Percussionist Vs Drummer: The Difference And You!

By Evan C

A Drummer Or A Percussionist?

You may have heard of the debate of a percussionist vs drummer and wondered what the difference really was. I mean, they look like they are all doing the same thing, right?

percussionist vs drummer

The Differences Explained!

The percussion world is vast and full of variety. When it comes to the comparison between a drummer and a percussionist, there are many differences that come into play.

Drummers typically use a drum set while percussionists use an array of instruments. Additionally, drummers tend to focus more on rhythm and a standard ‘beat’ to follow, while percussionists may be more inclined towards sound exploration, although rhythmically.

While both musicians are expected to have an understanding of subdivisional theory, drum teachers and instructors often emphasize different techniques for each category.

More Than ‘Beats’ The Eye

Now with these different roles, there is definitely more to it. The best way to understand it is to dig in further, so let’s dive!

Percussionist Vs Drummer – Deep Dive

Technically, a drummer is a percussionist, since they play percussion instruments that make up a drum set. However, a drummer wouldn’t normally label themselves as a percussionist.

Let’s go over what differentiates a percussionist vs drummer and talk about some similarities, but first what are the roles of each in their perspective role?

my drums in the studio
My drums in the studio

Role of Drummer in a Band:

As a good drummer, you’re super important to the band. Your individual drums provide the heartbeat of each song, and your ability to come in at just the right moments is critical to keeping the music sounding tight.

You are responsible for setting and maintaining the tempo, as well as providing support and just the right amount accents during solos (if applicable).

Your drumming also provides a sense of energy to the performance which can be felt by both the other members of the band, as well as by an audience. 

Your sound should blend with that of all other instruments so that the performance is more fluid. This requires both good technical skills on your part and excellent communication with your fellow musicians in order to ensure everything fits together perfectly.

You may also need to suggest changes or different approaches from time-to-time when playing live or recording in a studio session.

A professional drummer like Dave Grohl for instance, is a drum kit player. Although he is a drummer, his kit is composed of individual drums, and the common uses for these types of drums (together) differ when compared to percussion instruments.

Genres may vary and with that drumming styles will. Punk drummers like Travis Barker would play differently than a jazz drummer, such as Buddy Rich did.

However, there is generally ALWAYS a beat the drummer has to carry throughout the entirety (or most) of the song, regardless of the style.

Role of Percussionist in an Orchestra:

The role of the percussionist in an orchestra is often overlooked and yet it is a vital part of any ensemble.

Every type of drum has its own unique sound and purpose, from cymbals to kettle drums, all creating a rhythm and characteristic that drives the music, but is just a piece of many.

percussionists playing bells
Percussionists playing bells

Percussionists have been part of orchestras for centuries and with the development of new instruments, their role has become even more important.

In an orchestra setting, the percussionist provides different types of sounds, such as rolls on snare drums or deep booms from bass drums that add depth to the melodies played by other instruments within the ensemble.

Kettle drums, or a timpani, are also used to create a deep resounding tone that can resonate for a long time and can add drama to certain pieces.

By using these different types of drums and other percussion instruments, they can help create atmosphere in addition to providing rhythmical accompaniment.

I mentioned percussionists just being a piece to many. Often, percussionists will be playing with several more different musicians than a drummer would. You have a whole section of woodwind, brass, stringed, and reeded instruments to name a few.

Percussionists will often be designated just a couple of different parts they are responsible for. For instance, you may have to play the triangle and the woodblock for certain measures in a song. They may look to their sheet music for these multiple percussion parts through out the performance.

You could also have a more vital drum part like the snare drum or bass drum. Though you use these same drums as a drummer on a drumset, the intentions are not the same.

Percussionists in an orchestra
Percussionists in an orchestra in back

Sometimes the shell material, size, drumhead, and tuning will be way different for these drums in order to service the ensemble/orchestra.

Concert music for percussionists may require much more finesse than drummers. Playing the bells, for instance, can be a lot more challenging than the drumset, as there are notes you have to learn to play (also sight-reading). Yet, percussionists still get roped into certain drummer stereotypes and jokes.

Sorry classical percussionists, you can’t escape the puns either! As you can see, when it comes to a percussionist vs drummer, their roles are basically similar.

Types of Percussion Instruments Drummers Use:

We briefly mentioned some types of drums.

The drummer is often the backbone of the band. Whether you’re a rock ‘n’ roll drummer or a jazz drummer, there are certain elements that you must have in order to create music.

The typical drum kit consists of a bass drum, snare drum, hi-hats, toms, and various other cymbals.

Me playing my drums
Me recording in the studio (kick, rack tom, floor tom, snare, 1 crash/ride, a crash, and hi hats)

Although, drummers will have percussion instruments such as cowbells, woodblocks, tambourines, wind chimes, and agogos to name a few. This can be dependent on the drummer characteristics and how they choose to play.

Those are also instruments used by percussionists, but in a much different way, usually.

A standard drum set used by drummers are easy to identify

Variety of Percussion Instruments:

Percussion instruments all have the same purpose, however. They are played by striking, shaking or scraping with hands, sticks and mallets.

Percussionists can vary their sound by playing on different parts of the instrument and in different contexts such as soft sounds versus loud sounds.

Hand drums such as bongos, congas, djembes and tablas are popular percussion instruments used worldwide. Hand drums provide a wide range of tones that can be manipulated depending on how they’re struck—from deep bass notes to higher-pitched notes.

Crash cymbals offer another option for creating unique sounds as they can be hit together to create a crashing sound, or softer for a ‘chik’ effect.

Using a variety of mallets and sticks on individual cymbals, we can produce distinctive tones that add excitement to any performance. This can vary based off the material we use, and the size, thickness, and material of the cymbal.

Percussionists have an array of percussion instruments at their disposal for creating dynamic music pieces.

They are using these instruments to serve the concert/classical piece and a lot of these percussion instruments may show up a lot less in a song. When comparing to a drum set, you’ll typically hear the drum set being played for most of the song.

Some other percussion instruments include:

  • Xylophone
  • Marimba
  • Guiro
  • Cabasa
  • Clave – they look like two metal bars you tap together

This doesn’t include them all, but as you can see the rhythm of the drum can be much more expansive with all these instruments that percussionists use.

The Guiro, a percussion instrument
The Güiro (Guiro)

Unique Skills & Techniques:

Drummers and percussionists are both integral components to their respected bands and orchestras. Both bring their own unique skills and techniques to the music they play, creating a truly powerful sound.

While some of these skills can be applied to both drumming and percussion playing, there are many that are exclusive to each instrument type.

The skillset required for drumming is often much more physical than that of a percussionist. Drummers must master several key techniques, and multiple stick grips in order to develop speed, power, and accuracy on the drums.

In addition to these technical aspects of playing drums, drummers must also learn how to effectively coordinate limb isolation, while using dynamics when playing live or in the studio.

Think about it, a drummer is moving all of their limbs in order to fulfill the drum part that’s expected of them.

If you play any hard rock or metal, you’re going to be exerting a lot! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been wiped out after a show. Moving all 4 limbs constantly along to fast and hard music is tiring.

On the other hand, percussionists have a different set of skills they need in order to properly play their instruments.

Depending on what instrument they are playing, they may either be exerting a lot of energy or not. Someone who is playing the timpani is going to be exerting more force than someone playing the triangle.

Also, professional percussionists and amateur alike will be expected to know how to read sheet music by the band director.

band director
band director

Rudiments are played by both drummers and percussionists, but more often than not, percussionists may be more inclined to focus on concepts like rudiments.

Fellow drummers aren’t necessarily required to read sheet music, though a lot do. They either learn it on their own through a drum teacher or music school.

Percussionists may or may not understand music theory better than drummers, just because they may be held to a higher standard.

This can vary, especially for a drummer who is in a popular music program or a school like Berklee college of music (or any music school).

Obviously, they are going to be regarded at a higher standard than drummers who may not have school or a summer program under their belt.

Professional Opportunities:

Get your business card ready! Drummers and percussionists are integral members of any musical group, providing the rhythmic foundation for many genres of music.

These professional musicians can work in a variety of settings, from performing live in concerts to working as a session musician in a recording studio.

Drummer performing
Drummer performing

There are a wide range of opportunities available for those interested in pursuing drumming or percussion as a career. 

The most obvious option is to form or join an existing band and play live shows on stage. Drummers and percussionists also have the opportunity to work as freelance session players, recording drum tracks for albums or demos both remotely or at studios across the country.

Popular session musicians shouldn’t have trouble finding ways to get paid for their talent and even private lessons is another option!

With the rise of digital music production, they may also find themselves working in audio engineering roles and creating custom sound effects and loops that can be used by other musicians.

A well-known drummer can expect to find a lot of work in the industry, especially if they are active. Great percussionists can find opportunities to play with orchestras who travel around regionally, nationally, or even internationally.

It may be more difficult to find work as a percussionist. I don’t think the opportunities are as vast as they are for drummers. The scene is pretty expansive with several different genres of music, of which a large portion have drummers.

Percussionists with marching drums

Apples And Oranges

So, as you can see when we are comparing and contrasting a percussionist vs drummer, there are many differences and similarities.

You are technically a percussionist being a drummer, but a true percussionist is focused on many different percussion instruments, while a drummer is focused mainly on a drum set.

It’s always been a next step of mine to become a solid percussionist as I used to play the bells in school some.

Percussionist Vs Drummer, Which Are You?

What would you consider yourself? Are you a percussionist or would you call yourself a drummer? I’d love to hear in the comments below!

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Until next time, stay attuned!

-Evan C.

About the author

Hi there, I'm Evan and I love drums.. Also, I love music! I've been playing drums for most of my life and nothing beats the thrill I get from it. I hope to be able to provide you with insightful tips and reviews on things within the drum and music world!

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