Q: Your drumstick post sparked this thought: How did the stool used with a drum set become known as a “throne”? As a drummer, I’ve assumed it’s because, you know, I’m king of the band.
A: Any percussionist can tell you a drummer sits on a “throne.” The term has been used in the music business for more than 80 years, according to our searches, yet the usage doesn’t appear in any standard English dictionaries.
However, the collaborative reference Wiktionary, whose definitions are contributed by readers, does recognize this usage. Among its definitions of “throne,” Wiktionary includes “a type of stool used by drummers.”
We can’t tell you who came up with the usage or why—though we’ll bet a drummer was responsible. The image makes a lot of sense. A band drummer occupies a kingly position, often on a raised platform overlooking the other performers.
What a drummer means by “throne” is an armless stool, usually foldable and adjustable in height, with three to five legs and a revolving seat. It may or may not have a small backrest attached. The word “throne” has been used to describe such a stool since the big-band era.
The earliest uses we’ve found in writing are from late-1930s catalogs of the Chicago drum manufacturer Ludwig.
In its 1937 catalog, the company included a foldable, adjustable “Drummer’s Throne” with three metal legs (“Available with or without back rest”), somewhat resembling a photographer’s tripod with a seat. Ludwig has used the term “throne” ever since.
In 1942, the firm began including in its drum sets an instruction book called Swing Drumming (1942), by William F. Ludwig Jr., in which the term “throne” appeared three times.
Ludwig may have been ahead of the curve in using “throne” this way. Another big American drum maker, Gretsch, sold similar stools in its 1941 catalog but called them “Drummers’ Chairs.” (Later in the ’40s, Gretsch switched to “Drummers’ Thrones.”)
A third major manufacturer, Slingerland, began carrying a rigid canister-style seat in 1941 that it called a “throne.” But the company continued to call its tripod-type metal stool a “Drummer’s Chair” until the late 1950s, when it switched to “Drummer’s Throne.”
By the 1960s, other manufacturers had adopted the word.
In a column devoted to new products, the November-December 1963 issue of the Music Educators Journal noted, “A NEW ‘DRUMMER’S THRONE’ is being introduced by Rogers Drums.”
And the February-March 1964 issue included a notice about a manufacturer of orchestra furniture: “The company [Wenger] is also offering its new #45 Drummer’s Throne. Cushion swivel seat accommodates tympani, bass drum, cymbal, and glockenspiel players. Throne adjusts for sitting and semi-standing positions.”
Today, the term is common among manufacturers and is almost universally used in magazines aimed at musicians.
The company Roc-N-Soc, which describes itself as a maker of “drum thrones and guitar stools,” boasts that “Roc-N-Soc thrones are designed and constructed with the musician in mind. We guarantee our thrones will give you the best comfort and flexibility.”
Modern Drummer magazine consistently uses “throne” to describe a drummer’s stool, and earlier this year the magazine Music Critic featured “The 10 Best Drum Thrones.”
For concert percussionists, there are timpani thrones. These brags are from a couple of manufacturers’ websites:
“Pearl’s Timpani Throne provides a new standard of stability and adjustability.” … “The Steve Weiss Liberty One 1000T timpani throne features a comfortable round seat-top and four legs for extra stability.”
Oddly, we haven’t found many early swing- or jazz-era examples of “throne” used by drummers themselves, though it’s the usual term today.
The drummer Mel Lewis, who died in 1990, wrote in an unfinished memoir, “A jazz drummer generally sits at the rear of the bandstand or stage on a high stool called a throne.” (Quoted in a 2014 biography, The View from the Back of the Band, by Chris Smith.)
As for the etymology of “throne,” the word entered Middle English around 1200 from Anglo-Norman or Old French. Its ultimate sources, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, are the classical Latin thronus (chair of state) and the ancient Greek θρόνος (thrónos, seat, chair, chair of state).
Originally, “throne” in English meant the heavenly seat of God, though it soon came to mean an ornate ceremonial seat occupied by a high official (like a monarch or pope) and by analogy the office itself.
The OED has no mention of the “throne” a drummer occupies. It does include the outdated 19th-century use of “throne” for the chair where a portrait painter placed his sitter or model.
The only colloquial meaning in the OED is one found in all slang dictionaries—the jocular use of “throne” for a toilet, a usage dating from the 1920s.