Before the development of the drum set, drums and cymbals used in military and orchestral music settings were played separately by different percussionists; if the score called for bass drum, triangle and cymbals, three percussionists would be hired to play these three instruments. In the 1840s, percussionists began to experiment with foot pedals as a way to enable them to play more than one instrument, but these devices would not be mass-produced for another 75 years. By the 1860s, percussionists started combining multiple drums into a set. The bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, and other percussion instruments were all struck with hand-held drum sticks. Drummers in musical theater shows and stage shows, where the budget for pit orchestras was often limited, contributed to the creation of the drum set by developing techniques and devices that would enable them to cover the roles of multiple percussionists.
Double-drumming was developed to enable one person to play the bass and snare with sticks, while the cymbals could be played by tapping the foot on a "low-boy". With this approach, the bass drum was usually played on beats one and three (in 4
4 time). While the music was first designed to accompany marching soldiers, this simple and straightforward drumming approach led to the birth of ragtime music when the simplistic marching beats became more syncopated. This resulted in a greater swing and dance feel. The drum set was initially referred to as a "trap set", and from the late 1800s to the 1930s, drummers were referred to as "trap drummers". By the 1870s, drummers were using an "overhang pedal". Most drummers in the 1870s preferred to do double drumming without any pedal to play multiple drums, rather than use an overhang pedal. Companies patented their pedal systems such as Dee Dee Chandler of New Orleans 1904–05. Liberating the hands for the first time, this evolution saw the bass drum played with the foot of a standing percussionist (thus the term "kick drum"). The bass drum became the central piece around which every other percussion instrument would later revolve.
William F. Ludwig, Sr., and his brother, Theobald Ludwig, founded the Ludwig & Ludwig Co. in 1909 and patented the first commercially successful bass drum pedal system, paving the way for the modern drum kit. Wire brushes for use with drums and cymbals were introduced in 1912. The need for brushes arose due to the problem of the drum sound overshadowing the other instruments on stage. Drummers began using metal fly swatters to reduce the volume on stage next to the other acoustic instruments. Drummers could still play the rudimentary snare figures and grooves with brushes that they would normally play with drumsticks.
Dance band drummer Stan Farmer in 1935 at Mark Foy's Empress Ballroom in Sydney, New South Wales, using a kit with bass drum pedal and a "low sock"
Drummer in a Memphis "juke joint" orchestra playing a kit with four non-tunable toms
. Marion Post Wolcott
, October 1939
By World War I, drum kits were often marching band-style military bass drums with many percussion items suspended on and around them. Drum kits became a central part of jazz, especially Dixieland. The modern drum kit was developed in the vaudeville era during the 1920s in New Orleans.
In 1917, a New Orleans band called "The Original Dixieland Jazz Band " recorded jazz tunes that became hits all over the country. These were the first official jazz recordings. Drummers such as Baby Dodds, Zutty Singleton and Ray Bauduc had taken the idea of marching rhythms, combining the bass drum and snare drum and "traps", a term used to refer to the percussion instruments associated with immigrant groups, which included miniature cymbals, tom toms, cowbells and woodblocks. They started incorporating these elements with ragtime, which had been popular for a couple of decades, creating an approach which evolved into a jazz drumming style.
Budget constraints and space considerations in musical theatre pit orchestras led bandleaders to pressure fewer percussionists to cover more percussion parts. Metal consoles were developed to hold Chinese tom-toms, with swing-out stands for snare drums and cymbals. On top of the console was a "contraption" tray (shortened to "trap"), used to hold items like whistles, klaxons, and cowbells, so these drums/kits were dubbed "trap kits". Hi-hat stands became available around 1926.
In 1918 Baby Dodds, playing on riverboats with Louis Armstrong on the Mississippi, was modifying the military marching set-up and experimenting with playing the drum rims instead of woodblocks, hitting cymbals with sticks (1919), which was not yet common, and adding a side cymbal above the bass drum, what became known as the ride cymbal. Drum maker William Ludwig developed the "sock" or early low-mounted high-hat after observing Dodd's drumming. Ludwig noticed that Dodd tapped his left foot all the time. Dodds asked Ludwig to raise the newly produced low hats nine inches higher to make it easier to play, thus creating the modern hi-hat cymbal. Dodds was one of the first drummers to play the broken-triplet beat that became the standard pulse and roll of modern ride cymbal playing. He also popularized the use of Chinese cymbals. Recording technology was crude, which meant that loud sounds could distort the recording. In order to get around this, Dodds used woodblocks and the drums as quieter alternatives to cymbals and drum skins respectively.
In the 1920s, freelance drummers were hired to play at shows, concerts, theaters, clubs and support dancers and musicians of various genres. Some drummers in the 1920s worked as foley artists. During silent films, an orchestra was hired to accompany the silent film and the drummer was responsible for providing all the sound effects. Drummers played instruments to imitate gun shots, planes flying overhead, a train coming into a train station, and galloping horses etc.
Sheet music from the 1920s provides evidence that the drummer's sets were starting to evolve in size and sound to support the various acts mentioned above. However, by 1930, "talkies" (films with audio) were more common popular, and many were accompanied with pre-recorded soundtracks. This technological breakthrough put thousands of drummers who served as sound effect specialists out of work. A similar panic was felt by drummers in the 1980s, when electronic drum machines were first released.