How to Buy a Drum Kit

by David D. on November 8, 2010

(No. 2 in a Series)  Part 1 covered where to buy a musical instrument, and gave some general advice on what to buy.  We concluded by recommending that you purchase brand-name equipment at a price that is appropriate to the level of commitment you have to the instrument.

If thine enemy wrong thee, buy each of his children a drum.

~ Chinese Proverb, courtesy of George’s Drum Shop

What’s a Drum Kit?

A drum kit (or drum set) is everything you need to sit down and start playing, and typically comprises:

Shell Kit: the drums — bass, snare, and 2 or more toms

Hardware: bass drum (or kick) pedal, snare stand, hi-hat stand, cymbal stands

Drum Throne: that’s where the drummer sits, because we’re cool like that

Cymbals: usually starts with a set of hi-hat cymbals, a ride, and a crash (or a crash-ride)

You will also need something to hit with, but only the cheapest kits will come with everything above and a pair of sticks.  At the high end, the shell kit won’t include a snare — that will be sold separately.  And the hardware and cymbals can easily run 2 – 3x the cost of the drums, even for a mid-level kit.

This article will start with entry-level or student kits, where you usually sacrifice some quality on the hardware and cymbals to keep the price down.  Once you know the level of commitment, and have saved the requisite cash, you can trade up the cymbals and hardware as needed.

How much should I spend?

Not less than $500.  Before writing this, I knew there was at least one really good buying guide on the web, but was surprised to discover how many truly awful ones are out there.  Some will suggest that you can buy an entry-level kit for as little as $200.  You can, but you will be buying junk, discouraging a beginner, and essentially throwing that money away.

Others will advise you to “ignore the brand-names; if it sounds good to you – buy it!”  That is terrible advice for the first-time buyer.  Of course the sound is important, but how is someone who has never bought an instrument supposed to judge?  And will you know if a set of drums sounds bad just because it is poorly-tuned or needs new heads?

As we discussed in Part 1, buying a brand-name will ensure a certain level of quality, enable you to find replacement parts when repairs are needed, and get you a higher resale value when it’s time to trade up.  Below are the names you should consider.

  • Gretsch
  • Ludwig
  • Mapex
  • Pacific
  • Pearl
  • Premier
  • Rogers
  • Sonor
  • Tama
  • Yamaha

This is not meant to a comprehensive list.  It contains the most popular and commonly available brands.  Many of these manufacturers have high-end or custom lines, but since this is meant for first-time buyers the more exotic drum builders are excluded.

In order to remain competitive at all price points, you will find kits under $500 from some of the brand-name manufacturers above.  Avoid them.

Alright Already!  What should I Buy?

Most of the brands offer similar quality around the same price points.  So the recommendations that follow are representative of what you can expect for a given amount of money.  If you (or your children) don’t like the brands shown below (Bieber plays Yamaha! I must have Yamaha!), then you should be able to find a comparable kit from another manufacturer (or get new kids.)  And although you’ll see links to online retailers, know from Part 1 that MMT recommends buying from a local drum shop or music store when possible.

[Affiliate Disclosure:  MMT has affilliate relationships with several online retailers, including Guitar Center and Musician's Friend.  See About Affiliates for more information.  Prices shown are estimated street prices at time of publication, and do not include tax and shipping, where applicable.]

Tama Stagestar 5-piece Drum Set with Cymbals – $499

Here’s a complete kit with hardware, cymbals, and throne for around $500.  A standard bass drum is 22″ in diameter.  The 18″ bass included with this kit puts the toms at a more comfortable position for younger players, while still allowing them to reach the kick and hi-hat pedals.

If you remain committed to the drums, you’ll want to throw away the cymbals after a while, but the drums sound good enough to be kept as a second kit for rehearsals or gigs at smaller venues.

Kit + Sticks (3 Pack) = $519.99

Gretsch Drums Blackhawk Fusion 5-Piece Drum Set with Sabian Cymbals – $649

This set moves up to a 20″ bass drum and fusion-sized toms, which are an inch or two less in diameter and depth than standard rock toms.

You also get better quality hardware and cymbals.  One thing you don’t get is a drummer’s throne, so you’ll need to add another $70 or so for a decent seat.

Kit + Sticks + Throne = $739

Pacific Drums by DW M5 5-Piece Fusion Floor Shell Pack – $630

Since this is advertised as a shell pack, we know we still have some shopping to do.  Out of the box we have a 5-piece kit with a 22″ bass drum, fusion toms, and all-maple shells.

To keep things simple, we will buy the hardware and cymbals in packs.  The hardware part is easy, Pacific sells an 8.155 hardware pack for $220 that has everything we need.  That brings us up to $850.

Although we could get cheaper hardware, and find a cymbal pack, throne and sticks at a price that would keep this just under $1,ooo, it doesn’t really make sense to do that.

We’ve already made a commitment with the drums, so let’s go all the way with the cymbals and get the Zildjian A Custom Cymbal pack for $650.  (Hey wait…that’s more than the drums!) And look, there’s a bonus 18″ crash.  Yay!  Oh, now we’ll need an extra cymbal stand (or two).  Let’s get one stand and a stacker for the splash, and see how much the $630 kit ends up costing us.

Shell Pack + Hardware + Cymbals + Throne + Extra Stand + Stacker + Sticks = $1,674

Well, at least we didn’t have to buy a separate snare.  But we will want to replace the stock heads pretty soon, so let’s throw in another $150.  The good news is that we won’t have to throw anything else away — these drums are good enough to start gigging.  (Hmm, now we need cases…)

Some Final Words on Shopping

So you can see how things start adding up once you leave the realm of pre-packaged kits.  One way around this is to start with a less expensive kit, and trade up your hardware and cymbals one at a time until you are ready to replace the drums.  This approach will give you plenty of time to prove your commitment (or convince your parents that you’re serious, and get over that Justin Bieber thing.)  You will also be gaining experience that will make you a more savvy shopper, and prepare you for navigating the market for used equipment.

Although I’ve had generally positive experiences with Ebay, I find it’s usually better to be a seller than a buyer there.  And one bad experience with set of poorly packed drums put me off buying drums from Ebay forever.  On the other hand, most hardware and cymbals will survive an amateurish packing job, and you can often pick up these items used and in good condition for about half the street price.

I’d try Craigslist first, since you can actually see and hear what you’re buying.  If you bid for cymbals on Ebay, be sure to ask the seller to confirm that there are no cracks, bends, dents, key-holing, or other damage, and use a sniping service to save time and make sure you don’t get carried away.

Earlier we mentioned a really good buying guide for drums.  It was written by George Lawrence, and is available here.  I first ran across George’s Drum Shop years ago when I was searching for a place to repair some drums that had been damaged in shipment.  I didn’t end up using his shop since I was a little hesitant to ship them again right away, but we had several exchanges where he proved himself to be very knowledgeable and helpful.

George goes into much more detail than is covered here, and I believe he is correct on all matters of fact.  On matters of opinion, we all have our own biases, and I’m sure George’s are well-founded.  If you find what you want on his site, or live anywhere near the Akron, OH area, by all means buy your first kit from George’s Drum Shop!


Vic Firth American Classic Hickory 5A Sticks, Buy 3 Pair, Get 1 Pair 55A Free

Vic Firth American Classic Hickory 5A Sticks, Buy 3 Pair, Get 1 Pair 55A Free

DW DWCP3100 Throne

DW DWCP3100 Throne

Pacific Drums by DW 8.155 Hardware Pack

Pacific Drums by DW 8.155 Hardware Pack

Zildjian A Custom Bonus Cymbal Pack with Free 18

Zildjian A Custom Bonus Cymbal Pack with Free 18″ Crash and Bag

Pacific Drums by DW CB900 Boom Cymbal Stand

Pacific Drums by DW CB900 Boom Cymbal Stand

DW Cymbal Stacker (6

DW Cymbal Stacker (6″)

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