How to Buy a Cheap Drum Set Without Buyer’s Remorse

Spending thousands of dollars on drum gear is not an option for most of us. For this reason, we are always on the hunt for good deals in all corners of the internet. Having purchased a lot of drum gear on the cheap, I thought I would share some of my lessons learned with you so that you can maximize your dollar.

So, How do you buy a cheap drum set without buyer’s remorse? Inexpensive kits can be found on a variety of sites like Craigslist or eBay. There are also local auction sites which are often overlooked and can lead to huge savings. A thorough pre-purchase inspection and a little extra money put into new drum heads will help you to not regret your drum set purchase.

In this article, I’d like to outline my best practices for where to look for the best deals on drum gear. I also want to help you avoid making costly mistakes by explaining my pre-purchase inspection process and what quality indications to look out for when considering buying a used drum set.

How Cheap Should I Buy?

If you are just starting out or are a parent buying a drum set for your rhythmically inclined offspring, chances are you are going to want to be fairly frugal with your money. After all, it’s not quite clear whether this new hobby will turn into something serious or be another 6 month obsession like those pottery classes were.

On the other hand, if you’re already a serious drummer, committing hours of your day to practicing the craft, you might think about investing a bit more in order to get a better quality setup.

Either way, there is money to be saved by taking a bit of extra time during the buying process and not just rushing to your local retailer and picking the first kit you see.

The real question is…how cheap is too cheap? If you’re budgeting for this purchase and you don’t want to do yourself a complete disservice, I would plan on investing no less than $300-$400 in a basic, beginner drum set. Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely cheaper options to be had out there, but it is very likely that you’ll get what you pay for.

I know what your inner dialogue might be at this point: “But it’s a new hobby – I don’t want to spend a bunch of money to start out!” I understand completely. The good news here is that you don’t have to. That said, I’d like to offer you a cautionary tale, one that I’ve seen played out several times with my drum students. It goes something like this:

Little Suzy is showing an interest in playing the drums and so her parents sign her up for drum lessons at their local music school. The first few lessons go well and it seems that Suzy is interested in continuing. They are now in the market for an instrument which she can play at home, in the garage. So, Mom and Dad go on Amazon and find the absolute cheapest beginner drum set they can find…and score…it comes with cymbals!! The best part – it only cost them $150. Done!

Two days later (thanks Amazon Prime!) the box arrives and setup begins. It’s an exciting time! Everything is meticulously assembled and ready to go, however it is immediately obvious that this thing sounds like garbage, even after some fiddling. But ok – it’s a beginner drum set.

A few weeks into it though, they start to notice a couple of stripped screws on the hardware, the cymbals (made of super cheap metal) are bent up and dented, the drum heads are just as dented as the cymbals, etc. To make matters worse, Suzy’s interest in practicing is starting to fade a bit, partially because it just doesn’t sound as good as when she’s playing at the music school.

The moral of the story: Don’t go SUPER cheap. Suzy’s parents ended up going out and spending a bit more money on a decent starter kit, but overall ended up spending much more money because of that initial purchase flop.

New or Used?

The age old question of whether to buy a new or a used drum set. In the ‘budget’ price range, I’ll go ahead and say that in most instances it will make the most sense to purchased a used drum kit simply due to the fact that it will have depreciated and you’ll get more value for the money.

That won’t always be the case though. There are plenty of new drum sets on the market, specifically for beginners on a low budget. These kits typically include a basic set of cymbals as well, which is certainly an added bonus.

Buying a new drum set on a budget can lead into some questionable quality products however, so use caution and pay close attention to the reviews on the products you’re looking at.

Where to Look for the Best Deals

I’ve compiled a list of sites and resources here to check out when looking for a good used drum set. There are some obvious items on this list, along with some not so obvious. I wanted to try and ensure you had a well rounded list of sites at your disposal as you start looking.

Before we go into the list though, I do want to provide you with some guidance on what you should look out for when looking at online listings:

  • Photos: If the post you are looking at has no, very few or bad quality photos – don’t necessarily discount the ad. It’s likely that others might avoid the post, which means there might be lower competition for this purchase and the possibility for you to negotiate the price point. Use the Inspection Checklist (below) to then inspect the drum set and make sure it is of sufficient quality.
  • Description: I would pay attention here for the same reason as above – a skimpy description means that potential buyers may skip the ad entirely. That said, those sellers who concentrate on their descriptions likely care quite a bit about the item they are selling and have probably also taken good care of it. Additionally, it might be an indication that they are more honest individuals to work with during the sale. Do expect to pay a bit more in these types of transactions though, as the seller likely knows exactly what they have and what it’s worth.
  • Price: Is the asking price listed? Great, that’s your starting point for negotiation. The word “Firm” will indicate that the price is non-negotiable. A magic word to look for is “OBO” which stands for “Or Best Offer”. If you see the latter and the post is decent, definitely inquire because the buyer has indicated that they are motivated to sell and that there is room for negotiation. The competition will likely be a bit higher though, so don’t sit on it too long.
  • Location: Before looking too deeply into a listing, consider if you’re willing to drive long distances to pick up a drum set (if buying locally). Most listings will have a location listed on them, which will help you make a determination as to whether you even want to bother or not. This will also help you in the event that shipping is involved as longer distances generally mean higher shipping costs.

OK – let’s now look at where you might go to find the best deals on used kits:

CraigslistOpens in a new tab.:
Over the years, Craigslist has risen from an underground platform for posting classified ads online, to the global leader in this space. Amazingly, it still looks A LOT like it did all those years ago when it started. This is a fantastic place to start your search for drum sets online as a lot of people use this platform and it should give you a pretty good indication of the market.

eBayOpens in a new tab.:
This auction site has been around for ages and is internationally well known. It’s quite likely that anything you would buy off of eBay is likely not a local transaction, so shipping will be involved. There are a lot of foreign companies who sell into the United States via eBay and vice versa, so it’s best to pay attention to the point of origin of a seller. Speaking of sellers, if you are purchasing anything off of eBay, definitely check out the seller’s profile because the platform has a very rich history of rating its sellers and buyers.

AmazonOpens in a new tab.:
Yes, it’s true. Amazon really does have EVERYTHING…including drum sets, albeit only new kits. In fact, you’ll find listings (either by Amazon or other large musical equipment retailers) for just about any type and quality level of drum set. If you’ve decided to buy a new, budget-level beginner kit, Amazon is probably a good option. I would probably not purchase more expensive drum sets through Amazon though as musical equipment retailers will likely have the most current inventory and attention to detail.

Local Auctions:
There are many locally run auction houses which get consignments from all sorts of places. My advice would be to seek out those auction companies who often consign with school systems and especially universities to sell off their excess equipment. Universities especially often have excess budget which they need to spend and so they frequently replace equipment which isn’t very old to begin with. From time to time, you will find musical equipment on these sites, so it’s worth keeping an eye on them.

Pawn Shops:
Don’t forget your local pawn shops. Now, there is definitely mixed opinion out there as to whether it’s a good idea to purchase a drum kit from a pawn shop. I’ll say that on one hand, you’re likely to encounter some reasonably priced instruments for sale. On the flip side, you’re more likely to encounter an instrument which has lead a rough life and might not be in the best condition. Be sure to thoroughly inspect a drum kit prior to buying it. You may even want to ask if you can take the drum heads off to have a very close look at the shells and bearing edges (see the Inspection Checklist below).

Especially if you are planning on buying ‘new’, it’s worth frequenting your local music retailer as they’ll often have clearance sales on items which are either hard to sell or in advance of new inventory coming in. Drum sets are definitely not immune to this phenomenon.

Local Classifieds:
Most local papers will have online classifieds these days. These are worth checking out but not in ways you might think. Looking for specific listings on drum sets probably won’t get you very far. I would stick to the garage and estate sale listings, as there are likely to be a few good finds here. If you’re lucky, the seller won’t necessarily know what they have on hand either, which will help your price point.

Drum Set Inspection Checklist

Part of buying a drum set without having buyer’s remorse kick in a few days later is paying close attention to the quality of the instrument(s) you are about to purchase. So, I wanted to provide you with a resource which you can utilize when checking out a used kit which you want to purchase to ensure that you aren’t setting yourself up for failure.

Especially to the untrained eye, there can be various issues which lie just beneath the surface (or the drum head) of any drum set which can either cause downstream issues OR which are easily fixable and give you ammunition for negotiation.

Drum Heads:
If the drum heads that are on the kit are really beat up, scuffed or dented, don’t walk away. In fact, it’s really ok because they are easy to replace and could give you a point of negotiation as you’ll be facing that replacement cost once you take possession of the kit.

Drum Shells:
When looking at the drum shells, you’ll want to make sure that they are perfectly round and not warped in any way. A quick way of doing this would be comparing the ’roundness’ of the shell in comparison to the metal hoop that’s holding the drum head on the shell. If one of the two look to be out of round, you can do further investigation to see if it’s the shell or the hoop.

If the hoop is out of round, that is a pretty easy fix and replacement and could therefor be a negotiation point for you. If you shell is out of round, that’s a harder fix and you might consider walking away completely as those drums will likely never sound quite right.

Bearing Edges:
A bearing edge is the top and bottom portion of the drum shell which actually comes in contact with the drum head itself. They are beveled edges which result in minimal contact between the drum and the head, which enables the instrument to resonate.

It is absolutely critical to a good sounding drum set that these edges be in perfect condition. Any dents, nicks, wood chips or dings can impact how the drum head sits on the bearing edge and in turn, harm the vibration characteristics of the instrument.

Bearing edges are generally pretty well protected by the drum head and hoop, which are normally installed on the drum. It only takes one slip of the screwdriver with a bare shell to cause some damage though, so be sure to inspect them carefully.

It’s not unheard of to request that the drum heads be removed when inspecting the drum kit, however you’ll likely be able to do a decent inspection if clear heads are installed on the kit. If you do happen to take the drum heads off, look at the edge at eye level and make sure it’s all even/on the same plane. One way to do this as well is to set the bearing edge down on a completely flat surface and put a light source inside of the shell. If light is unevenly showing around the drum where the bearing edge meets the surface, there is likely to be an issue. You must make sure that the surface you are using is perfectly flat though. It can also help to run your finger around the edge to feel any potential flaws.

The Finish: Covering/Wrap or Paint/Stain:
Drums can be finished in a variety of ways, but can generally be categorized into two methods: covering/wrap and paint/stain. While strictly cosmetic, the finish of your drums can play a big factor in your purchase decision.

The covering/wrap is typically laminated plastic or acetate, which is glued to the outside of the shell and provides a durable finish to the drum. Aside from scratches, there is generally little that can be wrong with covering, unless it’s been obviously tampered with or partially removed.

Painted or stained drums, while potentially more visually appealing are much more prone to cosmetic damage. In addition, these finishes are more expensive from the factory, and will likely lead to a higher re-sale price when it comes time to buying the kit.

Hoops are the metal or wooden rings on the top and bottom of the drum which are responsible for compressing the hoop of the drumhead down over the drum so that the head can be tensioned over the bearing edge.

With hoops, you’ll want to make sure that they are not warped or visibly damaged anyway. Metal hoops should not have any rust on them and wooden hoops should be free of major wood damage.

It will be hard to tell if a hoop is warped or out of round when it is installed on the drum, as a lot of times the tension it is holding on the drum will minimize the effect of these flaws. If you happen to have the drum heads off of the drum to inspect the shells, go ahead and set the hoops flat down on a table or floor and make sure that they are flat and in round.

Drum Hardware:
This category consists primarily of tension rods (the screws which go through the hoop and get tightened to tune the drum, lugs (installed on the side of the drum) into which the tension rods are screwed and various mounting hardware.

Much like the metal hoops, you are going to want to ensure that this hardware is rust free and without damage. You’ll want to pay special attention to wing nuts and clamps to make sure that nothing is stripped out and operating normally.

Snare Drum Hardware:
Snare drums typically have the same hardware as toms, with a couple of additions in the form of the snares themselves, a throw-off and a butt plate. The latter two pieces constitute the mechanism into which the snare wires are fastened and operated (turned on and off).

You will want to make sure that the throw-off operates normally (test both on/off switching as well as the tension adjustment) and that the butt plate properly clamps the snares in place.

The snares themselves are quite easily replaced, but you will want to make sure that the snares your looking at aren’t snarled in anyway. Do this by ‘turning off’ the throw-off and making sure that the snare wires (now without tension on them) are relatively straight and not overlapping each-other.

Cymbal Stands:
You’ll often see the word ‘double braced hardware’ in ads for drum sets as if this was some added value which is being sold with the kit. In actuality, it’s pretty hard to find “single braced hardware” on the market today. In other words, all cymbal stands will be double braced.

How can you tell? Just look at the tripod legs of any modern cymbal stand and you’ll see two pieces of metal running the length of the leg, instead of just one.

As for the quality of stands, you will want to check all adjustment points for stripped screws or loose fit, and just focus on general stability. Another thing to look at (though easily and cheaply replaced) are the cymbal felts. These are the felt pads which the cymbal actually rests on. These need to be in good shape in order for the cymbal to be played properly.

Bass Drum Pedal:
Most modern bass drum pedals are ‘chain drive’ pedals, meaning that what connects the top beater assembly to the foot board is typically nothing more than a bicycle chain. You’ll definitely want to inspect this chain, as well as the general movement of the pedal. Does it move freely without any binding?

The bass drum beater can be made of all sorts of materials (felt, wood, plastic, acrylic, etc.) and might just be one of the first customizations you make to the kit as they are easily swapped. Nonetheless, check that the beater is in good condition, especially if it’s a felt beater.

Hi Hat Stand:
Similar to the bass drum pedal, make sure the travel of the pedal is clear without any obvious binding. This stand probably has the most parts of any drum hardware, so take a bit of extra time to look it over. It is especially important to look at the ‘upper rod’, which is the top metal dowel onto which the top hi-hat is clamped. Just ensure that it is straight and relatively free of marks (there will always be a few from where the hi hat is clamped to it).

The hi hat clutch is the assembly which holds the top cymbal and clamps it to the upper rod. Make sure the felts and all threaded screws are in good shape on this piece.

It is most common that cymbals are not included in the purchase of a drum set. This is partially because they are expensive, but also because there is so much choice on the market for cymbals that it tends to be a purchase decision unto its own.

That said, on occasion a seller of a used kit will include cymbals into the package and so you’ll want to give those a quick once-over as well.

The first thing you’ll be looking at is branding. A lot of beginner drum sets come with ultra-cheap, no-brand cymbals which are pretty much worthless. If buying a used kit, are the cymbals branded? Zildjian, Sabian, and Meinl are among the most popular brands out there for cymbals. It might be worth doing a bit of research though to try and understand the value of what’s being included.

In terms of physical condition, you will first want to inspect the cymbals for any obvious damage to the metal. Cracks are probably the most common issue you’ll encounter, which typically originate alone the outer edge of the cymbal and work their way towards the center. Once in a while you’ll find a crack which runs around the cymbal within the grooves left by the metal lathe during manufacture. Look carefully as these cracks can be quite small at times.

It is also not uncommon to find older cymbals with pieces cut out of them at the edge or holes drilled into them. There are techniques for stopping cracks from spreading which involve mutilating the cymbal quite a bit in order to stop a crack in its tracks. This is not necessarily a bad thing! These instruments all have their own unique characteristics and sometimes these invasive procedures just give them even more unique qualities.

Negotiating on Price

OK, there are TONS of books and resources out there on the art of negotiation which is why I’m not going to go miles deep into this topic. There are a few pointers I will give you though, which are just based on common sense as well as some of the quality topics we’ve already covered in this article:

  • Make It Snappy: In some cultures, it is actually rude not to haggle with shop keepers. In the western world, it can be considered rude to haggle too much so it’s probably best to not make it a long drawn out negotiation. Get quickly to the point and find the middle ground both parties are willing to accept.
  • Start Low: If the asking price is $500, why not be brave and offer $250 or $300? The worst they can say is ‘no’. What this does for you is that it drives the midpoint between your two prices down. If you offered $400 out of the gate, you’d probably quickly land at $450. By offering half of the original asking price – the midpoint has now become $375. Tread lightly though – you don’t want to insult the seller, especially if they have some emotional investment in the kit.
  • Keep A Mental List of Quality Issues: During inspection, keep a mental list of quality issues and rough costs for correcting those issues. This will largely serve as your ammunition for justifying your offer. For example, if the drum heads need to be replaced across the entire kit, that could easily set you back $50-$100. Maybe you won’t get that entire amount off of the purchase price…but it should account for some reduction.
  • Be Nice: This probably flies in the face of a lot of advice that’s out there on negotiation, but I don’t care. The drumming community is a friendly and close one. We are all working towards similar goals and face the same challenges and so we might as well be nice to each other. This doesn’t mean you should pay extra for a kit, but you have to remember that memories are made behind a drum set. A drummer will always remember their first, second, third kit fondly because of the blood, sweat and tears that went into practicing and learning their craft with it. There is emotional investment and nothing puts a bad taste in a drummer’s mouth than watching this cherished item be haggled about. Just keep that in mind please.

How to Make Your Cheap Kit Sound Better

Especially if you bought a used/inexpensive kit, there are likely some immediate improvements you can make which will dramatically reduce any possibility of buyer’s remorse. I have written a full article on this topicOpens in a new tab. which will give you tons of detail, but here is a quick taste of some of the things you can do:

  • New drum heads can make a HUGE difference in the sound quality of your drums.
  • Tuning: A lot of times, drums just need some TLC with regards to how they are tuned.
  • Muffling: Depending on what sound you are going for, muffling can either be excessive or too little. Experiment with this one. Throw a pillow in the bass drum. Put your wallet on the snare drum before you play it. A patch of gaffer tape on the toms can sometimes make it sound just right.
  • Cymbals: Especially if your kit came with cheap, flimsy, no-brand cymbals, investing a few hundred dollars in a new set of cymbals can make the entire kit sound better.

Again, for more on this topic, go check out this articleOpens in a new tab. I wrote for a full rundown of how to make inexpensive drums shine!

Related Questions

What age is a junior drum set for? Junior size drum sets are intended for children up to around age 10. If your child is tall for their age, it is recommended that they play full-sized drum kits which are properly set up for their height.

How much does a good drum set cost? The answer is partially dependent on your definition of ‘good’, however you can likely buy a decent quality, complete drum set with cymbals for right around $1,000. When it comes to drums, the phrase ‘you get what you pay for’ definitely rings true. To set yourself up with a professional quality kit and cymbals, look to spending no less than $2,500.

Alex Turkovic

Alex "Turk" Turkovic has been a drummer/percussionist and audio engineer for over 3 decades. He spent many years playing in bands and orchestras all over the globe and also attended the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA. Teaching has been a lifelong obsession of Turk's, which is why he built to share the knowledge he has gained over the years with the goal of helping new drummers realize their goals, no matter how big or small.

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