BUYING & USING: cheap drums
a buyer's guide to secondhand drum kits
Tracking down a decent used drum kit is no picnic, especially when some look so much better than others. It's what lurks beneath the surface that counts.
S0, YOU NO LONGER enjoy smashing up the best G-Plan with knitting needles and chopsticks. The sound of furious jungle rhythms pounded out on cling-film covered biscuit tins has long since lost its primeval appeal. And 'Let's Stick Together' transposed for breadboard, pan lid and Tupperware bacon storer, just doesn't turn you on like it used to.
You're convinced it's time to cast off childish things. Time to commit yourself to something a bit more serious. Something without which, deep down, you feel your claim to the title "Drummer" is empty and meaningless. The thing they call "A Drum Kit".
But where to start? Of course, you've read that your hero, Chuck Heavy, recommends King Kong extra-deeps (custom chameleon finish) mounted on Empire State triple-braced hardware and complemented by 30" Godzilla lead crashes. Unfortunately, you've checked out the prices down your local drumstore and discovered you can't possibly afford even the Not-So-Very Deeps. Nor, indeed, can you afford any other sparkling five-piece in the shop. You've considered moderating your ambitions, but somehow, "Hello, I'm a cowbeller" just isn't you.
Still, your dad knows this geezer who used to be in the Whistling Hog Skiffle Kings, but who's now selling his kit because the wife wants the space in the garage for a freezer. It hasn't been played for 20 years, the cymbal stands seem to be made of tent poles and, judging by the smell, the heads are Algerian handbag leather. But he's only asking a hundred quid. And with a bit of luck, you might get him down to ninety-odd. Is it worth taking the gamble just so you can give a definite "Yes" to the so-called friend who has asked you to join his band? Will other drummers laugh at you because it's got the manufacturer's name all over the bass drum head? And who was this "Plonka" drum company, anyway?
If you're short of cash, buying drums secondhand seems, on the face of it, like a sensible idea. Not only do you make a considerable saving on the retail price of equivalent new gear (although the better or rarer drums do tend to hold their value amazingly well), you often get a whole load of useful 'extras' thrown in - stools, cases, cymbals and clamps, for example. And there's no shortage of used gear around. Whether you want a simple snare and stand for practising the rudiments, or a vast 10-piece double kick outfit with integral smoke machine - someone, somewhere is trying to get rid of one.
However, if you've just joined the great rhythmic brotherhood, then all this choice can be a bit bewildering. It's bad enough trying to buy a new kit, what with all the options that each manufacturer seems to offer - BMX this, KGB that, 3000 series hardware with the RKO finish, and so on. However, look in the classifieds of our sister publication 'Rhythm' and you'll suddenly discover a whole forgotten world of names and model numbers. Just what is a Hayman Vibrasonic? Or a Trixon 'Conical' kit? Or a Melanie Fantom? It's hard enough to know what's worth ringing up about, let alone parting with your dosh for.
No wonder it seems the only alternative is to rush out and buy the £299 Taiwanese budget job that got the good review in PHAZE 1 just the other month. And of course, that's precisely why we're here, to guide you through the maze of new gear and help you get the best value for your money. But who's going to advise you on the pile of wood and chrome which Mr Bloggs tells you once boomed out proud from behind the Whistling Hogs in their finest hour?
Fortunately, you don't have to be the Arthur Negus of percussion to make a sensible decision about whether or not to buy. What you do need to know is how to test the gear for structural soundness; what bits, if any, might need replacing and how easy it would be to replace them. Because drums are relatively straightforward instruments, no-one can pull the wool over your eyes and maintain that it's the best investment opportunity since BP went private.
When determining the general condition of a prospective purchase, the finish and the chrome work are pretty useful indicators, since they can tell you a lot about how the kit has been treated by its previous owners. If the exterior looks smart and well looked after, chances are that all the moving parts, such as they are, will be in good working order too.
Don't get too hung up on cosmetic details, though. People spend a lot of time worrying about "the finish", but really, this is the thing that's easiest to put right - usually with elbow grease and a dab of non-scratch liquid cleaner. If the covering is badly damaged, or simply not to your taste, then there are plenty of drum shops who will re-cover a kit for a reasonable sum - anywhere between £60 and £100, depending on sizes and the exact finish you want. DIY packs, in a variety of colours, are also available from Remo. Don't be too hasty to follow fashion and re-cover everything black, since finishes such as sparkle or pearl, which a few years ago were considered vulgar, are now (surprise, surprise) making a comeback.
As far as chrome work goes, don't be put off by small spots of rust. Again, elbow grease can work wonders; stage lighting, miracles. Extensive rusting is a problem though, particularly on rims as these are difficult and fairly expensive parts of the kit to replace, especially on older drums. Rusted chrome can also reveal that the kit has been stored for a long time in damp conditions, in which case the shells might well be warped or even rotten.
Check, then, to see whether the shells (and the rims) are perfectly round. This is a sensible precaution, since shells can also get distorted in other ways. For example, thinner bass drum shells on older jazz kits, which have had double tom holders added at a later stage, can sometimes get squashed out of shape by the weight of the new holder and extra tom. And even if the shells seem perfectly OK from the outside, you should always check them inside for any sign of cracking or splitting. Remove heads if you need to. Poking about inside can also tell you a bit more about the history of the kit, or even whether the drums are all originally the same make. Extraneous drill holes can also reveal that hardware has been replaced or added at various times.
If there are going to be any problems, you'll usually find them in the hardware department - a fact, incidentally, which applies as much to new kits as to old. First of all, check that all the necessary bits and pieces are there, since tracking down the exact replacement part can be difficult and expensive. If a kit is presented to you as a large heap on the floor, you should set it up and, ideally, play it. This will not only give you a pretty good idea as to whether all the component parts fit together (and remain fitted together) as they should, but also reveal whether the kit is suitable for you. This may seem an obvious point, but on older kits where tom holders are fairly rudimentary and cymbal stands a bit on the short side, you can find that not everything ends up being positioned in the right place.
Nuts and bolts are the areas on which to concentrate. Check primarily for stripped threads on any of the locking bolts, particularly on cymbal and tom stands which have to support the considerable force of the enthusiast's stroke. It's especially important on stands where the bolt screws directly onto the inner extension tube, rather than tightening around a nylon bush - the modern (and far more effective) approach to securing telescopic stands. Otherwise, you might find yourself experiencing the Titanic Phenomenon - cymbals and drums sinking gracefully to the floor while the band plays on.
However, even if the stands do seem a little dodgy, don't despair. Extra insurance can be provided by fitting memory locks (or, cheaper and easier to find, hose clips) around the bits most likely to slip. Certainly, don't be put off by the fact that older stands and holders appear incredibly flimsy when compared to the chunky monsters of today. If you've seen Keith Moon in action on the Premier kits of yesteryear, you know that they're capable of taking quite a beating - providing, of course, they're fastened up tight.
In the best of all possible worlds, it would also be worth checking the threads of all the nutboxes and tuning bolts too, just to make sure they're in good working order. If there is any damage, it's going to be impossible to tension heads evenly and the drum will inevitably sound naff. However, many drum shops (particularly those specialising in secondhand gear) will be able to supply you with nutboxes and bolts or replace them for you, though, for more obscure makes, you might well have to wait while they track the matching part down.
Pedals are another crucial area. On bass pedals, the weak points are the bolt which holds the beater in place and the clamp mechanism which holds the pedal to the bass drum hoop. Remember, though, that broken straps and springs can be replaced quite easily. Also remember, when you try pedals out, that what at first appears to be a deficiency in their design or construction can usually be remedied by a quick squirt of 3-in-1, adjustment of the tension spring or even, dare I say it, learning the correct pedal technique.
But you may find that some hi-hat stands, while supporting the old Kranki Jazz Lights quite adequately, just can't handle the considerable weight of a decent pair. If the rest of the kit seems sound enough, the best thing is to consider investing in a better hi-hat and/or bass drum pedal. While I don't believe that having the best drums will make you play any better or learn any faster, decent pedals will most definitely get you off on the right foot. And, of course, the left.
Another investment that may well prove worthwhile is a new set of heads. If the existing ones have deeply pitted surfaces or are extremely dirty or dusty, they're due for replacement anyway. But even if the heads seem in good condition, choosing another type of head might suit the drums and your playing style a lot better.
Shelling out another thirty or forty quid for a complete set of new heads may seem a bit thick when the whole idea of buying secondhand was to save money, but even if you bought new, you'd have to accept whatever heads the manufacturer offered as part of the package: these might also prove to be the wrong type, in which case you've got the expense of replacement anyway.
And of course, if you're anxious to make an impression, you can always cheat a bit by fitting a head with the name of a more prestigious drum manufacturer to the front of your bass drum. But remember, if you're buying a kit, don't fall for the same trick - look for the name on the drums as well.
Feature by Nicholas Rowland
Previous article in this issue:
Next article in this issue:
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!