Last month we discussed hoops. This time we’re discussing the thickness of the shell and what you can expect sonically from the various designs. Drum shells have been made in different thicknesses over the years, from a single half-inch piece of wood to thicker versions comprising up to forty plies.
Drum shells are most commonly created from plywood, which is made by gluing together thin layers of timber into a large sheet. Some companies stagger the wood grains vertically, horizontally, or diagonally for increased stability. But more than the grain direction, a drum shell’s overall thickness is the crucial variable that affects the sound of the instrument.
It’s important to understand what your instrument is designed to sound like before you buy it. Otherwise you could end up struggling with your drums if you’re trying to use them in a manner that’s too far from their intended application. Of course, a skilled player can coax good sounds from any drumkit, but there are attributes of different shell types that can make it easier to get the sounds you’re looking for. For example, if you need to get a lot of power and projection from the drums in order to cut through distorted guitar tones in a metal band, using thin-shelled, small-diameter drums will cause you to work much harder than you would if you used larger drums with thicker shells.
Drum Shell Thicknesses
Here are some of the most common shell thicknesses and their intended applications. Keep in mind that these are basic and generalized analyses of drum sounds based upon shell thickness only.
Single-ply (very thin). Thin single-ply shells are most commonly made with synthetic materials, such as carbon fiber, acrylic, and steel. A very thin wood shell will go out of round or crack easily. Contrarily, carbon fiber is very stable when used for thin shells. The thinness allows for the most resonance, but acrylic and carbon fiber usually produce very dry drum sounds. Metal materials are the opposite and have a lot of overtones, so drums made from them can cut through easily at high volumes. Metal shells also have relatively defined pitches. Drums made from metal, such as the venerable Ludwig Black Beauty snare, usually incorporate design elements that help to control the excessive ring of the shell.
Three- to five-ply shells. Shells with three to five plies are usually considered thin. Most shells of these thicknesses will have reinforcement rings installed to help keep them in round, which is paramount to maintaining a pure tone. When a drum is out of round, you can’t tune it evenly, and you often get odd growling overtones. Sometimes you can see wrinkles in the head even when there’s some tension applied to it.
A simple method to check the roundness of a shell is to remove the bottom head and place the drum on a piece of poster board or drawing paper. Lightly trace the bottom of the shell onto the paper. Remove the drum, and draw four evenly spaced lines that extend from one edge of the image to the other and cross the center. Measure each line from the center to the edge. If the lines are all the same length, the drum is in round. If not, the shell has warped.
Thinner shells allow for a resonant, “puffy” sound. The reinforcement rings not only help with the stability of the shell, but they also supply more wood at the top for the bearing edge. Thinner drums don’t usually project as much as thicker drums, and many vintage drums are made from thin, three- to five-ply shells.
Six- to eight-ply shells. These are the most common shell thicknesses used in modern drums. They offer the most versatile sound in a design that will remain stable and round. Most manufacturers use two-ply sheets when they make shells, so using drums with a ply count in multiples of two is the most cost-effective option. These drums may or may not include reinforcement rings. When they are utilized, it’s most often to add additional wood at the top for more bearing-edge profile options. Six- to eight-ply thicknesses add projection and bottom end to the sound. They also offer the widest range of tuning.
Nine- to eleven-ply shells. These thicker shells have the most projection and produce some of the lowest fundamental pitches (depending on the wood species being used). Usually larger-diameter drums have thicker shells for these reasons. A thicker shell can have a drier sustain because it takes a lot of energy to get that much wood to vibrate. Bass drums and floor toms usually sound good with thicker shells.
Twelve- to forty-ply shells. Again, it takes a lot of energy to move a very thick-plied shell. Drums made from these types of shells project boldly but don’t usually resonate very well. This characteristic can be used to good effect in bass drums because they’ll require less muffling. Thick-ply drums are typically very dry and respond best when hit very hard. A super-thick shell doesn’t work for shallower or smaller-diameter drums because there’s too much wood in a small area to resonate freely.
Steam-bent shells. The true sound of the wood being used in a drum comes through best when the shell is created from a single piece of timber. But steam-bent shells have a few drawbacks. First, they’re often quite expensive because of the labor involved in their construction. The wood has to be heated, bent into forms, and then cured for a long time. Also, the shell will be seamed at a single point, which can lead to the drum bending out of round over time.
Stave and block shells. Stave shells comprise blocks of wood cut at specific angles and then glued together to make the shape of the drum. The staves have to be cut into a round shape, which is a very difficult job. Stave and block drum
shells are usually more expensive than ply shells, and they are often very thick (1″–1.5″). On the positive side, they tend to have a lot of sonic character and great projection, especially at louder volumes.
I hope this overview of shell types helps you better understand how each is designed to be used. Choosing the right type of shells for your drums can help you discover your unique voice on the instrument. Next month we’ll discuss snare beds. See you then!
Russ Miller has recorded and/or performed with Ray Charles, Cher, Nelly Furtado, and the Psychedelic Furs and has played on soundtracks for The Boondock Saints, Rugrats Go Wild, and Resident Evil: Apocalypse, among others. For more information, visit russmiller.com.