If you’re just starting to explore all there is to learn about drumming and percussion, you may have learned that many drummers put pillows in their bass drums.
When you first hear about it, this might seem like a bizarre idea!
So, what do drummers stand to gain from this odd-sounding trick?
First off, what’s so important about the sound of bass drums to begin with?
Bass drums play an extremely important part in each song: They are often used to form the foundation of a composition’s rhythm and are used as a frame of reference to maintain the beat of the song. Drummers guide the entire band with each strike of the bass drum and the rest of their kit while the other musicians use it like a metronome to follow along.
Not to mention: The way a bass drum is utilized has a massive impact on the mood of the music! Those deep, thumping beats that really get your heart pumping when you listen to your favorite songs are likely the ones created with the bass drum. Additionally, bringing out different qualities of the bass drum’s sound can help really solidify the genre-specific sound of your music.
Since the bass drum serves as such an integral building block for the entire song, it’s very important for each drum beat to sound clear and distinct.
How do bass drums work, and what kinds of sounds can it create?
When a drummer strikes the top of the bass drum, the sound is projected inside the shell of the drum, reverberating and amplifying the vibrations to create a larger and more powerful tone. The important part that requires special attention here is something called “sustain”. As you might guess, “sustain” refers to how long the sound of the drum beat will continue after a musician has struck the top of the drum.
No matter what genre you’re working with, some level of control over the bass drum’s sustain is necessary in order to keep each beat distinct. With the drum’s sustain left unchecked, the sounds can blur into one another and muddy up the sound of the entire percussion lineup, dramatically compromising the quality of the song.
Now, as you already know, the particular amount of sustain you actually want from your bass drum is largely dependent upon the genre of music that you’re playing. For example: Some genres will incorporate longer sustain from their bass drums for a gentler, easier sound. But other genres, such as rock or metal, require a more aggressive bass drum sound. For more intense types of music like these, you’ll want a sharper punch or “pop” from your bass drum. This will require the sustain to be greatly reduced in order to do away with the softer drum beats that you can expect from styles like jazz.
So, where does the pillow come in?!
Drummers will sometimes put pillows in their bass drums in order to reduce the amount of sustain and slightly alter the tone of the drum. The main problem that many drummers run into with bass drums is an excessive level of echo. When the first drum beat is still echoing, or sustaining, by the time you hit it again, then you’ll get that muddiness that we mentioned earlier.
There are a number of ways to control the sustain, such as acoustic foam and other custom products, but a pillow is just about as cheap as you can get! As a result, many musicians, especially beginners, turn to the trusty pillow as the easiest way to experiment with the sounds they can create with their bass drums.
In addition to putting the brakes on the bass drum’s sustain, the pillow can also help to cut back on the drum’s overtones. Soft pillows are great at muffling sound, and when they muffle the sound of the bass drum they counteract the resonance that you’d get if the drum were left open. Most of the time, the entire goal of striking a bass drum is to get a solid, muffled “thud” without any of the ringing that you’ll get from various other drums in your kit.
Overall, putting a pillow in your bass drum can help to streamline the sound of the drum so that it avoids sounding “mushy” and carries just the right level of sustain for your specific style of sound.
Here’s a video comparing how a bass drum sounds with and without a pillow:
Is there a wrong way to use a pillow to muffle a bass drum?
Yes, there certainly is! It’s important to keep in mind that the pillow’s main job is to control the air flow within the drum shell, and there is a sweet spot that you want to aim for.
Some drummers go all in and assume that more is better when it comes to muffling their bass drums. However, this is not necessarily the case. You could almost think of it as being similar to breathing: You don’t want to overdo it and make yourself dizzy, but you definitely don’t want to cut your air flow off entirely, either!
The same goes for the bass drums: You don’t want a mushy sound with too many overtones and too much sustain. But you don’t want to stuff it to the limit with every pillow and blanket within reach, either: This will give you a very dull and muted sound. If you take too much sustain and echo out of the drum by blocking off too much air flow, you’ll go from a powerful “thud” to a sad, flat “thunk” that won’t hold up against the rest of your drum kit–let alone the rest of the band.
As for where your bass drum’s sweet spot is, the best way to find out is through experimentation. Most drummers try out a couple of different pillows and combinations and test out the sound several times before they arrive at the solution that works for them. Trial and error is the way to go!
The next time you watch a drummer jamming out with their powerful bass drum, you’ll have a better idea of what’s going on behind the scenes. They might just have a pillow or two tucked inside the drum shell back there! If you’re familiar enough with a drummer that you know, you’re bound to get some interesting insight on how they created their individual sound if you ask them about it. And, the more you learn about how music works, the more deeply you’ll be able to appreciate it the next time you kick back to enjoy your favorite tunes!
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.