Buying a drum set can be a difficult (and expensive) process if you don't know what you're looking for. The most important aspect of drum set shopping is to know what you actually need. This article is going to look at what is necessary for beginner students to have in a drum set and how to get the best purchase for your money.
Most beginning students' needs are very simple. They need a standard 5 piece drum set with hi-hat cymbals and a crash ride. It helps to have an individual ride cymbal and an individual crash cymbal but the crash/rides can work pretty well also. The goal of finding the best entry-level 5 piece set is to find one that isn't too expensive, yet will still have some value when it is time to resell (or upgrade). Most companies make a standard entry-level drum set. Most of these sets are made in the same factory overseas. Because of this, the choice of wood in the shells and the construction of the shells is not really that important to the purchase, as most tend to be the same or very similar. What you really want to look at is the hardware that comes with the drum set.
Fig A - Double Braced Legs
HardwareThe stands, pedals and seat are all things that alone can be expensive to replace. Some of the real inexpensive sets come with real cheap hardware that will break quickly and force you to shell out more money to replace. Good stands have double-braced legs (fig A) and are heavier than the junkier ones. Bass drum pedals with a double chain, or a strap, are also better than the single chain pedals. The way that the tom-toms attach to the bass drum are another important factor. The mounting system with poles going into the drums are clunky and do not allow for optimal placement of the toms. The best system for entry-level sets is to have a double pole coming out of the bass drum that has a dual L Rod system that attaches to a bracket on the toms (fig B). This system allows for the best placement of the tom-toms and doesn't cause any sound loss.
Fig B - Double L Rod Tom-Tom Mount
Snare DrumEntry-level drum sets will not come with good snare drums. This is ok though because snare drums are usually the first thing upgraded by drummers. What you need out of the entry snare drum is for it to last until the student knows what type of snare drum sound they are actually looking for. Most entry-level sets come with 8 lug snare drums. This is fine for a beginner but not optimal as they progress. The sets that have snare drums with only 6 lugs are ones to avoid. A 6 lug snare drum is not really usable in any situation. Some entry sets will come with a steel snare drum while others will come with a wood snare drum that is the same color as the other drums. It's not a huge deal between the two but the wooden snares seem to have better construction and will help with a possible resale in the future.
This is where it can get a bit tricky. There are three companies that make good cymbals (Zildjian, Sabian, and Paiste). Any cymbal made by these three is a quality cymbal. However, cymbals made by these companies can be hundreds of dollars and are not usually included with entry-level sets. Good cymbals are just that because they have specific qualities (tone, resonance, response, volume, etc). Beginners don't know what they prefer so it's best to get the basic cast cymbals that come on most entry-level sets. We call these 'targets' and they are basically just that. They are used to be learned on but have no real good sound quality. As the drummer advances and gets preferences, you can easily upgrade to better cymbals.
DrumsLike I said earlier, the actual drums are the least important part because they tend to be similar to each other on most of the entry-level sets. It is important to look at the amount of lugs on the drums though. The bass drum should have at least 8 lugs and the toms should have at least 6 each. Anything less than these are unusable. If you are buying a used set, you will also want to look at the drum heads. Drum heads are expensive and if the set needs an entire new set of top and bottom heads, you can be looking at an extra $200.