As drummers, the snare drum is arguably the main tool we use to perform our craft. It exists in nearly all styles of percussion. From the battlefield to the studio, snare drums have been the focal point of drumming for quite some time. Set players today will refer to it as their “engine”. Even with a ten-piece kit, the snare is the driving force of the beat. So where did it come from? Why are we still so focused on this component of percussion? Well, it has a long and storied history …
The earliest form of a snare drum first showed up in medieval Europe. It was called a tabor by those who played it. Similar to today’s iteration, it was a double headed wooden shell with strands on one side. Imagine a two-sided tambourine with snare strands across the top. The heads were animal hides strung together across a wooden shell. The player would strap it over their shoulder and strike the surface with their hands, and later with sticks. Much like today, wire and chain were strung across one surface to give the drum a crisp rattle sound. Today, we refer to them as “snare wires”.
Similar to today’s snare drum, the tabor was used in a military setting to accompany the march of soldiers. It evolved into a cultural instrument and was often paired with a pipe. Musicians and entertainers of old would perform with the combo of instruments. The size and depth of the tabor continued to grow until it reached the shape of our modern field drum. By the time of American colonization, a fully realized snare drum was born. Its purpose would remain primarily that of a military nature for many years.
The evolution of the snare drum has led to a wide variety of options for the modern drummer to choose from. Shells come in an array of materials, from different woods to different metals. We commonly see steel shells, brass shells, maple, birch, etc. The shell sound can be further customized through head choice and wire choice. The possibilities are endless!
Today, marching snares are a world of their own. There is a ton of tradition and technique that goes into this culture. You will still find that the diameter of most marching snares is 14″. If you go with a smaller shell, your sound, in terms of quality and volume, will be smaller and quieter. If you go bigger, you’re asking your performers to carry a larger drum, which hinders the performers ability to perform on the move as effectively as their competition. Historically, the function of the marching snare has changed, but from its inception, the concept is the same: this is a snare drum we have to carry on the move. If it is too large or too small in diameter, you begin to have issues. The typical sizes are 14″x12″ or 13″x11″. A 13″ drum is most commonly used for a young player or middle school student looking to get early experience before moving to the heavier drums.
Snare drums in pipe bands, or pipe drums, are like the cousin of a modern marching snare. There are two differences. The first being the batter head, which has snare wires directly underneath the batter head. These can be coiled steel, like on concert and drum set snares, but they are usually a synthetic “gut.” On the resonant side of a pipe drum, you have the coiled steel, instead of guts. These differences emphasize the upper frequencies and give the drum what many marching percussionists refer to as a “snap.”.
The materials most commonly used for marching snare are either maple, birch, or a combination of the two. Marching snares are most commonly 6-ply. Reinforcement rings vary, but one very thick aluminum reinforcement ring is most common and sounds best. Aluminum is strong and light, given the task the reinforcement ring needs to achieve.
In its best application, a marching snare should be high pitched and loud, especially when compared to a set snare. Its original purpose was to communicate between armed forces, therefore volume was a priority. Today, that same level of volume and pitch is important. The style of play is considered rudimental, so hearing each stroke is a must.
Playing a snare almost always requires using sticks and with a marching snare, it is absolutely essential. Sticking technique and the stick you choose are paramount to getting the right sound and performance. We will usually see marching snare players use a much thicker stick than a set player to help with attack and dynamics. But that’s not to say there aren’t a wide variety to choose from. Vic Firth MS1, MS2, MS3, and MS4, will all work. The Ralph Hardimon Signature Marching Snare Stick, Promark System Blues DC-50, Promark BYOS “Bring Your Own Style” Hickory Wood Tip Drumsticks or Tom Aungst Signature Marching Snare Stick are the most common and well sounded sticks to achieve multiple techniques.
Just like with any other iteration of the snare drum, choosing the right head can drastically affect your sound. A huge part of marching drums is not only the sound, which typically takes top priority, but also the feel. In the case of marching snares, these two things take an equal priority. The feel of the head, through the sticks, must result in a tactile experience in your fingers that is suited to execute the music presented to you. Clarity and volume come from woven Kevlar fiber heads which are tuned to incredibly high tension. You stand no chance of tuning these heads with a normal drum set key and instead should opt for a ratchet key or high tension key. High tension keys are preferred because like a typical drum set key, you can feel the tension of the tension rods in your fingers and will have a good idea of when the head is becoming much too tight. If you don’t want to feel like you’re playing on a table, and have less paradiddles with more rolls in your passages, you may want an Aramid Fiber head, or a Remo black/white max, both of which are great choices.
The set player has a multitude of choices when it comes to snare drums. It is such an important component of the kit, that the choices we make when choosing a snare and its accessories have a major impact on our sound. However, there are many commonalities among the set player’s snare drums.
Most set snares are going to be 14 inches in width and between 5 and 7 inches in depth. Although those are the most common specs you’ll find, snare drums can also range between 6 and 16 inches in width and 2 to 8 inches in depth. You may find drummers who use a side snare that measures 10×3, or a drummer who used a 13×7 main snare. Again, the choice is yours! For now, let’s focus on the common sizes. Generally, a deeper snare will give you a more full-bodied sound, while a shallower drum will give you a higher pitch. The X factor here will always be tuning. A deep snare can be tuned up to have a tighter sound. But the common sizes are the most popular because of their ease to tune and ability to be used in many different genres.
Among wooden snares, you will most commonly see maple and birch shells, typically between 6 and 8 ply. A ply is a layer of wood put into a shell. If you look at the shell on most snare drums, you’ll be able to count the layers of wood. In some cases, more plies mean a higher volume and less plies mean a lower volume. There are some snare drums out there with 20 plies or more that will have a naturally high pitch. Maple is typically a warm and full-bodied sound, while birch is very punchy. Birch can be harder to tune, but when done right, the result is a very aggressive and poppy sound. You can also find snare drums made from oak, poplar, mahogany, cherry, ash, along with other woods.
Metal snares have a different sound entirely, usually definable by the sensitivity. Some of the most recorded snares of all time have come in a metal shell. The Pearl Sensitone or the Ludwig Supraphonic, for example, each have a very articulate and sensitive sound. Like wood shells, different metals will give you different tones. A brass snare drum will be very bright and high pitched, while a copper shell will have a rich, organic low end. You can find snare drums made from steel, chrome, brass, copper, nickel, bronze, and aluminum.
A set player may opt to use a piccolo snare, either in place of a traditional snare or as a side snare. A piccolo snare is basically a shallower snare drum. It ranges from 2 to 4 inches in depth, giving a much higher pitch which helps cut through the mix more than a standard snare drum tends to do. As a side snare, a piccolo just furthers your sound options. You can retain a standard size and also have the option of going for a higher sound with your side snare whether it be for some accents, a certain area of the song, or a whole new song. A side snare is often placed to the player’s left, on the other side of the hi hat. It can make for some impressive and unique fills as well. A lot of players use a piccolo as their main snare as well, since certain styles of music that call for a tighter sound can really benefit from a piccolo. Hip hop, pop, or even jazz can benefit from a piccolo being used as the main snare.
Just like any other snare, piccolo snares are offered in a range of shell material. As they tend to lean toward a higher pitch to begin with, you will usually see metals with brighter characteristics being used; steel, brass, and bronze are very common in piccolos. Different woods can also be used for an interesting piccolo sound. Birch and maple are often used. Again, with tuning and head choice, the possibilities are endless!
As drummers, the importance of the snare will never fade. It is our engine and our best tool in nearly any modern percussion setting. Understanding the science of your snare will help you get the best end result with your playing. If you truly understand how customizable your snare sound is, you can better improve your sound and continue to grow as a drummer.