Big Drums: Does Size Matter?

Sure, there are lots of types of drums in the world. Snare drums and bongo drums, bodhrans and ashikos, timbales and tenor drums-if you want to learn to play this instrument, you’ve got a lot of choices. But what if you want to go for sheer power? What if you want to play with the big boys and, incidentally, the big drums? What are your best options then? Fortunately for the potential drum player who thinks that size matters, there are several contenders in the big drum category and all of them demand a respect in accordance with their sizes.

First, the most obvious of the big drums, the bass drum. This is a large drum that produces a note of a low definite or indefinite pitch. The use of bass drums is widespread, and its genres include orchestral, concert band, marching, jazz and rock music. Bass drums are made of a large, symmetrical metal frame with skins stretched over both circular ends. Bass drums may be divided into three subcategories: the concert bass drum, which is usually used in an orchestra or concert band; the “kick” bass drum, which is generally part of a drum kit and struck with a beater attached to a pedal; and the pitched bass drum, which is generally used in marching drum corps.

The largest bass drums tend to belong to the orchestral bass drum classification and are usually about three feet in diameter. The “kick” bass drum and the pitched bass drum are usually about two feet in diameter. However, it should be noted that there is an ongoing competition amongst some American universities, such as the Universities of Chicago, Texas, and Purdue, for the title of “World’s Largest Drum.” These drums measure anywhere from eight to ten feet in diameter, although the exact dimensions of some are closely guarded secrets. Needless to say, these are the largest bass drums known to exist.

Next on the big drum list come the timpani. Sometimes called kettledrums, these massive instruments are a must for dramatic percussion music in classical orchestras, although they are also used in other genres. Timpani drums are constructed from large, bowl-shaped bodies, usually of copper, with skins stretched over them. The largest timpani drums are just less than three feet in diameter. This makes them slightly smaller than the average orchestral bass drum, but the sound of the timpani makes up for those few extra inches. These drums are known for their round, resonant sounds, and a timpani roll is enough to send shivers up anyone’s spine.

Finally, there are the taiko drums. For those who do not know, taiko drumming is a traditional Japanese art form that utilizes drums of various sizes. The largest of these are the odaiko drums, and these instruments can amaze and observer with both their sizes and their sounds. Some odaiko drums are so large that once they have been positioned in their permanent homes, usually a temple or a shrine, they are never moved again. They are sometimes made from a single piece of wood from an ancient tree: the “N” odaiko drum, for instance, is made from a tree that was 1200 years old when killed. The instrument measures almost eight feet in diameter. The notes of the odaiko are deep, resounding and unforgettable.