Your snare drum is the workhorse of your drum set. Along with your bass drum, you will most likely play this drum more than any other on your set, so understanding the components and nuances of your trustee back-beater is essential! If any of the names and terms below are new to you, we have a helpful glossary, perfect for jargon busting!
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1) Snare drums have different shells, and each shell can produce a different tone.
The shell of the drum refers to the actual drum itself, without any of the hardware (rims, lugs and bolts) or drum heads attached. A snare drum shell can be made of metal or wood. While the majority of metal shell snare drums are made from steel, other popular metals include brass, aluminum and copper. Wood snare drums can be made from a low cost general purpose wood at the lower end of the pricing spectrum, including basswood and poplar wood. Higher end drums can be found with maple, birch, walnut, oak, or even a hybrid mix of these woods. (This is possible because drums are constructed by layering multiple plies of wood on top of each other, and thus it has become common to mix various plies together to achieve a desired tone). Each wood or metal can produce a different tone, and so it's a good idea to visit your local drum store to hear the differences in the flesh, or listen to sound samples on manufacturer's websites. Generally, wood shell snare drums are warmer in tone, whereas their metal counterparts can be louder and bolder.
2) A snare drum has two drum heads - both very different in weight.
The top drum head on your snare drum is referred to as the batter head, and this is the head that you strike with your drum stick. It is much heavier in weight than the bottom head, which is referred to as the snare side head (since the snare wires vibrate against this head - see below), and can also be called a hazy drum head. Snare batter heads are mostly coated, and can be single or double ply. This article explains the differences between drum heads. Snare drums are generally tuned much tighter than tom-toms, as this blog explains.
3) The snare wires create the buzz of a snare drum.
The snare wires create the unique "crack/snap" sound that occurs when the drum is played. When the top head is played, the snare wires on the snare side head vibrate. How much they vibrate depends on how loose or tight you have them set, and this is adjusted using the snare strainer on the side of the drum, using a simple dial. The snare wires can also be disconnected using the snare release mechanism, which is a lever on the side of the drum. Snare wires create an interesting nuance called "snare buzz", and this article dives into the wonders, frustrations, and ultimately, musicality of this feature of the snare drum! Snare wires can come in various "strand" numbers, with the most common being 20 strands (meaning 20 individual wires).
The image above shows a 14 inch snare drum from the snare-side. The snare strainer and release mechanism can be seen at the top/right of the the drum.
4) They come in different DIAMETERS and depths.
The most common diameter of a snare drum is fourteen inches, although thirteen inches is also a popular size. Snare drums that are smaller in diameter than this (such as 10 inch "popcorn" snare drums) can produce a very high pitched sound, and are best used as a secondary "effects" snare drum, to expand your sound palette. The depth of the drum also varies. Five and six inch depths are by far the most common, but they can also be as shallow as three inches (known as piccolo snare drums, for a sharp sound with less ring) and as deep as eight inches (known as a Soprano snare drum, for more depth and resonance). The most common snare drum sizes are 14x5, 14x5.5, 14x6, 13x5, 13x5.5 and 13x6.
5) How you strike the drum makes a big difference.
The snare drum is a very dynamic instrument, meaning that it will produce a different sound depending on how hard or soft (or anything in between) you strike the drum. The three most common tones from a snare drum occur through regular hits, rim shots and rim clicks. A regular hit occurs when you strike the drum in the center with the tip of the drum stick, producing a controlled sound. A rim shot occurs when you play the center of the drum with the tip of the stick, while striking the lower rim with the body of stick at the same time (producing a bigger, more aggressive, open sound). A rim click is played by pressing the lower palm of your hand on the snare drum, while playing the rim with the shoulder of the stick. (This produces a wood-like sounding click, hence the term rim click).
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