In the orchestra the bass drum is generally struck with a large, soft stick which is heavy enough to cause the instrument’s large soundbox to vibrate. The stick is held in the right hand (or left hand of left-handed players). The striking spot for full-sounding single strokes is about a hand-width from the center of the head. The percussionist must first locate the ideal striking spot by trial and error because every bass drum sounds different.
Nowadays the drum is normally positioned so that the heads are vertical but at an angle. The percussionist strikes the head from the side. In some orchestras the head is struck in an almost horizontal position. If the drum is completely horizontal the sound quality is poorer because the vibrations are reflected from the floor.
To perform rolls the player uses two sticks which are somewhat smaller and lighter than those used for single strokes.
The batter head is damped either with the fingers, the hand or the entire arm, the resonating head with the left hand.
The practice of mounting a cymbal on the shell of the bass drum, which was widespread in the 19th century, is now no longer usual. However, because several composers explicitly ask for this in their scores it is still sometimes done. Although this device guarantees greater coordination between the drum and the cymbal it detracts from the sound especially of the latter instrument. It also makes it extremely difficult to damp the resonating head.
Tuning of the drum
Unlike the timpani, for which a definite pitch is desired, pains are taken when constructing and tuning a drum to avoid a definite pitch.
If a drum head is struck at its edge the head’s proper tone is heard. The bass drum in the orchestra is tuned to a pitch between C and G, whichever is more appropriate to the drum’s resonant chamber (i.e. its size). The resonating head is tuned to about a half step lower in order to dispel any impression of a definite pitch and to ensure the drum produces the necessary volume. Striking the drum with a large, soft stick helps to remove any traces of pitch.
The bass drum outside the orchestra
Whereas for orchestral playing the bass drum is suspended in a frame, in popular music it is placed on the floor – on feet – so that the heads are vertical. The drummer strikes the drum by means of a pedal. This method does not allow any variation in intonation, the beats are monotonous and sound rather dead and dry. Cloths are often used to damp the sound further. Tubing is let into the bass drum shell on which other instruments such as cymbals, cowbells, tom-toms or small effects instruments are mounted. This combination of instruments, supplemented by snare drums and hi-hat, is known as the drum kit or trap set.
In military bands the bass drum is carried in front of the stomach and beaten on both heads. The heads of these drums are often plastic and of the same thickness.