Let’s hear it for rototoms

I started playing drums in the school band in the fifth grade. After I stuck with the standard-issue practice pad and set of bells for long enough to demonstrate some elementary skills, my mom let me use my savings to buy a drum set. The only one I found within my $200 budget was a secondhand kit branded “Percussion Plus.” It was the crappiest set of drums I’d ever seen, but it was mine! Almost as quickly as I learned to play, I started looking for opportunities to expand it. That’s where rototoms come in.

A rototom. Image courtesy of Wikimedia user Andreas Hünnebeck under the CC BY 3.0 license.

Rototoms are shell-less, die-cast drums that feature a single head. Rotating the head of one, by means of a metal ring that raises or lowers its tension, makes it tunable and gives it a unique sound. They’re niche, but Remo manufactures and markets a set of them in 6”, 8”, and 10” sizes. When tuned to their lower ranges, rototoms sound similar to normal toms, albeit without harmonics because they lack a resonant head. Cranking them up to a higher pitch makes them sound more like timbales. Here’s a video that shows them in action.

A Guitar Center video demonstrating how rototoms work and sound.

I was ecstatic when a non-drumming buddy of mine mentioned that his parents had some old rototoms gathering dust in his basement that he’d be wiling to part with! I had to have them, and I traded him my black label copy of Final Fantasy VII for the Playstation straight up. I needed them for no reason other than because Alex Van Halen played them.

My dad was always into marches and ragtime. My mom, one the other hand, preferred oldies, and my sister liked Savage Garden and Broadway musicals. After my mom and stepdad were married, it seemed like my family listened to nothing but country in the car. Once that Percussion Plus drumset came into my life, I got into the mighty Van Halen, the Pasadena-based hard rock band formed in 1972 by brothers Eddie and Alex Van Halen. 

Alex Van Halen, live with Van Halen, in 2012. Image courtesy of Wikimedia user Craig ONeal under the CC BY 2.0 license.

Although Van Halen was best known for Eddie’s unrivaled talent as a bonafide guitar god and the vaudevillian golden-boy schtick of its frontman David Lee Roth, it was Alex’s bombastic groove that truly spoke to me. Hints of jazz, swing, and latin influences sat behind the typical, hard rock machismo of his playing, and it was all wrapped up with an exuberance that aligned with his younger brother’s innovative guitar work in a way that will never be replicated by anyone else ever. Those Dutch-Indonesian brothers were uncommonly tight from the moment they set foot in America in 1962. They honed that connection through a lifetime of playing together.

I loved it. In short order, Alex Van Halen became my first major drumming influence, and I wanted to emulate him in every way, down to his third bass drum that surreptitiously housed a beer cooler! Mine would have held bottles of Squirt and Yoo-hoo instead, but I started by asking for a pair of Alex’s signature drumsticks for Christmas. They were absurd, 17.75” long tree branches with an oval tip and a medium taper, but sticks in hand, I took to my drums to stumble through the intros to “Hot for Teacher” and “Panama” along with his syncopated, off-kilter grooves on “Amsterdam,” “Mine All Mine,” and “Finish What You Started” from when Sammy Hagar sang for the band. I watched Van Halen music videos on AOL Music in the back room of my parents’ furniture store as I grew from twelve to thirteen years old, and that’s when I discovered rototoms. I was so excited to get my own.

“Jump,” by Van Halen.

You can hear Alex Van Halen’s rototoms in the first drum fill of the band’s mega-hit, “Jump.” They’ve got kind of a nutty, high-pitched sonic quality to them. In the music video they’re the weird, flat drums mounted atop the center of his middle two bass drums. Alex’s bass drums have some unique stuff going on as well, since they featured Altec Lansing radial horns mounted inside the shells that were used to combine an electrically-generated kick signal with the tone of the drums themselves in a pre-mix sent to the front of house during live shows.

Outside of “Jump,” Van Halen’s rototoms make prominent appearances across Van Halen’s 1984. They kick off the first verse of “I’ll Wait,” at 0:40 and 0:57 into the song, and he played them throughout the rest of the tune. In the “Jump” video, Van Halen used 6”, 8”, 10”, 12”, 14”, and 16” rototoms, far more than I ever owned.

“Girls On Film,” by Duran Duran.

You’ve almost surely heard rototoms in songs by other artists if you’re a classic rock fan. Nick Mason of Pink Floyd used them in the intro of “Time,” and Duran Duran’s Roger Taylor plays them prominently during the breakdown in “Girls On Film.” 

The intro to Pusherman by Curtis Mayfield makes heavy use of the glissando achieved by rotating the drumheads with one hand while they’re being played with the other. Although it’s a little more obscure than any of those songs, the title track of prog drumming god Bill Bruford’s album “Feels Good To Me,” prominently features rototoms as well. In fact, the entire album does.

A set of 6″, 8″, and 10″ Remo rototoms. Image courtesy Flickr user Student of Rhythm under the CC BY 2.0 license.

A big reason that rototoms were so popular in the 1980s was that their unique pitch, attack, and relative lack of sustain allowed them to cut through the mid-range of mixes that become increasingly muddied by synthesizers and the corresponding equalization of rhythm guitars during that period. When grunge and metal came into prominence in the early 1990s, guitarists and producers emphasized an EQ profile more akin to a smiley face, which removed a lot of the midrange excess. That, and the deemphasis of synthesizers, meant that toms didn’t have to cut so much anymore. Today, rototoms are mostly used in niche genres, or as an inexpensive, portable, way of practicing the timpani, believe it or not.

I loved the idea of rototoms from when I was twelve to fourteen. I loved their unique sound; I loved that they let me emulate my drum hero, Alex Van Halen, in a small way; and I loved that they let me add on to my burgeoning drum set! I didn’t love them enough to keep them, though, since mine were probably thirty years old by the time I got them and their die cast hoops were starting to corrode. Eventually, I lent them to a redneck at school, the same kid I’d watched catch endless fish with cut-up hot dogs during our “sixth grade graduation” at Mansfield Park a few years earlier. He planned to make the heads detune automatically by outfitting the toms with ball bearings, a motor, and an electronic foot switch similar to the one on my mom’s sewing machine. I’m not sure why he fixated on that, but by the time I thought to ask about his progress I’d already gotten a new drumset and had moved to a new school more than a hundred miles away. 

My current drum set before a show around 2016, with rack-mounted concert toms, at the upper left, which give me rototom-like functionality.

As an adult, I thought about getting some new rototoms when I planned out a new drumset for live use with the metal band I played in. I ended up not going that route, but I sort of split the difference: a lot of our music needed big, thunderous toms. Really, it needed timpani! I missed the attack, quick decay, and lack of harmonics that the rototoms provided, though, so I wound up building my kit with oversized 16” and 18” floor toms that brought the thunder, and 10” and 12” rack-mounted concert toms to cut through our live mix like rototoms would have without a resonant head. The result was a modular drum set I could expand or deconstruct to fit a variety of venue sizes that enabled some versatility that rototoms wouldn’t have provided. Plus, rototoms look stupid and just reek of excess: I’d have to get a gong and a set of wind chimes if I were to go that route, and that was certainly not going to happen.

A 5-piece Rogers drumset with Remo rototoms at right, above the two rack toms. Image courtesy of Wikimedia user Markievee under the CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

Although Roger Taylor used a pair of rototoms when Duran Duran was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame last year, I don’t know of any prominent drummers who still make heavy use of them. Alex Van Halen certainly doesn’t; he swapped his out for octobans just before Van Halen’s 1984 world tour. If that master timekeeper understood that it was time to ditch the rototoms, then I feel l was good to follow suit. In some ways, they confirm the overindulgences of the 70s and 80s, and I’m not sure that’s such a great look now in 2023.

My drums in my garage, before I got a new double bass drum pedal.

I haven’t drummed in a live show for four or five years, but now I’m watching -and re-watching- that Guitar Center demo I dropped in at the top of this post. The rototoms in the video have compelling tone, I’ve got to admit, and they vastly extend the tonal range of a drumset. Maybe it’s time to revisit my latter-day stance- the band has been talking about getting together to work up a reunion single for a while now, and I could see a set of them positioned just behind my hi hat where that 8″ splash is set up if we play a show. I hate to admit it, but even after all these years, I’ve still got a thing for these niche rototoms!

4 thoughts on “Let’s hear it for rototoms

  1. You continue to expand my understanding of and appreciation for drums and drumming. I had never noticed or heard about these before.

    I had never really listened to Jump, although it was constantly on the radio back then. That was during a time when I was into pop music for awhile and I will confess a mild thing for Duran Duran, but had never heard this one.

    It is probably my weakness for retro niche that urges you to fly the Roto Tom’s flag on your kit.

    Liked by 1 person

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