your bass drum pedal. You want a direct, straight line from the toe of your hi-hat pedal up through your leg to your hip flexor. The hi-hat pedal and bass drum pedal should be arranged in a symmetrical “V” formation (Fig. 6), with you sitting comfortably at the apex, your snare drum directly between your legs without your thighs touching it.
Hi-hat height is another important but very personal choice, which depends a lot on your playing style. If you’re playing a strictly open-handed style on the hi-hat and snare (Fig. 7), where your hands do not cross over, then you can set your hi-hat quite low. Most players use a typical crossover technique, so you’ll want to leave some room for your left hand to play the snare strokes comfortably. If you’re an aggressive punk or metal drummer, you may want to leave a lot of room for the left hand, and place your hats up around chest height (i.e., Branden Steineckert of Rancid).
Most drummers play some combination of open-handed and crossover playing, and so the height of the hi-hats will be somewhere in between. (Fig. 8) Remember that you want to be able to easily switch between stick tip and shoulder on the bow and edge of the hi-hats, respectively, for accents and rhythmic variation. Find the height that allows you to comfortably alternate those stick positions with alternating eighth-notes while playing a backbeat (beats 2 and 4) on the snare. If you can play everything easily and you don’t find your hands getting tangled up, you’ve probably found your ideal hi-hat height.
Another important thing to keep in mind at this point is that you shouldn’t be overreaching for anything on your kit. While sitting upright and centered, your hi-hat and snare should be easily reachable and comfortable to play without overextending at all. This especially comes into play when we add the toms.
When arranging the toms, imagine a half-circle running from high tom to floor, with the centre of each tom head bisected by that imaginary half-circle line. (Fig. 9) If you hold your sticks out so the tips strike the centre of your high tom, you should be able to simply rotate on your throne without changing the angle of your elbows at all and be able to strike the centre of the other two toms. This arrangement allows you to do fast, comfortable tom runs and reach every major part of your kit with a minimum of effort and without expending any extra energy worrying about readjusting for accuracy.
Naturally, the height and angle of the toms are equally important here. It helps to set mounted toms all to the same height and angle so you don’t have to do any unnecessary or extraneous body movements on the fly. (Fig. 10) Likewise, you want to set up each tom so that its angle, like the angle of the snare drum, reflects the natural angle of attack from your sticks. (Fig. 11) Setting the mounted toms at too steep an angle is a common mistake beginning drummers make, and all it does is ensure you wear out drumheads faster and don’t get the optimum rebound off the head.
Set the drums so you can hit them at the correct angle and height without raising or lowering your arm, shoulder, or wrist in some unnatural way. This is where your own personal feel and intuition will dictate what works best for you. Also, be sure the bottom hoops of your mounted toms aren’t touching your bass drum, both for sonic and aesthetic reasons.
As for floor toms, the same rules apply as for the mounted toms, but a good place to start is to mirror the height of your snare drum with the floor tom angled in toward you just a bit. (Fig. 12) This way, there’s minimal difference in positioning and body mechanics when you move back and forth between the snare and floor toms.
The last step is adding the rest of your cymbals. At bare minimum, you’ll probably be using one crash and one ride (or crash/ride) to start. A good position for a single crash (probably something in the 16″ range) is just above the snare and high tom. (Fig. 13) Like the drums, you shouldn’t have to reach for the cymbal in any way that would compromise your centre of gravity. Ideal cymbal height is, you guessed it, whatever feels most comfortable to you, but keep in mind that the higher you put your cymbals, the greater the separation you’ll get. The higher up the cymbal, the less cymbal bleed you’ll get in your tom mikes.
The ride cymbal placement should be high enough and at an angle to where you can get to your low and floor toms easily, but close enough where you don’t have to overreach when playing the bell with the shoulder of the stick. Play with various heights and angles until you find something that allows for the greatest freedom of movement and allows you to stay centered on the throne.
Remember, these are just suggestions to get you started. You’ll see drummers playing any manner of extremes of kit setup, but you’ll never go wrong if you keep the basics outlined here as your guide. In the end, it’s all about your relationship with your drums, and how your kit makes you feel, so when in doubt, go with what feels right.