Buying a first kit

A common reader question at digitalDrummer is “what should I buy for my kid’s first kit?”. We checked with some experts for their advice.

New or used?

Unsurprisingly, Blake Plumleigh, long-time owner of eBay store Blakes Drum Shop in Encinitas, California, is a big fan of used gear.

“You can save 30-50% or more in some cases,” he says, referring to the overall cost of second-hand components compared to a brand-new kit.

“A lot of name brand products do last a long time. They also don’t lose as much value when you sell them,” he explains.

Giant US retailer Guitar Center sells both new and used e-drums, and Glenn Noyes, director of merchandise for drums, cymbals, percussion and accessories, sees it this way: “While second-hand kits may save you a little bit of money, these are drums, they are electronic and they typically take a beating. Pricing on a new entry-level kit is very affordable and I would recommend going with a new kit so everything is fresh out of the box and works properly.”

Sweetwater drum sales engineer Derek Senestraro points out that technology changes all the time in electronic percussion, so buyers of used kits risk missing out on the latest technology that can improve playability and realism. “One example is the USB pads that Roland has, which are clearly the latest and greatest technology, but they only work with TD-27 and TD-50 modules. So, the older gear can’t take advantage of those,” he explains.

“Of course, the other downside of used is you’re buying something used and subject to the previous owner’s wear and tear. Electronic kits do wear out and lose some attributes (like heads and triggers wear).”

Erik Hamm, owner of online vendor, warns of the pitfalls of the used gear market, especially for parents who don’t know what they’re looking for. “The used market can be all over the place price-wise. I have seen people pay more for used than new stuff or, worse yet, just get something in worse condition than stated. Also, with e-drums, if you go too far back on used gear, you are going to get something that might need a lot of repairs soon or be totally obsolete.

“If you get new, you know it’s never been played and will at least have a decent resale value should your child not stick with the drums.”

And children losing interest is a common phenomenon.

Big brands vs generic/store brand

Parents looking to buy new e-drum gear, but with a limited budget, may have to choose between entry-level kits from big name manufacturers and higher-spec offerings from lesser-known brands. So which way should you go?

Plumleigh points out that some lesser-known brands will initially save you money if it’s your first purchase. “A friend got an entry-level Alesis kit when he first started playing e-drums and it worked fine for what he wanted to do and his budget. It was great for learning the basic rudiments and drum beats to play. However, some of the lesser-known brands may be harder to upgrade certain components.

“The big name brands may be a better investment if you plan on having the drum kit long term as some of the components may last longer,” he suggests.

Guitar Center’s Noyes says the main factors are sound quality and the feel or performance of the pads. “Many entry-level kits now have mesh heads which are much easier to play and better on the wrists and hands,” he says, adding that several of the big name brands like Simmons, Roland and Alesis have excellent entry-level kits that have “higher spec features at entry-level prices”.

Hamm often tells customers to avoid some of the entry-level kits and get something their kids can grow into. “If you get a nice kit from a top brand, you can always sell it or trade it in on a better model later. The no-name-brand stuff doesn’t hold up as well, hold its value, or even function as working drums in some cases,” he says.

Senestraro agrees that entry-level kits tend to have fewer features and less reliability and long-term usability.

But the choice largely depends on the application: “If a new player is wanting to try out drumming and looking for their first electronic kit, it may make sense to save on up-front costs. If a seasoned player is looking for a quiet playing solution at home, then I think the differences would be more evident to them and more critical to their needs.

“Style of playing also can be a factor. If you’re using the kit for more traditional rock/pop drumming, then the differences may not be as critical as they would be for someone playing all styles, or a player more apt to play lots of grace notes and ghost notes in their playing,” says the Sweetwater expert.

Top tips

Hamm congratulates all parents who encourage their children to get into music – and drumming in particular: “The world needs more music, now more than ever. One of our goals at Edrumcenter is to not just sell electronic drums but create more drummers,” he says.

For Plumleigh, one of the most important steps is checking reviews before you buy – especially for lesser-known brands.

And what features should buyers look out for? “A built-in metronome is a great feature, as is an auxiliary input on the module so you can play along to songs from your favourite bands! Those are great for learning and make it more fun.”

The eBay vendor also recommends looking for a decent quality kick drum and pedal as well as choosing cymbals that choke.

Guitar Center’s Noyes agrees about the need for built-in training tools. “For the first-time player, having songs or patterns built in to play along with is a huge help in both learning and having fun playing. And, if the module has a record or training function, it can really help develop your timing and accuracy,” he points out.

Noyes notes that mesh pads make a huge difference in the feel and playability. He also points out that the sounds within the module should sound realistic.

Senestraro’s list of essentials for a first kit include durability, reliability and playability. “The experience of the player, the type of music played and the foundational need for the electronic kit will also influence what is ‘essential’.”

What is “essential” always comes back to the player’s specific needs and application, he stresses.

“Sounds, of course, are critical and most kits have pretty good sounds for basic practice, etc. But if you’re using the kit for playing out, playing at church, etc, then the number of outputs and sound editing capabilities become much more critical.”

His final advice: “As with any purchase, take the time to assess your needs and uses when you consider buying an electronic kit. Doing so will steer you to the right direction as to the type of product and particular model that will work best for you. Keep in mind that, in electronic percussion, you do get what you pay for. There are reasons why the top kits cost what they do: the technology and advancements really are top of the line and you pay a premium for that advanced technology.”

His Guitar Center counterpart advocates “spending a couple of extra dollars for a new name-brand kit”.

And amplification is often an afterthought. “Get a decent amp or set of headphones to hear the true sound of the kit,” says Noyes. “This will increase the time spent playing the drums as it is a lot more enjoyable when you can hear it clearly.”

Finally, Hamm stresses that it doesn’t end with the kit purchase: “Get some lessons going,” he suggests.