As drummers, drum heads play a big part in our sound. They are the equivalent of strings to a guitarist. Each head resonates when struck to produce a tone with an attack, pitch, and decay. Depending on the drum head tuning you can create a wide range of stylistic sounds. In this article, we will discuss and explore the different types of drum heads available and provide a solid basis for you to choose which type is right for your situation.

Expert tip

Drum heads have been around for thousands of years. The first drum head was made from an animal hide and stretched over a wooden hoop to create a playable instrument. Since then techniques in making heads have dramatically changed and you can now purchase them in a wide variety of materials. Typically most drum heads nowadays are made from Mylar which is far stronger and more durable than any hide. Mylar was created in 1957 by the founders of what was to go on to become the Remo drum company.

Kevin O'Shea

Drum Head Options

If you’re new to buying drum heads you’ll ideally want something suitable for your specific kit and good value for your money. If you’re looking to replace all the heads on your drum set then you’ll more than likely be interested in the many drum head packs available on the market. The top head, or the batter head as it’s usually referred to, takes the most abuse on a drum kit. In some cases, it will not be necessary to replace the bottom head, or the resonant head, quite so often. This will be welcome news to you if you’re looking to keep spending down to a minimum.

Most drum heads are pretty versatile and can stretch to playing in almost any musical environment. On the other hand, if you’re looking to emulate your favorite drummer, it can help to find out what brand and model they prefer to use.

Drum Head Categories

There are a myriad of drum head categories and the one we’re starting with is the light drum head. These are 1-ply heads with an emphasis on resonance. Being 1-ply means there is less restriction on the head to vibrate. This, in turn, lends itself to longer tones. In some cases, these tones are accompanied by overtones, which may or may not be to your liking. A typical jazz drum set will have an open drum sound which is characteristic of light single-ply drum heads with minimal to no dampening. On the other hand, a typical rock drum set will have more punch with lots of attack and a shorter controlled sustain. This sound is more easily achieved with thicker 2-ply drum heads. The advantage of 2-ply heads is that they also are thicker and tend to last longer, which is good news if you like to play loud and hard.

You’ll notice that another characteristic of drum heads is that they usually come with or without a coating. This coating is a fine layer which applied to the drum head in order to change the tone and attack of the drum. In most cases, clear drum heads have more attack than coated drum heads. Attack refers to the initial slap of the drum stick against the head that you hear when you strike the drum. Coated heads tend to slightly reduce this attack which may or may not be to your preference. Also, coated heads work really well with jazz brushes as their rough surface creates a more defined sweeping sound.

One of the most important things to note when buying drum heads is that you ensure that are purchasing the right size for your particular setup. Drums are measured by their diameter and their height. So, for example, a snare drum might be listed as 6” x 14”. This means that the drum is 6 inches in depth and 14 inches in diameter. Notice how the depth of the drum is the first number and the diameter is the second. In our case, it doesn’t matter what depth the drum is as the only thing that matters here is the diameter. Once you have the correct measurements of your drum diameters then you are ready to start shopping around.

Product suggestions

Evans G2 Tom Pack Review

In most cases you can save significantly by purchasing more than one drum head at a time. Evans offers a range of drum head packages and this is just one. The heads in this pack are suited to three different tom sizes. In this case we have one 12-inch, one 13-inch and one 16-inch coated tom head. These sizes are extremely common on drum sets from beginner to professional. If you require alternative combinations of head size then you’ll find that there are many more available.

The savings with these packs can be considerable and in some cases you can save up to $5 per head, which certainly adds up at the end of the day. Each drum head is double-ply which means extra durability and slightly less resonance. The thicker head is easier to control and produces fewer overtones than a single-ply head. The coated heads also create a warmer attack and tone. The decision between coated vs uncoated usually comes down to an individual preference. If you’re a fan of clear, uncoated heads but you want to save by buying in bulk, you can look at any of Evans’ G2 Clear or their EC2 Clear packs.

Evans G2 Tompack Drum Heads

Remo Emperor X Coated Snare Drum Head Review

Remo Emperor X Coated Snare Drum Head Review

The snare drum is one of the most versatile instruments on any drum set. The range of sounds you can get from this drum depends on many factors from stick type to drum size to head type. Each snare drum has two heads, one on the top and another on the bottom. The top head is sometimes called the batter head.

With the Emperor X, Remo have produced a robust snare top head with a few important features. First off, this head is 2-ply meaning it can withstand more abuse and is less likely to split. The extra ply also controls the sound a bit so this will appeal to drummers who prefer a snappier snare sound. Also, in the center of the drum head, Remo have placed a 5mm round dot. This dot is actually underneath the head so as not to create an uneven playing surface. Remo also have a variation on this theme with the dot sitting above the head. Either way this added round rod is there for two reasons. One is for extra durability and the other is sound control. If you’re a fan of open jazzy-type snare drums then perhaps this head is not for you. It’s more aimed at hard-hitting rock players. All in all a decent snare drum head.

Remo Emperor X Coated Snare Drum Head

Evans EMAD2 Clear Bass Drum Head Review

The Evans EMAD2 is one of the most popular bass drum heads around today. This is a durable head which produces a rich and healthy bass drum sound. The 2-ply head means it’s more durable than any single ply heads. Evans has added a dampening ring around the batter side of the drum head. This is quite a useful addition as it allows you to control the level of dampening on your bass drum. Included in the basic EMAD2 box are two dampening rings. These rings differ in size allowing for two different sounds. Of course if you prefer you can go without any dampener rings at all, but for fans of a classic rock bass drum sound, it’s hard to beat this setup.

The EMAD2 produces both a warm tone and a rich attack. You can choose to use the EMAD2 with your own internal bass drum padding, or without, for a more open sound. This is easily one of the most user-friendly heads out there when it comes to getting a good, quick bass drum sound.

Evans EMAD2 Clear Bass Drum Head

Remo Coated Ambassador Drum Head Review

The Coated Ambassador is one of Remo’s most famous and popular drum heads. This is a versatile coated head which can be applied in a variety of musical scenarios. Some drummers even like to use the Ambassador as a resonant head or a bottom head. This drum head is light enough to work well in this manner and offers a more controlled sound than usual clear resonant heads.

The coated head means that it is compatible with jazz brush playing. The coated texture works with the jazz brush to create a more defined sweeping sound as opposed to playing on clear drum heads. With that said, the Ambassador works just as well in a rock and pop setting. You can tune the Ambassador to suit your own preference and it will sing with a pure tone. Evans has a number of comparable drum heads which have much in common with the Coated Ambassador. Their UV1 is one such drum head.

Remo Ambassador Coated Drum Head

This video compares Remo’s Coated Ambassador with the Evans UV1 using different sticks and in varying musical styles:

Evans 2-sided Practice Pad Review

It’s always a good idea to have a practice pad at home for playing on. Practice pads are small and easily stored. They provide a playable silent surface for any drummer to both practice and warm up on. Practice pads have been around for generations now and are constantly being updated and innovated. Most standard pads are wooden with a rubber playing surface although there are other materials available such as gel and mesh. Gel heads generally offer a more deadened response which is more like playing on a lower tuned tom. Mesh heads offer more realism as the bounce from the head is closer to that of a real drum. For both gel and mesh you will have to pay a bit more on checkout.

The Evans 2-sided Practice Pad comes with the benefit of having more than one playing surface. This is a 12-inch in diameter octagonal shaped pad and stands about 1-inch in height. One side is made from Neoprene and the other is gum rubber. The two sides are noticeably different to play on. Depending on what you prefer you can switch between a very responsive spring to a more deadened feel. The size of the pad is a tad on the larger side too. Most practice pads are in or around the 6-inch mark which can require better accuracy when playing. This 12-inch pad is closer in size to a standard snare drum and it will even sit on such drum should you wish to angle it. You can also clamp the pad easily to any reasonable quality snare stand and get the perfect portable practice setup.

Evans RealFeel Practice Pad

Practice Drum Heads

If you love the size and feel of a real acoustic drum kit but want to keep the noise down to a minimum, then you might be interested in a set of practice heads. These heads are made from a mesh so as to limit the resonance of each stroke. They look and play just like an average drum head but severely decrease the sound produced. Like regular heads, these mesh equivalents produce a tone, only at a much lower volume.

Lots of drum companies are now producing these silent drum heads, such is the considerable demand for them. There’s even range of silent cymbals to go with them, should you want the ultimate low-noise solution.

One nice benefit of mesh practice heads is that they are easily compatible with drum triggers. This means you can turn your silent kit into an electronic drum kit simply by attaching the required technology. In fact, many electronic drum sets come with mesh heads which are similar in build to silent practice heads.

Installing practice mesh heads is no different to when dealing with regular drum heads. You might find that mesh heads work better at a low tension as this takes the strain off the mesh itself. You don’t want to over-tighten here as it can cause irreparable damage to the head.

That said, mesh heads give the same realism as the response from regular heads, so you can vary the tension from drum to drum. Most people prefer their snare drum to be tighter than their tom heads. The bass drum can be tight or loose depending on your preference.

One cool trick to maximize the sound reduction is to place extra padding inside each drum. You can use anything made from a soft absorbent material. This could be a towel or a cushion. I’ve found that this works especially well when applied to the bass drum. You can fill the drum with a duvet or something similar. The sound produced will be minimal and no doubt be highly appreciated by neighbors and housemates alike. If you’re interested in trying out the silent mesh option you can take a look at Remo’s Silentstroke selections.

This video showcases the Remo Silentstroke heads in action:

Tuning Tips

Tuning is one of the most important things with any drum sound. Getting the tuning right can be the difference between a great sound and an awful one. Most kits nowadays come with two heads per drum, a top and bottom head. Each head needs to be tuned relative to the other to produce the optimal tone. In certain cases drum manufacturers will go so far as to print the musical note at which each drum resonates at. This means you can use a tuner to pitch the heads to this note, which will in turn give you the most resonance from the drum.

In more practical terms, there is no real need to go to such great lengths. If you are curious there are websites and apps that will give you the note for your drums once you supply the correct dimensions. When it comes to day-to-day tuning, there are two things to consider: Does the drum head feel good to play on and does it sound good? These two goals are the most important to achieve.

Snare drums are generally tuned to the highest pitch of any other drum on the set. In order to tune any drum it is recommended that you first finger-tighten each lug before using the drum key. This helps you maintain a uniform tension on the head. Keeping tension equal around the head is extremely important in getting a pure tone from the drum. Once you have tightened each lug with your fingers, then move on to using the drum key. Turn the key two whole turns on each lug to keep the tension equal. With the snare you can find that it will take many more turns to get to a comfortable tension, but make sure to do the same amount on each lug. With toms it’s popular to keep the heads looser than the snare. Be sure to test the playability of the head in between bouts of tuning so you can hear and feel the difference.

Once you have found a tension that is comfortable to play on, then you can fine-tune the drum. Tap the drum head just at the point close to the lug and try to hear the high pitched overtone. Next compare it with the next lug. Your aim here is to match the pitch so tune up or down slightly to achieve this.

Once you have finished with the top head, move onto the bottom head. You can experiment with different tensions here. When it comes to the snare you’ll need to crank it up so that it works well with the snare strainer. If the resonant head is too loose here you’ll get a very poor sounding snare with no “snap”.

With the toms you can choose to tune the resonant head higher, lower or equal to the batter head. Tuning the resonant head higher than the batter head will lead the tone to change. Also it can reduce the sustain of the note. Be sure to keep the lug tension equal just like with the batter head. Don’t tune the bottom heads too loose here or you will have a lot of uncontrollable overtones to deal with.

When it comes to the bass drum you can apply the same principles. If you are going for a classic rock sound then possibly you’ll need to find a nice piece of dampener to go inside the drum. It’s not essential but can really help to clean up the sound. Some drummers choose to go without any dampening here and manage to get great bass drum sounds. A lot will depend on the drum itself.

Once you have tuned the drums up there are several options still. If you find that the drums are ringing too much, you can purchase some dampening, such as moon gel. Alternatively you can create your own dampening. Taping a small piece of foam or tissue to the head has long been a technique to control drum overtones.

Here’s a detailed video on many of the concepts of drum head tuning:

Conclusion

As we’ve seen, there is a vast selection of drum heads available on the market today. Choosing which is right for you largely comes down to your own personal taste. Bear in mind what is important to you when considering your options. Are you a heavy hitter? What style of music do you like to play? What is your budget? Once you have a clear idea of what it is you’re going for then you will be in a better position to make the right choice. Have fun and shop around!