Ultimate Guide to
Snare Drums

Are you used to using the standard snare that comes with your kit, but now you're thinking about branching out?

In our snare guide, we take a look at all the different shell materials available to drummers and compare and constrast the tones.

Introduction

One of the snare drum's main goals is to allow each drummer express their individuality. One of the main ways manufacturers cater for this is by experimenting with a wide array of shell types. The various sonic characteristics of different materials and sizes heighten the individuality of their drums and allow them to create a wide range of tailored and unique sounding instruments. This can really add a distinctive element to your drum tone and you'll stand out as a player.

In this guide, we’ll be exploring:

  • Different types of snare drum
  • Snare drum materials
  • Snare drum sizes
  • Popular snare brands
  • Getting the best sound out of your snare

Without further ado, let’s begin!

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Basics: what is a snare drum?

There’s no harm starting from the top. A snare drum features a round frame with two heads – one on top, one on the bottom. The snare element refers to a selection of metal wires attached to one or both of the heads – most commonly on the bottom.

This wires can be tightened against the drum head or loosened completely. When tightened (on/engaged) you get a bright, quick attack. When loosened, (off/disengaged) the sound resembling a high-pitched tom.


The different types of snare drum

There are many different snare drums for different applications. Each one has a distinct sound, feel and, in some cases, appearance. Here are some of the most common snare drum varieties that you’ll come across:

Drum kit snare drum

The most common snare style among contemporary players, used for everything from funk to death metal. As the name suggests, they’re designed to be used as part of a drum kit. Drum kit snares usually have a diameter around 14” with depths often ranging from 5” to 8”.

Concert snare drum

Often similar to the above, but used in a percussive/orchestral context. This may mean different drum heads, snare wires or tuning.

Marching snare drum

Marching snare drums are usually deeper than orchestral or drum kit snares, sometimes up to 12”. They share a similar diameter, around the 14” mark. Again, as the name suggests, they’re usually found in marching ensembles.

Pipe band snare drum

The pipe band snare has a unique sound, higher in pitch and with a very short attack. They’re very similar to marching snare drums, but usually with an additional set of snare wires – the reason for their unique sound, instantly recognisable alongside pipe music.  

Piccolo snare drum

These are much like drum kit snares, but a lot shallower in depth – in some cases as shallow as 3”. This gives them a higher pitch with a brighter attack. As with drum kit snares, they’re most often seen as part of a drum kit.

Soprano snare drum

Somewhere in between a drum kit snare and piccolo snare, but sometimes found with smaller diameters. This gives them a higher pitch but with more of a full, colourful dynamic.

These are the main variations of snare drum that you’ll find – chances are, you’ll find what you’re after among this lot. Honourable mentions: tabor, tarol and firecracker snare drums.

Snare drum materials

It goes without saying that the material a snare drum is made of can make a huge difference to the sound. Snare drum materials can be divided into two main categories: wood and metal. Here’s a selection of the most popular materials to choose from:

Wood snare drums

  • Birch – great for projection due to good low-end response and pronounced, crystal-clear treble. Plenty of attack, great for more aggressive styles.
  • Maple – slightly more well-rounded than Birch, but still with a healthy bass response. Clear, balanced sound makes it highly versatile.
  • Beech – this hard wood offers a balanced tone not dissimilar from Maple, but with a slight mid-boost and accentuated low-end. Great for a super-fat snare sound.
  • Mahogany – known for a rich warmth and resonance in the bass and low-mid frequencies. Mahogany used to be a gold standard for shells, so is associated with a vintage sound.
  • Poplar – a softer wood, Poplar is becoming increasingly popular. Its sound is comparable to Mahogany but with some of the bass substituted for more top-end.

Metal snare drums

  • Brass – as the earliest metal snare material, brass is the most familiar. Accentuated top-end but not without some bass/low-mid warmth.
  • Aluminium – a sharp, dry sound with a sparkling treble response. Great for cutting through pretty much any mix but not for the faint-hearted.
  • Steel – boosted mids and even more treble than aluminium, Steel also offers improved sustain and presence. Generally, it’s pretty affordable too.
  • Copper – a darker, more rounded sound with less emphasis on top-end and a warmer response in the bass and mids. Often found in orchestral ensembles.
  • Bronze – often used for cymbals but far less common for shells. You’ll notice a slight boost in the low-end with a warm midrange, far less attack-focused.

Want to know more? Click here to read our blog article on wood vs metal snare drums!

Other Materials

Many other materials are also used in snare drum construction but hold a more niche status. Some represent the cutting edge when it comes to experimenting with materials, whereas others are concepts that have disappeared from mainstream drum manufacture, but have a cult following and are being kept alive by a select few companies. Here are some examples of alternative snare drum materials:

  • Acrylic - dry, punchy and projecting, famously used by John Bonham of Led Zeppelin
  • Carbon Fibre - a distinct appearance that provides a U-shape EQ curve, i.e. emphasised treble and bass.
  • Stone - its strength allows the shells to be made very thin, offering a lower pitch and improved sensitivity & resonance.
  • Glass - glass has very similar sound properties to Stone
  • Hemp - (yes Hemp!) creates a drier and warmer sound like more traditional wood drum

In general, the more unique the shell material is the more expensive the drum will be. This is mainly because mass production systems haven’t been put in place to produce the drums anywhere near as cost effectively as more commonplace woods and metals. As well as this you are also paying for the sought after exclusivity of having a drum and sound that is available to very few other people.

Hybrid-material Snare Drums

As always, once you have pinpointed the factors that change a drums sound (in this case material) you can mix-and-match and alter them in tandem to customise it further.

A popular example is mixing wood and metal in the shell construction. The most common configuration is having the shell divided into three sections horizontally. The top and bottom edges of the drum are made of metal with a band of wood sandwiched between. This combines the projection and attack of the metal with the warmth and body of the wood.

Another possibility would be to pair wood edges with a band of acrylic to dry up the sound and make the drum punchier (and look very cool). Although examples of other mixtures are harder to come by, many custom drum companies would relish the challenge laid down by a customer to create something they may not yet have imagined.

Snare drum sizes

Snare drum diameter

As we mentioned earlier, snare drum diameters tend to vary far less than depths. Even so, it can make a massive difference to the sound. Snare drums with narrower diameters tend to have a higher pitch and a shorter attack, like the soprano snare.

Snare drum depth

Snare drum depth tends to affect a number of things to with a snare’s sound, most notably the tone or ‘shape’ of the sound. A deeper snare with give it more low-end body, while a shallow snare with have a sharp, snappy sound – like a piccolo snare.

Want to know more? Click here to check out our full guide to snare drum sizes!

Popular snare drum brands

These are some of the most popular snare ranges on the market. They span a number of price points, so there’s something for everyone. Whether you’re after a beginner snare drum or a professional session workhorse, you might just find what you’re after in this bunch:

Mapex Black Panther

One of Mapex’s flagship ranges, including everything from shallow Mahogany shells to heavy-duty brass monsters. These mid-priced snares are notorious hard-hitters, great for punchy gospel and thundering metal alike. Shop Mapex here.

Tama SLP

The SLP (Sound Lab Project) range from Tama offers an excellent number of versatile snare options. From Maple to Steel, they cover a lot of tonal ground, making them ideal for indie, rock and R&B. Excellent session and gigging snares. Shop Tama here.

Sonor Artist Series

Designed by professional drummers, for professional drummers. The Sonor Artist series is built with extreme attention to detail in mind, with a little sprinkling of luxury. Stunning Maple, Beech and Stainless Steel snares deliver a premium tone that’ll have no problem turning heads. Shop Sonor here.

Pearl Masterworks

Andertons Music Co. was recently named the world’s No.1 Pearl Masterworks dealer. The Masterworks is the pinnacle of the Pearl brand’s craftsmanship, offering unprecedented luxury. Not only do they make great snare drums for pro use, but they take custom orders – shop Pearl here.

Yamaha Stage Custom

Among the most affordable snare drums on the market, but you’re still buying into world-class design and sound. With a concise but practical selection of materials and dimensions, the Stage Custom snares are a great way to expand your sound without breaking the bank. Shop Yamaha here.

Choosing a snare drum for your style

It’s all very well and good discussing the ins and outs of snare drum design – but how do you know which one will best suit your sound? Short of spending a day trying some out, it can be confusing at the best of times. Here are few recommendations to get you on your way:

Best snare drum for rock

Ideally you want a bright, firm attack with plenty of low-end. With this in mind, you might want a fair bit of depth but with a brighter-sounding material like Beech or Steel.

Best snare drum for metal

Similar to rock but arguably with more attack to cut through a dense metal mix. This might mean opting for a brighter material still, but retaining the extra depth to give your backbeat (blastbeat) plenty of body. Think Aluminium or Birch.

Best snare drum for blues

You might want a slightly looser with more midrange emphasis than treble. A bit of depth wouldn’t go amiss, around the 6-8” mark, with Mahogany, Poplar or Copper if you’re feeling adventurous.

Best snare drum for funk

Ideally you’ll want a quick attack but with a bit of body for a natural fatness that sits nicely in a mix. Consider a more shallow depth, and a Maple or Beech shell.

Best snare drum for R&B

You may want a sound similar to that described for funk, above. A quick attack but with plenty of fatness, especially for that classic gospel smack. For a great contemporary R&B sound, a metal shell like Brass will work wonders. Wood-wise, consider Birch.

Best snare drum for jazz

With jazz, the snare drum is used as much for texture as it is for timekeeping. Ideally you want to prioritise warmth and resonance over attack and brightness, so plenty of depth will work wonders. Material-wise, Mahogany or Bronze are great options.

How to get the best snare sound

Rather than try and explain this ourselves, we thought we’d hand it over to our experts in the video room! Here’s Colin from our drum department with a few handy tips to make the most out of your snare sound:

  1. Change the top head to a fresh one
  2. Change the bottom (resonant) head to a fresh one
  3. Make sure the bottom lugs are each tuned to the same pitch
  4. Dampen the resonance slightly to bring out the midrange body and attack
  5. If you’re recording, experiment with microphones types and positions. Check out our range of drum mics here!

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