Setting up your drums
This guide is meant to be a basic instructional for setting up drums in the most natural and comfortable position possible. This is certainly not the only way to set up a drum set, but I think there is something to be said for starting with the foundational pieces and working slowly to achieve the best positions for each individual drummer. It never hurts to look at pictures of other drummers behind the kit for approximate drum placement, but remember that every drummer is different. Find what works for you and your style.
The first and most common mistake made when setting up a set of drums is starting with the drums partially set up in front of you and trying to adjust as needed. To get set up in the best possible position, we need to go back to the basics. This may seem like a slow and tedious process, but remember that once you set up your drums they probably will remain in this position for quite some time. Spend a little time and set them up correctly the first time.
Step 1: Determine the condition and parts of your set
Take a survey of the parts of your drum set. On a standard set you should have a bass drum, snare drum, two mounted toms, and one floor tom. You should have a bass pedal, hihat stand, and drum throne. You will also have at least a couple of cymbal stands with a ride cymbal and crash and splash cymbals. Place everything before you and take stock of what you have. Don’t set anything up. Just put it on the floor in a big pile in front of you. Make sure that everything is in good working order. Are your heads in good shape and tuned properly? Is your hardware functioning properly? Do your cymbal stands have good felts and screws?
I understand that sometimes we have to work with what we have, but it’s important to make sure that everything is functioning as it should before moving on. Imagine the frustration of getting everything set up only to realize that a screw on your snare stand is stripped and it won’t hold a snare drum. Take a good survey of your kit now.
Step 2: Adjust your Throne
Have a seat. Are you comfortable? Your knees should be slightly lower than ninety degrees and feet should be flat on the floor. When you actually position your feet on the pedals your knees should be at approximately a ninety degree angle. Put your feet slightly wider than shoulder width apart. This will give you a solid base to work from. Make note of where your feet are. This is where your bass drum and hihat will go.
Step 3: Bass Drum and Hihat
Everything is built around these two pieces. Place your bass drum and hihat where your right and left feet were when adjusting the throne. You may need to make slight adjustments, but this is the basic guide. Play a simple beat with your right and left feet (bass drum on 1 and 3, hihat on 2 and 4) and make sure that it feels comfortable. There should be no strain on your knees, ankles, or hips. This should feel comfortable and natural. If you are able, try some more difficult combinations of bass drum and hihat (try any drum beats that you’re comfortable with. Play anything you would normally play on the snare drum with your left foot on the hihat.) to ensure maximum comfort and versatility. Do not move on until this feels good. Everything is built around this.
Step 4: Air Drum
Yep. Grab some sticks and start drumming. All that should be in front of you is your bass drum and hihat. Use your bass drum and hi hat as you air drum and let your sticks fall naturally as you move around your air set. Your sticks will gravitate to the most natural position. This is where you want to place your drums. For now, take special note of where you play your air snare drum.
Step 5: Add Snare Drum
Add your snare drum between your feet. It should be just higher than your knees and be approximately the height of your belly button. The tilt of the snare drum is of personal preference. I prefer a slight tilt towards me while I play. Play some snare drum exercises and forget that everything else is there. Are you comfortable? Can you move both hands freely? Do you hit your legs or any other parts of your drum set? When your snare drum feels good take a look at your hihat.
We’ve already made sure that the hihat pedal is in perfect position. Now take note of the height of your hihats on the hihat stand in relation to your snare drum. For a rough guide, your hihat should be slightly lower than your chest. Once you’ve got your hihats in a good position, play your drums. You’ve got the key components of your kit: bass, snare, and hihat. Play for a few minutes. Try different beats that require more advanced movements. If you’re an intermediate drummer be sure to try a beat with sixteenth notes on the hihat as well as rim shots and cross sticking. We are building a foundation one piece at a time. Do not move forward until you are comfortable with this basic three piece.
Step 6: Add Ride Cymbal
Go back to air drumming. Play a basic beat on your setup and then move over and air drum on the ride cymbal. Take note of where your hand is. This is where your ride cymbal should go.
Apart from your snare, hihat, and bass your ride cymbal is the next most important piece in the puzzle. Where you place it will depend on personal preference and your tom set up. Your ride cymbal will go to the right of your bass drum across from your hihat. If you plan to use two toms (one mounted, one floor) you can place your ride cymbal over your bass drum, where the second tom would go. If you use all three toms, you’ll want to position it between the middle tom and floor tom. Some of the ride cymbal will hang over the floor tom. You should be comfortable playing on the bell as well as the outer part of the ride cymbal. You should be able to reach both parts without reaching or leaning. Once again, stop here and play for a few minutes. Make sure that you are comfortable switching between your hihat and ride.
Step 7: Add your Toms
You guessed it. Do your best Phil Collins impression as you air drum with the pieces you already have and work your way through the toms. Take note of where your hands go. Did your ride cymbal get in the way? If so, you’ll either need to simplify your tom setup or move your ride. Your ride should take preference over your toms, but you may have to make slight compromises. As for basic tom rules: they should be within easy arms reach, be close to each other but not touching, and be as flat (facing up) as possible with a slight angle towards you to avoid hitting the rims.
Your floor tom is the simplest of the toms. It should be at approximately the same height as your snare drum on the other side of your right leg. I prefer a very slight angle towards my body and right leg, but you want to keep your toms as flat as possible. In essence, your right leg is like a mirror with your snare on one side and your floor tom on the other.
Now position your mounted toms. Most bass drum mounting systems are a little awkward, unless you have a higher end kit. This part will likely take the most work thus far. Start with your small tom and mount it slightly to the left of the bass drum. Start with it parallel to the ground and lower it until it almost touches the bass drum. Raise it a couple of inches and tilt it slightly towards you. Now play your kit. Play a beat on the hihat and do a fill using your toms over to the ride. Now go the other way (ride to hihat). If everything feels natural, continue drumming and begin to air drum the middle tom. Notice where you strike it and follow the steps for mounting your small tom to place it in that spot.
Once again, play through your entire kit. You’ve got all the major pieces in place now. Adjust as needed. You will most likely have to adjust your ride cymbal in relation to your toms. Keep playing and adjusting until it feels comfortable and natural. As you fill and play, start air drumming in some crash cymbals.
Step 8: Add Cymbals
[I’m going to assume two crash cymbals. If you only have one, experiment with placement but it will likely go between your hihat and small tom. If you have more than two, experiment with other placements and see what feels natural. As always, air drum and see where your arms lead you]
Notice where you put your crash cymbals when you air drum. They will likely be just above and outside of your mounted toms. They should be relatively flat with a slight tilt towards you (much like the toms). You should be able to play the outer edge of the cymbal as well as the bell without reaching. Your crash cymbals should be at about the level of your chin when you are sitting up straight.
Now play your set. Go all out. Try different drumbeats, different fills, different positions, etc. Try everything you could imagine and make sure that everything is comfortable and natural. Make slight adjustments where needed, but at this point everything should be close to perfection. Now that you have everything set up…
Step 9: Take a Break
Walk away from the drum set. I repeat. Walk away from the drum set. What you don’t want to happen at this point is for you to become comfortable with something that is unnatural. We’ve fought hard to ensure that your playing is comfortable and natural thus far, but your body will adapt to what is around it. Instead of spending a few hours playing on your new set right away (and adapting yourself to what might not be the best position for you) take a break. Grab an apple. Take the dog for a walk. Read a book. Spend at least 15 minutes doing something that is NOT drumming. After your break, come back to the drum set and play. Don’t think, just play. Does everything still feel comfortable and natural? If so, great! If not, make small adjustments as needed. Don’t be afraid to repeat this step a few times over the next few hours and few days.
Sit at your throne in your playing position without your sticks. From this position you should be able to touch every part of your drum set (drums and cymbals) without stretching or straining. You should not have to twist or contort your body and nothing should be far to either side or behind you.
There are two thoughts that have been reiterated throughout this tutorial: comfortable and natural. We have spent time air drumming to see where the most natural placement of the drums and cymbals should go. Because of the natural placement of the drums, nothing should feel forced and you should be comfortable behind your drum set.
This guide walks you through the basic set up of a drum kit. Most drummers will be set up similar to this, but after you are comfortable feel free to experiment. Great things happen when you take yourself out of your normal element. What would happen if you took out a tom? What if you moved your ride cymbal over your hihat or moved your floor tom to the left of your hihat? Experiment and enjoy.