I’m a working drummer and a teacher. I get the question all the time – ‘Are acoustic drums better than electric drums?’ Furthermore, I often get asked, ‘Should I learn on an electric drum kit or an acoustic drum kit?’
Firstly, it’s important to understand what the actual situation is for the particular musician as it’s different for everyone. A brand new student has a unique set of issues - they’ll not yet have developed a technique that may prevent them from controlling their volume when practising; budget issues; and let’s not forget cranky neighbours or even cranky parents that don’t want a whole lot of rocking going on. The logical choice from a non-musician’s point of view is that the student should get an electric kit. It’s quieter, there’s an option for headphones as well as the ability to plug in an iPhone and just play along. It couldn’t be easier, not to mention the swag of different sounds you can have on an electric kit – anyone that’s had a go on one can’t argue they’re pretty fun.
However, on the other side of the coin are the realities of playing drums. As a musician of any kind you must be able to vary and alter your dynamics/volume and your approach when playing with others; you may not be using headphones when gigging; drum heads simply don’t feel like rubber or even mesh pads and you’ll be playing with real musicians, not recordings. Now, I’m not saying that playing along with recordings is a bad thing, far from it, but that little cosy space and vibe with headphones on is pretty different to the big stage. Also, let’s not forget, unless you’re willing to part with some hard earned coin, choices for ‘good’ electric kits become limited, and what’s the point of practising on a rubbish surface all the time?
If you already play the drums, jumping on an electric kit isn’t that drastic a change because you can reference what an acoustic kit feels like. That said, I’ve learned to play licks and tricks on an electric and then don’t have a hope on my Maple Custom. Why? Because rubber pads make you feel you’re a drumming god and then looser tensioned drumheads won’t rebound in the same way.
Going the other way – say you haven’t played drums before, for example – is very different. You can learn from scratch on an electric kit but you will, and I guarantee this, feel weird when you jump on an acoustic kit. The sheer volume and lack of rebound is the first notable difference and then you notice something else – response. They say that an electric kit in 2017 can basically replicate an acoustic kit in all areas and I agree that they’re close. But in reality, the true response you get on an acoustic kit is unmatched. Rimshots, pops and everything in between, the feeling of digging into a bass drum or feeling the ‘give’ in a ride cymbal.
Does this mean I don’t like electronic drums? Far from it - I love the added use of electronics and I’ve experimented with a ‘hybrid’ kit myself. There are some amazing sounds to be had but I still prefer the feel of a real drum. However, electric kits are just too convenient, so my advice is to do what you have to, but just remember to play acoustic drums whenever possible. When the time comes and you have to do a jazz set, the electronic ride cymbal just won’t pull at the heart strings like a 22” thin ride.