Steve Smith's Drum Talk:
Choosing the Right Equipment

In 2001 I did a tour with an Indian tabla player, Sandip Burman, and it was the first time I had ever played with a tabla player. Before the tour he came to my house to show me some of the rhythms he would be using in his music. When we first played together, he had trouble hearing himself and I also had trouble hearing him. It wasn't because I was hitting the drums too hard or playing too loud, it was because the cymbals and drums I was using weren't the right match to the sound of his instrument. As soon as I put up my flat ride cymbals and played a kit with smaller drums, we could both hear the tablas. This was a very graphic example of how important it is to have a variety of cymbals and drums to chose from to compliment the sound of the different musicians you play with.

I have been asked many times by young drummers what I think of a certain ride cymbal or snare drum, head, stick etc... I can let them know what I think of the equipment relative to my musical needs, but the relevant question is -- what are THEIR musical needs?


Choosing ride cymbals is very important for drummers, especially for playing jazz, because most of the rhythms being played are centered on the ride cymbal. I've noticed that many young drummers who ask me about certain ride cymbals are usually not taking into consideration the music they will be playing and the other musicians they will be playing with. They talk about the cymbal itself and ideas like "cutting through," "projection" and other qualities that are the opposite of what they need if they are playing jazz with acoustic instrumentalists. Also many drummers now practice with ear plugs or headphones, which is good to save their hearing, but I have noticed that it can have a tendency to make them play louder and be less sensitive to the actual sound they are getting from the instrument. The sound you get from the cymbals and drums is very important and it mainly depends on your touch, but choosing the right equipment is the first step in giving yourself the best instrument to work with.

If you are playing with an acoustic bass it's important to have ride cymbals that are not too loud and will blend well with the sound of the bass. I think this one reason why many jazz drummers prefer darker cymbal sounds, they blend with the warm sound of the upright bass. I've told many young drummers who are just starting to play jazz to find ride cymbals that will sound pleasing to the ear and musical in a small room and will be pleasant for the other musicians to hear too, keeping in mind they will be standing only a few feet away. This was surprising to them because it's very different from the information they get via media advertising that makes drumming look like a violent act that requires loud cymbals, powerful drums, and sticks and heads that won't break.

The idea of "cutting through" may have some relevance for big band playing, but more than volume, the clarity of the beat is what is important. For big band you may want a brighter ride cymbal than if you are playing small group, but again it depends on the band and what kind of venues you will be playing. If you are in a college big band and are mainly rehearsing in a room at school, you need to take that reality into consideration when choosing a cymbal. I've found the only times when cymbals that "cut through" are needed is when playing with a rock group that uses highly distorted guitars that cover every frequency. In those cases I've needed a ride cymbal that has clarity and some volume. Other than that, volume is not an issue and neither is "projection." Cymbals tend to be loud to begin with, especially if they are not played with a mature touch. I find it harder to find a cymbal that has a nice sound and doesn't get too loud as I play it than a cymbal that isn't loud enough. I generally use relatively dark rides when playing acoustic jazz and rides that are a bit brighter when playing electric jazz. When I play with tablas or acoustic instrumentalist in a small room or club, I found that the lightest flat rides gave me the airy sound needed to blend with and not overpower the other players.

I have also found that when playing small group, acoustic jazz, crash cymbals are unnecessary. If you need a crash sound, you can get it from a good ride cymbal. I like to add crash cymbals when playing with a big band to accentuate some of the band figures. I have found some splash sounds and specialty sounds to be useful in small group playing, but this also depends on the overall musical concept whether or not these sounds are appropriate.

If you have at least a few different ride cymbals and additional cymbals sounds (crashes, splashes, etc.), you can make choices depending on the musical situations you find yourself in.


I find it useful to have different size bass drums with my drum sets. If I use a 22" bass drum this gives me a very different feel and sound than an 18" or 20" bass drum. I tend to use a smaller bass drum with jazz playing. The way I set the drum up with heads and muffling is also very important. I use a full head on the front of the drum with no hole cut in it and no pillow or "stuffing" in the drum. The only muffling I use is a felt strip on the batter (beater side) head and sometimes a felt strip on the front head. This way I can play with more dynamics and the drum actually has a nice tone and not just a flat thud. This is important to take note of for the younger drummers who may have never played a bass drum that has no pillow in it. That sound and feel was designed for "studio" playing and, in my opinion, doesn't work for acoustic jazz. The double headed bass drum, played with a nice touch (having the beater come off the head as opposed to "burying" the beater) will blend well with an acoustic bass and give the band a warm bottom-end sound and feel. If you need to mic the bass drum, place the mic on the batter head (as if micing a tom) and you'll get a great sound.

Tuning the toms and choosing heads are also important when playing acoustic jazz. I tune my toms relatively high and like to use a coated heads which gives me a warmer and slightly softer sound than clear heads. I tend to stay away from heads with built in muffling, they were developed for the dead "studio" sound.


Sticks choices are also very important for the jazz novice. With much of today's music taking place at extremely loud volumes, heavy sticks have become popular. By simply using a lighter stick, you can get a more musical sound out of your instrument. I use a stick (the Steve Smith Vic Firth Signature Stick) that is basically a 5A made of hickory, which is a medium stick weight. I carry lighter sticks with me and if I'm playing in a small room with all acoustic musicians, I may use a light stick made of maple, which will help me play with a softer sound. Having a selection of brushes, mallets and other types of "specialty sticks" is also important in order to have the ability to adjust your sound and volume to the musicians and the room.

A Final Thought: Play the Room

I've been teaching at summer "drum camps" for many years now and I have noticed that today's young players are generally insensitive to "playing the room." Playing the room means adjusting your touch, sound and volume to the actual size and acoustics of the room that you are playing in. Most of the students sit down at a kit and play it as though they are in a stadium. When I bring up the concept of playing the room they tell me the idea has never occurred them, they just play loud and that's it! I recently interviewed some of the Founding Fathers of Rock Drumming for a documentary I'm working on for Hudson Music - History of Rock Drumming - and some of the most profound moments were when they sat down at a kit and played, they played the room!! Jimmy Vincent from Louis Prima's band and recording artist Sandy Nelson are two great examples. Both of them were very musical and aware of the sound they were getting and how to play so it "worked" for the size of the room they were in. When it comes to jazz playing, adjusting your sound and volume to the room is crucial.

Hopefully these ideas will give you some guidance of what to look for in choosing equipment for playing jazz. Keep your ears and mind open and talk to the other musicians you are playing with, this will also help you chose the best sounding equipment for your playing needs. Keep it swingin'.

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Click the links, below, to read "Drum Talk" articles written by Steve Smith:

Drummer Magazine, 2007 (PDF)

Modern Drummer (three parts)
Choosing the Right Equipment
The Art of Practice (an excerpt)
Interview with Rhythm Magazine
Drums du jour: Dealing with Rental Drums
Vital Reading: My Favorite Music Books
Learning from Mentors
My Setup and Equipment: The Early Years
My Setup and Equipment: My Setup Today