Instruments | Percussion

Bass Drum

The dominant feature of every military band is its big bass drum. Throughout the history of percussion instruments, this drum has been the mainstay of time-keeping, whether it is used for a marching army or in a late-twentieth century heavy metal band.

Early versions of the bass drum (it was certainly known in Asia around 3500 BC) were often gigantic constructions, although the world’s largest bass drum record is claimed by one with a diameter of over 3 metres: built for Disneyland by Remo of Hollywood. Both sides of the drum have heads, so the arching player can strike the heads with felt-covered drumsticks with alternate hands. The resulting boom has great power but the drum is not really suited to rapid notes or drumrolls.

In an orchestra, the bass drum is usually held in a tilting position on a stand that can be adjusted for a better angle of attack. A smaller bass drum – struck by a foot pedal – is a staple of the drum kit (ideal as an advertisement hoarding, like Ringo Starr’s Ludwig bass drum for The Beatles). In the late 1960s and early 1970s there was a vogue for using a double bass drum kit inspired by Cream’s Ginger Baker.


Castanets are closely associated with the musical and dance traditions of Spain, but they are by no means unique to the Iberian peninsula. Clappers were played as far back as Sumerian times, and the Egyptians fashioned wood, bone and ivory into forearms and hands that worked like castanets.

Castanets are disc-shaped pieces of wood hollowed out on one side with a loop of cord holding each pair together. Although the word castanet derives from castaña, the Spanish for ‘chestnut’ they are most frequently made from other woods, including walnut and ebony.

In performance, the loop is placed round the thumb or middle ginger, so the two halves can be snapped together by the palm and fingers.

Flamenco dance virtuosos like Antonio Gades and Cristina Hoyos have the ability to manipulate the castanets with spellbinding speed and breathtaking dexterity to complement the rhythm of their footwork. In the orchestra, for ease of use, the castanets are mounted on the end of a stick and held apart by elastic.


The rhythm sections of Latin American bands are enhanced by a range of propulsive percussion instruments, of which the largest are the congas, the single-headed drums that found their way from Africa to Cuba and beyond.

The congas – also known as tumba drums – have an upright barrel shape: the body of the drum is made of hard wood or fibreglass, open at the bottom and supported by four legs. A vellum or calfskin head is held tight on to the body below the actual level of the drum head, giving the player unencumbered access to all parts of the head. The skill lies in using all parts of the hand, including the flat palm and...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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