Why is 18" the jazz bass drum size?


Junior Member
portability and soundability

they didn't sell well at first because they looked like "kids" drum kits. ppl wanted to come and buy these big rock drums that bonham and moon were playing and they would turn to the 18" and be all like wtf - that's a kids starter kit!

I use an 18 but muffle it quite a bit - i think it's the best of both worlds - i can get the muffled thumpy sound (cuz i play 4 on the floor) of a bigger drum but the tonal resonant sound of the smaller drum.
Very interesting thread. Glad I read it. I do know that most jazz clubs/bars and decent coffee houses that I've been in they were using a small bass. Reguardless of how it came to be, there is no doubt an 18" or a small 20" is going to be easier to get around with, and easier to place in a small space.

As a closet audiophile if you will, I know that the lower the frequency, the more room you need for that frequency to expand to be properly taken in. If you're in a real small club or shop as described above several times, there just isn't any reason to use a big oil drum, because you won't get the proper affect. A small thumper makes more sense from an acoustic standpoint. In a bigger dance hall with the old high ceilings, that 18" becomes a tom. There is just so much room now, that you need to lower that frequency to fill that space. There is more room for that low frequency to expand and do its job. I'm talking frequency here, not air movement.

Both views on that side of this discussion are correct from both a practical and an acoustic stand point. Either way, there's a lot of good history / trivia information in this thread, and the site as a whole for that matter.


Listen to old jazz records: depending on the period you will hear deep sounding bass drums, like Joe Morello on Take Five, or higher pitched ones like in Miles 2nd greta quintet with Tony Williams. The first used big bass drums, the second small ones. Most of jazz player who are in the Bop stream are looking for that Bop sound, with the higher pitched note.
As other people said, the 18" bass drum was used because it doesn't interfere too much with the double bass range, but also because it provides a much better definition on records.
Actually, it may surprise you but many of the records made in studio were performed in bass drums actually much smaller than what you may think and then post-processed to sound bigger, but having the definition of small bass drums.
Also the 14" depth is convenient in small stages, 18" fit in cabs trunks. But 20"x14" are also common. Generally you will see 18"x14" in small bands (quartet, quintet), 20"x14" in bigger formations including Big Bands.


Platinum Member
Those are 3 gorgeous sets. I'd be happy to own any one of them.

But I'd have to get an extra tom, to set them up as a 5 piece like Piebe's - ha ha.

5 piece feels normal to me. I'd have to really work at it to get comfortable with a 4 piece. From a strictly 'looks' perspective though, you can't beat the 4 by 4.

OK - I have to modify this ^^^^ statement.

I got a 3 piece Yamaha Bop kit a couple days ago.
Added a snare to set it up as the typical 4 piece and gave it a try.

Felt a little awkward at first, and I went to hit a non-existent tom a couple times - ha ha.
But after a few hours working with it, I think it'll work out just fine for me.

I've spent so many years using 5 piece kits exclusively that I thought it would be trouble adapting to 4.


Senior Member
I don't know how it got started -- I've heard a bunch of explanations, including the NYC cab tale. But I do have some thoughts on why it's popular for small combo jazz.

In that style of playing, the drum kit is treated as a melodic instrument much of the time. When the drummer takes a solo, he's improvising on the melody, just as the other instruments do. And in most numbers, everybody in the group takes a solo in turn. So the individual drums function as pitched -- or approximate pitch -- instruments, and they need to relate to one another in range and in character. If a large bass drum enters that mix, it sounds unrelated -- heavy, deep and thumpy, where the toms and snare are lighter, ringier and project more stick-to-head contact. A smaller bass drum and hard beater bring things into a more common range, where the bass drum sounds similar in tone to the others and becomes another note in the melodic spectrum. This is especially important since in that style of music, the bass drum's main function isn't timekeeping like in other genres -- time is tracked more by the hihat and ride cymbal.

If you've got to improvise a melodic line over a couple of choruses, you need pitch quality out of everything available, and in a 4-piece bop kit there are only two pitches -- pretty hard to make an interesting melody out of. So calling the bass drum into the arsenal as a "lower tom" sound is kind of critical.