bass drum

Also:       orchestral bass drum      concert bass drum       grosse caisse      grosse Trommel      gran cassa      gran tamburo      

Title: demo: bass drum; David Miller, percussion. Format: DAT.

Title: Meskwaki Nation Live at Mayetta--Straight Song II; Meskwaki Nation. Label: Back Bone River Records. Format: CD. Catalogue#: BBR-8181. Track: 8.

Title: God Bless Africa--Icilongo Laphezulu; Masizakhe Christian Soldiers. Label: Music Club. Format: CD. Catalogue#: 50141. Track: 3.

Contextual Associations

The orchestral or concert bass drum is a double-headed membranophone with a cylindrical body developed in Europe but that is now found throughout the world wherever Western cosmopolitanism has taken root. It is played both by professionals and amateurs, males and females. Incorporated into some orchestral works of the late 18th century, the bass drum gradually became a standard member of the orchestra’s percussion section in the course of the 19th century; today, the percussion battery of every orchestra includes a bass drum. Slightly smaller versions more conducive to being carried while marching have also been a part of many types of military bands since the late 18th century. Indoor wind ensembles such as the concert band and the brass band also include the bass drum in their percussion sections. The bass drum has no solo literature, but is often included in the instrumentation for solo percussion works and for percussion ensemble works. It is one of several membranophone and idiophone instruments on which a band or orchestral percussionist it expected to be proficient; percussionists do not specialize on the bass drum. Outside of European cosmopolitan music making, the bass drum has come to be adapted to other musical practices such as Plains Indians’ drum groups heard at powwows and to replace indigenous drums amongst the Zulu peoples of South Africa.


The cylindrical tubular shell of the pictured bass drum is made of laminated birch wood painted black. One metal-rimmed pressure hole is located on the shell wall. Equally spaced around the circumference of and securely fashioned to the shell and centered between its rims are twelve elongated metal lug assemblies that accept a threaded rod at each end. Each of the drum’s two synthetic membranes is stretched over a metal flesh hoop with a diameter slightly greater than that of the shell. Each head is placed over its respective rim opening, followed by a collar hoop--like the shell made of laminated wood and painted black--that has the same diameter as the head hoop over which it fits. Twelve metal rim-tension claw-hooks are attached around the rim of the collar, each with an eyelet through which a metal tension-rod can pass. The twelve claw-hooks are aligned with the twelve lug assemblies, and one of each is connected to the other by a metal tension-rod. Except for its wider bolt-like head, a tension-rod passes through the eyelet in each claw-hook. The bottom of each rod is threaded and screwed into a lug bolt located at the end of the lug assembly. It is with this above-described mechanism, and with the use of a tuning key, that the amount and evenness of tension on each of the membranes can be independently controlled. The bass drum is suspended in a hoop-shaped tilting stand that allows the primary striking head to be positioned anywhere between vertical and horizontal. The beater typically used to strike the bass drum (not pictured here) is a stick one end of which has a large felt head.

Player - Instrument Interface and Sound Production

The performer stands with the drum shell in front of them, usually with the drumheads positioned near to vertical. Only one head is typically struck on the orchestral/concert bass drum, the other head can be referred to as the resonance head. The player holds the thickly padded beater in their right hand, leaving the left hand free to mute the resonance head if need be. Occasionally the player is asked to produce a roll, in which case the drum would be tilted closer to horizontal and two matched beaters, one in each hand, would be used to strike the playing head. Producing a low but indefinite pitch, the concert bass drum is the largest membranophone found in the contemporary orchestra and concert band. The felt-headed beater helps attenuate harsh upper overtones while bringing out the fullest possible bass qualities. It has a wide dynamic range (listen to audio example). For a video illustrating the player-instrument interface for this instrument, view the Philharmonia Orchestra website chapter on percussion [skip to 5:53 in the video for the segment pertaining specifically to the bass drum].


The most likely antecedent to the 18th century European bass drum was the davul of the Turkish Janissary band or mehter. By 1782 bass drums are known to have been in use in the British Royal Artillery Band; an interesting vestige of Turkish bass drum practice found in British military bands up to the present day is the wearing of a tiger or leopard skin apron by bass drummers (see detail photo). Some early military bass drums had only a single head. Double-head bass drums were initially all rope-tensioned, the rod-tension hardware described above for the pictured bass drum did not come into existence until the middle of the 19th century.

Bibliographic Citations

Bevan, Clifford. 1984. “Band.” NGDMI v.1: 120-143.

Blades, James. 1970. Percussion Instruments and their History. New York: Frederick A. Praeger, Publishers.

________. 1984. “2. Bass drum.” NGDMI v.1: 601-605.

Campbell, Murray, Clive Greated, and Arnold Meyers. 2004. Musical Instruments: History, Technology, and Performance of Instruments of Western Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Holland, James. 1978. Percussion. New York: Schirmer Books.

“Instruments.”  Philharmonia Orchestra website, accessed September 14, 2015:

Montagu, Jeremy. 2002. Timpani and Percussion. New Haven: Yale University Press.


Instrument Information


Continent: Europe

Formation: European

Classification (Sachs-Von Hornbostel revised by MIMO)

211.212.11 membranophone--individual double-skin cylindrical drum, one skin used for playing

Design and Playing Features

Category: membranophone

Number of drums comprising instrument: single drum

Shell design: tubular - cylindrical

Number and function of membranes: two, both for sounding

Membrane design: framed with rigid flesh hoop

Membrane attachment: counterhoop, lapped over framed membrane hoop, connected by lacing or tension rods to brackets attached to shell

Membrane tension control: rotating screw rods or bolts

Sounding for membranophone: striking with one handheld beater

Sound modifiers for membranophone: none


18.4 in. height of shell 35.9 in. diameter of shell 37 in. diameter of flesh hoop and tension collar

Primary Materials

wood - laminated
membrane - synthetic





Entry Author

Roger Vetter