From Drum Magazine’s August 2017 Issue | Text And Music By Andy Ziker
Most drummers just call them toms, though some still use the proper name: tom toms. Either way, they’ve become the most underused, underappreciated part of the drum set, since in much of today’s popular music — especially in country, rock, and hip-hop — the kit has essentially been condensed down to kick, snare, and hat. Recently, this is evidenced by the number of drummers appearing on late night TV shows with 2-piece setups. And in recorded music, toms (unless muted) tend to cover up precious midrange frequencies, unintentionally taking the spotlight away from other instruments. Although toms are removed for the sake of simplicity and practicality these days, throughout their nearly century-old history, they’ve been an essential part of the trap. Taking away these resonant workhorses is tantamount to sacrilege.
In the early 1920s, the tom tom (also known as tack drum and shallow drum) entered the Western dance band and musical theater/silent film pit orchestras, along with the other Chinese percussion instruments such as wood temple blocks and the Chinese cymbal. The tom tom varied from 9″–15″ in diameter and was 3″ or more in depth. Shells were painted with a red lacquer, and skins decorated with colorful, traditional symbols. Because the heads were tacked on, and therefore, pretuned, these instruments were dependent on just the right environmental conditions, such as not too much humidity, to sound good.
Seeking to improve upon on the tack drum, Ludwig produced the first fully tunable tom called the Jazz Combination in 1922, featuring two drums mounted on a bass drum. These were advertised as putting “pep in a dance orchestra,” but failed to catch on and were discontinued. In 1928, Leedy Drums offered Giant Chee Foo toms, which were barrel shaped drums. Then, in 1936, Slingerland catalogued the first modern style separate-tension toms with separate hoops and lugs on the top and bottom.
One iconic drummer after another has brought tom playing to the forefront. Baby Dodds, one of the earliest pioneers of the trap set, performed with King Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band and Louis Armstrong in the ’20s, and recorded “Tom Tom Workout” with three toms and the snare as a fourth. Gene Krupa recorded the first big drum solo on Benny Goodman’s “Sing Sing Sing (With A Swing)” in 1936, featuring accented swung eighths on the floor tom. Buddy Rich demonstrated a similar tribal feel on Tommy Dorsey’s hit “Hawaiian War Chant,” and then, in 1938, Chick Webb with his Savoy Ballroom Orchestra played a similar groove on “Liza (All The Clouds’ll Roll Away).”
When surf music exploded on the scene in the late ’50s and early ’60s, Krupa’s influence was still evident. Take a listen to Sandy Nelson in “Teen Beat” (1959) and “Let There Be Drums” (1961), Tony Meehan in “See You In My Drums” (The Shadows in 1959), and Ron Wilson in “Wipeout” (The Surfaris in 1962).
The toms were big in ’60s rock solos, such as Ginger Baker’s “Toad” (Cream in 1966), Ron Bushy’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” (Iron Butterfly in 1968), Ringo Starr’s “The End” (The Beatles in 1969), and John Bonham’s “Moby Dick” (Led Zeppelin in 1969). From the ’60s and beyond, toms were used to create innovative fills and grooves. The result is the melodic and tonal expansion of the drum kit and the spread of rhythmic ideas from around the world. The short list of favorites in the sidebar on this page mostly falls within the rock spectrum. This is no way meant to slight the great tom work done in jazz, fusion, Afro-Cuban, Afro pop, heavy metal, and many other genres.
Deciding how many toms to use in your set-up can be difficult. Jazz drummers sometimes bring only one tom to a gig, while conversely, Keith Moon used three rows and a total of 13 toms (including concert toms and timbales) towards the end of his career. Though a multitude of toms provides an expansive melodic palette, few people can afford all of these drums, and they can be tough to transport. Therefore, in this lesson, the configuration of choice is “two up and one down” (two mounted and one floor). It’s up to you to experiment with positioning, tuning, sizes, stick choice (including implements such as mallets, brushes, and bundled rods) and head combinations. Turn your strainer off, and your snare becomes yet another tom!
The following exercises are modified from my e-book Funk Up Your Toms, which provides even more opportunity to assimilate toms into your playing. Remember, history tells us that toms are not just there for show. If you’ve got them, you might as well use them.
Depending on the size and depth of your drums, toms often appear below the snare in the dynamic spectrum (in other words, toms often sound softer than the snare if you hit them with the same force).
Left To Right/Right To Left
We’re taught to lead with our right when moving from left to right, and our left when moving from right to left, to travel around the kit efficiently. However, you can sometimes find yourself stuck in a corner and need a way out. Rudiments using double strokes, such as paradiddles, can help in these instances, but it’s also important to practice moving the “wrong” way. In Exs. 1–4, use alternate sticking and make sure to lead with both your right and your left. Pay close attention to where you need to cross over or under to accomplish these maneuvers.
In To Out/Out To In
Thinking of your snare drum as home base allows with its own set of challenges. In Exs. 5–8, you’ll move from snare to toms and toms to snare. Continue to alternate single strokes unless indicated, and lead with both your right and left.
The bass drum played as one or two notes between toms/snare adds a contrasting, low frequency element very much like a low-tuned floor tom. The sticking in Exs. 9–12 can be formulated in a number of ways. Make sure to play consecutive toms/snares as single strokes, but decide for yourself whether to lead with your right or left when playing consecutive notes with your hands. Notice that the motions involved on this page are based on the previous two sections. For an extra challenge — and to keep a constant high-frequency pulse going — add quarter- or eighth-notes hi-hat chicks.
Unless you’re Travis Barker or Carter Beauford, playing streams of consecutive sixteenths, sextuplets, and thirty-seconds between the toms and snare can be demanding depending on a number of factors: speed, starting point, lead hand, and number of notes in each grouping. In Exs. 13–15, starting point and notes per group increase in difficulty, while changes in tempo and lead hand are up to you. To be as accurate as possible, look ahead at your target and aim at the center of each drum. These exercises are designed for you to apply alternate sticking, but feel free to experiment.
Crossovers (and cross-unders) allow you to pivot out of tough sticking situations and happen to look quite showy to an audience. Be careful to follow alternate sticking as shown in Exs. 16–19. Consecutive sixteenth-notes are used here, but you can apply this concept to any rhythm.
Depending on the size and depth of your drums, toms often appear below the snare in the dynamic spectrum (in other words, toms often sound softer than the snare if you hit them with the same force). Therefore, to pull out accents on the toms requires softer notes (taps) on the snare. Two stickings are presented in Exs. 20–23: alternating (accents executed with both rights and lefts) and lead hand (accents played with the right hand only, while the remaining softer notes are filled in by the left hand on the snare). In Ex. 21, the bass drum is used to reinforce accents (a technique employed quite often by Buddy Rich), while in Ex. 23 it serves to lay down the pulse on 1 and 3.
Toms To Snare
Contrary to the previous section, Exs. 24 and 25 are easier to execute dynamically, since the toms already live in a quieter zone than the snare. However, it may take you a while to get used to the feeling of accenting towards your body, rather than away from it.
In Exs. 26–27, flat flam accents are used to produce an effect similar to two-note voicings on a piano. Use the Moeller whipping motion to help execute the repeated two-handed accenting.
There are hundreds of rudiments and hybrid rudiments, and most of them sound great on the toms. The following grooves in Exs. 28–30 use some of the more common rudiments (mostly paradiddles in this section), but feel free to experiment on your own. Find an interesting rudiment, master it on one surface such as a practice pad, and then let your ears direct you how to orchestrate it around the kit.
Please note: Before you launch into these exercises, it’s assumed that you’ve had some previous experience with rudiments. If not, you may need to go back and do some homework.
Here are the combinations used in this section: single paradiddle, RLL, singles, and inverted paradiddle (Ex. 28); reverse paradiddle, doubles, and five-stroke roll (Ex. 29); triple paradiddle, single paradiddle, and inverted paradiddle (Ex. 30).
Flam rudiments involve two notes played at the same time, so when you place your hands on two sound sources, the overlapping nature of these patterns is on full display. This creates the effect of two drummers playing separate parts at the same time. When you play Exs. 31–32, pay close attention to where the grace note is placed on the staff.
Again, here are the combinations used in this section: Swiss triplets, power flams, and displaced flam accent (Ex. 31), same hand flam accents and power flams (Ex. 32).
The groove patterns in Exs. 33–37 are mined from various genres. Once you’ve mastered them, challenge yourself to change them around and make them your own. Next, play these with recordings and/or other musicians.
Adding toms to grooves increases your options for using creative approaches. Here are three examples of this: By playing open-handed (left hand on the hi-hat, assuming you’re right handed) in Ex. 38, you can move the non-hi-hat hand around the drums with ease and produce counter melodies. In this funk groove, the right-hand moves between the snare and three toms. Using toms in a call and response context in Ex. 39 helps bring in sounds attributed to African, Indian, and Cuban cultures. Linear grooves driven by contrasting sounds can be infectious. In Ex. 40, the toms, snare, and hi-hat chick are contrasted by the bass drum.