Many of my students ask me what the best type of drum head to buy is, and of course I tell them that all depends on what type of sound you are after. Today we are going to explore some of the more popular options in funk and jazz music.
Drum heads can change the sound of our kit dramatically. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve changed the heads on very mediocre drum kits and had surprising experiences. Changing one’s heads and tuning them correctly can be a great fix to reshaping your sound when you are not able to change your drums.
Let’s take a look at some of the different heads that sound great in jazz or funk.
So you want your snare drum to breathe the essence of the 60s and 70s funk drummers? Most of the drummers from that area such as Clyde Stubblefield (James Brown’s drummer) or Maurice White (Earth, Wind and Fire) used Remo coated Ambassador heads or Ludwig Weathermaster mediums.
The coated ambassadors are a staple of the time—they were used all over the place in the 60s and 70s in jazz and funk records alike. Drummers (me included) still swear by them today. Not only do these heads perform exceptionally, they are ubiquitous and easy to acquire along with being one of the cheaper heads on the market.
For most styles of music, even heavier rock styles, these heads work great for snare drums. However putting these heads on the toms is a bit unique to jazz and funk styles. These are coated heads, which naturally make the sound more dampened and muffled then clear heads, which sound more open and are more popular for rock and metal.
Another popular head used in the 60s and 70s were that of Ludwig’s own brand. Although slightly thinner than the Remo heads they made up for it by the thickness of their paint. The result is that they sound even more muffled/compressed on your snare and toms, which sound freaking awesome.
Though these heads sound great and were a staple of the time, they have since become discontinued by Ludwig and are therefore harder to get your hands on. The last I checked they still sell them on Amazon but are not listed on their website, otherwise you need to look for them at vintage drum stores.
It is a shame, since these heads did define an era, and they produce a warm tone that many argue is quite different then the Ambassadors.
Another important detail to mention while we’re on the subject is what is the type of drum we should use? To really nail the sound of Funk, and the sound of the drums produced in the 60s and 70s a quite popular drum was the Ludwig 14x5 Supraphonic snare drum.
It is said that this snare drum is ‘the most recorded snare drum in history’ and that is not an understatement. Probably most of your favorite funk records from the 60s and 70s had a Supraphonic on them on more than one track and you can see in the photos of the recording sessions that this was indeed the case.
Therefore it is not a stretch to say that the Ludwig Supraphonic is the quintessential funk snare drum. We could also add to that list the Ludwig Black Beauty, which was another drum that dominated the landscape. With its brass build and producing warm smack these legendary snares are extremely satisfying drums to play.
I have a Supraphonic from the 1960s and it is a joy to play. There are plenty of the vintage ones for sale along with Black Beautys. Also, if you are interested they also make new ones that are of the same incredible build.
Like I mentioned before, coated toms sound great in jazz and funk contexts. Toms in jazz and funk are meant to sound warm, textural, melodic. They do not need to be clear and piercing as they do in rock or metal.
With this in mind, we can recommend the Remo Ambassadors and Ludwig Weathermasters (if you can find them) as before. Another great addition to this list would be the Evans G2 series, which are very warm and punchy, and a bit thicker if you are hard-hitter or looking for a thicker head.
Like the toms and snare drum, coated heads sound good on the bass drum too. These heads produce a subtler attack with warm mids and lows that meld perfectly into a jazz or funk setting.
Clear heads on the bass drum can still work great in jazz and funk settings as well as if you are a heavy hitter. These heads are thick and durable 2 ply heads which are fun to explore if you feel like your bass drum sounds a bit weak.
Drum heads are of course not everything. The drum, the stick and of course, the way you play makes a huge difference on the sound you will get out of the drum.
With the bass drum for example: experiment with muffling you bass drum. This can be as simple as stuffing you bass drum with a blanket or pillow. This works great for getting a punchy, warm sound out of the kick. For funk this works excellent (for jazz not so much, an open and sustained sound is much more musical in a straight jazz context).
You also may want to experiment with different bass drum beaters. For these styles of music, stay away from hard beaters which make the attack a bit to aggressive. Instead, opt for soft (even fluffy) beaters which reduce the attack and give the kick a warm, rounded thud, suiting the music much better.
In closing, there are many considerations to changing your sound and drum heads are certainly a huge factor. However, don’t forget that tuning your drums and the dynamics at which you play also have just as big an influence in shaping your sound.
Best of luck in choosing your heads.
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Ben Heckler is a multi-instrumentalist and musician from Portland, Oregon. Currently Ben lives in Barcelona where he teaches drum lessons, writes and records original music for his band Sea Fuzz as well as playing drums for one of the biggest Beatles tribute bands in Europe, The Flaming Shakers.
Ben is constantly creating and composing various types of music, video, and artwork for a multitude of projects that come his way. He hopes to use his platforms to share, help and inspire others to create in their own ways.