How to buy a drum kit (without breaking the bank)

Updated: Dec 1, 2018

I am frequently asked for advice on buying a drum kit. There are plenty of good articles and advice on the internet, but here are my tips for buying a drum kit for a beginner.

By way of comparison, let me begin by sharing my experiences with the flute, my first instrument. Over many years of playing and practising, I had three flutes. My first flute was a new Yamaha student model. Although not expensive, it was reliable and responsive - a real contrast to the school loaned flutes. With worn parts, the loaned instruments were less responsive and the quality of sound was compromised. Some years later, I upgraded to a new Yamaha intermediate flute with a solid silver head joint. The difference was astonishing - the tone was clearer. And I found my enthusiasm and motivation to play increased. Finally, when I reached LTCL diploma level with Trinity College exams, I upgraded once again, this time to a Pearl professional model flute, which was solid silver in all 3 sections, open holed, B-foot – in other words, it had all the bells and whistles. Again, the quality of the sound, my ability to control the flute, and pleasure of playing took a giant leap forward. My technical skill improved to the best it had ever been, along with my desire to play.

My experience with the drums was quite different. My first drum kit was a 3-piece Pearl Maxwin, which I think cost around $80 second hand. It was Ferrari red in colour and had a bass drum, snare drum and high tom. It had lived a tough life already, and by the time I owned it, it had one cymbal so far bent out of shape that the sound resembled a trashcan. The high hats did not align, and various screws were missing around the drum kit and kick pedal. The drum skins came complete with dents, cymbal felts were missing and … I could go on. My initial response was positive and I did play it, but the constant distractions of pieces falling off or losing screws made it difficult to make any progress, and there were times my motivation waned; playing an ageing and troublesome drum kit was not overly attractive. Towards the end of school terms, I would ask my school band master if I could borrow pieces from the school drum kit to use at home during the holidays, which he kindly obliged, and this helped, but inevitably I’d have to return the borrowed equipment back to my band master. About 4 years later, I had the great blessing of working for a local musical instrument store, and I collected up my weekly wage to buy a new 5-piece Tama Swingstar Drum Kit. Almost immediately, my motivation skyrocketed, and I was able to play effortlessly around the drums. The cymbals sounded like cymbals should sound, not like a trashcan. I was able to start playing outside the home, in dance bands and local jazz clubs, and even started earning a few dollars here and there (which was great for a student without an income). My Tama Swingstar served me well for 28 years (!!) before I retired it and upgraded to the drums I currently own. This time I traversed the path of electric drums. By now, I was married and had children in the house, and, I actually liked my neighbours. So, I invested in a new Roland TD-20KX electric drum kit. These high-end drums had a responsiveness unlike any other drums I had played. The sticks rebounded off the mesh skins effortlessly, and the accompanying new hardware (DW kick pedal, DW high hat stand) with new springs and factory-oiled mechanisms was so much nicer to play than my old 28-year old Tama hardware. This catapulted my playing into another league, for the simple reason that I was able to practice, practice, and practice, for hours and hours, even late at night when the family had gone to bed, to develop my technique to new levels.

The point I want to share, should now be apparent. It is my belief that having an instrument that is of a good quality i.e. free of any defects, well maintained, well-tuned, and accessible at any time of the day (within reason), is paramount to generating the motivation to practice and becoming increasingly fluent.

Learning any instrument requires practice, and the drums are no different. It is not necessary to own a drum kit, but it is necessary to have ready access to one for regular practice, such as perhaps through school, or a local church, or one sitting idly at a friend’s home.

Auction sites like Trade me list second-hand drum kits under $200, or even new drum kits under $600. The things to consider are, what sort of life has it lived (if second hand), how well is the drum kit constructed, are the skins genuine drum skins or plastic imitation, are the cymbals able to withstand more than a few gentle hits with the sticks, will the kick pedal disintegrate after a few months of playing, etc. Simply put, is the drum kit going to be up to doing the job?

The market offers drum kits in different categories that I would loosely list as “toys”, “rubbish”, beginner drum kits, intermediate drum kits and professional drum kits. Unfortunately, the majority of new drum kits under the $600 mark are ones I would avoid. Here are some worthy of consideration:


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