Natural animal skin and synthetic snare drum heads are the two most common types. Within each of these categories, different styles of snare drum heads provide different sound and rebound characteristics. As a result, a drummer can use one type of drum head in one situation and a different drum head in another.
Natural animal skin was the “original” drum head, used not only on snare drums but also on other drums. It has been used in countries all over the world for centuries. The type of skin used is determined the availability of wild or domesticated animals. Because different skins have different thicknesses, this has a significant impact on the drum’s sound. Until the mid-1950s, skin snare drum heads were the norm, with calfskin drum heads being the most common.
Animal skin is extremely sensitive to changes in humidity and temperature, which is one reason why calfskin snare drum heads have fallen out of favor in modern performance settings. This makes it much more difficult to control not only the drum’s pitch, but also its resistance feel. Some people oppose the use of animal skins because they are concerned about animal rights. Calfskin heads are still used some groups who strive for an authentic sound of older works.
Chick Evans invented the polyester drum head in 1956. The concept was that a synthetic drum head would be more durable and stable than an animal skin drum head. Remo Belli and Sam Muchnick developed a head made of biaxially oriented polyethylene terephthalate (BoPET) the following year, which is sold under the brand names Mylar® and Melinex®. This head quickly gained popularity, and it is now one of the two main synthetic snare drum head options.
Poly-paraphenylene terephthalamide, also known as Kevlar®, is another popular synthetic drum head material. Kevlar® was developed for tires in 1964-1965 polymer scientist Stephanie Kwolek, but development teams quickly saw other applications for the material. Due to the high number of bonds in Kevlar®, snare drum heads made of this material are among the most durable.
When comparing Mylar® and Kevlar®, Mylar® has more “give” than Kevlar®. As a result, it is easier on the wrists and hands. The disadvantage of Mylar® is that the “give” provided the head necessitates more frequent tuning. Kevlar® has a high rebound and can withstand high tension, making it ideal for certain types of snare drums, such as those used in marching bands. As a result, it allows for very clean articulation, but the rigidity of the head makes it less suitable for those who do not have complete control over their technique.
When considering the various drum head types, keep in mind that none of them are necessarily better than the others. The choice of snare drum head is purely a matter of the drummer’s sound preferences as well as his or her physical requirements. Each snare drum head has a specific musical function.