The bass drum plays an important role in a variety of western music genres. It often establishes the foundation pulse of large and small ensembles because of its timbre. These ensembles include military music, where it plays along with the cymbal, in pop, rock, and jazz, where it sits as part of a drum kit, or in the orchestra.
The bass drum creates not only some of the most subtle and soft sounds in the orchestra but also some of the loudest ones. For this reason, it is customary in orchestral works to use a single one. Many would believe the bass drum has originated from the numerous drums that have been prevalent in Europe throughout the Middle Ages, but it’s not the case. This instrument descends directly from the davul, also known as the Tabl Turki, or Turkish drum. History says it exists in Mediterranean regions since the 14th century. This was a massive, cylindrical drum with a narrow shell and two tangled heads played without snares.
Spontini became the first composer to experiment with the bass drum struck with felt-covered mallets in his opera “The Vestal Virgin” (1807) at the beginning of the 19th century. By doing so, he stripped the instrument of its oriental tone. The instrument strongly established itself then in the orchestral percussion section of orchestras of the late Romantic era. Performers beat it from the side, though not exactly as in the practice of earlier oriental Janissary bands, but in a large downward arc. Later, it became an important part of jazz percussion at the turn of the 20th century. During that time a modern playing method emerged: striking the drum with a bass pedal, invented in Chicago by William F. Ludwig in 1909.
Construction of the bass drum
The bass drum consists of a cylindrical soundbox, or shell, made of wood, and sometimes of plywood or metal. Two heads stretch across the open ends of the shell, over a flesh hoop, which has a slightly larger diameter than the shell. In this, it’s similar to the snare drum. Screws or threaded rods attach a counter hoop placed on the flesh hoop. These screws or rods sit on the shell. Screws also tighten the heads themselves. There can be ten to sixteen of them, depending on the size of the instrument. This allows precise tensioning of the heads. In the orchestra’s bass drum, calf heads or donkey skin prove suitable materials for the heads.
In the case of such an ensemble, leather straps, rubber straps, or wires suspend the bass drum. This is done in a special, often round frame, such that the instrument swings freely and can sit at any angle or playing position. A large, soft stick, strikes the drum. This stick is heavy enough to cause the instrument’s large soundbox to vibrate. The striking spot for full-sounding single strokes is about a hand-width from the center of the head. The percussionist must first locate the ideal striking spot by trial and error since every bass drum reacts differently.
Unlike the timpani, for which a definite pitch is desired, when constructing and tuning a bass drum, manufacturers strive to avoid a definite pitch.
Nonetheless, striking the drum head at the edge produces a proper tone, which can be heard. The bass drum in the orchestra is tuned to a pitch between C and G, whichever is more appropriate to the drum’s resonant chamber. The resonating head is tuned to about a half step lower in order to dispel any impression of a definite pitch.