The best wood for drums? Forget drum wood
Controversial but true: Your $8,000 exotic wood drum set is a lie.
Or your friend’s $8,000 drum set. Hopefully you didn’t spend $8,000 on drum shells.
Well-made (and expensive) drum sets can definitely give you a great sound. But in the grand scheme of things, the actual drum wood doesn’t matter much at all.
Seriously, there are so many other factors that are so much more important, and by the end of this article you’ll understand why.
So don’t buy a drum set made from the wrong wood, and don’t get bogged down in the “which drum wood is best” argument. Forget drum wood altogether.
When was the last time you heard a song and thought “That drummer should have really used mahogany shells rather than maple“?
Neither has anyone else.
There’s sometimes so much buzz around “which drum wood is best” that people overlook all the other things that have a greater impact on your drum sound.
First, it’s important to point out that yes, woods do sound slightly different from one another, but it’s a tiny difference compared to everything else that affects your drum sound.
In fact, there are so many other critical factors that contribute to a drum’s sound, that you should probably forget about the sound of your drum kit’s wood type altogether.
However, for many drummers (especially newer drummers), the best sounding drum wood is one of the only things they’re interested in. These drummers end up wasting their money for two reasons:
- They’re paying extra for a “special” or a specific drum wood type that only affects a tiny portion of their drum sound (if any), and
- They completely overlook all of the other super important things that do have an impact on their sound, so they won’t factor these things into their decision when buying.
The result is that you end up paying too much, and you can very easily buy the wrong sounding drum set for your needs because you’ve overlooked some critical things.
Once you get to the mid/high-price drum kit range, the extra money you spend on fancy-sounding drum wood just doesn’t add up.
Can you hear the difference in drum wood?
Don’t just take my word for it: You can actually hear this for yourself, without anything else getting in the way.
Below are four different recordings. See if you can hear the difference, and see if you can figure out what’s going on in each one.
When you’re listening, ask yourself: Are these all the exact same drum kit? Are these different drum brands all with the same type of drum wood? Are they the same brand with different woods? Or a mixture of brands and woods? Is there a difference at all between some recordings?
I’ll tell you more after you take a listen. Use good headphones when you play each of the tracks below.
So what do you think… Each one is extremely similar, right? Do you think any are exactly the same? Listen again.
All of the above recordings were made with DW pure wood drum kits. In each of the recordings: the hardware is the same, the drummer is the same, the tuning, drumheads, microphones, and studio are all the same. All drum kits are the same size, with the same hoops, lugs, mounts, etc.
The only difference between the recordings is the wood that each of the drums is made from:
- Recording #1 is a birch drum kit
- Recording #2 is an oak drum kit
- Recording #3 is a maple drum kit
- Recording #4 is a cherry drum kit
Keep these four recordings in mind as you’re reading, as I’ll be referring back to them.
This is one of the highest-quality drum wood comparisons you’ll ever get. It’s a professional drummer (Trevor Lawrence Jr.) in a professional studio, and a lot of time has been taken to ensure nothing is different except the wood of the drums. All of the recordings were made in the exact same way. Here’s a link to the original videos.
There’s a very very small sound difference in each of those recordings, and you probably won’t notice it if you’re not paying extremely close attention. Personally, I hear the greatest difference in the cherry kit. If I close my eyes and randomly play the audio tracks though, I can’t determine which is which. Try it yourself. As I’ve said above: Yes, there is a difference in sound between drum woods, but it’s so tiny that it’s often not worth considering.
Keep in mind that these recordings are just the drums, alone. Imagine when you cover those drum sounds up with cymbals and a full band. Then imagine different microphones and mixing techniques being used to record different kits – even simple mixing like boosting the low-end can cause drums to sound completely different. Think about the sound of different rooms that you might play in, and everything else we’re going to cover on this page. Can you see how those tiny differences in drum wood will get completely lost?
We’ve got a video below, showing how the same drum can sound completely different simply by changing the drumhead. In some cases, the difference is day and night. It’s extremely hard to say the same about drum wood.
Okay, so hopefully you’re seeing that a drum kit’s wood isn’t the make-or-break factor in how you sound. There are a lot of really important things that will change your drum sound though, and we’re going to look at some of them in this article.
Pay attention to these, and you’ll have an awesome drum sound.
What goes into your drum’s sound?
Take your entire drum kit, looking at everything that goes into it.
You’ve got the drum’s wood. Sure, it needs to be good quality wood (no knots, no cracks, no termites, etc.). Beyond this though, the wood type gets completely overshadowed by the drum’s hardware, mounting, construction, hoops, drumheads, tuning, bearing edges, and more.
Add in the extra noise created by cymbals, guitars, bass, keys, vocals, and other instruments, and the subtleties in drum wood are entirely lost.
Let’s take this even further: Combine all of the above with mixing and effects (compression, reverb, EQ, saturation, etc.), and you might as well forget about drum wood type altogether. When used sparingly, mixing and effects can change the tiny details in your sound. Used liberally, you can easily make a drum kit sound unrecognizable with a couple of plugins. This applies to both live and studio situations (anywhere you have microphones on the drum kit).
This isn’t a how-to-mix-drums article, but we’re going to dive a whole lot deeper into all of the other factors above, to show you why they’re always more important than the wood your drums are made from.
But wait! An expensive drum set does sound better than a crappy beginner’s kit.
Yes, it definitely does. Otherwise, people would just buy an entry-level drum set and keep it forever.
So what actually makes your expensive drum kit sound better than a dirt-cheap beginner kit? Hint: It’s not the drum’s kit’s wood.
To explain this, we need to take a look at the major factors that determine how a drum will sound. As we go through them, you’ll see quite quickly that these factors make much more of a difference than the drum set’s wood type. So much so, that you should forget about wood.
Some important assumptions: Drums need to be well-made
First up, let’s assume there are no huge problems with a drum that would completely ruin its sound.
What I mean here is that we’re assuming the drums we’re talking about are round, not cracked, have decent bearing edges, good drumheads, etc.
All of the stuff that makes a drum “work” is working.
As long as there are none of those things harming your drum sound, here’s how your drum sound is created, and here’s why these things are much more important than the wood your drums are made from.
Drumheads: More important than drum wood
We’re covering drumheads first, because drumheads are by far the biggest factor in your drum sound.
Out of everything, the drumheads you choose (and what you actually do with the heads) will contribute to the vast majority of your drum sound.
(Sidenote: that’s actually why DrumheadAuthority was created… we’re a 100% free resource to help you find the right drumheads.)
The best way to illustrate this point is to show you. The video below has 62 different drumheads, all played on the same drum.
All heads were tuned to the exact same tension, recorded with the exact same mics, and the drum is always the same Yamaha Absolute Maple Hybrid 14″x6″.
Put on some good headphones and check them all out to find your favorite. If you’re short on time, skip ahead a few minutes at a time, because the heads are ordered by drumhead thickness (which is one factor that dramatically changes the sound).
There’s an immediate difference in sound between heads (some more than others). You’ll hear it even if you’re blindfolded.
Add dampening to your drumheads, and you’ve got even more sound options. For dampening, I’m talking about heads with some sort of built-in muffling (like some of the heads in the video above), and also dampening that you can add onto heads (see our full drum dampening guide to become an instant expert on both of these dampening types).
Now, think back to the four recordings you listened to earlier, with the birch, oak, maple, and cherry wood drum kits. How different did each of those kits sound? Compare that to some of the drumheads in the video above: Some heads change the drum sound completely. It’s extremely hard to say the same about wood.
When you change drumheads, the difference is huge and instantly noticeable. When you change drum wood though, keeping everything else exactly the same, the difference can be almost nonexistent.
Drum Hardware: More important than drum wood
On those four recordings of different drum woods, the drum hardware was all exactly the same. However, when you start using different hardware, your drum sound will change dramatically.
Different drum brands (and models) use different hardware, so it’s easy to get extremely different sounding kits from this.
How heavy is the hardware? How much of it is touching to the drum? What type of hoops and mounts are used? How does it help (or choke) the drum’s vibration?
All of these things will change how your drums sound.
Wood hoops sound very different to heavy die-cast hoops. A mounted floor tom sounds very different to a floor tom on three legs. That snare stand is choking the tom that it holds.
The basic rule behind all of this is quite simple: The more density and “stuff” that weights your drums down (or that chokes the vibration), the less sustain and low-end you’ll have.
If you want to maximize sustain and get a big boomy sound, go for light and small hardware that doesn’t choke the drum. If you want to reduce sustain or get a brighter sound, look for the opposite.
A drum makes sound by vibrating. If there’s too much hardware stuck to the shell, the drum will vibrate less. Similarly, if there are legs directing the vibration right into the floor, the drum will vibrate less.
And it’s critical to be aware of these factors, so you can make the most informed decision when you buy. At the end of the day, the hardware on a drum is much more important than the drum’s wood type.
Don’t just take my word for it. For an excellent example of how much you can choke a drum via a simple (and essential) piece of hardware like floor tom legs, check out BootyShakers (or try our “free” version below).
Adding BootyShakers to your floor tom will release the huge rumble that was being choked by the floor. See our BootyShakers review here, where you can actually hear the difference yourself (we made recordings). The difference can be so noticeable that I’ll sometimes use just one or two BootyShakers (rather than all three) on my floor tom legs when recording, to get the right amount of sustain.
This isn’t an advertisement for BootyShakers by the way… So here’s our “free” version: You can achieve something very similar by simply putting thick cymbal felts under each of your floor tom’s legs, so the legs rest on the felts rather than the ground.
Want another experiment? Listen to the difference in sound (especially sustain) when your tom is resting on a snare stand, versus when it’s mounted to the bass drum. There’s a huge difference, especially if you tighten the snare stand so it grips the tom hard. The three mounting points on a snare stand will choke that drum, compared to mounting it on the bass drum.
Drum Hardware vs. Drum Wood
If you’ve tried the simple hardware experiments yourself (above), you’ve hopefully noticed a big difference in drum sound. And you’ve hopefully seen how much a “simple” hardware modification can affect things.
Like with drumheads, your hardware will affect your sound so much more than the type of drum wood can. Go back to the four recordings above (the ones of different drum woods), and compare those differences against the differences you hear when doing the simple hardware modification experiments. It’s pretty clear that wood makes almost no difference when compared to the difference that hardware makes.
Drum Construction: More important than drum wood
The way the drum is built will play a huge role in how the drum sounds. So much so, that companies can use the exact same wood for a drum but can end up with extremely different results.
Details like the orientation of each ply (which direction the woodgrain runs), how evenly the wood is cut, how it’s bent into a shell, and many many other factors will influence how well a drum can sing.
The ply count and the thickness of each ply are extremely important to your drum sound:
- Thinner shells give more sustain, they’re more sensitive to lighter playing, and they’re also quieter.
- Thick drum shells need to be hit harder to create a full sound, and the thickness can reduce the drum’s sustain.
Stave shells can sound very different to ply shells, partly because ply shells use a huge amount of glue (which chokes the sound) compared to staves.
The quality of the ply is also important: The best drum kits will use the best cuts of wood, compared to a cheap kit using plies with knots or imperfections.
Think about that last point for a second… you can use wood from the exact same tree, but some parts of the tree are better than others for making drums. Again, this is another reason why you need to look beyond what type of wood a drum is made from.
It’s not the drum’s wood that is important, it’s what is done with the wood.
Bearing Edges: More important than drum wood
Bearing edges are a critical point of contact between the drumhead and the drum. When you pay attention to how they work, you’ll quickly see why they matter a lot more than the drum’s wood type.
Bearing edges transfer vibration between the drumhead and the drum’s shell. They also help the drumhead sit tightly and evenly across the drum, and the way they’re cut will affect how the head vibrates (and how the drum sounds).
Bearing edges are cut on an angle. For reference, here’s a really simple overview:
- A sharper bearing edge angle (with less wood touching the drumhead) means you’ll have a brighter overall sound.
- A flatter angle (giving a wider area for the drumhead to touch) means you’ll have a warmer and softer overall sound.
The drumhead is less free to vibrate when it rests on thicker, flatter bearing edges, which can choke some of the higher frequencies (making the drum sound warmer) and can reduce the sustain.
Bearing edges are often completely overlooked when drummers are shopping for a new kit. The way they’re cut has more of an impact than the wood type though, so don’t ignore them.
It’s worth mentioning that really cheap drum kits can often have sub-par bearing edges (not exactly “damaged”, but just poorly cut and with less quality control), which can start to harm your sound.
Drum Tuning: More important than drum wood
So hopefully this one is obvious: The way you tune your drums clearly makes a big difference to your sound.
Tune your snare drum head up as high as it will go, then play it. Now tune it down so that the rods are just finger-tight, and play it again.
Huge difference, right?
You can go from a cutting crack to a deep fat thud just by turning your drum key a few times.
When you look at how your resonant drumheads are tuned as well, you start to see that there’s a massive range of sounds that you can get out of each drum.
If you haven’t tuned your drums properly, they can sound terrible. It’s not the drum’s wood, it’s the tuning, so make sure you know how to use a drum key.
The differences you can get from tuning will always outweigh any differences you can get from a drum set’s wood type.
That’s (some of) the most important stuff
Okay, so we’ve covered a lot of the most important factors that affect your drum’s overall sound. There are definitely other factors (the list above is not exhaustive), but it’s time to move on because there are some other important points to cover.
Putting it all together
Now that we’ve taken a deep look at some of the key factors in your drum sound, here’s a question:
What happens when you build a drum with the worst wood possible, but do everything else amazingly well?
Custom drum builder Bart Westera decided to take the idea of cheap vs. expensive wood and push it to its limits.
He built a snare drum from MDF, one of the cheapest types of “wood” out there (if you can even call it “wood”). The MDF he used was the cheapest and lowest-quality MDF that he could find. Importantly though, he made sure the bearing edges were perfect, the shell was round, he used his decades of skill to put the staves together, and he used great hardware. The drum was tuned nicely and then shown to 23 different drummers.
The end result?
Drummers really liked the sound, and they gave all kinds of guesses when asked to name what the drum was made from. We don’t want to get too far off track, so you can read the full story here. The point, though, is that if you’re doing the important stuff right, then the type of wood really makes very little difference (if any). So make sure you buy a kit that does the important stuff well, rather than just asking “what’s the best drum wood”.
What’s with all the fuss over a drum’s wood type, then?
We’ve just covered a bunch of factors that all have a much bigger impact on your drum sound, compared to drum wood type.
So why do drum manufacturers create drums with such “special” and exotic woods, and why do they put so much effort into telling you how their drums are “100% birch” or “pure Canadian maple” or “Tasmanian Blackheart”?
Well, it’s basically all marketing.
Drum companies need to differentiate themselves. They need to make their drums seem special. And they need to build a “buzz” and create something that drummers want to associate themselves with. Something that drummers can wear as a badge of honor.
A drum’s wood is a great choice for a marketing team to achieve these things. Drums are made of wood, so it must be really important, right?
Most drummers couldn’t list two reasons why “Canadian maple” sounds better than maple from elsewhere. The words just sound good, even if the sound of the drums doesn’t actually change at all.
Sure, you can get small differences in sound depending on the drum wood you choose. But, as we’ve been explaining, this difference is really really really tiny, and it’s completely overshadowed by all of the other factors listed above. Change your drumheads and you’ll change the brightness or warmth much more than wood ever can.
Take a look at the video from DW below.
In over 11 minutes, there are only a few brief mentions of how the wood itself actually sounds. The rest of the video is more about how “special” the wood looks, or how far away it comes from, or the vibe of Australia. If you want those things, then it’s a great kit.
So would you pay $8,000 for that kit? I don’t want to throw DW under the bus here. They make some of the best-sounding drum kits out there, and they know exactly what they’re doing when building them. If you buy a DW kit, it’ll probably sound absolutely amazing. That kit looks amazing. But how much of the sound is from the actual drum wood in that video? Just a tiny bit.
- If they made the plies thicker, you’d get a very different sound from the exact same wood.
- If they used more (or less) plies, or oriented the woodgrain differently, you’d get a different sound.
- If they used heavier hardware or different mounting systems, you’d get a different sound.
- Different drumheads? Different sound.
But if they built the exact same kit with a different wood? The sound would change just a tiny bit, and you might not notice at all.
Basically, the importance of drum wood type has been blown way out of proportion, sometimes to the point where everything else is forgotten…
Drummers sometimes choose a drum wood, and then ignore everything else. It should be the other way around.
When was the last time you heard a drummer talking about how a particular drum model’s construction or bearing edges create such a nice sound? Or how the hardware and mounting system on a particular kit allow the drums to really sing?
Because that’s so much more important.
So what should I look for when buying drums?
Quality craftsmanship, for starters. And the right combination of all of the factors we’ve covered above.
Take all of the important things listed above, and imagine what would happen if they were all done as poorly as possible. Bad bearing edges, terrible hardware, poorly-cut wood, the cheapest drumheads, etc. The drums would be impossible to tune, and you’d be set up to fail no matter what you do (even if you used the best wood to make the drum kit).
So it’s clear you need drums that do all of the important stuff really well. When you’re buying a drum kit, here’s exactly what separates a great kit from a cheap-and-nasty one:
Great drums are designed by experts, who take their time to get it right. The right ply count, the right woodgrain orientation, the right thickness for the sound you want, and many of the other factors we mentioned above.
Cheap drums are put together as fast as possible, to be “passable” and to make the most of all wood available. This can lead to slightly misaligned plies, too much glue, slightly out of round shells, and drumheads that just don’t sit perfectly on the drum. All of this means it can be much more difficult to get a useable sound out of the cheap drum set.
Well-placed and high-quality hardware
A great drum kit will have a lot of thought put into its hardware: You’re paying for the right hardware weight and material, you’re paying for it being perfectly placed on the drum, and you’re paying for smooth hardware that is easy to adjust and won’t choke the sound.
On the flip side, a cheap beginner kit has whatever metal is cheapest to do the job, and it’s drilled into the kit as fast as possible on the production line. When hardware ease-of-use is secondary to price, you’ll end up with corners being cut to save money.
So take a good look at the hardware on a kit if you’re spending a lot of money on it. This applies to the hardware on the shells (including hoops), as well as the mounts holding the kit up.
Speaking of mounting…
Mounting systems that don’t choke the drums
As you’ve seen in the examples above, the way a drum is mounted has a huge impact on the sound. So pay attention to where and how your drums are mounted, and how the legs transfer vibration. We’ve already covered hardware, but mounting deserves an extra point.
A great kit will put a lot of focus on the mounting design, while a bad-sounding kit will just use whatever is cheapest to implement.
Precision-cut bearing edges
The best sounding drums have expertly cut bearing edges, allowing the drumheads to make perfect contact with the drum (and the perfect amount of contact), all the way around the shell. Chose the bearing edge type that suits the sound you want, rather than trying to choose a wood that sounds “right”.
On the flip side, a cheap drum kit’s bearing edges are less even, with less quality control and less thought put into how it’s all going to sound. Bad bearing edges mean your drums will be harder to tune, with a reduced tuning range.
So when you’re buying a new drum kit, ensure you’re getting quality bearing edges (and the right type for the sound you want). Inspect them, and understand the angle.
The Right Drumheads
This one is worth mentioning again: Use the right drumheads for the sound you want. In fact, you might not need a new drum kit at all.
If the drum set you own is a medium-high quality kit with no issues, then changing your drumheads is the fastest way to make the biggest difference in your drum sound.
Make sure you’re asking the right questions
Okay, so we’ve covered a lot of ground.
I’ve written this to help drummers see the things that actually affect their drum sound.
Often there are such strong opinions (and even arguments) surrounding the question “what is the best wood for drum shells?”.
Well, the answer is this: you’re asking the wrong question.
Hopefully, the message you’ve taken from this article is this:
It’s essential to be aware of how hardware, drumheads, drum construction, and tuning will change your sound. These are the things that really matter, and they matter a lot more than the type of wood your drum is made from.
So don’t think that there’s one special wood out there that will change your life.
Drummers, especially new drummers, don’t need to spend crazy amounts of money to get a great drum sound. Yes, drum wood can make a tiny difference to your sound, but it should be at the bottom of your list when you’re deciding on which new or used drum kit to buy.
There’s simply so much else going on, that in most situations the wood type becomes meaningless.
Don’t get sucked into the marketing hype, and don’t end up paying more than you need to… that expensive exotic drum wood is probably not worth it.