Mel Lewis on Calf Skin Drum Heads
SKF NOTE: This is from an interview with Mel Lewis in his New York City apartment on September 8, 1977. An edited version appeared as Mel’s first Modern Drummer feature interview.
Mel, a Modern Drummer Advisory Member, was telling me at this point in the interview, how MD founder Ron Spagnardi “just called me about calf heads. Where you can find them and how you can choose them. Because I’m one of the few guys who knows how to do that. You can get ’em, but they’re hard to get. Calf skin has to come from a rawhide manufacturer.”
I mentioned the American Rawhide Company, Mel mentioned the National Rawhide Company. “They make a limited amount [of calf heads], a very small amount. And sell them to a few drum companies and a few stores. That’s all.” It’s unclear from the interview transcript if Mel was talking about both companies or only the National Rawhide Company.
Mel must have been endorsing Remo drum heads in 1977. Finding out he actually used a mix of calf and plastic heads was one of those neat factoids that popped up quite often during the early MD interviews. Drum advertisers had almost a complete lock on what drummers on the outside knew about professional drummers’ equipment.
Mel was either my first or second interview for MD. And what a great guy to interview!
Scott K Fish: Do you use calf skin heads on all your drums?
Mel Lewis: No. Just the top of the snare drum and the bass drum batter head. That’s all. All my snare drums. I use calf skin on the top, on the batter head. And plastic on the bottom. I’ve been doing that for years. Remo knows that. Remo understands why I do it, and he’s always been kind enough. Naturally, his aim in life is to perfect a synthetic head that will be just like calf skin, you know. So he’s trying and trying. Nobody has done it.
SKF: Have you tried the Canasonic heads?
ML: I’ve tried that, but I still think that’s junk, you know. That’s still plastic. Um, they’re not bad.
SKF: They tend to deaden a sound.
ML: Yeah. You don’t have that liveliness. With brushes, none of them make it. Only calf.
SKF: I think you’re the only drummer I know of still using calf, except maybe Jake Hanna.
ML: I don’t know if I’m the only one. There’s got to be others. But I’m the only one that’s pretty outspoken about it. And maybe Jake does. I don’t know. I don’t think so. I think it’s a little hard to use them out in California. There’s something about the weather out there. It’s a little rough. But, they say it’s bad – the weather – back here. But, see, I like it damp. I prefer a little moisture in the head. I don’t like it bone dry. Then they’re too tight.
SKF: You have to tune calf heads about five times a night, don’t you?
ML: Naw, maybe twice, really. Sometimes I don’t have to tune them all. Sometimes it’s perfectly okay when I sit down, and that’s the way they stay all night.
SKF: Do you start out tuning the heads tight?
ML: No. I don’t like them tight. I don’t like real tight drumheads.
SKF: What if a drummer wanted to use calf skin heads and also wanted a tight, crisp sounding snare drum?
ML: He can get. He can certainly get it. But he’s got to remember that he’d better not leave it that way or he’s a goner. A calf head, the tighter you make it, naturally, it stretches. That head will probably go dead on him a lot sooner than sort of keeping it medium.
SKF: Tune the head down?
ML: Yeah. You’ve got to remember to change the tension at the end of the night. Frankly, I don’t do anything, and everything works out pretty good. But there’s something about the feeling and the sound. That’s all. The feeling and the sound of a plastic head just doesn’t feel right to me. I don’t know.
SKF: Plastic heads don’t bother you on your tom-toms?
ML: No. Tom-toms are alright. I’m not thrilled about the sound on the tom-toms, but it’s alright. And I don’t have time to mess with them. I tune the tom-toms and… you know. Tom-tom heads, you it it so damn hard and you get all those dents in them. That gives you an idea of why it’s basically dangerous to have calf. You just don’t hit a snare drum as hard as you hit tom-toms for some reason or other. At least I don’t.
When I want a lot of noise out of a snare drum it’s usually with a rim shot. But tom-toms, you want some… when you give ’em that power thing.
Of course, most of the dents in my tom-tom heads were created by other people sitting in on them. And that’s the truth! I don’t put dents in my drums either! But anytime a drummer has to use my drums, or sits in, they manage to dent up my heads – which really bugs me.