The Remo Rototom (once branded RotoTom) is one of the evergreen add-ons to a drum kit. Fashions come and go, and it’s fair to say that the Rototom is susceptible to trends. But as new generations of drummers discover the part-genius/part crazy design of the instantly-tuneable drums used by everyone from Alex Van Halen to Travis Barker, so the Rototom’s popularity sees a resurgence.
For the uninitiated, a Rototom is a shell-less drum design, originally designed by Al Payson of the Chicago Symphony orchestra, employing a Remo practice pad as the playing surface.
While Al’s original intended purpose was as a substitute for teaching beginner timpani players, it wasn’t long before the Rototom took its now-familiar form as an augmentation to the drum kit.
The design made use of comprising a traditional triple-flanged hoop and a pair of cast spokes connected by a spindle and a set of tuning rods. The drumhead is placed over the top spoke and bolted down to an even tension. As the rim and top spoke are turned on the central spindle, the bottom spoke remains still, allowing the entire drum to be raised or lowered in pitch as easily as turning a steering wheel.
As there’s no shell, the resulting sound - not to be confused with concert toms or Tama’s Octobans, but sitting somewhere between the two - is an attack-heavy, cutting drum tone that has a pitch to it with very few overtones.
That said, the sound characteristics are largely governed by the choice of head, and by 1978, Remo had patented the design and added its CS Dot heads as standard, giving birth to the classic Rototom sound.
The drums were made available in seven sizes: 6”, 8”, 10”, 12”, 14”, 16” and 18”, with the drums mounted up to three at a time on a rail, and offering an octave’s-worth of pitches. This range of sizes made Rototoms truly viable as a tuned percussion instrument in their own right - Remo even going so far as to notate a suggested tuning for a full set in its catalogue.
Remo Rototoms are still made now complete with modern hardware, although current Rototoms are fitted with clear Pinstripes from the factory. Vintage models are fairly common, but most commonly feature heavily-pitted chrome and incomplete mounting hardware. Meanwhile, if you can’t stretch to genuine Remo models, there are more than a few alternatives available.
1. Thomas Lang
In 2023, we’re entirely spoilt when it comes to seeing blazing chops. But the Austrian powerhouse Thomas Lang still has the ability to make jaws hit the floor without really having to exert much effort.
Above, he demonstrates his Rototom kit, as well as showing some mesmerising 9-stroke, 7-stroke and 5-stroke patterns which, aided by the tuning and tonality of the Rototoms will make you want to buy some Rototoms and get in the woodshed.
2. Rototom head comparison
Okay, so the playing is brilliant, but the real value here lies in the demonstration of how the Rototom’s sound is generated by the head that you place on it. The CS Dots give us the familiar Rototom sound, while the Pinstripes fatten things up a little. But it’s the Coated Ambassadors - rarely seen on this type of drum - that offer the biggest surprise with a warm, jazzy overtone.
3. Pink Floyd - Time
Forget the clocks! For drummers, this song is all about Nick Mason’s intro. Taking a slightly symphonic and melodic approach, it kicks in at around 53 seconds to give us one of the quintessential Rototom songs. But equally impressive is YouTuber, Robocomofo’s cover, seemingly performed from memory and giving us an insight into the more melodic side of the Rototom up close
4. rDavidr builds a Rototom kit
If you’ve ever pondered what would happen if you built an entire drum kit - bass drums and snare included - from Rototoms, you can count on YouTube’s rDavidr to provide the answer. Here, our favourite drum hack/conductor of drum experiments does just that, while solving a few mounting issues in the process.
5. Louie Bellson plays Rototoms
Not content with pioneering double bass drums, Louie Bellson also got busy with nine Rototoms in a big band setting too. In the clip above, Louie is very much using them as a melodic percussion instrument rather than eye-watering flourishes. Those come a little later.
6. Terry Bozzio - Missing persons
We might be used to seeing Zappa alumni Terry Bozzio perched behind a ridiculous amount of drums and cymbals, but in post-punk outfit Missing Persons, Terry opted for a smaller setup which used Rototoms. Mental Hopscotch is a good example of how the Rototom’s punchy sound can help cut through with fast fills.
7. Roger Taylor - Let There Be Drums
Roger starts his solo with a textbook display of what a Rototom sounds like and how it can be manipulated on-the-fly. It starts subtle, with some light, timpani-like playing and pitch changes before he unleashes a double-forte hit that shows off the slap of a hard-struck Rototom. “I’m not gonna bore you ’cause I really hate long drum solos, okay?” Au contraire, Roger!
8. Taylor Hawkins
Taylor Hawkins had at least one Rototom on his kit for many years, but his solo here shows how he used it less as a traditional tom sound, tuning it to a higher pitch for a more timbale-like sound, possibly to offer a different voice to the small concert toms which were also a staple part of his setup.
He told Modern Drummer in 2011, “The floor-tom-to-Rototom part is directly lifted from the drum solo on Queen’s Keep Yourself Alive from Live killers”, and he even has it mounted in the same position as his hero, Roger.
9. Danny Carey
Danny has played Sonor drums for decades, but he often incorporates Rototoms into his setup. For a period, he even replaced his rack toms entirely with Rototoms. Here, we get a taste of Danny performing the tom-heavy groove from Tool’s Ticks and Leeches.
In the second video, we get to hear Danny putting the Rototoms through their paces with some pro-captured footage of the 2009 Guitar Center Drum-Off, where not only is he using the Remos in place of his rack toms once again, but he’s battling Mastodon’s Brann Dailor too!
10. Phil Collins & Chester Thompson duets
Alright, we admit it. This one doesn’t really showcase Phil’s Rototom use as such, and in the thunderous melee of his duets with Chester Thompson it’s hard to pick out what’s a Rototom and what’s a concert tom. But it’s in there, and we don’t really need any other reason than that to appreciate four-and-a-half minutes of Uncle Phil and Chester doing what they do best.