In popular music, the bass drum is used to mark time. In marches it is used to project tempo (marching bands historically march to the beat of the bass). A basic beat for rock and roll has the bass drum played on the first and third beats of a bar of common time, with the snare drum on the second and fourth beats, called "back beats". In jazz, the bass drum can vary from almost entirely being a timekeeping medium to being a melodic voice in conjunction with the other parts of the set. In classical music, the bass drum often punctuates a musical impact, although it has other valid uses. This instrument is used in many orchestras.
An orchestral, or concert bass drum is quite large, about 36" in diameter, and is played with one or sometimes two large, padded mallets. Usually the right hand plays the drum and the left hand muffles it. When played with both mallets, a knee or forearm can be used for damping.
Many different timbres, or sound-colors result depending on how and where the drum is struck. Implements used to strike the drum may include bass drum beaters of various sizes, shapes, and densities, as well as keyboard percussion mallets, timpani mallets, and drumsticks. Concert bass drums can sometimes be used for sound effects. e.g. thunder, or an earthquake.
In a drum kit, the bass drum is much smaller, most commonly 22" or 20" in diameter. Sizes from 16" to 26" diameter are quite normal, with depths of 14" to 22", 18" or 16" being normal. The standard bass drum size of past years was 20" x 14", with 22" x 18" being the current norm. Many manufacturers are now popularizing the 'power drum' concept similar to what tom-toms have gone through, with an 18" depth (22" x 18") to further lower the drum's fundmental note.
Sometimes the front head of a kit bass drum has a hole in it to allow air to escape when the drum is struck for shorter sustain. Muffling can be installed through the hole without taking off the front head. The hole also allows microphones to be placed into the bass drum for recording and amplification. In addition to microphones, sometimes trigger pads are used to amplify the sound and provide a uniform tone, especially when fast playing without decrease of volume is desired. Professional drummers often choose to have a customised bass drum front head, with the logo or name of their band on the front.
The kit bass drum may be more heavily muffled than the classical bass drum, and it is popular for drummers to use a pillow, blanket, or professional mufflers inside the drum, resting against the batter head, to dampen the blow from the pedal, and produce a shorter "thud."
Different beaters have different effects, and felt, wood and plastic ones are all popular. Bass drums sometimes have a tom-tom mount on the top, to save having to use (and pay for) a separate stand or rack. Fastening the mount involves cutting a hole in the top of the bass drum to fix it, and 'virgin' bass drums do not have this hole cut in them, and so are professionally prized.
A drop-clutch is a mechanism used to disengage and drop the top hi-hat in order to free up both feet while playing double bass drums. This results in the hi-hat producing a closed sound until the hi-hat foot is available again. Drop-clutches may be activated in various ways depending on manufacturer, by hitting the clutch either on the side or top down with a drumstick or by pressing a locking footpedal as with a Tama "Cobra Clutch" product which also allows for control over how much the hi-hat cymbals are closed. The clutch can be disengaged by pressing the hi-hat completely down or with the Cobra clutch, by pressing the unlocking pedal.
In order to play "doubles", exponents of the "heel up" technique use either one of two techniques: the "slide technique" or the heel-toe technique. In the slide technique, the pedal is struck around the middle area with the ball of the foot. As the drum produces a sound, the toe is slid up the pedal. After the first stroke, the pedal will naturally bounce back, hit the toe as it slides upwards, and rebound for a second strike. In the heel-toe technique the foot is suspended above the foot-board of the pedal and the first note is played with the heel. The foot snaps up, the heel comes off the footboard, and the toes come down for a second stroke. Once mastered it allows the player to lay down very rapid rolls on the bass drum. Noted players include Nicholas Barker, Rod Morgenstein, Jan Axel Blomberg, George Kollias, Pete Sandoval,Tim Waterson, Chris Adler, Travis Smith, and Danny Carey. The technique is commonly used in death metal and other extreme forms of music.
In certain types of heavy metal and punk, drummers play a constant stream of rapid-fire notes on the bass drum, and the ability to play evenly at extremely high tempos is a skill prized within the heavy metal scene. Many extreme metal, thrashcore and grindcore drummers use a combination of fast double bass drum patterns, the snare, and the cymbals to create blast beats.
The "bass line" is a unique musical ensemble consisting of graduated pitch marching bass drums commonly found in marching bands and drum and bugle corps. Each drum plays a different note, and this gives the bass line a unique task in a musical ensemble. Skilled lines execute complex linear passages split among the drums to add an additional melodic element to the percussion section. This is characteristic of the marching bass drum — its purpose is to convey complex rhythmic and melodic content, not just to keep the beat. The line provides impact, melody, and tempo due to the nature of the sound of the instruments.
The drums are typically between 16" and 32" in diameter, but some groups have used bass drums as small as 13" and larger than 36". The drums in a bass line are tuned such that the largest will always play the lowest note with the pitch increasing as the size of the drum decreases. Individually, the drums are tuned higher than other bass drums (drumset kick drums or orchestral bass drums) of the same size, so that complex rhythmic passages can be heard clearly and articulated.
Unlike the other drums in a drumline, the bass drums are generally mounted sideways, with the drumskin facing horizontally, rather than vertically. This results in several things. First of all, to ensure that a vibrating membrane is facing the audience, bass drummers must face perpendicular to the rest of the band and so are the only section in most groups whose bodies do not face the audience. Consequently, bass drummers usually point their drums at the back of the bass drummer in front of them, so that the drum heads will all be lined up, from the audience's point of view, next to one another in order to produce optimal sound output.
The motion of the basic stroke is either similar to the motion of turning a doorknob, that is, an absolute forearm rotation, or similar to that of a snare drummer, where the wrist is the primary actor, or more commonly, a hybrid of these two strokes. Bass drum technique sees huge variation between different groups both in the ratio of forearm rotation to wrist turn and the differing views on how the hand works while playing. Some techniques also call for the use of fingers supporting the motion of the mallet by opening or closing.
However, the basic stroke on a drum produces just one of the many sounds a bass line can produce. Along with the solo drum, the "unison" is one of the most common sounds used. It is produced when all of the drums play a note at the same time and with a balanced sound; this option has a very full, powerful sound. The rim click, which is when the shaft (near the mallet head) is struck against the rim of the drum, either solo or in unison. Rimshots are rare on a bass drum and usually only happen on the top drums.
The different positions of the typical five person bass line each require different skills, though not necessarily different levels of skills. Contrary to the popular belief that "higher is better," each drum has its own critical role to play.
Bottom, or fifth bass, is the largest, heaviest, and lowest drum in the drumline. Consequently, it is used frequently to help maintain pulse in an ensemble and is thus sometimes referred to as the "heartbeat" of the group (the bottom bass was also often referred to as the "thud" bass in days gone by, indicating that many of their notes were the last one at the end of a phrase). Although this player does not always play as many notes as fast as other bass drummers (the depth of pitch renders most complex passages indistinguishable from a roll), his or her role is absolutely essential not only to the sound of the bass line or the drum line, but to the ensemble as a whole, especially in the case of parade bands.
Fourth bass is slightly smaller than the bottom drum (generally two to four inches smaller in diameter) and can function tonally similarly to its lower counterpart, but usually plays slightly more rapid parts and is much more likely to play "off the beat" - in the middle rather than at the beginning or end of a passage.
Third bass is the middle drum, both in terms of position and tone. Its function is usually that of the archetypical bass drum. This player plays an integral role in the actual rendering of complex linear passages.
Second bass has arguably the most difficult job in the drumline. This player's parts are very likely to be directly adjacent to the beginning or end of a phrase and less likely to be on a beat, which is highly counter-intuitive, especially to a new player. Sometimes this drum can function about the same as the top drum, but usually the second and top drummer function as a unit, playing very rudimentally difficult passages split between them.
Top, or first, bass is the highest pitched drum in the bass line and usually starts or ends phrases. The high tension drum heads allow this player to play notes that are just as taxing as those of the snare line, and often the top bass will play a part in unison with the snare line to add some depth to their sound.