In the last decade or so, the market for drum heads has been flooded by new innovations, techniques and materials all claiming to be the future of drumming. Meanwhile, the coated Ambassador drum head by Remo continues to be one of the top-selling drum heads in the world year after year with almost no significant changes to its design for several decades. How do you sort through all the claims drum head manufacturers are making and choose the drum head that best suits you? This guide should help you understand how drum heads differ from one another and what those difference mean for you and your playing.
How to Choose Your Drum Heads
For the past 50 or so years, drum heads have been made primarily of synthetic plastics. Before then, drum heads were made out of calfskin, which is why some older drummers still refer to drum heads as skins, or drum skins. Calfskin heads were more affected by weather, less consistent from head to head, and the process for placing them on your actual drum shell was arduous. Today drum heads are constructed from synthetic materials that are engineered to create the ideal tone for various styles of drumming. You can purchase drum heads in various colors, thicknesses, coatings, and materials. For example, marching snare drum heads are made out of woven kevlar to withstand the extreme tensions of those drums. That’s right, some drum heads are made out of the same material as bullet proof vests!
For this guide, we’ll be talking primarily about the types of drum heads you typically find on a drum set. We’ll give some recommendations based on various styles of drumming, but we’re going to ignore specialty heads for specialty drums like marching & concert percussion drums. As opposed to our learning how to drum or buying drums advice guides, this particular article will get more down to details. Let’s get into i!
Material and Thickness
Almost all drumheads are made out of mylar. Mylar is ideal for drum heads due to its high strength and flexibility. It also serves as an effective barrier for gases, which is a factor with some of the drum heads we’ll discuss in this guide.
The two main types of drum heads are batter heads and resonant heads. Batter heads are the drum heads that go on the side of the drum that you hit with the stick or mallet. Resonant heads are the heads that go on the opposite side and are rarely played other than for tuning the drums. Resonant heads are almost always significantly thinner than batter heads as they do not need to be durable.
Drum heads come in either single or double ply. This means there are either one or two layers of Mylar used in the construction of the drum head. For single ply heads, the thickness of the mylar can range anywhere from 3-mil to 10-mil. For drum heads, mil refers to a thickness of one-thousandth of an inch rather than one millimeter. Resonant heads typically come in 6-mil or 7-mil with some specialty snare side resonant heads being as thin as 3-mil. Batter heads almost always come in 10-mil.
Generally speaking, the thinner the head, the longer the drum will resonate after playing it. Some more technical styles of drumming like funk or rock may require a more controlled sound so that your drums are not ringing all over one another when you’re playing lots of notes. Meanwhile, jazz and lighter styles of music might call for drums that sing their pitch and can sound for longer periods of time. Remember that the harder you play, the more durable of a head you’ll want to purchase.
Double ply drum heads are typically made of two 7-mil plys of mylar. During the construction of a double ply drumhead, a small amount of gas will be injected between the two plys so that the two layers can resonate together optimally. If you’ve ever tuned a new double ply head, you may have seen this gas as the head stretched across the shell. It kind of looks like oil floating on top of water. Double ply heads limit the sustain of a drum while also amplifying its attack. In other words, your drum will sound louder and more defined when you strike it, but won’t ring for nearly as long as a single ply head. These drums are great for heavier and louder styles of music due primarily to their increased durability. Double ply heads also allow for more definition so you’ll achieve more clarity when playing quicker and more technical rhythms on the set.
Variations of Drum Heads
Ply and thickness is probably the most basic variation in a drum head. Recently, drum head companies have found plenty of other ways to create varied sounds in their heads. The first and most common are the various types of sound control rings or muffling that you’ll find along the edges of double ply heads. The most popular application of a sound ring is in the Remo Pinstripe drum head. Pinstripes use a thin layer of foam about one inch from the edge of the head all the way around. This layer of foam is meant to control some of the brighter overtones created by the drum.
Variations of this edge ring sound control feature have popped up over the years. Evans sells a similar head called the EC2S. This head looks almost identical to the pinstripe but has two stripes rather than one. Evans says that the sound ring “delivers an extremely well-balanced and pre-EQ’d sound across the full kit.”
This ring muffling technology has become increasingly popular with bass drum heads. Back in the day, drummers were basically required to muffle their bass drum by jamming a large pillow inside the drum. Drum head companies finally helped to end this ridiculous practice by selling drum heads that come with muffling specifically for the bass drum. One of the earliest companies to do this was Aquarian. Their series of “Super Kick” drum heads come with a thick layer of foam all the way around the edge of the drum so that stuffing pillows or blankets inside your kick drum is no longer required. Remo and Evans also have their own versions of this technology, but the Super Kick seems to remain to be the best-selling muted bass drum head in the industry.
Drum Head Coatings
The next factor in drum head selection is coating. Most drum heads are sold in either clear or coated. A clear drum head is exactly the way it sounds, clear mylar with nothing else on it other than the company logo. Coated drum heads are typically white and textured. Coating the drum heads has a few benefits:
- Coated drum heads are even more durable
- They muffle the drum a little more for an extra controlled sound
- The texture provided by the coating allows for a reduced chance of the drum head slipping inside the hoop
- The texture also allows for more playing techniques, especially with brushes, due to the increased friction created by the textured surface
Because of these benefits, you’ll almost always see a coated drum head on a snare drum. In my life, I’ve never seen a non coated head used on a drum set snare. Snare drums need to be durable as they’re played the most and often the hardest. If you want to use brushes, you’ll absolutely need a coated head. Snare drums also need extra muffling.
Drum Head Recommendations
Based on everything above, here are my recommendations based on playing styles. These are all batter heads, for resonant heads you’re always going to be fine with a thin single ply clear head designed specifically for the resonant side. I’ll preface my recommendation by admitting that I have used Remo drum heads primarily for almost my entire life, so most of these recommendations are due to my familiarity with Remo head.
This drum head is fairly thin as far as snare drum heads go, but the coating should give you a moderate amount of muffling. You may need to add some tape for more muffling, but this drum head should be versatile enough for most light styles of drumming. If you really start to whale on this drum head, you might go right through it.
This drum head is a single ply however it is the same thickness as a double ply head. It has the durability to last a long time, but only being a single ply it has a little more sensitivity and more versatility.
This head is about as heavy as they come. Its double ply and even comes with a reinforced dot in the center for extra control and extra durability. If you manage to break this drum head, you might have some anger issues and you should probably go see someone.
This head is about the lightest I would go on a tom. Because it is single ply you’ll get plenty of resonance even with the coating.
The double ply will provide plenty of durability and the lack of coating will help towards keeping these drums from sounding overly muffled.
I would almost never recommend a coated double ply head for the toms, but the frosted head is significantly less of a coating than your standard coated head. These are very durable with losing too much resonance.
This drum head is fantastic for jazz and lighter styles where you’ll need resonance out of your bass drum to support the bottom end of your set’s sound.
This is basically a lighter version of the Aquarian Superkick. It has less muffling, but for medium styles you might want a tad more resonance.
This is the double ply version of Aquarians muffled super kick drum head. This will provide enough muffling and power out of the box for heavier drumming.