Snare Drums: Gear Guide

January 19, 2021  
Posted by Sam Ash Music
Snare Drums: Gear Guide
Justin Ryan here! As a professional studio/touring musician and music teacher, I’m frequently experimenting with different snare drums. Whether I’m recording, teaching, rehearsing, practicing or performing there’s always a specific sound that I’m trying to achieve. With so many great snare drum options, trying to select your dream snare might be intimidating. To help guide your selection process, I have put together some information on the different materials, design processes and size options that are available to you. For some perspective, let’s start with a brief history of the snare drum to understand its importance and impact on percussion and music overall.

Evolution of the Snare Drum

The snare drum has been around for over 600 years.  It evolved from a medieval drum called the tabor, a wood cylindrical tube with an animal skin fastened on one end with hemp string. The batter side has a mounted string, called a snare, made from a material nicknamed “catgut”.  I don’t want to gross anyone out so we’ll skip the description. The tabor is held by a string in one hand and played by striking the snare side with one wooden drumstick. It has an open sound with decent low range and great mid and high range. Over time, the tabor evolved into the field drum.

Tabor From Egypt

The field drum came about in Europe during the 1400’s and was later brought to the America’s.  It is much larger than the early tabor with a diameter of around 16″ and width of about 16″. At this time the leather side strap, wooden rim, and multiple metal snares being screwed onto the resonant side are introduced.  The leather side strap enables you to hold the drum more comfortably and allows the drummer to strike the batter side head and rim with two wooden drumsticks. The wooden rim changes the way the animal skins are mounted on the drum. Rather than the skin being stretched over the side of the drum with hemp string going directly through the skin, skins are first secured to a separate wooden cylinder that lays on the edge of the shell. The wooden rim is placed on top of the drum head and rope is fastened to that instead of directly to the skin.  This helps the longevity of the drum head. The metal snares screwed onto the drum are more durable and give the drum more of a “snap”.

Pearl Philharmonic: A Modern Field Drum

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there were a lot of snare drum innovations.  Inventors started designing and patenting various snare throws, strainers, butt plates and tuning lugs. It is around this time that the modern concert/drum set snare drum is invented. The snare throw-off makes it easier to quickly change the drum from a snare drum to a tom-tom.  Percussionists no longer had to wedge a drum stick between the snares and resonant head to achieve a tom-tom sound.  This improved the longevity of the snares and resonant head.  The strainer revolutionized the sound of the snare by allowing the drummer to quickly and easily adjust the amount of snare sound. The snare strainer and butt plate makes it so that snares don’t have to be individually screwed onto the drum anymore.  Snare strands are now constructed in groupings which are fastened at the ends with a metal strip then mounted to the resonant side of the drum with string. This way you can mount or dismount the entire snare strands at the same time while the strainer makes it so you can adjust the amount of snare sound.  The tuning lugs make it easier to mount or remove the heads. They also make it easier for precision pitched tuning.

Snare Strand from Gibraltar

Importance of the Snare Drum

From keeping time for ancient dances to keeping time leading militaries into battle, snare drums have always played a major role. The snare drum helps set the tempo/pulse of a song as well as the energy level.  They are an accompaniment for dancers and other musical instruments. Snare drums have helped with communication in time of war; certain snare cadences, or rhythmic patterns, helped militaries find each other during battle. It also helped get the attention of villagers when a gathering was about to take place.

If you’re trying to learn how to play the snare drum, like anything else, you want to start with the basics. Snare drum rudiments act as a foundation for building drum patterns. Perfecting rudiments and being able to play them at any tempo helps build independence in your limbs, coordination, stamina and muscle, all important things needed to improve snare drum skills. At first, I practice the snare drum rudiments at a slow tempo to make sure I’m playing them properly. As I become more comfortable I slowly increase the tempo and eventually try to play them as fast and consistent as I can.

The musical term “beat” refers to the pulse that is throughout a song. The snare drum can be played on or in between each beat. Where the snare drum sits within each beat will either lower or build the energy of the song.

Snare drums can be played on the front beat meaning the strong pulse is on beats 1 and 3 in a measure of common time.  Snare drums can also be played on the back beats meaning the strong pulse is on beats 2 and 4 in a measure of common time. Emphasis on the front beat is popular in classical music while emphasis on the back beat is popular in rock and jazz music.  The snare drum can be played on the front beat which drives the pulse.  It gives the listener the feel of excitement and energy.  Classical music has snare drum parts on the front beat.  As music changed throughout history and the demand for playing multiple drums increased, the snare drum was placed with the bass drum and cymbal giving the snare drum leeway as to where it had to be played within a song.  This led to the creation of many drum set patterns with snare drum notes on all parts of the beat.

Choosing Your Snare Drum: Material

Snare drum shells can be made of many materials. The type of shell will affect the sound and look of the drum. When picking out a snare drum, you should listen to how much high, mid and/or low range frequencies it produces. Also, be aware of the sensitivity, response and how bright or dry and open or muted the snare drum is. There are many types to consider and they all have their benefits.

Let’s first do a run-down of our more common woods used to make snare drum shells. First we have birch. Birch snare drums tend to be bright and loud with a nice amount of high range. Maple snare drums are a great all around drum.  They have a balanced amount of low, mid and high range as well as dampened tone. Mahogany snare drums have similar tone to the maple ones. These drums can really pop! Walnut snare drums have a large amount of low and midrange with a little less high end and they have a full sound in the on or off position. Walnut wood can be found in a light or dark brown color.  Oak snare drums have a little bit of low and high range while the mid-range is prominent.  I love the look of natural oak wood grain. Beech snare drums almost have a balanced sound with a little extra emphasis on the low end. These drums are loud and open.  Cherry wood snare drums tend to have more high and mid presence with less low end. Bubinga snare drums have a lot of mid and high range. They are very bright sounding drums. I love the look of the Bubinga snare drums; the wood grain is beautiful whether the drum is left natural or stained.  Ash snare drums have a decent amount of low and high end range with a full amount of mid-range.  These drums are loud and boomy.

Mapex MPML3600 Features a Maple Shell

The alternative to using wood to build a snare drum is to use metal. There are several different types of metal snare drums. First, we have Steel snare drums. I really like steel drums. They have an even amount of low, mid and high range. These drums are snappy. Brass snare drums also have a balanced amount of frequencies with slightly more low end than steel models.  I also really like the Aluminum snare drums; they tend to have less low and mid range with a large amount of high end.  Finally, we have copper snare drums.  They have a lot of mid range and are very loud.  I love the look of the copper.

Drum Workshop Black Titanium Metal Snare

Synthetic drums is yet another option !  First we have fiberglass. This material offers supreme brightness. This drum has excellent high range making it easily noticeable in “the mix”. Next we have carbon fiber. I love the look and sound of carbon fiber. They have a lot of high and mid range making this type of snare drum very bright. Finally, I love the acrylic snare drums, the Tama Mirage 14″ snare drum in particular. This snare drum has excellent mid and high range and can really pop when tuned to a high pitch.

Tama SLP Mirage “Acrylic” Snare Drum with Tama’s Crystal Ice Finish

Finally, we have the hybrid snare drum. These drums are really cool!  Manufacturers take a few kinds of wood and/or metals and combine them by using one of the snare drum making processes. The manufacturer tries to combine the best qualities into one snare drum, ultimately creating the best sounding snare drum.  One hybrid snare that I really like is Simon Philips’ “The Monarch” 6.5″X14″ snare drum by Tama.  It has a balanced amount of high, mid and low range.  This snare drum sounds great and looks classy.

Choosing Your Snare Drum: Construction Process

Truly solid wood drums are created by an industrial process of cutting a chunk of wood from a tree.  The cylindrical log is then hollowed from the inside. These snare drums have the purest tone because there is no stress on the wood from being bent and there is no glue being used to connect pieces.  Since this kind of snare drum is made from one piece of wood with no glue it is considered to have a more natural-pure tone.  This snare drum shell appeals to all percussionists because of its sound and prestige but I’ll let you be the judge of that.

Stave snare drum shells are built by cutting pieces of wood and gluing them together to create a cylinder. Some percussionists prefer this production.  Rather than the wood being under stress, like in steam bent or multiply shells, the wood is relaxed offering pure tonal qualities.

Segmented snare drums shells are like stave snare drum shells. Pieces of wood are cut and glued together in a polygonal shape. These polygonal shapes are glued and stacked. The drum is left to dry then sanded.  Again, these drums offer a more pure tone because the wood is not under stress from being bent.

Steam bent snare drum shells are built by cutting pieces of wood to their desired length and placed in a steam box. When the wood is softened enough it is shaped into a cylinder and glued at the ends. The shell is then placed in a mould so the shell holds shape.

Multi-ply snare drum shell production has only been around since the early 1900’s.  These drums are made by cutting thin sheets of wood called plies, gluing them together and shaping the wood into a cylinder by placing them in a cylindrical mould. The wood cylinder is popped out, cut to the desired snare drum size and sanded. The drum is stained, painted or wrapped then finally assembled.  Muti-ply snare drums are considered to be more dry than solid wood drums because the glue and stress from being bent acts as a dampening agent.

There are a few different ways to make metal snare drums. First we have smooth cast metal drum shells. Liquid metal is poured into a sand mould then is left to cool. The mould is chipped away leaving a metal cylinder. The metal is then cleaned, sanded and shaped. These drums tend to be brighter sounding, appealing to the pop, rock and metal drummers. That isn’t to say that some jazz and orchestral percussionists may enjoy the sound.

Spun metal drum shells are made by cutting one piece of metal and rolling it over a metal cylinder.  It’s then cut, shaped and ready for assembly. This type of snare drum offers a pure tone since it is seamless.

Next we have hammered snare drums.  First off, I love the look of the hammered snare drums.  They look cool and they have a nice texture. The hammered metal drums will have a lower pitch than a non hammered drum.  This will make it so the drum has a dampened sound. They have a nice amount of low and high range and are some of my favorite sounding snare drums.  Hammered shells are cast or spun and finished off by placing the drum on a wooden frame then hammered with a metal hammer in desired spots.

Choosing Your Snare Drum: Sizes

You might be thinking, “How do I choose the right snare drum size”?  Well, the pitch and sound of your snare drum is relative to the diameter, width, materials and construction process. A snare drum that has a width of 5.5″ or less will have a tight pop. If you’re looking for a loud, open snare drum, go with a fat snare; one with a width of 6.5″ or more.  A common, snare drum diameter is 14″. If you’re looking for a naturally lower pitched snare drum go with one larger than 14″. If your looking for a naturally higher pitched snare drum then go with a diameter smaller than 14″. I love having two snare drums set up at the same time.  Right now I’m using a Tama Superstar EFX 6.5″X14″ as my primary snare. For my secondary snare, I’ve been using a Tama Starclassic Bubinga 6″X13″. If you have some free time, try experimenting with different size snare drums!

Pork Pie Hip Pig 7’Width
Pork Pie Hip Pig 5″ Width

Some other variables that will affect the look and sound of the drum are if the shell is wrapped, painted or lacquered and also which snare drum heads are on the drum.  Adding a wrap, paint or lacquer will ultimately deaden the natural sound of the drum. The thickness of the batter head will ultimately determine how open or muted the snare drum is while the thickness of the resonant head will determine how much or how little “snap” the snare drum has.

As a man who frequents the recording and rehearsal studios and performs live in concert I’m always using different snare drums. While some snare drums might seem best in a specific musical situation I have fun experimenting with snare drum setups. While one might seem unusual for a certain musical situation, it may be perfect for another. You might find some new sound that you love! Of course if, you’re recording for someone else’s songs, use the snare drum that the artist and/or producer prefer.

Sam Ash Selections

I’d like to share with you some of my favorite snare drum brands. There are a lot of snare drum companies out there and all have some great drums available. Among my favorites are Mapex, Ludwig, Gretsch, Drum Workshop and Tama.

Tama SLP Bubinga with Quilted Finish

The Sam Ash Difference

As you have learned there are many great snare drum options available to you, each with unique specs, material, and construction processes. The best way to find out what model is best for you is to try them out. At Sam Ash Music we always have a huge selection of snare drums and drummers just like you are ready to help you find what you need. Not near a store, not to worry, just call 1-800-472-6274. We have drummers standing by ready to prescribe you with the snare drum you need.

Categories: Expert Advice
Tags: Drums

About the Author

Sam Ash Music

Sam Ash Music has been serving musicians since 1924 when they opened their first store in Brooklyn, NY. Still family owned and operated, Sam Ash Music is dedicated to preserving the goals set by their founder - offering musicians of all levels the best possible selection, service and price.