ELECTRIC VS ACOUSTIC:
CHOOSING YOUR FIRST DRUMKIT
This is a discussion which has definitely been doing the rounds for the last few years - that of whether or not students should invest in either an electric kit or an acoustic kit. This is a question not so easily answered for us drummers, it’s a little clearer for, say guitarists and bass players, because the electric/acoustic version both have very distinctive characteristics and aren’t easily interchangeable, while the main aim of electric drumkit manufacturers is to imitate acoustic drums as precisely as possible. For the purposes of this post, let’s refer to electric kits as ekits, and acoustic as akits.
Despite the fact that the popularity of ekits (and abundance of manufacturers) has effectively played a part in driving the price of acoustic drums down, many drummers and drum teachers still insist that students practice on an akit. The way I see it is this: if you understand the differences, it kind’ve makes sense to have both at your disposal, but if you don’t have that luxury I would say go ekit.
Let me explain:
The main reason for practicing on an akit is to learn to use dynamics as well as to develop a muscle memory of the ‘feel’ of acoustic drums; that is, how skins react, and how your body reacts.
Almost all other aspects of you playing can be worked on with an ekit - however, if you intend to play live, akits are definitely the way to go because of that level of dynamic control. These days, ekits are so advanced that many players do opt to use them live, however - kits like this tend to be very expensive, and can be a pain to rehearse with if you lack the appropriate amplification.
Those ‘other aspects’ I mentioned earlier are things like independence, rudiments, speed, timekeeping etc can all be practiced effectively on ekits, and because you’re more likely to practice when you know your neighbours won’t call the cops I would say buy an ekit if you’re a beginner. It’s just good to keep in mind that A) Once you’re ready to start gigging the expectation is that you’ll be using an akit and B) Acoustic drums will feel quite different so it’s important to maybe rehearse as a full band with an akit.
Here are some good ways to prepare for transitioning from electric to acoustic:
- Set your drums up based on an acoustic layout - that will generally mean having quite a big gap between them; try to go by standard drum sizes (14” snare, 10,12,14” toms etc).
- Be aware that you’re probably relying on the volume knob. As a general rule ekit players tend to have underdeveloped left hand dynamic control, so just make sure you’re not deafening everyone with that snare!
- You'll go through more sticks
- Akit drum rims and cymbals tend to really chew through the sticks (this lessens as your technique improves), while the same pair can last for years on ekits.
- Measure your car boot first!
- This may sound like a joke, but trust me, packing and transporting drums is going to be way easier if at least the biggest part of your akit (the kick drum) can fit in your whip!
I personally am lucky enough to have a great ekit (Roland TD25K) and several acoustic kits. The way I approach it is by using each for specific kinds of practice; I use the ekit to learn complicated written notation, foot speedwork, learning/creating song parts for sessions etc. I almost exclusively use acoustic drums for working on dynamics. the So with these thing in mind, it’s a good idea to go through a pros and cons list for each.
- Very quiet
- Less Expensive
- Can play along to backing tracks at low in-ear volumes
- Takes up less room
- Heads hardly ever need replacing
- Easier on sticks
- Can be plugged into a PA (foldback monitors are a must!)
- Less portable (believe it or not)
- Relies on power (or amplification, in a rehearsal scenario)
- Unrealistic feel
- Unrealistic dynamics
- More complicated to use for gigging (also doesn’t sound as good live).
- Better for practicing technique
- Usually more customizable (in regards to drum/cymbal positioning)
- Better for practicing dynamics
- Sounds better live
- Doesn’t rely on power
- Chews through sticks/drumheads
- Needs mic’ing up (depending on venue)
- Noisy practice (Be sure to use earplugs!)
- Good drums and cymbals can be really expensive
So there we have it. Like most musical choices, it’s largely down to the individual and the style of the music, e.g. if it were a Drum n’ Bass gig, an ekit would be appropriate - whereas you’d likely be fired by the bandleader if you turned up at a jazz gig with one!
Like I said before, if you’re a beginner then my advice would be to go with an ekit because, if anything, it’ll enable you to practice whenever suits you (rather than hours that the neighbours aren’t home) and you’ll progress faster. Sometimes it’s good to think of it like automatic vs manual gear shift in cars - learning the road rules and basics in an automatic is great, but any serious driver will tell you that only a manual will teach you to understand the gears (and therefore controlling the vehicle) better. Kinda the same, but different!
Tom Pierard has been playing and teaching drumset professionally for 15 years, and specialises in a range of modern styles