This section of my site lays out the correct and most functional principles of setting up a drum set so that it is playable, efficient, and most importantly, ergonomic.
1 an applied science concerned with designing and arranging things people use so that the people and things interact most efficiently and safely — Merriam-Webster
2 the study of the relationship between workers and their environment, esp the equipment they use — Dictionary.com
As a drummer, your work equipment is your drum kit and how you relate to it, or how it is set up around you, can change both how you play daily and how it affects you over your drumming career. A typical drummer in America learns to play between about 6 and 16 years old, and barring catastrophe, will often play into their 60s or even up to the average life expectancy of around 78 years. That is a range of 50 to 72 years in which poor posture, overreaching, unnecessary twisting, contorted wrists, oddly angled knees, or other structural problems can drastically take a toll on your body. Taking into account physiology, physics, and traditionally correct drumming techniques, certain ways of setting up a drum kit can be viewed as more or less ergonomic, efficient, and functionally optimized for each individual player than others. There is no single right answer to what a kit should look like and no perfectly ergonomic drum it likely exists in the real world. This fact should not, however, be taken to mean that anything goes and all opinions are valid. There are clear and obvious mistakes that will definitively result in a less ergonomic setup. Throughout this article I will insert videos from my YouTube channel and from several others whom I trust (including Rich Patterson, Bill Bachman, and Ash Pearson), to further illustrate basic points. If reading isn’t your thing, I suggest just watching through the playlist https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL_3q633asTF7ABoEuGAxCxU6Tm_jnpocE. Reading on will give a bit more context and put the whole series in perspective slightly.
The first thing to realize is that drum kit setup throughout history has been dictated more by visual style, available drum sizes and hardware design, popular drum culture, and hero worship than by any sort of logic. Originally, most drum kits were cobbled together from unrelated components. When drum kits began to be produced intentionally, they could often only be set up one way. This way wasn’t particularly ergonomic but there wasn’t really any other option. Those original dixieland and big band drummers set the standard that would continue to plague drummers for decades to come. Most vintage kits suffer from not being able to be set up very tall. They favor shorter players in terms of floor tom leg length, rack tom mounting height, and snare stand height. I have a vintage Ludwig from the 60s and even a couple decades after mass production began in earnest, the rack tom still couldn’t go anywhere near high enough for my 6’1″ frame. Now days I would simply use a snare stand for the rack (like Bonham in the 70s) but back in the early 60s snare stands were significantly less sturdy and that wouldn’t have been a real option.
By the 80s, the pendulum had swung the opposite way. Many drum companies were making power depth toms and selling rack systems and 26″ kick drums. It was almost impossible to get mid-80s drums low enough for an average size person and thus many times the toms were angled so steeply that the playing surface was near vertical or the toms were positioned close to head high. This wasn’t any better than the tiny 60s setups.
Aside from drum kit construction, many players simply set up the way that is currently popular in the media which also oscillates throughout time. Even though many pro players with endorsement deals have the option of any hardware configuration and drum sizes on the planet, they still choose to set up poorly because it is what has been deemed cool or hip at the time. This first video shows Calaiuta, Gadd, and Weckl having a drum battle in the 90s (I think) and their kits are all extremely similar, especially that they have their ride cymbals ridiculously high. They aren’t all the same height, they don’t play exactly the same style, and the cymbal is not in the most effective place for any of them. Clearly, they are just blindly following a trend. Of course, they make it work due to insane amounts of skill at the time, but Calaiuta and Weckl no longer set up anything like this. They’ve since learned that was inappropriate for their size and style, but at the time they all probably felt like they were doing it “right” because the guy next to them was also doing it. Herd mentality.
Playing a certain setup because your favorite pro plays it doesn’t make it correct, or at least not necessarily correct for you. Gene Hoglan is around 6’7″ (so I’ve heard, he looks huge on stage anyway), over 300 lbs, and left handed. His setup almost certainly will not work for you. Justifying your setup decisions with a celebrity player is not a wise decision no matter whose setup you idolize. Just remember, the skill and chops of a player are not necessarily indicative of their ergonomic judgement or setup logic. Some of the best players in the world have ridiculous and painful looking setups that defy all reason. Nothing against them or their playing, they just haven’t thought about it, or don’t care.
Trusting the manufacturer of your drum kit is often not a wise choice either. Drum makers want to sell you the easiest and least expensive hardware necessary to make the kit function, unless you are ordering a very high end kit. Most beginner or intermediate packages will give you only the bare minimum. The pictures online or the setup at the music shop will have the kit assembled in a way that is easy and cheap to make, not the best way to play. I once had a student set up his snare to the left of his high hat, with nothing in front of him between his legs, because the picture on the box looked that way. That decision was made for the photograph based on lighting, marketing appeal, and aesthetics, not play-ability. The kid was shocked when he learned that nobody actually does that. The double tom mount on the kick drum for a 5 piece kit is also one of these manufacturer shortcuts that people have been erroneously playing for decades. We will get to that in the toms section later.
One more thing about general ergonomics is that it is definitely not the same as comfort. You’ll notice I haven’t used that word at all. You can be comfortable and very non-ergonomic. Sitting up straight is ergonomic, ask any chiropractor or orthopedist, but slouching is often more comfortable. Playing the kit you are used to after years of practice, not matter how strange, is comfortable, but playing one that is set up correctly is ergonomic. The ergonomic setup may actually feel uncomfortable for a while if you are not used to it. This still doesn’t mean your old setup was better for you.
For every point that I make below, you are going to be able to find a video or a blog that disagrees. You should trust me and the other teachers that I link to here and not other less reputable sources (no matter how many social media followers they have!). I have a degree in percussion and have been playing for 22 years (you can read my credentials on this site) and I’ve been worrying about, and researching, ergonomics and setup that entire time. After teaching around 5500 private lessons over the years, and observing innumerable gigging drummers across the country while on tour with Havok and Bloodstrike, I have seen all the bad habits and poor setups imaginable. I’m also a former NCAA pole vaulter and later a pole vault coach. Pole vault is one of the most difficult and technically demanding sports on the planet and requires extremely acute movement analysis skills, understanding of physics and physiology, and and an eye for mechanics of human motion. Applying these analytical skills to drumming allows me to see all kinds of interesting things when I look past the notes and sounds of the drums and see the motion and the mechanics behind them. I’d personally like to see other drummers struggle less, feel better, and play longer. I try to give my students lifelong skills and habits that will serve them for those next 72 years, long after I am gone.
Throne and Pedals
To set up a kit effectively and correctly, you must start with the throne and pedals. The throne height is important, it must be high enough to give your spine and hips room to maneuver, but not so high that you lose balance. By far, it is more common to sit too low than too high. This guy has a great take on it from an anatomical sports science point of view.
Once you have your throne height correct you can set up your pedals around it. No matter how many pedals you have they need to be at the correct distance from your body and at an appropriate angle for your hips and knees. This will be different for everyone, but a basic principle that I outline in this next video is that the pedals must be situated so that your heel is below your knee or slightly ahead of it. If you are sitting too close or too far from your pedals you cannot play to your potential. If your knee is above your shoelaces you are too close to your pedals. If your knee is significantly behind your heel you are too far away in all likelihood. Most people are too close. It is rare to be too far, but by all means possible. This distance is correct because it allows the maximum range of motion for your ankle joint. Moving inside or outside of this range will limit the range of motion in one direction or the other and this will clearly inhibit proper playing technique.
Your pedals also need to be somewhat symmetrically laid out in an arc around your body. Assuming right-footedness, your kick will be to your right and your hi-hat will be to your left so that your legs form a V shape with your snare in the center. It doesn’t matter where you face your kick in the room, so long as it is to your right when you sit down. If it is straight in front of you, you are likely twisting your knee or your spine or both unnaturally. Most drummers do this. It is not good for you or your playing. If you have an additional kick pedal, or any other pedals for that matter, you should place them so that they form a nice arc around your throne. Since your hips are balls joints, they are built to swivel and will trace an arc in front of your throne when moved side to side. If you just place your pedals along this arc, it will be easy and efficient to change pedals and each will be playable with correct technique. How wide this arc can go depends on your legs and flexibility. A couple pedals on each side shouldn’t be an issue as long as they are all at the correct distance from the throne. This video shows what I am saying about the pedal arc.
Kick Drum Orientation
No matter what you think or what arguments you have heard on forums or chat rooms, it is not the center of your kit, it is on the right side. If you have 2 kicks, the other will be correspondingly on your left side. The snare is always the center of the kit. I say this because continuously sitting such that your head and chest face your right leg is very bad for your neck and back. Years of this preferential twisting will cause your muscles and even bones to become contorted to that side. It also leaves you off balance. None of this is ideal. If you are in the vast majority of players who face their kick toward the front of the stage when playing live, you must understand that ergonomically speaking, your head and chest must then be facing around 45 degrees (give or take a few) to stage left. If they aren’t, and you are also facing toward the front of the stage, then you have fallen victim to the spinal twist. Your chest and head naturally want to face straight between your legs so that there is one on each side, hence why you ought to be facing off to stage left, between your hi-hat and kick drum. If you feel as though your head and chest ought to be facing forward toward the audience, then you must accept that your kick drum will then be facing around 45 degrees (give or take) off to stage right. Short of buying a ridiculous special offset pedal (which they do make, unfortunately) there is no way around this. I personally either situate the kick facing off to the right or play 2 symmetrical kicks, and this has never bothered me. Some drummers complain endlessly if their resonant head cannot face perfectly forward, which is fine, so long as they face left and set the rest of the kit to match that left orientation.
The next thing to worry about is the snare drum. It should, as I mentioned above, be directly front and center between your legs. Assuming matched grip, it should be flat or slightly angled back from flat at a height which allows you to play it with or without rimshots equally, without hitting your leg with your hand or arm on the down stroke, and without needing to contort your arm inside or outside of your leg for any reason. In other words, the rim of the snare should be higher than your thigh but not so high that you must raise your elbow or shoulder to get over the rim. For most people there is a 2 or 3 inch window of space in which these criteria are met. This gives you a bit of personalization space in terms of height. You must also consider distance from your body. The center of the head should be exactly as far away from you as the tip of your stick when your upper arm is hanging from the shoulder in a neutral position, neither reaching forward of your torso nor pulling back behind you. This completely depends on your forearm length. I say this and then Rich Patterson mentions this also in the next 2 videos which should give you a good look at it.
Once you have your throne, pedals, and snare arranged in a good ergonomic and technically efficient position, you can then move on your toms. There will be more variation among drummers in the placement of the toms because drum kits can vary from no toms to 8 or 10 or more. Most commonly you’ll have 2 or 3 toms but a few more are fine as long as you can reach them and they are at an appropriate height and arrangement around you. In a general sense, more rack toms is always better than more floor toms. A very popular setup currently is one rack and 2 floors. This can work, but is ultimately not ideal. As we discussed in the kick drum section, you should be facing forward as much as possible, toward your snare. Floor toms, due to the fact that your bass drum sits on the floor as well, have limited positioning options. One floor tom is fine because it is fairly easy to each and doesn’t require much spinal twisting. Two floor toms can be problematic, depending in how tall you are, how they are positioned, and what sizes they are. a 16″ and an 18″ floor tom positioned both to the right and behind a short-legged drummer (who must sit in close) will often result in the second tom being almost unreachable behind the player’s back. Conversely, a 14″ and a 16″ drum positioned more to the side of a drummer with long legs (who can sit farther back) may make that second tom accessible and ergonomically more acceptable. It very much depends on how the floor toms are utilized and by whom. A good rule of thumb is that anything (tom or otherwise) placed so that the playing area is farther around the corner than 90 degrees is probably ‘”unplayable” without compromising your posture or technique. If you need the sound of floor toms over racks, a good compromise is placing one to the left and one to the right so they are both within that 180 degree total playing playing window — 90 degrees right and 90 degrees left.
As I alluded to earlier, rack toms mounted on the kick drum, as most manufacturers intend, is problematic. More rack toms and fewer floor toms is better only if these rack toms are mounted in front of you. If your kick is to your right, as it should be, and you mount 2 toms on top of it, these toms are also to your right, leaving a gap front and center. This is less than ideal. The correct alignment of rack toms, whether you have 1 or 2 or more, is to have them as centered as possible in front of your head and chest so that you can easily move from the snare to the toms without any twisting or reaching. The term “offset toms” gets thrown around for this arrangement sometimes. When people say this they mean offset to the left from the bass drum, but that actually means centered for your body, so it is a misleading term. Centered toms cannot both be mounted on the bass drum. This is impossible. At most, with a normal set of 2 rack toms, one of them (the right one) can be mounted on the kick. The other must be mounted in a separate snare stand, or clamped to a cymbal stand or rack system. Many drummers do not do this because, usually, this requires the purchase of another snare stand or a clamp. Since the kit does not come with it in the box, it is often ignored as an option. If the kit has a double connected tom mount, a clamp or separate stand base can usually be used to take both toms off of the kick. I have done all of these options over the years and they each work fairly well. A clamp will cost between 10 and 25 dollars, so we are not talking about a large investment. Most drummers have extra stands and other hardware just laying around to experiment with anyway. These next couple of videos give some visual aids to the tom problem.
After the kick drum angle fight, the next most kickback I get from drummers is about the toms and the second floor tom being too far back. I did a separate video purely on problematic floor toms to help sway some doubters. This looks at some famous drummers and shows who can actually reach their floor toms and who cannot. I think the results are pretty conclusive.
When you’ve placed all your drums correctly for you, its time to think about cymbals. You can have a huge number of cymbals, but it is most important to start with the ones you’ll hit with more frequency, the hi-hat and the ride. Since the hi-hat pedal was already discussed, the only other option is the height. You simply want to make sure it isn’t too high to reach, or so low that it impedes your snare hand, assuming you cross over. The ride should, again for right handed players, be placed on the right side, opposite the hats, so that you can reach it without raising your elbow. If it is too high, your shoulder will regret it. The only realistic way it can be too low is if you cannot play it without your hand hitting your floor tom. For distance, it ought to be placed like the snare, at the point where you do not have to reach forward or pull back to hit the playing surface with your stick tip. For a lefty, the best practice is to place the ride on the left side near the hi-hat. This of course, assumes that a lefty is playing kick with the right foot.
To digress for a moment, left handed drummers should learn to play right handed kits with the exception of the ride cymbal. It is fine to lead left handed, but the kit should not be mirrored. You will almost never find a lefty kit out in “the wild.” Being left handed and playing a left handed kit is a recipe for disappointment. No house kit at any club will ever be left handed. Many times, drummers will not let you borrow a kit and flip it. This curses you to a life of dragging your own kit to gigs and jams, even when there is a backline — because you won’t be able to use the backline. Most lesson teachers will also not have a lefty kit for you and you’ll have to pay extra to have lessons in your home. Watching youtube videos or reading books will almost always show everything on a right handed kit and you’ll be forced to mentally flip everything. A much less frustrating option is to lead lefty on a righty kit. Simon Phillips, Gene Hogan, Carter Beauford, and a few other pros do it this way while Claus Hessler, Blake Anderson, and a few others genuinely play open handed which means they are playing lefty on a righty kit about half of the time. The most you’ll ever have to adjust is to pop the ride cymbal next to the hi-hats, a minor switch that almost anyone will be cool with in any situation.
A couple rules of thumb about cymbals are as follows, A) you should be able to reach out and touch any cymbal without your sticks and without leaning over on your throne, B) cymbals should be placed below head height so that you have a nice bend in your elbow when you reach for them and so that your shoulder stays below parallel. Following these simple rules should make it so that your shoulder and back health remain in tact for your playing career by eliminating overreach and overhead extension. Of course, the 90 degree rule applies to cymbals as well, so they should be in front of you or around the corner only to 90 degrees. Any farther and they are technically behind you back in an “unplayable” position without twisting and contorting. This video will give you some visuals for cymbal placement.
This video will help you visualize your hi-hat height in relation to the snare drum.
Double Bass Kits
One thing that I briefly mentioned before, but deserves some discussion, is double bass kits. They go in and out of fashion regularly. Bellson had one in the big band days, Ginger Baker and Billy Cobham used them in the 60s, and most drummers had 2 kicks in the 70s but actually didn’t use them much at all. In the 80s metal drummers made them a staple of their playing, but then in the 90s double pedals reached the technological point where 2 kicks were no longer actually necessary. None the less, double bass kits have come back again into fashion. The great thing about a double bass kit is that most double bass kits are set up, on average, more ergonomically than most average single bass kits. Something about the symmetry of 2 bass drums tricks people into doing things correctly more of the time than they otherwise would have. The thing about a single bass kit is, it really ought to be thought of as a double bass kit that is missing a bass drum. Even if you never intend to play double pedal, this is still true, for the simple symmetry of the setup. Double bass kits have more symmetrical pedal layouts, they prompt people to mount their toms centrally instead of to the right, and they often promo people to layout their cymbals more symmetrically and centered to the front as well. There are plenty of downsides to having 2 bass drums: extra tuning, extra storage space, higher price, extra weight, more stage plot space, extra mics, extra heads, the hi-hat is difficult to maneuver, and more. On the up side: better symmetry, built in place to mount toms and cymbals on the left side, if you use triggers (which I oppose) the kick triggers will misfire less, the left pedal can be more easily matched to the right than on a double pedal, and of course, it looks cooler (which is a silly but sometimes relevant reason, just ask the 70s). The benefits do not necessarily outweigh the deficits, but if you make the commitment to it, 2 kicks can be fun and interesting and will often help you get a more ergonomic setup by default, for some strange psychological reason.
If at this point you don’t believe or trust that this information has been correct, relevant, or useful, you don’t have to take my word for it, or Rich Patterson’s, or that guy with the spine’s. Ash Pearson, featured on Drumeo, will say roughly the same information in this next video. His kit is set up pretty much following all the rules and considerations I put on here and he and I have never met or conversed in any form. He just also happens to know the right answers. Check it out. There are other teachers on the Drumeo channel who give very incorrect or misleading information, just as a warning, but this guy has it right on most counts.
Pro Case Studies
Since, despite my warnings, most people will still trust their favorite professional drummer over my expertise, I’ve made a few videos looking at much more famous drummers who make all or most of the right ergonomic decisions with their drums and cymbals. Consequently, they have kits that fit their body and their style better than most others. The first is Bill Bachman. His kit is amazingly symmetrical and everything is forward facing and within reach. Great ergonomics. I’ll also put a couple vids below where he talks about some techniques and his explanations are the closest thing to religious canon that I have heard, i.e. he is saying what Joe Morello, Sanford Moeller, Dom Famularo, Charles Wilcoxon, Alan Dawson, or some other master teacher would say, but often in a more descriptive, more modern, and easier to understand way.
Next we can look at Thomas Lang’s kit. He is a larger man, thus his big kit with big drum sizes works. He also scrunches everything very tightly to maintain playability with a lot of pieces. His pedal setup perfectly illustrates the pedal arc concept.
Claus Hessler has a very different setup. His pedals aren’t perfectly aligned, but the reason his kit is worth looking at is the fact that he is a legitimately open handed player and so his kit is designed for a lot more lefty playing that most people’s. This makes some of his decisions very different from what a true righty would do.
Hannes Grossman’s kit is also a bit different in that he is not a fusion player, or a clinician, but a death metal session drummer. He has his kit 100% optimized for speed and power since he has no other concerns. Everything is easily within reach and he doesn’t overdo it with toys and extra pieces. This is a double bass drummer’s kit in every obvious way possible, yet it very much follows the principles of ergonomics in most cases.
Of course, we have to look at the most monetarily successful drummer ever, Phil Collins. His kit has not really changed since the 70s and it has a few issues but also some cool features. The cymbals are, on average, too high, but his tom layout is actually really cool. The 4 racks with really shallow concert shells over the hi-hat actually work nicely and get a lot of toms in front of him. His snare is too highly angled for his height and it looks pretty awkwardly low. The last floor tom, as usual, is a bit far back around for good spinal health, but overall his ride being in between racks and floor makes sense and he does not appear to face his kick drum directly, so things look good on a lot of fronts.
Mike Mangini has one of the most recognizeable kits of the past few years. It’s sort of a double kit, but in a different way than Portnoy’s Siamese monster. The lower row of pieces actually follows ergonomics pretty well, but then there is the upper row that is too high and too far to reach without leaning and thus clearly isn’t ergonomic. It’s oddly both very good and and pretty bad depending on whichever part you look at.
Don’t Do These, Seriously, Do Not Do These Things
Hopefully, if you’ve read and watched this far, you are fairly well convinced of what makes a good ergonomic setup. I would say that out in the clubs I have only seen 3 to 5 good ergonomic setups in my entire lifetime. Many drummers fall victim to failures such as:
-not raising the throne since you were 10 years old and now its too short
-setting up 3 floor toms that curl behind your back
-putting the cymbals well over head high because it looks cool
-putting the left kick pedal in a weird place because you didn’t want to move anything whatsoever to add it in to the kit
-putting both kick pedals perfectly parallel to one another, so they both point straight back and not toward the legs
-not raising the snare since you were 10 years old and now its too short
-mounting the toms all to the right of center and having a massive gap between hats and toms
-sitting way too close and having to scrunch up your knees and ankles to play
-mounting the ride so far out that you have to lean to reach it
-playing a single rack tom, yet still having it far to the right and not centered
-centering a single rack tom but still failing to move the ride within reach over the kick
-tilting the snare so much that the stick impacts at a high angle and causes head damage
-tilting the snare toward you and playing traditional grip
-tilting the snare away from you playing matched grip
-placing the hi-hat so low you can’t play a backbeat under it
-mounting toms perfectly flat but too high so you cannot easily reach the heads over the rims
-placing hi-hats so high you cannot reach the top of the cymbal and must only play on the edge
-playing only one floor tom, but still having it too far back to reach
-playing your feet across the pedals at an angle instead of lining up the foot normally
-playing with the snare behind the kick instead of to the left of it
-playing with 2 kicks and still mounting the toms only on the right one
-mounting cymbals flat so you can only smash into the edge and destroy your sticks
-mounting crashes so highly tilted that you cannot crash them
-tilting the ride nearly vertically and playing it like a wall
I could go on, but I think most people reading these will agree that these are all silly mistakes that can be easily fixed. Unfortunately, the reality is that players are still out there making them nightly. Somehow the concept hasn’t caught up with the practice. If you simply look critically at your drum kit, you’ll probably be able to identify at least one area where you could make something higher, lower, less angled, more angled, closer, farther, or to the left or right of its current position, and then you’ll have an better playing experience. Nobody is perfect, not all drum kits can adjust the way we want them, but everyone can make an effort to have a healthier spine, shoulders, hips, knees, wrists, and ankles by playing a setup that actually works for you instead of against you. Please email me with any questions you might have. Hopefully between my descriptions and these linked videos, this should paint a pretty clear and vivid picture of what constitutes a good setup. Just to reiterate, no two setups are going to look identical, but there are some setups that are just plain wrong. If you hedge towards the ergonomic truth, you’ll appreciate it 25 or 50 years from now. I guarantee it.