Drum heads are the taut plastic layers at the top and bottom of your drum. They are the parts that you hit to produce the percussive sound.
They are also sometimes referred to as drum skins. This is because early drums used calf skin pulled taught to create the sound.
As technology has developed, drum skins have come to be made from mylar, polyester, or a mixture of the 2 plastics. These are then secured to the body of the drum using a snug external metal collar.
The best drum head is a matter of personal choice. Not everyone will like the same drum heads, and it is important to try a few out and see what works best for you.
Your requirements for drum heads will vary according to the genre of music you play, the tone you are after, and a wealth of other factors.
Batter v resonant heads
A batter head is the upper drum head that gets hit with the drumstick. The non-striking surface, the underside of the drum, is known as the resonant head. This is what dictates the tone of the drum and the length of the reverberation.
When the batter head is struck the skin vibrates, and this produces a column of air which pushes outwards.
When this air column comes into contact with the lower (resonant) head it is pushed back upwards towards the batter head. This continued vibration is what causes the sound to linger and heavily influences the drum’s sustain.
Generally speaking, the batter head will have a logo printed onto the upper side. This will help you to identify which drum head you are holding and where to install it on the drum.
Single v double-ply heads
Essentially, this is referring to the number of layers of plastic used to create the drum head. Single-ply drum heads are thinner and more lightweight.
They create an open and resonant tone compared to the deeper tone of the double-ply drum heads. Single-ply drum heads have more color and character to the sound. They are good drum heads for quieter music such as jazz, acoustic rock, and church music.
Double-ply drum heads are created with 2 sheets of plastic and tend to give a more controlled sound. They are ideal for louder music styles with a more attacking tone. This is stuff like punk, rock, and metal music. They can withstand a harder hitting force without becoming damaged.
Clear drum heads, as the name suggests, are transparent. They produce a sharp and bright sound often referred to in the drum community as an attack. They are better suited to rock, punk, and metal music that is being played at a louder volume.
A drier and deeper tone is produced by coated drum heads and they have less of a ring. The tone of these drum heads are slightly dampened meaning that the sound produced is warmer and has less of an overtone. They are a very versatile drum head and are suitable for all styles of music.
You can find drum heads made from Kevlar which are the strongest ones available. This makes them perfect for drummers who hit their drums hard, such as heavy metal drummers. They can be tuned very tightly but the sound produced is fairly one dimensional. It is a very dry noise with little sustain.
Calfskin drum heads produce a warm and deep sound with a hard attack. The real downside to calfskin drum heads is that the tuning and tonality is impacted by fluctuations in the weather conditions. You can also find synthetic calfskin drum heads which produce a similar sound without changing with the weather.
Snare drums commonly have coated drum heads. Toms and bass drums use coated drum heads when a more mellow sound is required.
Not every drummer will use brushes, but if you do then this needs to be taken into consideration when choosing a drum head. You will need one that is not clear if you plan on using brushes. Clear heads are too smooth and will not respond well to the brush strokes.
Coated, etched, and frosted drum heads are the best options. Suede, calf skin, and synthetic skin are other good choices for drummers who like to utilize brushes. Calf or synthetic skin is ideal for use on the snare drum.
Pay attention to whether the drum head has a control dot. If it does, ensure it is located on the underside of the drum head. This will allow the brushes to glide smoothly across the surface and create a smooth sound.
The durability of your drum head measures how long it can last for when being hit. Lower durability drum heads will break when hit harder and are likely to need replacing more often.
For people who hit the drum hard, such as heavy metal or rock drummers, we advise choosing a drum head with a high durability.
The overtones are the recessive frequencies produced when hitting the drum. They can be found in a range of frequencies from very low to high. This range helps to build character when the drum is hit and makes for a better overall sound.
Many drum heads can be tightened or loosened during tuning to produce the most audibly satisfying overtones.
Size of drum shell
Drum shells can be found in a range of sizes.
Generally, a bass drum will measure 26 inches, the snare 14 inches, the tom 13 inches, and the floor tom is 16 inches. This creates a different sound when the drums are hit.
Some drum heads have a control dot on the surface. This is used to mute any ringing sounds generated when the drum head is hit. This creates a more dry and focused sound which many drummers find beneficial.
A similar effect can be achieved by affixing a line of duct tape to your drum head. This will work in a pinch but it greatly reduces the aesthetics of your drums and creates unpredictable results.
If you are planning on using brushes on your drum heads, the control dot must be found on the underside of the drum head. If it is located on the top, then the brush bristles may snag and become damaged.
You may also find some drum heads with pinhole vents around the exterior edge. These are designed to allow air to escape when the drum head is hit. This gives you a sound with more projection and attack than that produced by drum heads without these holes.
Control rings work in a similar manner. These rings may be internal or external and tend to be found around the external edge of the drum head. This is designed to control the ring given off by the drum when it is hit. They are warmer sounding with less sustain and overtones.
Some drum heads come with inlay rings. These produce a warmer sound with less sustain and overtones. You can also purchase bass drums that contain felt strips. These are warmer sounding and have less overtones and sustain. They create a much more focused sound when the drum head is struck.
You can have dampening agents stuck between the two layers of a double-ply drum head. This changes the sound and tends to be easier to tune.
Drum heads with built-in dampening often have reduced overtones. This dampening cannot be removed at will, so it is important to only purchase drum heads with built-in dampening if you intend to play it in this manner.
You can always apply dampening agents to your drum at a later date if you need to. Some drum heads have dampening agents that can be removed, which is something useful to consider if you play a variety of different music styles.
The sustain of your drum is the length of time that the sound of your hit reverberates for. The sustain can range from very low to very high.
The sustain that you need will vary according to the type of drumming you perform.
The thickness of drum heads is measured in units known as mils, which are equivalent to one thousandth of an inch. Single-ply drum heads are around 10 mil thick, although it could be less than this. Other standard sizes are 7, 7.5, and 12 mil thick.
Double-ply drum heads tend to be made from 2 layers of 7 mil plastic. There are some double-ply heads that are 7.5 mil thick but they do not tend to exceed this.
How do you know when to change your drum heads?
If your drum heads are dented or worn out it is often a sign that they need to be replaced. A new set of drum skins can make a huge difference to the sound quality.
They can even make a cheap drum set sound high quality. You can even replace the drum heads on a new, low range drum kit to improve the sound and tonality.
When you feel and hear your drums producing a less resonant sound when hit, you should consider replacing your drum heads. This signals that the material has flexed as far as it can and the sound quality will not improve over time.
If you are a professional drummer, you will likely need to replace your drum heads around once per month or two. For amateurs, this will be required at a lesser frequency, usually between 6 and 10 months. There is no one size fits all answer, you will have to make a judgement based on your personal usage.
What drum heads are best?
There is no one size fits all answer to this question. As we have already mentioned, the ideal drum head for you may be the worst option for someone else.
You should take your time to consider what you want from your drum head and research the best way to achieve this prior to purchase.
What are the best drum heads for rock?
When playing rock music, you need to hit the drum heads relatively hard to produce the required sound. This means that you need a much more durable drum head to ensure the head doesn’t snap or crack under the pressure.
The best drum heads tend to be 2 ply and coated. These are much more durable and can withstand the demands of playing rock music.
Do new drum heads make a difference?
Yes, they do. If your drum head is old, cheap, or damaged it will not produce a high sound quality.
Even if you have purchased a cheap drum kit, and replaced the drum heads with higher quality components, you will notice a vast difference in the sound quality.
Are snare and tom heads the same?
The short answer is not really, but this depends which drum head you are thinking of. Batter heads for both snare and tom drums are virtually the same.
Resonant heads do tend to differ between models. Resonant heads for snare drums tend to be slightly thinner than those for tom drums. This is because the material is slightly less weight to allow for more vibration of the snare wire.
How do you replace a drum head?
Replacing drum heads is a fairly simple process, but tuning them requires a little more skill and patience. You will require a drum key to perform this process.
You should use a tuning peg to loosen the threaded rods of the drum until you can remove them. The same should be done for washers, claws, and anything else that is attached to the drum head.
Gently pull the hoop off of the drum and then lift off the old drum head. Place the new drum head on top of the drum and center it on the shell. Once you are satisfied with the positioning, replace the hoop on top.
Add some paraffin wax or other drum suitable oil to the component parts that you have taken off. This will serve 2 purposes. The first is that it prevents rust from forming, and it makes the parts easier to move and adjust.
Put the drum back together, returning all of the pegs and other bits to their original places. Use your tuning peg to tighten all of the rods.
Gently press down on the skin of the drum using your flattened palm. You will hear some popping and cracking, but this is normal. Repeat this 5 times to ensure the drum head has set and is ready for tuning. Fully tighten the rods.
How do you tune a drum?
It is important to understand the tone that you are aiming for when tuning drums. People with more experience will naturally find this easier. If you are a beginner it may be a good idea to find samples of drum sounds online to compare the tuning of your drum to.
The first thing to do when tuning your drum is to tighten the rods using a tuning peg. Tighten them one at a time, working diagonally across the surface of the drum head. You should work your way around the outside until each peg has been tightened.
Gently hit the center of the drum head with the palm of your hand. Listen to the sound produced and adjust the tuning to your liking. Once you have done this, hit the head around the hoop. This will give you a good idea of how tight the rods are.
Keep repeating these little tweaks until you are satisfied with the tonality and sound quality. Some people have built tools to gauge the pressure on the drum head. This ensures for even and exact tuning.
When tuning the resonant head, you must tune according to the batter head. It can either be at the same, a lower, or a higher pitch than the batter head. Everyone likes a different sound and the way you tune should be done according to your personal preference.
If you tune your resonant head to a lower pitch than the batter head, you will produce a sound with less sustain and a pitch that bends slightly downwards. This tends to be the most popular choice with metal and rock drummers. The tone created is deeper, there is more attack, less sustain, and a nice drop-off.
If you tune your resonant head to a higher pitch than the batter head, you will again lose some sustain and the sound created will be dryer. The drum head being tighter creates a more lively sound with a higher pitch. The pitch will bend rapidly upwards. The tone is livelier and higher. This style of tuning is popular with R & B, jazz, and pop artists.
Tuning your batter and resonant head to the same pitch will give you an incredibly resonant sound. This gives the tone a much longer sustain and works better for people who need a very lively sound.