Which wood is best for your drum kit?
Drums draw the eye like no other instrument – they are big, bold and often very shiny. However, below the many lacquers and wraps that are hugely customisable in today’s market there one crucial decision to make that affects the sound of any one particular drum kit – namely the wood with which it’s built.
You’ve probably heard of the following three woods that are used in drum shell manufacturing: mahogany, birch and maple. The tonal differences of these woods come in the varying high, mid and low tones each wood resonates. Here we take a look at some other major differences in more detail.
Birch and Maple
Typically, birch and maple are used in the creation of high quality drum shells. The tonal differences of these two woods are distinct to the trained ear, and preference is down to the listener, but they can be similar depending on the price and manufacturer. There are however still many reasonably priced drum kits that are made with birch, mainly due to the wood’s relative abundance.
Unlike, for example, lauan, both birch and maple are very balanced in their projection of high, mid, and low tones. Their tonal difference is down to birch peaking with both high and low frequencies, whereas maple tends to display lower frequencies. This gives birch its bright and punchy characteristics and maple its warmer, smoother tone.
To further aid your understanding, listen to these two different woods particularly and the drummers that use them. The more focused sound of a birch kit can be heard being played by a lot of technical R&B drummers, aiding their ability to play very short note values at speed around the kit without the notes getting lost. Maple, on the other hand, gives the big sound a rock drummer is commonly drawn to.
Drummers can influence their drums massively with their choice of heads and sticks, but these differences in wood tone can still be heard as you develop your ear.
The varying manufacturing costs are also a distinguishing factor in which wood is used for new drums. We tend to see a type of mahogany called lauan (also spelt luan) being used in the market’s more wallet-friendly drums, for example. This is due to it being characteristically softer and easier to manufacture, but at the sacrifice of tone.
We hear less resonance as this soft wood absorbs a lot of sound and responds with higher frequencies and far fewer low frequencies. Lauan also creates very little sustain compared to other harder woods. This easily manageable material, coupled with its relatively inexpensive manufacturing process, sees a lot of budget drum-sets featuring this type of wood.
Both vintage and modern drum kits use this combination of wood (often along with maple) to create that distinct tone associated with the drum sounds of the past and the genres and musicians that featured them. They are still sought after and just as relevant today.
This combination of woods creates a rich and balanced tone. The dark tone of the hard mahogany (a different type of mahogany to the aforementioned lauan) with lower frequencies, coupled with the brighter tone of poplar, which boasts high frequencies and has similar characteristics to birch, creates the warm and resonant tone of both the rock and smaller jazz kits of the past.
The mahogany used in the manufacture of higher quality drums is different to that of lauan and is a significantly harder material. Manufacturers that specifically state the use of mahogany are using the material for good reason.
Finally we should mention the effect a drum’s ply has on its sound. The thickness of a shell is mostly determined by the amount of plies, although this differs slightly depending on the wood and the thickness of the ply being cut. An example of a thin shell is a four-ply shell at around 5mm in thickness. This will give the drum a lot of resonance, body and dynamic, but not as much volume. A thicker shell, on the other hand, would project a lot more volume at the expense of resonance and sensitivity. This is another important characteristic in defining a drum’s sound and tone once the wood is chosen. The differences in a drum shell’s tone can be significantly different due to the plies, even if they are constructed from the same wood.
We hope this had shed some light on the huge impact the different woods can have on your chosen tone. As ever, try a few different options out before making a decision on your next kit, and our product specialists can advise on anything you’re unsure of.
Jack Atherton currently plays drums for U.K Singer/Songwriter, Jake Bugg.
Jack played on Jake Bugg’s multi-platinum eponymous album that debuted at #1 in the U.K album chart and has gone on to headline tours all over the world. In that time they have supported the likes of Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds; The Black Keys; The Rolling Stones; Arcade Fire; The Stone Roses, to name a few.
2014 saw a headline slot at Glastonbury festival and since 2012 they have performed at the world’s biggest festivals spread over five continents including Reading/Leeds fest, Coachella, Summer Sonic and Lollapalooza.
As well as Live performances, Jack has also recorded several performances including: Later… with Jools Holland; The Tonight Show with Jay Leno; The Late Show with David Letterman; Conan; The Ellen Show; The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon; The Graham Norton Show; The Jonathan Ross Show.
Since starting to play drums at the age of 11, Jack has studied with various teachers at home and abroad, sighting his studies with the late, great Jim Chapin from 1999-2008 as his most influential.
As well as being a session drummer, Jack is also an educator and author.