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Who Invented the Drums?

Who Invented the Drums?

Some of the best drummers customize their drum sets to suit their impressive drumming techniques. From drums made of natural objects in prehistoric times to modern ones used for training military soldiers to maintain a rhythmic pace, this musical instrument has evolved over thousands of years.

People were already using percussion instruments before the drum set was developed. Like most musical instruments, they have evolved over centuries of innovation. Let’s look into their history and find out who invented the drums.

Artifacts recovered from China around 5500 BC [1] suggest that the earliest drums were made from alligator skins originating in China’s neolithic cultures.

Who Invented the Drums? Infographic.

Prehistoric Times and the Ancient Drums

Tanggu drum, Thian Hock Keng Temple, Singapore.
Tanggu drum, Thian Hock Keng Temple, Singapore
User:Sengkang, Copyrighted free use, via Wikimedia Commons

It is believed that drums were made of natural objects in prehistoric times. Artifacts recovered from China around 5500 BC [1] suggest that the earliest drums were made from alligator skins. 

Originating in China’s Neolithic cultures, this knowledge later spread to all of Asia, and humans found ways to use animal skins for drum heads.

Frame drums were common musical instruments in ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. These were drum heads stretched over a shallow wooden frame. [4]

Around 3000 BC, northern Vietnam made Bronze Dong Son drums. Using drums to communicate over large distances between 1000 to 500 BC was popular with Sri Lanka and the African people. [1]

The drums spread to Greece and Rome around 200 – 150 BC and then to Europe via Mediterranean trading routes during 1200 AD. It was only around 1500 AD that America saw African drums through the slave trade. [1]

The Snare Drum

Snare Drum.
Snare Drum
Image courtesy:

It is believed that the snare drum was invented in the 13th century. With a wooden body drum, it had a wire fitted on the membrane for a rattling sound. [6]

People used any material they could find (like animal skins) to make snare drums in those days. The first modern version of the snare drum was created in 1650 [1] when better manufacturing methods evolved, making it easier to use screws to adjust the tension and firmly secure it.

The modern snare drum became popular around the early 1900s during World War I. [3]

The Bass Drum

In ancient times, before the evolution of the bass drum, deep drums were in common use.

Bass drum.
Bass drum
Chocho at French Wikipedia, FAL, via Wikimedia Commons

Around 1400 AD, Europe saw the emergence of the popular bass drum (nicknamed the Turkish drum), which evolved from the Turkish davul. The davuls produced a more unique and deeper tone than other drum types and were used to motivate troops during combat and war. [2]

The bass drum was in regular use in European folkloric traditions.

In an attempt to play more than one drum, people started experimenting with foot pedals around the 1840s. The ‘overhang pedal’ came about in the 1870s – a new invention for playing the bass drum (which began to be known as the kick drum later). [3]

William Ludwig

The solution to the problem of musicians not being able to make a drum set came by integrating the bass drum as part of a somewhat compact drumming kit.

Credited with the invention of the bass drum pedal, William Ludwig established Ludwig & Ludwig Co. along with Theobald Ludwig (his brother) in 1909 to patent the first bass drum pedal system that was commercially successful.

Though the brothers parted ways in the 1930s, they are responsible for commercializing the first bass drum pedals. [3]

The Drum Sticks

Historians believe the earliest use of drumsticks was from the 1300s when people used to hit a kind of snare drum called ‘tabors.’

Drum Sticks.
Drum Sticks
Andrewa, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The 1700s saw drumsticks evolving to include different woods (like beefwood), while ebony was the preferred military drum choice in the 1800s. Drums became popular in military marches, and people played them with two sticks (instead of one stick and their hand).

Since these drumsticks would wear out too fast, Joe Calato came up with a type of drumstick with a nylon tip in 1958. [2]

The Hi-Hat

From percussionists playing the cymbals by hand to the low-mounted high-hat (or the low-boys) developed by William Ludwig evolved the modern hi-hat cymbal that we see in modern drum kits today.

Modern hi-hat cymbal.
Hi Hat
Subdivision by zero, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Ludwig observed that Baby Dodds (an early trailblazer of New Orleans jazz drumming) would keep tapping his left foot. For easier playing, Dodds asked Ludwig to elevate the low hats, and the hi-hat cymbal came into existence. [5]

The 1920s saw the first regular appearance of hi-hat stands in drum kits. [1]

Discovery of the Modern Drum Set

It was only around the late 19th century that the first drum set was discovered. Until then, multiple people were employed to play the different parts (cymbals, bass, snare, and other percussion instruments).

Platin Drums.
Platin Drums, CC BY-SA 2.0 DE, via Wikimedia Commons

The iconic jazz drummers of the ’30s and ’40s contributed to making the drum kit (a collection of drums and percussion instruments/cymbals) standardized. [3] While the 1940s saw the jazz drummer Louis Bellson use a double bass drum kit, it’s Dee Dee Chandler who is credited for inventing the first drum kit. [7]

He discovered a way to use his hands to play the snare while simultaneously playing the bass using a stepping pedal.

The founding father of the modern drum kit is the American jazz drummer Gene Krupa, who popularized drum sets with a more powerful bass drum for greater emphasis. Then, there’s Ringo Starr of The Beatles, who played a crucial role in popularizing the modern-day drum kit. [7]

With technological development, electronic drums were created in the 1970s. These are used by many drummers today instead of an acoustic kit.


While synthesizers are becoming popular in the music industry over conventional bass and drum sounds, and traditional bands might be eventually overtaken by tech music, the modern drum kit remains widely used.

Live bands, hip-hop, pop, and even metal use the drum kit to make some truly sensational music. The drums have definitely come a long way from prehistoric times to being an essential instrument in drum kits for most rock drummers through the different evolution phases.