By Phil Hood
What constitutes a beginner drum set today? That’s the question that occurred to me while recovering from a turkey coma and perusing some of the bargains available on Black Friday, like drum sets for $149. You can find cheap no-name cymbals, too, as well as $29 cajons, and $99 electronic drums.
These are amazingly cheap prices by any historical measure. If you paid $300 for a beginner all-in-one kit in 1990, which is reasonable, then that kit today should cost $580 due to inflation. An equivalent kit from 1970 would cost $1,302 today.
Similar bargains can be found in products from student trombones to guitar effects boxes. Amazon-only companies such as Medini by Cecilio and others seem to offer all kinds of instruments, including knockoffs of established brands, at very low prices.
But are these instruments any good? I’d say “not exactly” but that may depend on who you are and what you need. Listen to the feedback from customers on forums and you’ll hear that there are some bargain basement finds mixed in with these beginner instruments. I’ve read tales of $20 cymbals that are just as good as collectible Turkish bronze and $75 Les Pauls that will change your life.
I don’t buy it. But I don’t doubt that most of these instruments are playable and may be incredible starter instruments. Low prices can increase the number of people who take up music. The ukulele trend has led to lots of people taking up instruments and music, even if they had previously failed at learning more difficult instruments such as guitar.
The Differences Are Real
At the same time, we’ve got to admit the differences between the lowest-priced instruments from the big companies and some of the no-name brands you find in the corners of the Web.
The differences are things like tom holders that really hold the drums well, drum shells that have really good responsiveness, the quality of the heads, and thrones that are comfortable. The cymbals that ship with a sub $500 kit are brass, not bronze, and they are not the class of hammered brass cymbals you find in Sabian’s SBR line, for example. The cheapest kits from the bigger companies start at about $299 for a Ludwig set. Full-size beginner kits with hardware and cymbals run more like $600 to $700 from many of the big names.
El Cheapo Or Connisseur?
Some drummers love bargains. They’re thrilled that their second or third kit is an oddball collection of garage sale finds that they sometimes drag to a gig. They get a thrill from their El Cheapos. Others don’t want to play in public without their Reference series kit and Terry Bozzio-sized cymbal collection (you know who you are!). These are the Connoisseurs. There’s also a cultural element. According to a couple of companies I checked with, European consumers are willing to part with a little more dough for a starter kit than Americans are, if they think it will be of higher quality or durability.
To any musician who has played long enough to hear the differences between good instruments and great ones, a $150 bargain is clearly not a pro-level instrument. But to those just starting out, who haven’t developed ears or techniques, it may make no difference. A friend of mine who works for one of the largest drum companies says, “The beauty of drums is you can start with a pair of sticks and a pillow or pad.” He adds, “There may be a philosophical difference as to what defines a beginner kit.” What a mom shopping on eBay is looking for is something considerably less expensive than $600.
You can’t always tell from the reviews what is going on. A lot of the reviews for Mendini’s low-priced “adult” kits will emphasize that it’s a great kit, but then in the next breath recommend replacing the heads, the cymbals, or even the hardware. In that case your $200 bargain starts to get more expensive quickly. My policy when someone asks for a beginner kit is always to recommend a name brand that I know. I know what a starter Yamaha or Alesis starter e-drum kit is like; ditto for brands like Pearl and Ludwig drums. I don’t know about the others. But I don’t want to dissuade anyone from taking up the instrument, no matter what price they pay. Or don’t pay.
So How’z About You?
So what about you? Do you play high-end drums? Or love your garage finds? And what constitutes a beginner kit or beginner cymbals to you? What would you recommend to your closest friends buying a beginner drum set for their child?
Answer those questions and you are automatically entered to win my November prize of Slug Percussion beater and batter badge combos. Post a comment below to enter the contest and gain the gratitude of drummers everywhere. Winners and new prizes will be announced next week.