A Physical History

In its early years, the trap set was a collection of instruments from several different cultures. The musical sensibilities and timbres of West Africa, Europe, the West Indies, and Mexico had become part of the soul of New Orleans via the musical traditions preserved by descendants of African slaves, colonialism, Caribbean and Mexican immigration, and Creole culture that developed in the city. The influence these cultures had on drum set performance styles, and vice versa, cannot be overstated, but the actual instruments that comprised the first trap sets were adopted directly from Europe, China, Turkey, and American innovations.

Europe in the Americas
The fife and drum corps military marching bands that have existed in America since before the Revolutionary War (1775) are based on a tradition known in Europe since the 14th century.[1] Eventually superseded by drum and bugle corps, these US Colonial Army groups used small flutes, bass drums, and snare drums (also called side drums) for coordination and communication on the battlefield, in training, during parades, and simply for entertainment. Before the technology for metal shell and metal rod tuning existed, these groups used rope-tensioned bass drums (see Fig. 10) and deep wooden snare drums called field drums (see Fig. 9). The playing was based on European rudimentary drumming techniques known by Swiss mercenaries as early as the 15th century.[2] Mid to late 19th century military drums were the primary pieces of the early trap set.

WFL rope-tensioned field drum; 15 inch depth and 14 inch width.

[Fig. 9] WFL rope-tensioned field drum; 15-inch depth and 14-inch width.

Wurlitzer rope-tensioned bass drum; typical sizes varied from approximately 12 to 18 inches in depth and 24 to 36 inches in width.

[Fig. 10] Wurlitzer rope-tensioned bass drum; typical sizes varied from approximately 12 to 18 inches in depth and 24 to 36 inches in width.











The colorfully painted tom-tom drums, temple blocks, wooden slit blocks, and small crash cymbals that appeared in early trap sets were of Chinese origin. All of these instruments were commonly used in Chinese theatre productions during the Ch’ing Dynasty (1644—1911).[3] After the American Civil War and the abolition of slavery, significant numbers of Chinese immigrants entered the United States both voluntarily and by force as indentured laborers. Reminiscent of what was already happening in New Orleans, these immigrants brought theatre and opera, organized secret societies, and celebrated with festival parades. Whether it was due to the similarity in musical display, the plentitude of available instruments, an effort by African-Americans to hide or replace stigmatized and often banned African instruments, or a combination of all these factors, jazz drummers steadily incorporated the use of Chinese instruments for at least the first forty years of the 20th century. It is also quite possible that Chinese musicians performed at various American fairs and expositions during the second half of the 19th century, including the World’s Cotton and Industrial Exposition of 1884-85 in New Orleans. At the time, there was a general Western curiosity in the “mysterious far East”.


[Fig. 11]

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[Fig. 12]

The timbres of these Chinese instruments fit well with the musical sensibilities of early jazz and its predecessors. The sound of the Chinese tom-toms could be likened to West African tonal hand drums and cymbals were already in use by European-style marching and concert bands. The so-called “ricky-ticky” sounds of woodblocks and temple blocks fit the “noisemaker” aesthetic of the traps and were used for vaudeville and minstrel show dance routines.[4] Once known as “clog boxes”, woodblocks imitated the clomping of the clog dancers on the vaudeville stage.[5]


Bronze, the oldest known metal alloy and the primary material in cymbals, was first documented in Asia around 5,000 years ago. Cymbals appear in the Old Testament as well as in Greek mythology and were commonly used for music, ceremony, and war. The root of the English word “cymbal” is the Greek word kymbos and the Latin equivalent cymbalum, meaning “cistern” or “beaker”, because ancient forms had a cup-like shape. Besides the Chinese cymbals already discussed, the other most common cymbals in the first trap sets were of Turkish origin. The Zildjian cymbal company of Istanbul formed in the 17th century during the Ottoman Empire. Avedis Zildjian I inadvertently created a sonorous alloy while attempting to create gold by combining base metals. Until the first half of the 19th century the company mostly sold its products to the Turkish military Janissary bands and the church. However, as the use of cymbals in opera and western European classical music increased, Avedis Zildjian II expanded the business to France and England. By the time jazz developed, Zildjian cymbals had already reached North America. As 20th century music in the United States progressed, Zildjian cymbals became increasingly popular and in 1928 the company even moved to Massachusetts. Although many cymbal companies now exist, Zildjian is recognized as one of the oldest family-owned businesses in the United States. [6]

Bronze cymbal from Nimrud (Tigris-Euphrates Valley), 9th-8th century B.C.E.

[Fig. 13] Bronze cymbal from Nimrud (Tigris-Euphrates Valley), 9th-8th century B.C.E.

Thin Chinese cymbals with large cups, age unknown.

[Fig. 14] Thin Chinese cymbals with large cups, age unknown.










[Fig. 15]


American Innovations
Many additions to the early drum set developed in the United States. Here are some of the most notable:

          Traps – Early drum set players were not only the time keepers of the band, but they were also expected to add sound-effects, color, and flair to the performance. Many were known as expert improvisers and engaging performers.

“In the small orchestras of today, these percussion instruments come under the general appellation of ‘traps’, and very often one performer will have as many as eight or more different varieties carefully distributed about him in a convenient arrangement, easy to the hand, and will do his duty by all of them in a surprisingly agile and clever manner…He must be a person of vivid imagination…” –Arthur Anderson from Practical Orchestration (1929)[7]

Photos from early drum company catalogs show a variety of attachable noisemakers like triangles, tambourines, ratchets, bells, whistles, horns, and a washboard.

Ludwig drum set, 1919

[Fig. 16] Ludwig drum set with traps, 1919.

          Brushes – Today, brushes are commonplace in the jazz drummer’s stick bag. They come in various sizes, designs, and materials such as wire, braided metal, plastic, and broom corn. Sometimes called fly swatters or fly whisks, brushes started as exactly that. In May of 1912, Louis Allis and Adolph Weins of Milwaukee, Wisconsin patented a telescoping wire swatter that they labeled the “fly-killer.” There is nothing that implies the invention was intended for music, but six years later drum companies were already advertising prototypes of the Allis and Weins design as “jazz sticks” or “synco-jazzsticks.” [8]

Fly-killer patented by Louis Allis and Adolph R. Wiens, May 20, 1912.

[Fig 17] Fly-killer patented by Louis Allis and Adolph R. Wiens, May 20, 1912.

Modern brushes.

[Fig. 18] Modern brushes.






The first use of brushes cannot be dated exactly, but it is likely they were already in use during the first World War (1914-1918). However, no photos taken before 1920 show evidence of their use and their sound does not appear on recordings until the late 1920s. Fly swatters were a way to play quietly and imitate the sound of sand paper which was often used to accompany slow dances. Warren “Baby” Dodds, the influential drummer who played with Louis Armstrong and Joe “King” Oliver among others, recalled that “all [he] had to do to keep the people dancing was to use two pieces of sandpaper, scraped together, and the people would dance for 15 mintues or more.”[9]

          Hi-hats – In the mid 1920s, jazz drummers began to incorporate what was originally known as the snowshoe, sock pedal, or low boy. The idea of hinging two foot-operated cymbals is at least as old as the scabellum of ancient Rome, but designs like Victor Berton’s in 1925 developed directly into the hi-hats known today.[10] Originally named for its likeness to a wooden snowshoe, this apparatus quickly advanced into a sturdy metal design that stood approximately twelve to eighteen inches off the floor. Initially used only for single accents and off beats, by 1927 the cymbals had been raised up so that a drummer could play more complex rhythms with sticks.

Snowshoe pedal

[Fig. 19] Snowshoe pedal.

Low-boy pedal

[Fig. 20] Low-boy pedal.








[Fig. 21] Hi-hats.

[1] Brown 1976: 48
[2] Ibid., 53
[3] Ibid., 110
[4] Ibid., 111
[5] Blades 1970: 390
[6] Pinksterboer 1992: 15-17
[7] Brown 1976: 96
[8] Ibid., 128
[9] Ibid.
[10] Blades 1970: 179, Brown 1976: 405

Photo Credits
Figure 9: Rhythm! Discovery Center Online Collection
Figure 10: Ibid.
Figure 11: Dean 2012.
Figure 12: Rhythm! Discovery Center Online Collection
Figure 13: Pinksterboer 1992.
Figure 14: Ibid.
Figure 15: Ibid.
Figure 16: Aldridge 1994.
Figure 17: Brown
Figure 18: Aldridge 1994.
Figure 19: Ibid.
Figure 20: Ibid.
Figure 21: Ibid.