– Introduction –

As a drum teacher, I am commonly asked these two questions:

1. How soon after commencing lessons should I purchase a drum kit?
2. Should I buy an electronic or an acoustic set?

The drums can be very difficult to practice without the kit in front of you, especially if you are learning grooves and are expected to play along to songs in between your lessons.  In the past, a teacher would concentrate solely on the rudiments (the essentials of our drumming foundation) for at least the first 6 months of lessons.  Students could practice these easily at home, either with a rubber practice pad, or with just the snare drum.

These days, students tend to start straight away on the full kit.  The rudiments are now just one area of study.  Students learn grooves (patterns involving both hands the right foot) using the full kit and also learn to apply the rudiments straight away.  So unless your teacher is very strict and makes you play rudiments for the whole lesson, you will need a drum kit quite soon after commencing lessons.  If you are having regular lessons and are serious about playing the drums, you should be thinking about purchasing a kit within one month of starting to learn.

Electronic drum kits first became prominent in pop music in the 1980’s and have slowly grown more versatile, realistic and cheaper since then.  They certainly weren’t within budget for a beginner drummer when I started playing in the mid-nineties, but these days, at least financially, they can be considered a viable alternative for beginner students with noise limitations.  A suitable starter electronic drum kit is likely to set you back around £400-500, or cheaper if you buy second hand. A full acoustic starter set is likely to cost around £200-300, or again they are cheaper if you get a second hand one.

– Disadvantages of Electronic Drums –

Despite the tremendous progress in the arena of electronic drums, they will never be as realistic, dynamic or sensitive as their acoustic counterparts.  Many students find it difficult to transition to the acoustic kit if they have only ever played electronic.  A few examples:

1. If you want a louder sound from an acoustic kit, you have to hit it harder.  If you want an electronic kit to be louder, you can turn up the volume!  Oftentimes, when students play acoustic after electronic, they don’t hit the drums hard enough to get the desired volume or tone from the kit.
2. The pads on an electronic kit are closer together than real drums.  When you play on an acoustic kit, your movements need to be bigger to cover the gaps between the drums.  Students delude themselves into thinking they play fast on an electronic kit, only to find they are not as proficient on the acoustic kit.
3. The dynamic range (difference in possible volumes) of an electronic kit is very limited compared to an acoustic kit.
4. And finally, with an electronic kit, we are not creating the sounds directly.  We are merely triggering sampled sounds stored in the kits ‘brain‘.  The possible variations of sound will therefore always be limited and more importantly we learn nothing about the tone of the individual drums.  It takes a lot more skill to coax a pleasing tone out of an acoustic kit and requires more developed technique and better control of the sticks.  For example, on an acoustic kit we have to aim for the centre of the drums and hit with a relaxed hand to get a good sound.  An electronic kit will always give you a good sound, no matter where you hit the pad or how tense you are.

– Advantages of Electronic Drums –

This may sound like I am not a fan of electronic drums at all, but this is not the case.  They are an invaluable practice tool and a much quieter alternative to acoustic drums.  Here are some more advantages:

1. You are much less likely to get complaints from your neighbours (or the other occupants of your home!) as electronic drums are almost silent when used with headphones.  The only common probably is the bass drum, as you are effectively stamping on the floor when you are playing it!
2. Most kits come with many different kits and sounds built in.  Although these tend to be quite gimmicky, playing with a different set of sounds and kit layout, makes you think about patterns differently and gives you much more choice of sounds and textures.
3. You can hear everything in your headphones clearly.  Very good for learning new patterns.
4. It is easier to play along with music with an electronic kit.  Most kits have a ‘mix/aux in’ socket on the back of the ‘brain’, so the music comes straight into your headphones.  It can be difficult to hear songs over the sound of an acoustic kit.
5. They often have a built in metronome which is very important for improving timekeeping.
6. They are much easier to record.  Good for monitoring your progress.
7. They take up less space than an acoustic kit and can be folded away easier.

– Advantages and Disadvantages of Acoustic Drums –

My advice is that an electronic kit shouldn’t be a students primary kit, unless an acoustic kit is absolutely out of the question due to space or noise restrictions.  You can pick up a reasonable quality second hand acoustic kit for around £150, either through newspaper classifieds or eBay.  It will do the job fine for a year or two, by which time you’ll know if you want to continue with your studies.  If you don’t, sell it on, get your money back.  If you do, upgrade to something better and sell on the old one, or keep it as a second kit.

Drums, like all musical instruments, are difficult at the beginning and it’s likely it will take at least 6 months before you can start to produce something that isn’t offensive to the ears!  Of course, you’ll be loving it, but the people around you might not be so enamoured with your talents!  If you have a place to practice without polluting the sound waves of your nearest and dearest, then go with an acoustic set to start with.

The transition from playing an acoustic set to playing an electronic set, is much easier and more natural than starting on electronic and moving to acoustic.

On an acoustic set we can learn and experiment with:

– where to hit the drum to get the best sound
– how to move between the parts of the kit smoothly without missing a beat
– how to tune the drums to the correct pitches
– how to vary our volume over a very wide range to suit all possible musical styles and situations

It is also possible to buy drum silencer pads which sit on top of the drums and cymbals and reduce their volume by 90%.  While the drums are not as responsive or quite as fun to play, the pads do solve the problem when noise is an issue.

If say, three years down the line, you need more flexibility to your practice, for example, you can only practice in the garage and want to be able to play in the house too, try out some electronic kits in your local shop and see if there’s one you like.  But if possible get an acoustic kit to start with, it’ll make you a better drummer.

[Sam Green]

Acoustic Drums vs. Electronic Drums

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