In this post I’ll lay out the different types of heads and which will be the best for you. And I have a couple of pro tips at the end for getting heads to sound great.
Heads that will work on surdos, in no particular order:
- Goat skin heads on a wooden hoop
- Goat skin heads on an aluminum hoop
- Napa heads
- Inverted napa heads
- Plastic heads
- Bass drum heads
Goat skin heads tucked around a wooden hoop.
This is by far the most traditional, original head.
These sound amazing. Goat skin is my favorite sound. Every samba school in Rio that I saw uses goat skin drum heads. Even though they look like plastic they are actually goat skin with big graphics printed on them and a sheet of plastic "raincoat" over top.
Goat skin does not do well in the rain. If you live somewhere wet you will want to use a “raincoat” for these. Which is essentially a big piece of plastic that you put between the drum head and the top rim of your surdo.
You will need to give these heads more TLC than synthetic heads. Tune before playing and detune after playing to release the tension will make your goatskin head last a really really long time. However some people don’t want to do this or are intimidated by the idea.
Vegans and vegetarians have a huge problem with these heads for obvious reasons. Animal parts being used for musical instruments has a long history, not that that makes it right. But if it makes you feel better, a drum skin was not the only reason the goat died. Somebody probably ate it. Or maybe that makes it worse...
Check out goat skin heads on wooden hoops at GoSamba.net here.
Goat skin heads in aluminum hoop
This is a newish thing. Tucking wet goat skin around a wooden hoop is a lot of work. The process for making these aluminum rim heads is very similar to how they make plastic heads.
They provide the same great sound from goat skin but are a little lighter, and less work to make.
Same as the goat skin heads around a wooden hoop, you will get a lot more life out of your drum if you tune and detune your drums.
Same animal death problem, see above.
These are made with two layers. A layer of plastic and a layer of napa (naugahyde). The plastic layer is on the inside and the napa layer is on top. Let’s call it the Wallop side.
The plastic layer has teeny little holes in it. Don't be alarmed, they're there to allow air to easily flow between the layers as you play.
(What is naugahyde? Naugahyde is a fake leather. It's essentially a weave or knit that has had flexible plastic embedded in one side. Think fake leather furniture.)
These heads have a nice tone hum to them. However you lose the attack of a goat skin head.
These are great for indoor playing or studio recording where the drums will not necessarily be upfront in the mix. These heads are also nice for playing pagode.
Made entirely of synthetic materials these heads are waterproof.
The napa on top of the head eventually wears out, especially if someone doesn’t know how to hit a drum is playing them. This is not a good head for kids' samba group or to lend to a beginner. If you don't hit it square with the mallet the angled strike can stretch the naugahyde layer and rip it.
These are currently not available for surdos. They are available for tantans and rebolos. I have actually stopped ordering them because the inverted napa heads are such a better product.
Inverted napa heads
These heads have the napa on the inside and plastic on the wallop side. These sound really good! Second only to goat skin. Same nice tone hum but since the napa is on the inside of the drum you have a nice attack and it’s less prone to breaking than the old school napa heads.
These heads are waterproof!!! If you live somewhere wet and rainy like me, this is a super important consideration.
Don’t need to tune and detune.
Good for kids groups and newbies who might not have great playing technique quite yet.
I like these heads so much and I live in a rainy area, these will likely what I replace my surdo heads with when the time comes.
Check out inverted napa surdo drum heads at GoSamba.net here.
These are often used as resonance heads on the bottom of surdos. Some people use thicker plastic Asian factory bass drum heads on surdos because, until Go Samba came along, sourcing goat skin heads or napa heads was quite difficult in the USA. But the sound can be tinny if you don’t tune and muffle correctly. But there are some that do a pretty good job.
I have tips below for making plastic heads sound good.
Good for kids groups and newbies.
Check out plastic surdo drum heads at GoSamba.net here.
Bass Drum heads
Plastic marching band style bass drum heads, or kick drum heads can also be used on surdos. These are a LOT thicker than the Brazilian plastic heads mentioned above. Often they are two ply.
They have nice attack and can sound pretty decent. They are very easy to find in the U.S.
This is actually what I replaced my drum head with that my buddy stabbed with his repique. It was very difficult to find real surdo heads back then.
These are definitely water/beer/rain proof.
I have had some size problems with these heads. The fit seems to run small on the hoops, or surdo shells from Brazil are slightly too big. Others seem to not have this same problem, but I have found the fit so tight that I had to use a rubber mallet to beat it onto the drum.
Brands to look for are Evans MX2.
Pros: Waterproof, can get them to sound good, easy to find and purchase in the US.
Cons: Size problems, too tight.
Let's talk for a second about fiberskin heads. I have not included them in this list because I personally think that they sound like a turd. They seem like they might be the perfect hybrid of plastic and goat skin. They kinda look like goat skin... But they sound like poo. This is my personal opinion.
Do you love fiberskin heads? I'm open to being convinced! Write a comment.
Pro tip: Making plastic heads sound good
If you are looking for the absolute cheapest possible way to get a good sounding head on your surdo you can purchase a thin plastic head which is cheaper and put a layer of naugahyde between the head and the hoop. Tighten down and there you go! DIY napa head! It looks a little raw but it sounds good!
You can usually find sheets of naugahyde at your local fabric store in the remnants bin. Generally fabric stores have a bin for the ends of the bolts that are not really big enough for most projects. You can almost always find naugahyde there, and usually in wild colors that nobody wants :D
I had bright red naugahyde on one of my drums for years and it sounded great!
You can also use 1" gray weather stripping on the inside of your drum heads. Put the sticky side of the weather stripping on the inside of your drum head, just so that it almost touches the inside of the shell when you put the head on.
You want to leave a small gap so as you tighten the head over time it doesn't get smashed into the side.
I'll have to make a specific blog post on this topic with photos to really explain it.
When choosing a drum head think about:
Who will be playing it? Kids, newbies, you?
What style of music? Batucada, pagode, recording studio?
How much time and TLC do you have for your drum? Do you want to tune and de tune?
What's the weather in your area? Rainy, dry, hot?
Also, don't leave a drum in a hot or freezing car. Especially if it has goat skin heads. They will tighten and get all stretched out and weird, and then loosen and get all floppy. This will just cause your heads to wear out faster.
Let me know what you think. As everyone always says, leave a comment below!
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