If you have been drumming on your acoustic drum kit for a while now, you might notice that your drums are starting to sound weird or that they no longer seem to stay in tune.
Often, these are signs that you’ll need to change your drum heads.
You’re probably here because its the first time you’re shopping for a set of drum heads.
So, here’s our guide to choosing a drum head for your kit.
We think there are 6 main considerations that you will need to take before you buy a new drum head.
And they are:
- Know the size of your drum shell
- Know the characteristic of your drum shell
- The best thickness of a drum head
- Are 1 ply or 2 ply drum heads better?
- Coated vs Un-coated drum heads
- Additional features of drum heads
We will also explore 2 questions you should ask if you are undecided on which drum head to buy as well as when you should be changing your drum heads.
Let’s jump straight into the 6 main considerations now:
1) Check the Size of Your Drum Shell
When drums were first introduced, there were drum shells of many sizes.
Thankfully, the major manufacturers and forefront drummers have worked it out and managed to standardized drums dimensions for the rest of us.
Today, you can purchase a ‘standard’ drum kit that usually comes with:
- 26″ bass drum,
- 14″ snare drum,
- 13″ tom and,
- 16″ floor tom.
Jazz drummers use a smaller kit.
Likewise, we now have it easy because you can purchase standardized drum heads over the counter.
What is the size of your drum shell?
With that said, you should check the inner diameter of your drum shell before you select your drum head to ensure that you are getting a drum head of the right size.
The 2 sides of a drum shell
You’d probably know that there are two sides to any drum shell;
- the side you hit is called the ‘batter’ drum head
- the underside is called the ‘resonant’ drum head
And they are equally important.
If you are new to this, you should read our quick introduction to the difference between the batter head and the resonant head.
Of course, although diameter is the first thing you should note, it is not the only specification you should be looking out for.
There are other features that you should take note of, we’ll cover those in #3 – 6 below.
But first, you’ll also need to take note of this:
2) How will the drum head interact with your drum shells?
Whether you are purchasing brand new drum shells or replacing heads on an existing set of drum shells, you should note that the material of the drum shells will determine the way your drum sounds.
If you are changing the heads on your existing drum shells, you should know the characteristics of your drum shells intimately since you’d probably been playing with it for a while.
If you are shopping for a brand new drum shell, here are some general guidelines:
Distinct mid range sound with warm tones.
These woods are commonly use for drum shells that come with starter / beginner drum kits.
Strong lower range sounds with even middle to high range sounds. Versatile and can be used for most genre of music.
Birch is an interesting wood that features its low and high range sounds. It also tend to be louder with great sound projection.
In general, denser wood tend to feature lower ranged tones with stronger bass.
This used to be the gold standard for drum shells. However, as the price of the wood rose over the years, mahogany drum shells has become rarer.
It provides a strong and warm bass tone.
Metal drum shells
Although wood drum shells are common, drummers who want more variety can look into metal drum shells.
These tend to offer sounds that feature higher frequencies compared to wood and tend to offer brighter tones as well.
Here are some common metal drum shells and their characteristics:
Loved by reggae drummers, steel drum shells provide bright tones of higher sound frequencies. They tend to have a longer sustain and can produce a loud rim shot.
Most drummers who are testing out metal drum shells will tend to start with steel drum as they are more affordable.
Another affordable metal drum shell option, alumnium drum shells tend to have lesser sustain than the steel ones. They produce crisp sounds that are very satisfying to hear.
This is an interesting metal drum shell as it produces a distinctively darker, warmer and lower tone compared to its counterparts.
Bronze drum shells are less common and tend to cost slightly more.
Hungry for more?
Here are 2 information rich guides to drum shells, the material and their characteristic sounds:
3) Thickness of your Drum Head
Thickness of drum heads are stated using ‘mil‘.
The higher the number, the thicker the drum head, the common range of drum head thickness is 5 to 14 mil.
In general, the thinner the drum head, the easier it is for sound energy to travel from the head to the shell and back.
Hence, thinner drum heads tend to bring out the original resonant sound from the wood more than thicker drum heads.
Thicker heads tend to have lesser ring, sustain and attack. Some would say that they sound more ‘dead’ then thinner heads of the same specs.
Instead, they bring out the tone of the drum.
Thinner heads tend to have a distinctive ring when played. They also tend to be less responsive.
Thinner heads also tend to be of higher pitch, with all things equal.
4) Layers aka Ply
Drum heads can also come with different number of layers.
Here are the differences in a nutshell:
1 ply vs 2 ply drum heads
|1 ply drum heads
|2 ply drum heads
|Generally less durable
|Generally more durable
Single ply drum heads typically have a brighter sound, lesser attack and more sustain compared to the 2 or even 3 ply drum heads.
On the flip side, since 1 ply drum heads are thinner they tend to be less durable.
If you have been drumming on a head for some time, you would probably notice pits or dents on the surface of your drum heads.
These pits will warp the sound produced from your drum heads, in extreme cases it can even prevent your drum head from staying in tune.
Side note: If you are constantly creating pits on your drum heads, even on brand new ones, you might want to relook at your sticking technique.
Manufacturers have worked to improve drum head technology and to widen the range of sounds and tones that drummers can produce on their skins.
If you have been browsing and shopping around for drum heads, you’d also noticed that you have 2 ply or even 3 ply options.
These refer to the number of layers there are on the drum head.
In general, 2 ply (or even 3 ply) drum heads tend to provide more attack and less sustain.
Each beat doesn’t last as long and some may even say 2 ply drum heads tend to sound more ‘dead’.
Also, they tend to be more durable than 1 ply drum heads.
More options with 2 ply drum heads
Depending on the design of the drum head, the layers might be separated by air or even some form of liquid. All these are done to create subtle differences in drum tones.
For example, the Remo Pinstripe drum heads are 2 ply heads that have an ‘overtone reducing agent’ applied between the layers.
According to Remo, this helps to create tones that have increased attack.
As you improve as a drummer and discover the style of drum sounds that you like, you’ll want to become familar with these tonal and effect differences that you can get with various types of drum heads.
5) Coated or Un-coated Drum Shells?
The coating or finishing on the drum head can affect the sound you produce.
If you plan to play with a brush, having the coating will allow you to create a more distinct sound effect as compared to a clear drum skin.
Hence, coated snare drum heads are quite the popular choice among drummers.
Other than that, a coated drum head is also known to produce a relatively more muffled sound too.
6) ‘Advanced’ features
With the improvements in technology and the constant research and resting done by top drum head manufacturers, you would have probably noticed unqiue features in the latest drum heads.
For example, Remo has created several drum head model series with different key features.
Their Silentstroke series is known to be quieter than normal drumheads.
This could be useful for those who need a quieter set up while drumming at home.
You can read more at our comparison of Remo’s Silentstroke and Pearl Mesh heads.
Evans have also release several innovative drum heads over the years.
For example, their Reverse Dot drum heads are single ply drum heads that feature Evan’s distinct “Sound Shaping Technology” rings.
The rings are said to help increase attack while reducing overtones.
Here’s a review of the Evans EC Reverse Dot snare drum head by Drumeo:
How to choose drum heads?
As modern drummers, we are spoiled for choice when it comes to drum head selection:
But, you know best about your drumming style and music genre.
We hope that the pointers above will help you fine tune your selection of drum heads.
Ultimately, its down to your preference.
If you have narrowed down your search but still can’t decide, ask yourself these questions:
1) Which drum head tones do I like more?
To be honest, you can’t really test drum heads out.
However, you should be able to research and listen to some examples from YouTube.
2) Is this within my budget?
Drumming gear can hurt our wallet. It’s a small disadvantage of being a drummer.
I would suggest that you set a budget and stick to it closely.
It’s easy to tell yourself that “it’s just a couple of bucks above my budget”, but if you keep pushing your budget, you’ll end up having less to upgrade in the future. And that sucks.
When to change your Drum Heads?
So, we’ve covered 6 points to consider when choosing a drum head.
Now, let’s take a look at when you should change your drum head.
Here are 3 scenarios:
1) It’s damaged
#your drum head has a hole.
If your drum head has a hole or a tear and you can no longer drum or keep it in tune, its really time to change the drum head.
Don’t want to throw the drum head away?
Here, rdavidr shared some ideas on what you can do with your old drum heads on YouTube:
Your drum head has dimples, and it is not cute.
When your drum head has loads of dimples or pits and you find that it no longer stays in tune, or it no longer sounds ‘the same’…it’s a sign.
It’s telling you that it has enough and it wants to retire.
Dimples or pits along the surface of the drum head will affect the way sound vibrates and interacts with your drum. This in turns affects the sound you produce.
2) Something sounds off
You know your drum kit best.
If your drum starts sounding a little weird and you can’t seem to tune it back to the sound that you like, that’s the cue.
3) You have levelled up.
Many drummers start out with a beginner drum kit.
Everything that comes in that box works, but they could sound better.
During your journey as a drummer, you’ll (hopefully) improve your understanding of drum sounds.
There will be a point where you realize that your drum kit could sound way better, if you could just upgrade those stock drum heads.
(Or sometimes, it’s just better to just upgrade the whole drum kit…)
If you are reading this because you have hit that realization, congratulations!
If you haven’t, continue to work towards it. Hang out at the local music store or with other drummers. Heck, go listen to some drum covers on YouTube.
Then come back here and start choosing a new drum head to upgrade your kit.
4) It’s the time of the month…
If you have been drumming for a while, you should already have an idea of how long your drum head tends to last.
For me, I tend to keep to a 6 to 10 months cycle depending on how much drumming practice I get in within the period.
If you don’t drum regularly, your heads could last close to a year.
However, if you are drumming daily, you might even need to change to a fresh set of drum heads every 2 -3 months.
And of course, if you are drumming on an electronic drum kit you’ll not be facing this issue.
We’ve covered the 6 considerations that you should take before you buy a drum head as well as when you should be changing a drum head above.
I hope these have been helpful for you.
Let me know if you have questions about choosing drum heads below and I’ll do my best to get back to you!