Tips for Buying & Tuning Church Drums on a Budget
Drums are incredibly expensive. I know because I’m a drummer. And I have a drum gear hoarding problem…
But buying drums on a budget is a bit different than other instruments. With a guitar, bass, or keyboard, you have to buy one at it’s list price and that’s what it costs – you have the instrument. With drums, it’s much easier to mix together snares with different drum kits, cymbals, hardware, and heads. And it’s not too hard to find a good deal on a drum set. But it can be hard to figure out what you’re looking for!
Debunking Lies About Drum Gear
Before I dive into exactly what you should look for, where to look for it, and what you should expect to pay, these are some important myths or lies to be aware of that you may even currently believe. These aren’t concrete “truths,” but I and nearly every other professional drummer will tell you something similar from their experience.
Lie: There’s a Such Thing as “Church” Drums
Total lie. There is definitely a “sound” to church drums in a worship mix though. A church drum set doesn’t sound like high-tuned cocktail jazz drums. It doesn’t sound like hip hop drums. They’re supposed to sound big, beefy, and thuddy, right? But don’t let anyone convince you that any “one” drum set or type of drum set does that sound.
I will say – it’s smart to avoid really small drum sets. You’re not going to get an 18” bass drum, or 12” and 14” rack toms and floor toms to sound huge and thuddy (if that’s what you’re going for.) I’ll talk a bit about that later, but the underlying message is – there is no such thing as a “church drum set.” Gretsch, Ludwig, Pearl, Risen, custom drums, stave drums, steam bent drums, metal drums, wood drums. I’ve seen them all, and they’ve all worked beautifully when setup right and taken care of.
Lie: The Wood/Build Method Matters the Most
“Birch is thuddy and focused, Maple is bright, Mahogany is warm. You can’t tune stave shells low, and tube lugs are the best.” I’m sure you’ll find plenty of these suggestions from your local Guitar Center employees and loads of online audio forums from people who talk about drums 10x more than they actually play them. And I totally ate up that advice early on. It wasn’t until recently in my career that I’ve found much of it to be either entirely false or have negligible differences, but one thing is true about all of it – it’s the wrong place to put your focus.
You walk into a room and play a birch kit that sounds punchy and a maple kit that sounds resonant, and you conclude that the reason must be the wood. But the drums are also setup differently. They are different dimensions. Different thicknesses. Different number of plies. Different type of lug. Different lug material. Different number of lugs. In a different location in the room. Different drum heads. Different dressing/muffling. Different tuning. Different bearing edges. Different hoops and hoop weights.
Drums are super atonal, and there are a million and one things that affect the sound of the drum. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not going to pretend like different woods or types of lugs don’t make any difference in the drum sound. But I’ve had the opportunity a couple times to play drums that actually were the exact same hardware, thickness, bearing edges, etc. with the only difference being the wood. And the difference was very negligible. Same with lugs.
Yes, I can now actually confirm that mahogany is a little bit “warmer” than maple. But tuning the lug on the maple kit a quarter inch down and throwing a single moongel on the head will change the sound drastically more than swapping out the lugs or getting a different material drum set. And I’ve heard drum sets that contradict all the typical stereotypes. Bright mahogany kits. Soft and boomy stave kits. Dry sounding metal drums. Etc.
Lie: Expensive is Good, Cheap is Bad
There is obviously a reasonable range here. A $50 Craigslist off-brand Japanese kit prooobabbbly is going to sound bad. But for the most part, you can find cheap kits – used or new – that sound amazing.
With guitars, you have much less wiggle room in pricing. There’s only a couple major types – telecasters, strats, Les Paul, etc. and some factors such as where it’s made and the condition that will determine the price. But it’s always in a pretty predictable price range. Drums are much different.
There’s so many different types of drums in different conditions and people are letting them go for different reasons. People often don’t even know what they have and post it on Craigslist for a third of what it’s worth. You can find really great quality, name brand drums for awesome prices.
Lie: You Can’t Change the Sound of a Drum Kit
Anytime I hear someone say something along the lines of, “Yeah, you’re not going to get that thuddy sound out of those drums,” I almost immediately know they don’t know what they’re talking about.
Drums are one of the most malleable instruments. Swapping the heads, tuning it differently, dressing it with moongels, throwing cotton balls in the drum, and playing it with different types of sticks will all drastically change the sound. You can get nearly any kit to do any sound. Some will do it a little better than others, but they are all quite sonically malleable.
Buying Church Drums on a Budget: What to Look For and Where
Alright, that was a lot of myth debunking about drums for church! Here is a shorter list of what you actually should be keeping in mind as you search for a drum kit.
Depending on the room and your specific circumstances, you can take or leave this information. But generally speaking, if you’re trying to get bigger, beefy drum sounds for worship music, you should aim for a 22” or 24” kick, 16” floor tom, and then either a 12” or 13” rack tom.
I know 13” rack toms are super popular, but I’ve found I can get 12” rack toms to sound like 13” ones. So if you find a kit with a 12” rack tom, that’s totally fine!
Now if you’re in a choir room, small room, or just a room with ridiculous reflections, maybe you’re considering a smaller kit, and that’s cool too! I would just not go smaller than 12” on a rack tom. I think 16” is a good size for a floor tom, but you can get away with 14” if you use the right dampening and tune it low. 20” kicks are fine as well if you need to go smaller. But the standard sizes for a church drum set are 22/13/16, 22/12/16, 24/13/16, or 24/12/16 (that’s: kick/rack tom/floor tom).
Nothing major here to note other than making sure your drum set isn’t some strange off-brand that has an odd number of lugs on a drum. You want to make sure you have 6-8 lugs on a 12”-13” rack tom and 8-10 on a 16” floor tom. That’s pretty standard. If you find some odd drum set with 4 or 7 lugs (or some other weird number) on a rack tom, steer clear.
“Didn’t you just tell us how much brand, build, materials, etc. don’t matter?”
Yes. The truth is, you can get most kits to do whatever sound you want. There are so many factors that go into what makes up a drum sound that you can’t pinpoint the sound to any one specific factor. HOWEVER, if the drum set is some random, off-brand Japanese kit where the wood, construction, bearing edges, hoops, lugs, tension rods, heads, etc. are ALL really cheap, then you’re going to run into issues.
Generally, you should stick with some of the more popular brands like Ludwig, Rogers, Gretsch, Sonor, Pork Pie, Mapex, Pearl, Risen, Slingerland, Yamaha, Tama, and DW. Get whatever the best kit is that you can afford, but I’d recommend against buying it new, which leads to the next point…
Craigslist, Reverb, and FB Marketplace
If you’re able to do some research and find out what you’re looking for, or bring along someone who knows something about drums, you are going to find the best deal when looking used. And I don’t mean “best deal” as in settling for something cheap that’s going to suck. I mean, you can find some stellar vintage or used kits for $400-$600 on Craigslist, whereas a brand new, super low-line drum kit like a Ludwig Accent will cost you the same amount.
Look at the used selection at Guitar Center. Peruse Craigslist every day for a month until you see something. Look at Reverb – always awesome options there. And even keep an eye out on Facebook Marketplace. Deals pop up all the time, and you may even find a great kit for $600 that comes with all the hardware rather than just the shells.
Make Sure to Budget for the Whole Setup
Buying 3 shells isn’t going to be enough. For hardware, you need a snare stand, a hi-hat stand, a ride stand, a crash stand, a kick pedal, and a drum throne. If that’s included with a used kit you find, great! If not, make sure to look around for those.
I would also highly recommend you don’t cheap out on a kick pedal. If that thing snaps while you’re playing, there’s nothing you can do to cover it up. Look for DW kick pedals, or other good brands like Gibralter, Yamaha, Tama, etc. and find one with a chain holding the beater to the pedal – steer clear of leather or cloth straps.
Budget for Drum Heads
Scenario: you show up to someone’s house who’s selling a kit. You play it and it’s tuned super high and sounds crazy resonant. You walk away because you think it can’t be tamed to fit a worship setting.
Trust me – I’ve said it again and again, you can get almost any kit to do the “church thing.” If you’re trying to figure out what you can do to get the kit to sound good, here is a priority list of things to try that will impact the sound the most (also listed from free to expensive):
- 1) Re-tune the kit
- 2) Pillow/blanket/sweater in the kick drum, and moongels on toms
- 3) Change out the top tom heads with Coated Remo Emperors (and coated Powerstroke 3 on kick batter head)
- 4) Change out the bottom tom heads with Clear Remo Ambassadors (and a Fiberskyn Amassador on the front of the kick)
- 5) Get the bearing edges recut so they are even across
A Note on Snares
Snare drums that come with drum sets are often terrible. What should you search for? I’d recommend looking separately for a snare.
Ludwig Acrolites often go for cheap and they’re super cool. Ludwig Supraphonics are another option. Otherwise, a really great “church-y” snare sound is the Ludwig Black Beauty, and if you don’t have $800 laying around for one, be assured that almost all drum companies selling copies get the shells from the same place in Taiwan, and they all do virtually the same thing. You can get a Pork Pie “Big Black Bob” (Black Beauty knock-off) for around $140 used on Craigslist.
If all the above options are out, just aim to get a 14” diameter snare that’s 5” deep at a minimum. 6.5” is often preferable. And find something with a sweet spot in the lower tuning range (talk with the seller to find out, and try it out when you go over.)
Lastly, to tame all the ring, use moongels. If you want the snare to sound “fatter”, look at getting some Big Fat Snare Drum muffles! They’re great and they have several options in stock!
Cymbals are probably the biggest money sink out of anything on this list. Cymbals can be ridiculously expensive. However, if you look for used stuff, you’ll probably find a good deal somewhere.
Generally speaking, look for bigger cymbals for worship music. 22″ rides, 20″ or 18″ crashes, and 15″-16″ hi-hats. Look for thinner cymbals and stay away from anything made with a B8 alloy (any of the low-line cymbals from all the major brands.)
It’s hard to give a specific recommendation, because there’s a lot of great cymbals out there! You want something that’s not going to be ping-y. You want it to be dark, complex, washy, and controllable. Not bright, shrill, explosive, and sharp.
Dream Cymbals is a company that makes really awesome cymbals for relatively affordable prices – their Dream Bliss line is cool. But here’s the deal about Dream Cymbals – you HAVE to play them. I’ve played two 22″ dream bliss rides next to each other that were the same weight and one was one of the coolest sounding ride cymbals I’ve ever heard, and the other was among the worst. If you buy Dream, try it in person.
Other than that, here’s a list of cool cymbals and things to look out for:
- Paiste Traditional Light or Masters Dark line
- Bosphorus stuff is cool and affordable
- Istanbul Agop OM, Traditional, or Signature are all cool
- Zildjian Constantinople and Kerope
- Meinl Byzance stuff
If you’re able too, getting two 16″ crash cymbals to use as hi-hats is a really cool sound for worship music. Don’t worry about the bottom hi-hat – that can be a really cheap, terrible cymbal. Just get a thin(ish) top cymbal and the combo should work wonderfully.
Once again – buy used. Look on Craigslist, FB Marketplace, Reverb, and audio/music FB groups.
And there you have it! That is my guide on things to be aware of as you search for a drum set, what to look for, what not to look for, and where to look. My last words for you as you search are this – every kit, whether $50 or $10,000, is going to sound terrible if it’s not properly tuned and taken care of.
I see volunteer drummers that were jazz guys back in highschool and haven’t learned a thing about tuning in the last two decades come into a church and make a $3,500 Gretsch Broadkaster sound terrible… If you don’t trust any of your volunteers, set aside a few days to just watch videos on tuning drums, try muffling techniques like pillows in kicks, cottonballs in floor toms, moongels, t-shirts, etc. and get to a place where you can consistently retune the drums to sound awesome. Try even taking off all the heads and re-assembling it as an exercise to practice tuning.
Happy drum shopping!
About the Author
Chris Fleming is a professional musician from Minneapolis, MN who has played with artists such as TAYA, Big Daddy Weave, and Jason Gray. He is actively involved with the worship music scene and has contributed as a drummer, music director, song writer, and producer for various worship artists and churches locally and nationally. Chris is the Motion Designer at Motion Worship, helping to create motion background collections and countdowns for our subscribers.