What is a snare drum?

Author: Simon DasGupta.
September 16, 2022

In this article

If you are new to drumming, you will soon find that the snare drum is the workhorse of your drum set.

  • Five things every beginner drummer should know about the snare drum.
  • Understanding different drum heads and shells.
  • How to minimize snare buzz and vibration.

The snare drum is the centerpiece 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!

This article will give you essential background on shell types, drum heads, snare wires, sizes, and applications. If any of the names and terms below are new to you, we have a helpful article, which is perfect for jargon busting!

Here are five things every beginner drummer should know about the snare drum.

1. Snare drums have different shells, and each can produce a different tone.

The drum's shell refers to the drum itself, without hardware (rims, lugs, and bolts) or drum heads attached.

A snare drum shell can be made of metal or wood. While most 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 to achieve the desired tone).

Each wood or metal can produce a different tone, 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, which is the head you strike with your drum stick. It is much heavier in weight than the bottom head, referred to as the snare side head (since the snare wires vibrate against this head), and can also be called a hazy drum head. Snare batter heads are mostly coated and can be single or double-ply.

3. The snare wires create the buzz of a snare drum.

The snare wires create the unique "crack/snap" sound 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, a lever on the side of the drum. Snare wires create an interesting nuance called snare buzz. This article dives into the wonders, frustrations, and, ultimately, the musicality of this snare drum feature! Snare wires can come in various "strand" numbers, with the most common being 20 strands (meaning 20 individual wires).

4. Snare drums have 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 snare 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.

A snare drum's three most common tones 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 happens when you play the drum's center with the stick's tip while striking the lower rim with the stick's body simultaneously (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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