on drum set notation part 2: expanding the kit

This post is the sequel to this one. Make sure to read that first.

I’m a big fan of the “standard” kit: one kick, one snare, two toms, three cymbals. Or, less of all of those! I hate big drum sets, and I often get annoyed when composers write for them. Not because it can’t make for good music, but because more times than not, it just isn’t necessary. Whenever expanding on the standard kit, it’s important to ask yourself why you’re doing it, and most importantly, is this really necessary? If a part makes extensive use of 2 toms and barely uses a third, do you really need it? Maybe, but it’s worth asking. This is doubly true of, say, multiple crash cymbals. How likely is it that you’ll hear the difference in those sounds within the context of the music? Getting rid of unnecessary gear is extremely helpful, and to be perfectly honest, a lot of drummers won’t even bother setting up gear that they deem unnecessary.

Some examples of drum kit expansion:

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additional kick drum

In terms of space, adding a second kick drum to a drum set is quite a pain. It takes up a much bigger footprint on stage, and can be the difference between walking to the gig and taking an SUV.

In terms of sound, however, it’s pretty badass. Given that double kick pedals exist, adding a second drum just for looks is a very bad idea, but two kick drums with distinctly different pitches can be very effective. For notation, I’d argue in favor of a solid note head just below the staff. A case could be made, however, for the line above or below that, as the aforementioned space is often reserved for a pedal hi-hat note (with an x note head). The important thing is to keep the note head very low so as to correspond with the register of the drum. Don’t notate a second kick drum any higher than the standard bottom-space spot, as this could become confusing with toms.

This could also be a good spot for a kit part that manages to make use of a gran cassa, or a good home for the normal kick if a gong drum makes its way into the mix.

additional toms

I think additional toms are the most consistent waste of space that I’ve been asked to include in a setup. I’ll never question the necessity of a high and low tom, but I’ve played many pieces that need more than that, many of which fail to justify it. Often times the toms aren’t used together enough to create an audible high to low spectrum, and start to just bleed into a “high” and “low” sounds, which can conceivably be turned into a two tom setup.

It’s also important to note that descriptors such as “high”, “low”, “small”, “large”, etc. carry very little meaning. “High” and “low” simply means relative to the other tom(s); if you want a specific pitch, you can ask for that! I tend to find that most music that I play sounds better with the toms tuned relatively low, so I won’t crank a tom to a high pitch unless asked to. I do prefer “high” and “low” to “small” and “large”, as the size of the tom only has a little bit to do with the actual pitch of the drum. Whichever you choose, a third tom will necessitate the designation of “medium”, and anything beyond that will call for the incredibly obnoxious “medium high”, etc. Note that in the case of more than three toms, it might be best to simply give them numbers instead of descriptive words.

additional accessories

I’m using the term “accessories” pretty loosely here. Woodblocks, bongos, roto-toms, etc. Most things that could land up here are higher in pitch than toms, so this becomes an appropriate spot. Confusion may abound for instruments such as roto-toms, as note heads indicating cymbals could be confused for the instrument’s rim. Make sure to take necessary steps to avoid this.

additional cymbals/metals

Aside from my aforementioned distaste of setups with multiple crash cymbals, there are situations when many different sounds from cymbals can be nice. I wrote about standard spots for hi-hats, crash, and ride in a previous post, but there is no designated spot for splash, china, etc. cymbals, so you’ll need to clarify that in your performance notes. Generally, they end up higher than the standard crash spot. I would also place other metal instruments, such as a tambourine, in this general area. It would be wise to keep these instruments written on the top line or higher, as any lower will most likely become confused with the rim of a drum.


In almost all cases, I will argue that the triangle note head is dumb and shouldn’t exist. I believe that it does work, however, in the case of fitting a triangle into a staff. Aside from it corresponding so literally to the instrument, the high placement goes in line with the instrument’s frequency. Note that if the triangle is the only metallic item in your setup, or the only instrument being played at all in a part, the triangle note head is a bit overkill.


Some Questions You Might Have:

“What if I run out of room?”

Well, first, look over your part and ask that very important question. There’s a good chance you can get rid of some sounds. If that’s not the case, be sure that you employ every line and space before expanding beyond a couple of ledger lines. Place your instruments in an area that makes sense in terms of its frequency. Whatever you do, please do not write accidentals.

If there are instruments that are used very sparsely, you may consider using an unconventional note head, as the uniqueness of the event will help to avoid confusion when reading. It’s also possible to make two different legends, in the event that a single player needs to play within two completely different setups.

“But what if I’m writing for a small, non-standard kit?”

Obviously, you might be writing for a setup that uses a combination of unpitched instruments that does not resemble a standard drum kit. I wrote about this a bit more here. Essentially, use your best judgment to make a clear and consolidated legend. Just because your instruments are either really low or extremely high doesn’t mean you need to start employing ledger lines!

Have more questions? E-mail me!


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