As drummers, we have a plethora of ways to manipulate our sound. Whether it be tuning, dampening, or the heads we use, there are many choices to be made in terms of tone. However, the most important tonal choice to be made by far is the shell. The wood you choose for your shell acts as a base for your entire sound. Not only will it affect the quality of your sound, but it also lays the groundwork for the versatility of how you can manipulate the tone. Before you shop for your next (or first) drum kit, take some time to learn about what each wood sounds like so you can make the right selection for your style or genre.
Early iterations of the drum set were limited to only a few wood types like maple or poplar. However, today we have the luxury of experimenting with multiple options. While you can find kits made from exotic or niche woods, most modern drummers stick to a handful of go-to materials such as maple or birch. With hundreds of years to play around with different tones, there is a reason some woods are more common than others. Maple, for example, may be the most common shell material of them all.
The reason for maple’s popularity as a shell material is simple: it’s versatile. Most of us would like to be able to perform within many genres and be able to craft different tones from our kit. When you invest in an instrument, you obviously want to get the most bang for your buck. Maple shells are commonly referred to as the “best” you can get, but I don’t necessarily agree with that. It’s not that they are the best, they just give you the most freedom with the least amount of hassle. I have always found maple drums to be incredibly easy to tune and manipulate.
In terms of tone, maple shells have a very warm quality. However, they still pack a punch that any drummer can appreciate. In a live setting, these shells are going to produce enough attack to carry through the mix, but they will not stand out as “boomy” or “aggressive.” They offer a somewhat melodic quality that blends nicely with the other components of the band. Compared to other shell options, you will notice that maple has a much longer sustain that can be an asset depending on what sound you are going for. Maple is also a very common choice in the studio. While it may require more EQ’ing, the tuning range is wide open. These shells might demand more post production, but freedom of tone can be an advantage. Many other woods have a limited range that puts a ceiling on what you can do in post. While that is not necessarily a bad thing, it can be a nuisance if you are looking to play around with the tone.
Birch shells are vastly different from maple with its tone bing punchy and aggressive. You will often find drummers who play a more aggressive style of music leaning toward birch. As it is a harder wood than maple, it has a louder projection full of low end and attack. Birch is not as versatile as maple, but it can still be manipulated through heads and tuning, and it can be a perfect fit for the right situation. A choked and dampened birch shell is my personal favorite tone for a drum. Killing the overtone on a birch shell can produce a wonderful thud that is perfect for rock and roll. Many rock drummer throughout history have went with birch shells for just that reason, such as Keith Moon who’s noted for his loud and bombastic sound.
In a live setting, birch can blow your hair back. It soars through the mix with a ton of power and attack. Sitting behind a birch kit on stage is a very powerful feeling. A good live mix will usually require you to dampen the shell with moon gels or thicker heads to mute your sound so your tone is balanced well. While it can be a drawback to have such an aggressive tone, it is still a perfect choice for the right situation, especially in metal and rock.
In a studio setting, birch is often preferred because of its natural sound, requires very little EQ’ing in most situations, and is often sampled for future use. The natural punch of the shell can translate that live feeling into a recording.
You may jokingly associate this wood with furniture and architecture, but it is making its way into the drum world more and more often, especially with boutique kits. I suspect that you will start to see cherry shells more frequently, as they serve as a nice middle ground between birch and maple. Like maple, cherry shells give a warm and expressive tone. However, it’s a much denser wood, so many birch-like qualities come with it; it’s punchy and dark qualities combine with a warm tone to give you the best of both worlds.
On stage, a cherry shell kit will offer the same kind of low end and punch as birch. But it’s warm sustain gives it a different feel. It cuts through a live mix with good volume while maintaining its warm sensitivity that allows for a more melodic feel. When recording with these shells, you have the luxury of being able to get a wider tone range while still capturing the attack of a powerful kit.
Like cherry wood, walnut shells can offer you the best of both worlds from maple and birch. Walnut is a hard wood that gives off a darker more powerful tone, but much of it’s character is similar to a maple shell. You get the warmth of a maple drum with much more attack. Since it’s a denser wood, walnut will be quite controllable in the studio. Yet you can still capture a powerful attacking feel from a walnut kit.
Oak is another dense wood that is used for drum shells. Like birch, its hard material offers a punchy tone with a ton of low end. Yet the tone still has a bright quality to it. In a live setting these drums are loud and powerful. Many drummers love to sit behind an oak kit on stage because of the projection. However, it’s not abrasive to the point of overpowering the stage mix. In a studio setting oak really shines since it’s a shell that needs little to no EQ’ing and its natural bright tone is perfect for tracking.
Construction Of A Drum Kit
Another thing to think about when searching for your tone is how the shell is constructed because the way the shell is made is just as important as the material in terms of tone. Some drums will be made from one solid piece of wood, but most shells will be formed from multiple plies of wood.
Opting for a solid shell is a choice you make if you are look for volume and sustain. And some will say that the tone is more “pure.” But due to the construction of these shells, the cost can skyrocket. You also won’t have a blending of tone that most drummers prefer. Multiple ply shells not only blend the tone, but they also have the option to combine multiple tones. It’s becoming more common to see shells that are constructed with more than one type of material. This can be advantageous if you are trying to combine certain qualities of different shells into one. Since most shells are constricted using plies, some manufacturers are beginning to use different plies of wood to create one shell. For example, a maple/birch hybrid shell can exhibit the punchy and powerful qualities of birch while still having the warm and rich tones of maple. Maple and oak is another common combination. This hybrid shell sounds like a volume boosted maple. It has warm and tones and a long sustain that is further amplified by the oak plies, giving it a large attack.
There are a number of different woods that will give you a unique tone, whether live or in the studio. The best way to figure out what wood is right for you and your needs is to play as many options as you can. Don’t forget that the wood is the base of the entire tone! While you can still make adjustments, the shell you choose will give you the bulk of your sound. Listen to different types of woods in person and hear it for yourself!