How to Make Drums from Junk

Percussionist Donald Knaack, 61, is a firm believer that one man’s junk is another man’s treasure. Always looking for new percussion instruments, dumpster diver Knaack finds his nest egg of sound in the most unlikely of places: junkyards, local maintenance departments, factories, and refuse from community farms, restaurants, and stores.

Make Your Own Drum Kit

Knaack, of Manchester Center, Vermont, is an educator who, in combining his concern for the environment with music making, started the school program Helping Our Planet (HOP), where he shows students how to recycle junk to make their own music. “They discover that anybody can play music and that everybody is a musician at heart,” Knaack says.

There are a couple reasons conservatory-trained Knaack uses 100% recycled percussion in his performances, earning him the nickname “Junkman.” The main reason stems from his lifelong quest to accomplish sound that a traditional orchestra cannot produce. “In an orchestra, there may be 10 or 15 standard sounds, but with junk, there are thousands,” he says. Knaack, also a composer, enjoys the creative freedom and quirky sounds junk can make.

Another positive aspect to junk percussion is that it includes people who may not be musically inclined in the first place. “They aren’t instruments in a classical sense,” says Knaack. “If people go to a concert or a gathering where musicians are jamming and they can play something like an auto fender, they’ll be less intimidated to join in—it removes the stigma that people associate with music and instruments.”

Putting together your own collection of junk for fun can be as simple as collecting pots, pans, and metal lids from your kitchen and grabbing a few wooden spoons. If you feel a bit more adventurous, Knaack has some advice on raking through the rubbish.

The Basic Kit

If you want to mimic the standard drum kit, get your hand on some five-gallon pickle buckets. You can find these at restaurants. Talk with the chefs at a restaurant and ask them to save some for pick-up on a specified day. Gather a collection of pots and pans in assorted sizes. For cymbals, look for round pieces of metal like titanium or lids. Use the round top of a 55-gallon metal drum for the snare, a large post office box for a floor tom, and highway signs or sheet metal for kick drums. Another type of kick drum can be made from the 55-gallon, orange buckets used by highway departments. Look for these items at the junkyard. Check junkyards on different days each week since new items come in every day.

Mounds of Metal

Some of Knaack’s favorite sounds come from the pieces of scrap metal he collects. Parts from cars—fenders, hubcaps, chrome mufflers, and tail pipes—provide a treasure trove of junky, funky sounds. Get friendly with auto repair garages so that they’ll let you check out scrap parts.

Slap that Scrap

Once you start experimenting with your new percussion pieces, you’ll need drumsticks. Wooden dowels or spoons work best. If you want a metal against metal sound, attach metal bolts to the end of the sticks. However, when working with glass bottles, don’t use anything harder than wood.

This article is from our March-April 2009 issue. Click to order!

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