From hoops to heads, to lugs and beyond, there are a surprising number of pieces that come together to make a drum.
When shopping for drums, we seem to be enticed by the sparkling finishes or talk of high-quality cymbals. What many beginners and even intermediate drummers forget to consider is the nucleus of the drum: the shell.
So, What are Drum Shells?
A drum shell is just what it sounds like, the physical shell that holds everything together and creates the sound of the drum. However, not all shells are made equal. In fact, the variety of sound you can get from one shell to another is incredible. From different materials to construction methods, to sizing, and more, there are a hundred things to consider when looking for the perfect drum.
If you’ve been searching for the best place to learn everything there is to know about drum shells, look no further!
What Types of Materials Are Used to Make Drum Shells?
Different types of materials help to create unique tonalities, sustains, etc. Let’s take a look at each wood type and what they’re known for!
Wood Drum Shells
Maple Drum Shells
Maple is one of the most popular drum wood types for high-quality drum manufacturing alongside Birch, though Maple is typically priced a bit higher.
Compared to Birch, Maple shells are heavier and much denser. It has an optimal resonance and a bump in the top-end of the mid-range, meaning it’s perfect for rock drummers who need their drums to project.
Tonal Qualities: Projected highs and mids with mellow lows; an excellent all-rounder wood.
Birch Drum Shells
Because Birch is a bit less exclusive than Maple in terms of availability, it costs a bit less. You can get a top-tier Birch kit for a lower price thanks to easy malleability and wide access.
Birchwood projects well and is somewhat of a standard when it comes to wooden drum kits.
Tonal Qualities: Projected top-end and punchy low-end with a slightly scooped mid-range; very loud.
Mahogany Drum Shells
Mahogany is the next most popular wood when it comes to top-tier drum manufacturing. Real Mahogany is less accessible than Birch and Maple, meaning you can expect to spend quite a bit when you buy a full Mahogany kit.
Be sure you know where the Mahogany was sourced, as it can make a big difference in the tone. Some major drum manufacturers use what is known as Lauan or Philippine Mahogany. This wood is cheaper and provides less decay and sustain than genuine African Mahogany.
Tonal Qualities: Warm and soft with a fair amount of low end; not as much projection as Birch or Maple.
Walnut Drum Shells
Getting into the darker side of things, Walnut is a great, rare wood that has a nice, warm tone with very little projection, similar to African Mahogany in many ways.
The resonance with Walnut drums is very short immediately after the attack, though you do still get the sharpness. The Walnut crack is what makes it so great for big-band style music, and many alternative genres as well.
Tonal Qualities: Well-rounded highs, lows, and mid; large and warm sound overall.
Oak Drum Shells
Oak shells are for those who have a bit of money to spend, as it's not the most widely available wood, nor the easiest to work with. Oak is similar to Maple in that it is very heavy and dense, though not nearly as bright.
Many jazz drummers favor the sound of oak thanks to the open and natural sound.
Tonal Qualities: Mellow highs and warm lows with a more prominent mid-range; fast decay.
Beech Drum Shells
Beech is a great middle ground between Birch and Maple, as it is dense and heavy and has a mixture of the different sound qualities. You won’t get as much low end as you do with Birch drums, though you can expect to get serious highs that outshine Maple.
Beech is also less expensive thanks to the wide availability and the fact that it’s easy to work with.
Tonal Qualities: Projected high-end and mid-range with a focused, punchy low-end; very sensitive.
Cherry Wood Drum Shells
One of the great things about Cherry is that it is an extremely dynamic wood type. Some wood types stop giving off a good sound outside of their velocity boundaries. You can hit Cherry drums hard or soft and expect to get a solid tone.
The sound of Cherry is very reminiscent of 50’s-style drum tones with a wide tuning range and a natural tone.
Tonal Qualities: Projected high-end and punchy mid-range; sensitive with a rich low-end.
Bubinga Drum Shells
Bubinga sometimes referred to as "African Rosewood," is a rare wood that offers a tonality similar to that of Maple. With that said, it is denser and heavier than Maple. It can create an incredibly pleasing tone if shaped correctly, though can have intolerable, metallic overtone if made cheaply.
Tonal Qualities: Even high-end and mid-range with a rich low-end; packs a punch yet remains sensitive.
Poplar Wood Drum Shells
Poplar is easily one of the fastest growing wood types when it comes to drum shells. The sound of Poplar is relatively similar to that of Birch or Mahogany, though it can be found at far more inexpensive prices. It's a softer wood and a bit less dense than Maple.
Poplar is often used as a filler between different plies of more expensive types of wood. There are lots of mixed reviews on the actual tone of Poplar by itself, much of what we believe has to do with the added brightness and the fact that it is used on many beginner drum kits. We recommend hearing it for yourself to decide how you feel!
Tonal Qualities: Mellow, bright high-end and mid-range with tons of low-end warmth; smooth sound overall.
Ash Drum Shells
Ash was the primary wood used in Fender guitars up until the late 1950s. The reason being is it has a very strong attack with a fast response time and a solid resonance.
You don't hear about Ash much, as it is a bit harder to work with than most other woods, though if you're looking for a warm, vintage sound, it's a great choice. Ashwood grain also looks gorgeous when finished professionally.
Tonal Qualities: Projected, yet warm, high-end and mid-range, and a warm low-end; very warm overall.
Purpleheart Drum Shells
Purpleheart is a good example of exotic wood for drummers with a refined taste. It is named that way because of the color it produces when hit with UV light.
This wood is one that really "speaks" with each hit. It has a very accurate attack and a wide dynamic range for expressive players. This is why so many fusion guys love Purpleheart. Be prepared to spend a pretty penny for a quality Purpleheart kit.
Tonal Qualities: Punchy mid-range and low-end with a good amount of cut; well-rounded.
Metal Drum Shells
While wood is the most popular material type when it comes to building drums, there are drum companies out there who make their drum shells with metal instead. Let’s take a look at some of the most popular types of drum metals:
Steel Drum Shells
Steel is the most popular type of metal when it comes to producing drums. When you hit a steel snare, you’ll know right off the bat thanks to the unique rimshot sound.
Steel drum shells can cut through the heaviest of music like butter and are relatively inexpensive, which is why you see many starter drum kits made of steel.
Tonal Qualities: Cutting highs with average mid-range and low-end; good for any genre.
Brass Drum Shells
If you’re looking for something a bit crispier than steel, we recommend checking out brass. They bridge the gap between wood and metal nicely thanks to the full and open sound.
Just like steel drums, brass drums have a distinct smack that can cut through dense musical performances.
Tonal Qualities: Vibrant high-end, mid-range, and low-end; well-rounded sound overall.
Aluminum Drum Shells
While aluminum drums have the crisp high-end and smack of brass and steel, they are typically much drier. This means that you won’t get as much sustain with an aluminum drum. The cool thing is, you probably won’t ever need to dampen your snare!
Tonal Qualities: Crispy high-end and warm mid-range with a short sustain; very velocity-sensitive.
Copper Drum Shells
When you put copper against other types of metal drums, you realize that it gives off a far darker and warmer sound. One of the most popular uses for copper drums is the copper snare in modern orchestral music. For something less bright and pronounced, copper should be one of your first choices.
Tonal Qualities: Soft high-end, projected mid-range and low-end; very subtle overall.
Bronze Drum Shells
Bronze is pretty rare in drums, and you’ll mostly find it on snare drums if anything. With that said, if you’re into orchestral music, it’s likely that some of the recordings you love utilize bronze snares.
Just like brass, bronze has a pretty dark and warm tone overall that is meant to be subtle. It is also fantastic for ghost note playing thanks to the articulation properties.
Just like brass, bronze has a pretty dark and warm tone overall that is meant to be subtle. It is also wonderful for
Tonal Qualities: Soft high-end, projected mid-range and low-end; a bit warmer than brass.
Titanium Drum Shells
Thanks to its rarity and difficulty to extract in pure form, titanium is one of the most expensive metals for making drums.
It does contain one of the most ear-pleasing sounds out of all metal drums though, with many describing the sound as crispy, dry, and bright. It’s also one of the most durable metals on Earth, meaning you can be assured that your drum kit will last a lifetime.
Tonal Qualities: Crisp high-end and mid-range with a focused low-end; very clear sound overall.
Synthetic Drum Shells
Last on the list are synthetic materials. While these have been in production for many decades now, drummers still seem to underestimate their performance. They do a great job at mending the gap between wood and metal with their focused sounds.
Carbon Fiber Drum Shells
There are a few drum manufacturers who make carbon fiber drums. The beauty of carbon fiber is that it is incredibly stable, meaning you'll rarely if ever, have to retune your drums when they are in different conditions.
Carbon fiber is also far more lightweight than metal and wood, making it perfect for the touring drummer who hates hauling around their massive kit.
Overall, they have the warmth of wood and the crisp attack of metal, providing the perfect mixture.
Tonal Qualities: Focused high-end and mid-range with a warm low-end; very dry with a controlled sustain.
Acrylic Drum Shells
If you’re all about aesthetic, acrylic is the way to go. These see-through drums have been in the public eye for many years. John Bonham is famous for playing the Vistalite Acrylic kit during the 1970s.
Acrylic drums have an insane “crack” and a projection that trumps many of the top-tier wood kits. They’re far better for loud playing in genres like rock.
Tonal Qualities: Well-rounded high-end, mid-range, and low-end; incredible attack and power.
Beyond those that we've mentioned on this list, some companies are always experimenting with different materials, creating hybrid drum shells and prototypes to try and make the next best thing.
One drum shell material we're interested in is Fiberglass. So far, we only know about Pearl’s Wood-Fiberglass Set, and it sounds pretty amazing.
There are over 3,000 types of wood in the wild and world of metals, both natural and non-natural, to explore. We don’t doubt that drum craft exploration will continue to grow and grow as time and technology move forward.
Drum Shell Construction Types
Drum shells can be manufactured in several ways. The way that a shell is constructed can have just as much of an impact on the sound as the material that is used. Let's take a look at the different ways manufacturers construct their drum shells.
Tonal Qualities: Wide range of fundamental pitches and tons of sustain.
Plywood shells are easily the most popular types of drum shells and have been recorded more than any other type throughout history. Plywood shells are made by gluing together multiple wooden sheets into a circular mold.
They are the easiest shells to make, which is why they're the most widely available and inexpensive out there. The disadvantage is that the glue can harm the wood’s tone.
Tonal Qualities: High fundamental pitches with dry and short sustain.
Stave shells are made by gluing together blocks of wood, cut at vertical angles. This method is very similar to that of a wine barrel builder.
They hold together nicely thanks to the thickness, but the cost being that this method does not work well with thin shells. Expect to pay more for stave shells than ply shells.
Tonal Qualities: Focused fundamental pitch with a brilliant tone and sustain.
Steam-bent shells are made by coating wood with hot steam until it is soft and then molding it into a shell. Because it doesn't use glue of any kind, it has a natural and open tone, far better than ply or stave shells.
They are costly to make because of the long and difficult process. They can also, unfortunately, bend out of a circle over time thanks to the seam being in one place.
Tonal Qualities: High fundamental pitch with a pure and long sustain.
Solid shells are made by cutting a single piece of wood off of a tree’s trunk. This is how snares were made before machinery and technology allowed us to mold and shape wood.
While it may seem relatively simple, the process is quite arduous, making them very expensive to produce. While you do get pure resonance, sustain, tone, and projection with solid woods, they are limited in that you can't mix and match different wood types to produce new tones as you can with ply.
Tonal Qualities: High fundamental pitches with dry and short sustain.
Segmented shells aren’t very popular and are typically produced by custom builders only. They’re made by gluing together a bunch of small, horizontal strips into a round shape.
The lack of stress helps to maintain the round shape, and many exotic wood types can be used thanks to the character. Segmented shells sound very similar to stave shells, though are harder to make.
Metal shells will either be cast or spun. Casting a metal shell will give the drum a nice, long sustain and a high fundamental pitch while a spun shell will be a bit more focused overall.
The size of a drum shell is going to have a significant impact on your sound as well. When looking at drum size, you will be looking at depth measurement.
Let’s say you were looking at a 20” kick drum with a depth of 16”. You would see that in the specs as “20x16”.
The noticeable tonal difference between a smaller drum and a larger drum is that a larger drum will have a deeper sound and lower fundamental tone. This is why a massive floor tom with a big diameter sounds bigger than a tiny rack tom with a small diameter.
As for the depth, the deeper the drum, the lower the sound. Thanks to the way frequencies work, that added depth also means added projection, as lower frequencies reach further than higher frequencies.
You get a booming sensation that fills a stadium when a drummer hits the kick drum, not when they hit the snare.
Let's talk John Bonham again. Obviously, the man is infamous for being one of the loudest drummers of all time, and while much of that came from the way he played, it also came from the drums he used. His massive 26x14 kick drum was able to project over the wailing guitar of Jimmy Page and the screaming of thousands of fans, long before the advent of modern live sound technology.
Many jazz drummers, on the other hand, prefer smaller drums with less projection, as they are typically performing in smaller clubs and acoustic situations. Kick drums on the jazz end usually rest under 20x16, as they produced a far clearer and focused sound.
Drum Shell Thickness
As a golden rule, the thicker your drum shell, the higher tones it will produce. There are a few other things to consider when looking at thickness as well.
One thing we urge you not to do is to let the plies affect your drum purchasing decision. Just because one shell is 6-ply does not mean that it is necessarily thicker than a drum that is 3-ply. Some wood is denser and can be cut very thin, such as Birch. For example, Birch plies could be stacked over nine times to create a drum and still be the same thickness as a 6-ply Mahogany drum.
Here is a little breakdown of what you can expect from drums with different thickness measurements:
Thin shells will typically have better resonance, as the energy transfers much easier throughout. You can get a better, natural “wood” tone with thin shells, without the overbearing volume. This is why many recording engineers prefer to use thinner shells in the studio.
Medium-thick shells are better at resisting the transfer of energy because of the added stiffness and density. While you don't get as much sensitivity and resonance, you do get more volume than a thin shell. Medium-thick shells are most popular, as they're well-rounded and great for just about any application.
Thick shells are made for performance, as they project without much effort. While they don’t necessarily give you the most natural tone, they do give you tons of sound pressure that can reach the back of a stadium with ease. Wood drum shells that are this thick are almost in the realm of metal drum projection.
The bearing edge of a drum shell, though not often thought of, can also have a major impact on the drum sound.
Bearing edge types are constantly evolving, and there are some that were popular in different eras that aren't so popular anymore. The cool thing is, this linear history of bearing edges allows drummers to pinpoint a specific decade where they like the drum sound and get an idea of what bearing edges those drummers were using.
Let’s break down the four most common types of bearing edges:
The 45-degree bearing edge is the most common and is made using a 1-ply-thick edge that peaks just above the outside of the shell. Because of its sharp character, you get tons of attack on the front end and a long sustain thanks to the lessened contact with the head.
You also have added brightness and overtone production. Most modern drum sounds come from drums with 45-degree bearing edges.
The double 45-degree bearing edge utilizes a peak that is more centered with symmetrical 45-degree cuts on the inside and outside. The contact point moves closer to the center of the drum, resulting in an even longer sustain. The tuning range is quite wide with double 45-degree drums thanks to their decreased sensitivity.
Roundover bearing edges simply create more contact with the head, resulting in warmer and softer sounds that are perfect for jazz drummers or drummers who are after the vintage tone. Modern drum manufacturers, on the other hand, tend to stay away from the roundover, as it lessens the definition and overtone production.
Vintage roundover edges sound exactly like you might expect. Thanks to the added contact with the heads, vintage roundover edges provide you with warm, punchy, and fat tones. Think back to the drum tones of the 1960s when the drums were big, and guys were tuning their drums low.
Grain orientation is something that DW started to experiment with a few years ago, and we were surprised by how much of an impact it had on the tonal characteristics of the drum. Before the idea of grain orientation came around, it was all about thickness.
A thick shell had a high pitch, and a thin shell had a low pitch. Grain orientation changed that. You could take a drum shell, regardless of thickness, and change the grain to be horizontal, vertical, diagonal, or any which way, and change things like warmth, pitch, projection, etc.
When finishing off a drum shell, the last piece of the puzzle is the, well… finish. Drums can be finished in a few different ways:
- Stain: Manufacturers use water-based stains, acrylics, or tung oil, on the wood to get their preferred color. These maintain a drum tone very well.
- Lacquer: Wood lacquers help to maintain a drum tone if used correctly. Manufacturers will heavily sand their shells before spraying or brushing a lacquer on top of the shell.
- Wrap: Wrapping is the most inexpensive way to finish a drum and allows for wild patterns thanks to the fact that you can print just about anything on a vinyl sheet. Do know that they can have a slight, negative impact on the tone depending on the thickness and glue used.
Shell Ya Later
So there you guys have it — the ultimate, everything-you-need-to-know-about-drum-shells guide. Having a deep understanding of your instrument will allow you to capture and introduce sounds as you please. We hope that you now have a better understanding of how vital the shell is to the sound of your drums!