Every so often, as I peruse the drum forums for ideas and gems of drumming wisdom, I come across a thread that is about the upkeep and maintenance of drum kits. And while there is a lot of wisdom and theory out there surrounding the topic of drum set maintenance this topic does beg the question, how much maintenance is necessary and what are some best practices?
WHERE DO YOU STAND?
Each situation requires different levels of maintenance and cleaning and at each level there are certain aspects of repairs that are more important than others. Like all things in life, drum maintenance is relative to your situation.
A hobbyist can be defined as someone who has a drum kit set up in a room in their house or building outside the home but the drums never leave the building. In this situation the kit is used primarily for enjoyment and jamming, but rarely (if ever) traveling.
At this level you don’t need to be spending a ton of time polishing and cleaning your kit. But if that is your thing, by all means, knock yourself out. With the help of a sheet (to cover your kit) and a cotton cloth you have all the tools you need to keep your shells sparkling clean. If you play every day, it is a good idea to inspect your pedals, hardware, drum shells a couple times a month. Same goes for your cymbals and clean them as needed.
You may derive some or all of your income from playing. Maybe touring or gigging locally and travelling on weekends. Your drum set might be stored in a home or rehearsal space and is used for gigs, jam sessions, and recording sessions. It is transported to and from gigs, sessions or rehearsals.
At this level you are hands-on, my friend—the ultimate in DIY! At this stage of the game you and you alone are going to be responsible for everything from cleaning your cymbals to repairing your kick pedal. Do take this task seriously. Along with having talent, a friendly disposition, and punctuality, having gear that is reliable is essential to keeping yourself employed as a drummer.
First off, a drop sheet should be in your cleaning arsenal at every level of the game. A simple bed sheet draped over your drums will collect the dust that was intended for your beauties. Make sure you get a sheet big enough to cover your entire kit.
We spoke with our good friend and master drum builder Ronn Dunett of Dunnett Classic Drums and George H. Way Drum Company about the science behind keeping these beauties clean and shiny.
- Ronn Dunnett: “I use Trick drum polish. If you can’t find it, go to the guitar section and buy something that smells good and has Carnuba wax in it. If it doesn’t smell good, it’s crap.”
Satin Oil Shells
- Ronn Dunnett: “Same – if it is a matte lacquer. If its real natural oil, then I would only would probably use a furniture specific cleaner – something from Lee Valley. There are so many types.”
(Editor’s note: DW’s experts also recommend that a damp—not wet—cloth will assist in a more thorough cleaning. They also suggest that you use Minwax Tung Oil to restore some shine.)
- Ronn Dunnett: “Actually, again, the Trick polish. Never, ever use abrasives and if you’re not sure what the effect of what you are using might be, take a lug or bracket off and test first.”
- Ronn Dunnett: “If you really want to get into it, Autosol is the best product. If you just want to do a daily maintenance wipe, use a Haggerty jeweller’s glove and dry polish. Amazon always has it.”
- Ronn Dunnett: “Depending on the grime layer, Windex. That or mild detergent and hot water. Once it’s clean I’d consider protecting it with some Trick polish.”
- Ronn Dunnett: “Brass is usually lacquered so be careful. Never use lacquer thinner. Use Windex or Trick polish. Never use anything with grit in it. I would say that in some cases, it may be better to just leave the natural patina of the drum, especially if it is a vintage drum. All of that grime tells the story of that drum’s life. I recently had a George Way Advance end up in my shop. It was completely covered in rust and grime and patina. I told the owner I was not going to do anything expect make it playable and that I suggested he case the original heads and wires. Some vintage drums have earned a place in history and too many eager beavers have ruined treasures trying to clean them or make them look cool. The fact is, it may already be as cool as it needs to be. I said it already, but try a treat area before you apply anything. Treat your drum finish like you would a Porsche finish—unless you’re cleaning hardware with stubborn film, then use some 0000 extra fine steel wool. Go easy with it, but that is better than any liquid abrasive because you can control the pressure.”
There are also a few forum posts that contend that you need to clean your drum heads. While Mylar is generally a very robust material, Aquarian owner and legendary drummer Roy Burns feels that perhaps a more simple approach to drum head cleaning is warranted.
- Roy Burns: “Most of the [drummers] as hard as they play today by the time they’re ready to clean them the [heads] are worn out. I’d be careful about putting chemicals on the heads because you never know what it’s gonna do. Luke warm water always works for me, I’ve never experimented with any chemicals.”
A working drummer’s kit will tend to take a bit more abuse, and at this point I will suggest that one of the best tools for drum maintenance is good cases. Invest in good cases and many of your maintenance woes will be avoided. While cases will protect your kit from an unexpected trip off the back of the band trailer, there is nothing to protect them from you. Like it or not, in order to make these things sound good we gotta hit them! You are going to need to pay attention to the little nuts and bolts that make up your pedals, brackets, clamps, etc. These are the less obvious things that tend to wear or fall apart and over time can cause bigger problems.
Depending on the frequency of your gigs make sure to inspect your kit at least once every week before setting up and pay close attention to the kick pedal, the hi-hat pedal, the snare drum and the cymbal stands. These all get the most use on your kit and will be the first to show signs of wear. If you play every night, I highly suggest you give your kit an inspection at least every other day.
There are many little washers and bolts that can come loose so be diligent in keeping them tight. It is also a good idea to have a final look on the stage floor after you have loaded out of a gig. Often times I have found washers or bolts that fell off during my performance. In case you do lose some components you will also want to keep a tool box in your band van stocked with extra bolts, washers, wing nuts, etc.
Cymbals are prone to breakage and a little preventative medicine can go a long way. I use gloves to set up my kit and cymbals as it reduces finger prints. I also keep a soft cloth in my bag for after the gig and give them a wipe while the sweat from my hands is still wet on the cymbals.
It is important to check your cymbals often, as hairline cracks can turn into canyons in an instant! There is a ton of debate on the cleaning of cymbals and how often it should be done. I will say this, sweat degrades the metal in your cymbals, if you like the sound of a dirty cymbal and you have a soft touch, all the power to you. You will probably have that cymbal for years to come. On the other hand, if you are a basher and your cymbals are filthy, you will single-handedly be keeping cymbal companies in business—and they thank you for that. For more on cymbal maintenance check out The Cymbal Cleaning Gospel.
Bearing edges are another monster on their own. It is incredibly important to inspect them every so often, especially if you play a lot. Bearing edges can crack and plys can come apart depending on your technique. Here’s the honest truth, if you are a rim shot player with a heavy set of hands, you are more than likely to see destroyed bearing edges; and no, this is not a manufacturer’s defect.
There are products designed for drum refinishing and bearing edge conditioning. But I highly suggest that if you do encounter a problem with a bearing edge, fading of your shells, cracks around your lug casings or any other more extreme damage, do yourself a favour and seek the advice of a drumsmith. These drummers specialize in restoration and more extreme repairs.
More and more players are adapting to digital technologies that enhance our craft. Whether it be a casino gig that requires you to have a fully electronic kit or a tour that has you manning a sequencer and auxiliary electronic percussion, the digital age has presented a whole new set of issues for drummerkind.
Computers are incredible tools—when they work. And when they don’t, it can feel like DEFCON 1! Imagine if Neil Peart was about to play “Closer To The Heart” and his MalletKAT went kaput? That is how powerful electronics have become. The signature sounds of the tubular bells would not be able to be played. If our maple shells and bronze cymbals are prone to damage, imagine how delicate your electronics are?
On tour it is a good idea to have a back up of everything. Most players run two sequences simultaneously, if one goes south, the second can be brought up in the mix by the sound tech as if nothing happened. Suffice to say it is advisable for today’s drummer to be in the know about electronics and software. You never know when you may have to go Bill Gates on your equipment.
When all is said and done, your kit is an extension of the energy you put into it. Like the music it makes, if you take care of it, it will take care of you!
Sean Mitchell is a drummer/artist, songwriter and the creator of Drum Geek.