At the beginning of this week, I set out to write an article in the same vein as my last one concerning tonewoods in guitars, only this time it would be focused on tonewoods in drums. I am primarily a drummer myself; having played for almost seventeen years, it’s the instrument I fell in love with and was certainly the gateway for me to all the musical possibilities out there. It’s also a family tradition, being that my Dad and his brothers have been drumming (and even making drums) pretty much their entire lives. It’s something I care about and owe a lot to, so I figured it would make sense to blog about the finer points of drumming. How about wood!
Oh, grow up.
But as much as I wanted to make this article an informative one about the different kinds of tonewoods incorporated in drums, the research and experimentation I’ve done throughout the week has inevitably led me to write a slightly frustrated editorial on the subject instead. Here’s why:
1) There’s Apparently No Consensus Among the Drummer Community
Initially, I was going to open up this blog by talking about the four or five major tonewoods used in drum shells: namely maple, birch, basswood, mahogany, and poplar. And what I was really looking forward to addressing was the debate that continues to rage on in the social drum-circle (ha!) between maple advocates and birch advocates. Just do a Google search right now and you’ll see it’s a pretty universal question among drummers and drum-luthiers: which is the better wood? What does each sound like compared to the other? Which one suits what kind of playing style best? Etc. This is basically the Coke VS Pepsi or the Star Wars VS Star Trek for drummers. Only less…well actually, probably the same amount of nerdy, just not nearly as entertaining.
So I did some research. And then some more research. And then some freaking more research. And you know what I found? No one seems to agree on anything. Ever. Ask one guy to describe a maple drum’s tone or sustain and he’s going to describe it as “bright, punchy, and warm” while over here on this other discussion forum, the same exact adjectives are being used to describe a birch drum. I’m not kidding. That exact same thing. Or, you’ll find people describing the same kind of drum two completely different and contradictory ways. One guys says with definitive confidence that maple is “warm”, while another guy will say maple is “cooler” or “more sterile” than, say, mahogany. Or whatever. Some say birch is the “vintage” sound, while over on this other website “mahogany” is listed as the “vintage” sound. On one particular website, a dude even drew graphs of the mids, highs, and lows on each wood’s tone and when I compared his graphs to what other people were saying, nothing linked up.
So Ryan and I, frustrated with the lack of consistency of objectivity in this research project, decided to take matters into our own hands. We took two floor toms of equal dimension (one maple, one birch), tuned them as close to each other as physically possible, and we both took turns blind-testing them on each other for nearly twenty minutes. And guess what? We couldn’t agree on the differences between the sounds either. Ryan described maple as brighter than birch, but then I would say the exact opposite thing. It was both very much apparent that there was a considerable difference between the two sounds, but frankly…we couldn’t find an objective reference point for either. There was a difference. That was all.
And pretty much all drum guys will at least agree to that: maple and birch sound different. So does mahogany. So does basswood. But the more I look into it, the less I’m convinced that anyone out there can actually describe the difference with any objectivity. It’s like comparing wines: there’s really no way of gauging the difference other than vague adjectives that may or may not even come close to what anyone else is hearing/tasting.
So, after spending most of my week attempting to consolidate any of this information into something useful and practical for all the drummers out there looking for answers, I’m just annoyed and even more confused. And I began confused because…
2) I’ve Never Really Cared That Much
Like I said, I love drumming. I’ve been doing it the vast majority of my life. But you know what? I’ve honestly never paid that much attention (until now) to the different tonewoods available. I’ve just always played what I had and what sounded good to me. My whole perspective has been, “Well, I like this. And chances are, the subtle differences between this and that aren’t going to be heard by anyone else but me, so who cares?” Drums are drums. We hit them with sticks. We are the bus-drivers. Obsessing over things like tone and resonance and sustain are lead-guitarist problems, not ours. Right?
His pretentiousness is only outmatched by the sound of his legs squeaking.
Well, turns out, not everyone out there is as lax with their attitude towards the various subtleties in drums as I am. Shells and the tonewoods that comprise them matter to a lot of people (which is why I was going to educate myself a little more and write this article in the first place). And I don’t necessarily disagree or think that people are wasting their time by paying attention to the differences or even having hard opinions on them. I think it’s important to have a strong comprehension of what you like and don’t like so you can keep with a consistent style or so you can make an educated guess on what equipment will work best for you. It’s good to understand the differences and it’s fair to have opinions.
What really fries my bacon though (mmm…bacon) is the fact that people will die on some pretty ridiculous hills when it comes to things that are almost totally subjective, like tone. They’ll draw conclusions because of their own limited experiences or personal opinions and rule out anyone else’s perspective as wrong or inferior. The maple people insist on maple being superior (though they fail to articulate why), and same with the birch people. Every opinion seems to be absolute instead of just…you know, an opinion. But before I start ranting about a much bigger issue than just drum shells, let me reign it back in by giving you my personal opinion on the subject…
3) A Drum’s Sound Has A LOT More to Do Than Just Wood
When a semi-to-professional drummer is hunting for a new kit, almost all the time their first concern is going to be about the wood. Do I go with maple or birch? Mahogany or basswood? What about those weird ones like luan or eucalyptus? Why not just steel or fiberglass or whatever? And I’ve found that a lot of people attribute most of a drum’s audible characteristics to the wood used in the shells. Which would make a lot of sense to outsider, certainly, and to most drummers. The shell physically makes up most of the drum and it’s certainly the most recognizable component. And as we learned from last week’s blog on guitar tonewoods, a lot of the sound quality can be derived from the materials used. It’s all true.
But I think there’s a misappropriation in it. By that I mean, drummer’s tend to put a lot of a drum’s merit towards the types of wood it uses and seem to ignore the half a dozen other (and arguably, more significant) factors involved in a drum’s tone. These factors include things like tuning, the heads that are put on the drums, the amount and thickness of the ply’s (layers of wood) used in the manufacturing of an individual drum, the physical dimensions of the drum, not to mention your personal playing style, the kind of sticks you use, and the kind of environment you’re playing in. All of these things factor hugely into a drum’s sound, and yet most drummers are content to just worry about the wood involved and leave it at that.
Which I think is what leads to the large amount of inconsistency on opinions with any given kind of tonewood; if you don’t factor the rest of that stuff in, you’re only arguing over a tiny percentage of the issue. For example, I could take two different snare drums, both maple, but change one other thing (heads, hardware, venue) and guess what? They might both be maple, but they’re going to sound extremely different. There is a lot more to consider than just the shells.
But then, really what it all comes down to is this…
4) Bigfoot’s Golden Rule: If it works, it WORKS!
One guy insists that a steel kit works best for rock and blues music. The guy in the comment section just below him will insist that, no, maple is best for rock and blues music. One guy will say that birch is the “vintage” thing, while his forum-neighbor will argue to high heaven that it’s in fact mahogany, not birch. And like all enthusiasts of anything, these debates will probably go on until we’re all just a bunch of dried up corpses found slumped over our keyboards in some futuristic archeological expedition. Hooray.
Allow me to just shut everyone up with this one thing: in the end, nothing matters but what you like. You, yourself. If you find that a steel drum kit works the best for you in what you do, but your elitist buddy is insisting you’re a moron for not using an exotic mahogany whatever-the-hell, ignore it. You like what you like and it works for you. End of story.
In the seventeen years I’ve been drumming, my first and still my favorite drum kit is my Dad’s obnoxiously bright yellow, mid-eighties Tama kit, probably synthesized in a laboratory somewhere by a coked-out homeless guy with a surplus of pop cans and sand. Compared to the two other sets that I have in my regular rotation (both made from fancy tonewood hybrids with some of the best shells money can buy, all custom and hand-crafted), I like the crappy yeller kit best. It works for what I do. When I’ve got it all tuned up, headed right, and I’m in my happy drumming zone, the thing sounds killer. And that’s all I need. Don’t get me wrong; the fancy kits sound great. But what’s more important to me is that the Tama kit makes me want to play. It encourages my passion. And I encourage those who get caught up in the detail obsession of their equipment to the point of losing interest in the music part to loosen up a little bit. It’s okay to like anything. In fact, it’s recommended.
Okay…so this blog didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to at the beginning of the week. But I think I’ve successfully ranted the socks off all…I dunno…six of our readers. So, thank you for reading and I apologize for your missing socks. I’m going to go beat the frustration I have with my drumming peers out on a couple of djembes. My therapist said it’ll “totally work, no joke”.
Stay excellent and have a good week!