Drums of the King's Royal Yorkers

The Drums of the King's Royal Regiment of New York
good drummers but ill-disciplined

The Historic Role of Drummers

The fife, drum and bugle were the three popular signal instruments of military service in the late 18th century. The three instruments were chosen because their loud and distinctive sounds are audible even amidst the sounds of battle, and signallers were key to good communication on the battlefield. The drum was (to our understanding) the principal instrument, and regardless of the instrument a signaller played, he was referred to as a drummer.

In general, drummers were sons of soldiers who were on strength with the regiment, but anyone showing a talent or inclination for this job was likely accepted. Under the direction of the Drum Major the drummers would learn the appropriate rudiments and tunes. Young boys were considered the best candidates for this job because learning the drum was a skill best taken on while young and while the wrists were still supple. The drummer was paid more than a regular soldier as he held a role that was more specialized and entailed greater responsibility.


Drummers were dressed in exotic uniforms, with chevrons and wings on the arms and the body of the coat covered in the regimental lace. In usual circumstances the drummer wore a coat that was the reverse colours of the infantry coat, the colour of the facings,(cuff and collar) switched with the colour of the body of the coat. Because the Yorkers bear the designation of a 'Royal Regiment' and had blue facings, the coat would not be reversed, as blue-bodied coats belonged to the British senior services of the Artillery, Navy and Cavalry. The modern Yorker drums coats are based on an extant drummer's coat of the Coldstream Guards [1776] in the British Army Museum. The drummer's uniform was calculated to make him easily visually detectable, a necessity on the battlefield and a convenience in garrison, encampment or tavern.

Duty Drummers

The most important and least appreciated role of drummers was the calls they played for the daily functioning of the army. In the days when watches were relatively rare, drummers were used to inform soldiers of the timing of their daily activities. A soldier was awoken by a 'Reveille', assembled with a 'Troop', told when to eat with a 'Dinner call', informed of the close of the day with a 'Retreat' and was to be bedded down at the conclusion of the 'Taptoo'. Besides these routine daily activities, soldiers could be informed of a variety of special duties, 'The General' would replace the 'Reveille' on days when the army was to pack up and move, the 'Church and Recruiting call' for days of worship or recruiting duties. The 'Pioneers march' assembled troops for special fatigue duties or 'To Arms' could be played to raise an alarm. Almost all general orders could be relayed by a specific tune on the fife or bugle, or by a beating on the drum, and signallers chosen for that daily duty, were referred to as Duty Drummers.

Punishment Duty

One of the other particular duties that were performed by drummers was that of meting out punishment. Once an offender had been tried and found guilty, the troops would be formed into a hollow square to witness the punishment, the crime and sentence was read aloud to the troops, the offender was paraded in front of the ranks of soldiers to the tune of 'Rogues March' and then secured to a tripod made of halberds (pole arms). The drummers would flog (or whip) the bare back of the offender, rotating the job amongst those drummers present to ensure the punishment was executed consistently. The whip of choice was referred to as the 'cat of nine tails', a short-ish whip with nine flails. The 'Cat' came in many forms some considerably crueller than others. When not in use the 'Cat' was carried in a red silk bag by the drum major and when 'the cat was out of the bag' trouble was imminent. Drummers were paid extra money for performing flogging duty.

Recruiting Duty

Drummers were also used extensively in the activity of recruiting, as the performance of military musicians could draw a crowd from considerable distances and entertain them while they collected, giving the recruiting sergeant an opportunity to work his wiles. In frontier areas military musicians represented musical variety, something that was scarce in small communities.


When soldiers were on the move, drummers were used to keep the soldiers moving at a set tempo, and encouraged the troops by playing popular patriotic, dance and tavern songs to keep soldiers' minds occupied during the exceedingly monotonous activity of marching. If required, an officer could calculate the distance his soldiers could move in a day, if his soldiers stepped a consistent distance each pace and the drums maintained a specific speed. For logistical purposes, that kind of information could be very helpful. Thousands of tunes from that period exist in a wide variety of manuals and drummers must have known a substantial number of tunes. For morale and 'esprit de corps' nothing beats a lively and energetic tune.


For ceremonies fifes and drums knew more formal tunes, and sombre martial music could provide dignity to the pomp of any military celebration. Tunes like Handel's 'Hail the Conquering Hero Comes', 'The Duke of York's March' or 'The Grenadiers March' added a level of formality to a parade and helped to focus a soldiers efforts. Military ceremonies were popular public events, with the music performed commonly noted in journals and newspapers.

Battlefield Signals

On the battlefield, drummers played a more critical role, that of relaying the commands of their officers. Once the troops were deployed vocal communication became very difficult so simple concepts could be expressed by specific tunes like the: 'advance', 'retreat', 'commence firing', 'cease firing' and 'point of war'. Undoubtedly some regiments had more complex systems of orders that could be relayed by their signallers, but on a grander scale (when regiments combined) signals would (of necessity) be simple. In addition to the role of signaller, drummers on the field of battle were expected to be stretcher-bearers and assistants to the regimental surgeon, drawing injured bodies out of the line to be cared for and to help keep the continuity of the line for tactical purposes. Patriotic and inspirational traditional tunes like 'Rule Britannia', 'Lilies of France (Hot Stuff)', 'The World turned Upside Down (The King Enjoys His Own Again)', or even the 'British Grenadiers' inspired soldiers to face the toughest of situations and encouraged them to perform the most heroic deeds.