Drum Head History.

This is a snippet from my book: The Drum: A History which can be found HERE.

The first drum head decomposed without a trace several thousand years ago. It is likely that it was a reptile or fish skin stretched over hollowed wood or even clay and may have been discovered by accident when drying a skin. A chance discovery of such a sound must surely have evoked great excitement and fascination, much as it still does today. Other skins were experimented with over time and larger animals were used to accommodate larger drums. Up until the middle ages, the skins were attached by way of the counter hoop and rope tensioning but this method was now being replaced by attaching the skin directly on to a separate flesh hoop.

As time went by, the quality and preparation of the skin improved. Expert tanners evolved who could prepare these animal hides to produce high quality drum heads and in the nineteenth century firms appeared who could supply these in large quantities as well as producing other products such as book bindings, lampshades, and sporting equipment. The heads were often priced as untucked with an additional fee for the service of tucking the head. Some drummers chose to carry out this task themselves, especially today as it is a minority endeavour and many of the specialist companies have long since closed their doors. The task is quite laborious as decisions need to be made that will greatly affect the end product. First of all a hide needs to be selected. Factors such as age, location, climate, diet, colour, and quality of hide all affect the end result. The thickness of the selected hide may be determined by intended style of use; the thicker heads suiting reproduction of early music for example. A choice of animal must also be considered, with calf and goat being the two most common in Europe and North America. Once selected, the hides are soaked to loosen the hair and remove unwanted particles. They are then rinsed with water and the hair and flesh completely removed. At this point they are stretched and dried gradually, which increases durability. Once dried they are ready to be cut to size and this is always a few inches larger than the circumference of the drum, to leave enough skin for tucking around the flesh hoop.

The hide is now ready to be tucked, or lapped, on to the wooden flesh hoop. The skin is laid on a flat surface and the flesh hoop placed centrally upon it. By use of a blunt steel blade with an upturned end, known as a lapping tool, the skin is brought up from the outside, over the flesh hoop, around it and then tucked up underneath it, between the hoop and the hide. Once pushed up as far as it will go, it should be clamped in place whilst the procedure is repeated diametrically around the head ensuring even tension throughout. The skin is now ready to be placed upon the drum shell and the counter hoop applied before screwing in the tension rods. This is a process that many have neither the time nor the inclination to become involved with and to add to the inconvenience, throughout the mid twentieth century the price of calfskin heads was rising dramatically, which left the market open for a cheaper alternative.

Du Pont had been testing the synthetic polyester film Mylar during the early 1940s and it soon began to be used commercially. Once found to be suitable for drum head, many people began to experiment with it and the result was the synthetic drum head we enjoy today.