BY BRAD SCHLUETER
There’s something uniquely satisfying about the deep, resonant timbre of a great-sounding bass drum. And it’s easy to identify the highly distinctive bass drum sounds of Ginger Baker, Lars Ulrich, and John Bonham, which have been forever imprinted upon our drummer’s DNA. Sure, drum size, head type, and tuning all contribute to that sound, but what about the pedal? Would those great foot patterns have even been playable if their pedals weren’t up to the task? The answer is simple. No, they wouldn’t.
For decades, bass drum pedals were largely ignored. Sure, companies offered a few different models, but most had very similar designs. On the one hand, the bass drum pedal William Ludwig created a century ago shares many similarities with pedals today. But on the other hand, modern pedals offer a staggering number of options.
Don’t feel bad if you’re baffled by the feature list on modern pedals: Ninja bearings, aluminum and titanium parts, Variable Drive Adjustment, interchangeable cams, zero latency U-joints, hex drive shaft, longboard vs. split board, Accelerator vs. Linear cams, and so on. Some features make a huge difference in feel, while others are pretty subtle. For this analysis, we’re going to look at some of the features that can make noticeable differences in your personal relationship with your bass drum pedal.
Bass drum beaters come in a wide range of styles and have a surprising number of features for an item that is essentially a mallet. The size and shape of a bass drum beater can affect the sound. A larger head will generally produce more volume from a bass drum. A flatter surface can bring out a bit more attack, although few are truly flat. Most beaters feature a subtle convex curve to compensate for the slightly varying angles that the beater may strike the head (Fig. 1). A completely flat beater could strike the head at an angle and eventually dent it, which is why many beaters with a flat contact area have a swiveling head.
Most beaters traditionally have used a stationary beater head because of its simple and economical design. However, since the depth of bass drum hoops aren’t standardized, and the angle at which the beater strikes the head varies from one pedal to the next, it makes a lot of sense for the beater to swivel (unless the beater is ball shaped).
The material that a beater is made from works in tandem with its shape and size to define your bass drum sound. A harder surface like wood or plastic will give you more attack, while a softer surface like rubber or felt will offer a quieter, rounder sound. Some specialty beaters made from soft lamb’s wool found favor with jazz drummers for the warm tone they coaxed out of bass drums.
Otherwise, many felt beaters are nearly as hard as wood beaters, so the differences between them may not be quite as noticeable as you might expect. A soft beater will usually not have the durability of a harder one, so rock drummers often use felt beaters that are dense and solid. But even wood, acrylic, and plastic beaters will eventually show wear. Many years ago I took a look at metal drummer Mike Terrana’s rusty, road-beaten pedals at a clinic. He’d gradually worn about a half-inch of plastic from the front of his beaters, but didn’t replace them because he’d grown accustomed to their unique weight.
Cleverly, some beaters rotate to offer different playing surfaces (Fig. 2). These can vary by surface material, size, and shape. Some offer two choices, others offer three or four. While most drummers choose one and leave it set that way, these other optional surfaces can be useful for gigs with different volume requirements.
While a heavier beater will produce more volume, it can also bring out more low-end from a drum. Smaller beaters often work better for quieter gigs and with smaller bass drums. Some beaters are fitted with memory locks that enable users to set their ideal beater height. While it’s tempting to fully extend the beater for maximum volume, it’s important to consider the diameter of your bass drum. A fully extended beater will strike close to the sweet spot in the center of a 26″ behemoth, but will land far off-center on a 16″ bop-style bass drum. A counterweight (Fig. 3) can be used to modify the “weight” of the beater. Sliding it up or down the beater shaft will alter the feel from light to heavy and change the volume of the drum.
Most pedals feature a split footboard design (Fig. 4) in which a longer front section and smaller heel plate are joined at a hinge. But some drummers prefer pedals that feature a single long footboard (commonly referred to as a “longboard”) hinged behind the heel (Fig. 5). Early longboard examples include Ludwig’s 1950s-era Speedmaster and Premier’s model 252. This design was more recently reintroduced in the popular Axis A series Longboard pedals and has also been adopted by Trick, Sleishman’s Twin Pedal, and Pearl’s Demon Eliminator, to name a few.
Longboard pedals offer a lighter and more responsive action and have become popular with speed metal drummers who want the quickest pedal underfoot, as well as players who employ a heel-toe technique, which is much easier to execute on a longboard. However, drummers who want more volume and power may prefer the sturdiness of a split board design. While Axis and Trick allow you to choose between a split and long footboard, Pearl’s Demon Drive can be converted from one type to the other. Ludwig’s classic Speed King offers yet another variation on a convertible footboard, with its swiveling heel plate.
Some drummers consider the footboard’s texture to be as important as any other attribute of a pedal. If you play barefooted or in your socks, a footboard with a lot of texture (such as raised logos, large stylish holes, and texture bumps) may not feel as comfortable as a smoother one. And if you use a bass drum technique like Dave Weckl’s, where you slide your foot forward to play double and triple strokes, excessive surface texture can inhibit your ability to play well.
On most pedals, a cam (Fig. 6) marries the beater assembly to the footboard using a linkage such as a chain or strap. The shape of the cam, along with pedal tension, has the greatest impact on a pedal’s action. A perfectly round-shaped cam yields a fairly predictable response – what you give is pretty much what you get. But like the gears on a bike, a larger round cam will turn more easily and feel lighter than a smaller one.
Another common shape is an oval or oblong cam, which results in a quicker action and louder note. While this shape may require a bit more effort to initiate motion, it actually seems to accelerate once you get it going. The differences between the two shapes can be subtle to the eye, although your feet will easily notice the differences.
The interchangeable cam design of Pearl’s Eliminator Pedal offers a clever way of achieving multiple feels on one pedal. Each cam is made of a different-colored plastic (for quick identification) and has a different shape that corresponds to a unique feel. This enables a drummer who plays a loud rock gig on one night and an acoustic gig on another to switch cams from an aggressive, accelerating cam to a large linear cam that’s easier to control at lower volumes.
Certain high-end pedals like Axis or Pearl’s Demon Eliminator feature another way to simulate a variety of feels. Instead of switching cams, they vary the point on the cam from which the beater is pulled, giving the pedal either a lighter or heavier feel. The Demon Eliminator offers two points to attach the drive rod while the Axis has a variable drive adjustment that allows for a wide range of settings.
Most pedals use a chain, belt, or direct drive (solid piece) to attach the footboard to the cam and beater assembly. Leather belts – once the most common linkage – had an unfortunate tendency to wear and break and in recent years were replaced by reinforced fiber straps (Fig. 7).
Chain-driven pedals use bicycle chain (usually one or two side-by-side chains) and became popular a couple of decades ago because of their macho look and durability (Fig. 8). However, they can also get dirty, are a pain to clean (if you’re that type), and make a little bit of noise. Chains also tend to have a slightly heavier feel than a belt-driven pedal.
Some companies offer the opportunity to switch from one type of drive to the other on the same pedal, so you can choose the one you prefer. I haven’t noticed much difference between them, but then I don’t play at death metal speeds. Which is faster? Who knows? But I did hear Mike Mangini say several years ago that he thought straps were a tad quicker than chains. Who am I to argue?
Direct drive pedals feature a solid linkage between the footboard and beater assembly (Fig. 9), which obviates the need for a cam. These pedals eliminate the slight lag that can occur with a chain- or strap-driven pedal. While most direct drive pedals offer a variety of ways to set action and feel, the range of adjustability is generally narrower than what you can find on other types of pedals.
Many metal drummers prefer direct drive pedals because they feel quicker and more responsive. When you pull back the beater on a direct drive pedal and let go, the beater shaft will waggle back and forth more than a similarly tensioned chain or belt drive pedal would, since the footboard’s weight helps maintain the beater’s momentum.
The venerable Ludwig Speed King can even be considered a direct drive pedal since it uses a metal bar to connect the footboard to the beater assembly. Axis, Gibraltar, Pearl, Trick, and Yamaha also offer high-tech direct-drive pedals. Gibraltar’s Catapult Linear Motion pedal is truly unique, with a design that not only forgoes a conventional cam, but lacks a frame altogether.
The beater’s angle and distance from the head was traditionally set by positioning a small screw in one of several holes on the right side of the pedal. Many of today’s pedals now feature a rocker hub with infinitely variable positions.
No matter which method a pedal employs, the fact remains that the closer the beater is placed to the head, the quicker it can reach it and vice-versa. It might seem sensible to place the beater as close to the head as possible to achieve greatest speed, but there is a trade-off: less volume and power from each stroke. So, drummers who play quiet acoustic music, jazz, or restaurant gigs may want the beater close to the head at roughly a 60-degree angle, while those playing primarily rock and pop might choose something closer to a 45-degree angle for more volume.
If you position the beater too far back, it can hit your shins as it rebounds or inconveniently get caught in your pant leg. Many speed metal drummers choose a close setting for speed and trigger an aggressive-sounding bass drum sample. They also often wear shorts when playing.
Many pedals offer the ability to set the footboard angle independent of the beater angle. Drummers who play with a heel-down technique will often prefer a lower footboard position since it is less tiring on their shin muscles. Wild, leg-stomping drummers often prefer a higher footboard position.
What goes down must come up on a bass pedal, which requires some form of resistance to pull the beater back after striking the batter head. In most cases, this is accomplished using a spring (Fig. 10), although there are now some unique spring-less pedals on the market.
Most pedals use an extension spring that sits just outside the frame uprights and expands (creating tension) as you press down on the footboard. After striking the head, the footboard is released and the spring returns the beater to the original position. If standard springs don’t get tight enough for you, some companies offer heavy-duty springs for quicker response and heavier feel.
Some pedals feature a compression spring that is squeezed rather than expanded, which pushes back on the footboard to provide rebound. The Premier 252, Ludwig’s Speed King, and Trick’s Pro1-V all employ variations of compression springs.
PDP’s sleek-looking B.O.A. pedal offers yet another variation. Created by drum R&D guru Bob Gatzen, the B.O.A doesn’t use a spring at all. Instead, the Flex-tech footboard and coupling point at the heel plate flexes to operate as the spring.
Drumnetics offers the most unique spring-less pedal by using magnetic repulsion to push the footboard back to its original position after playing a stroke. You can adjust the action by moving the magnet cartridges under the footboard forward or backward. That’s one way to eliminate a squeaky spring.