“A great drummer can make a terrible band sound good, just as a great snare drum can make a poor drum set sound great.”
Learning the art of care and maintenance of your drums is one of the most invaluable things you will learn as a drummer. While there are a plethora of different types of drums you will encounter in your career (whether hobby or professional), there does seem to be one drum that is at the heart of Western music: the snare drum.
Generally, a student learning drums and percussion in the West will spend a minimum of two years on the snare drum alone before moving on to the drum set and other percussion. This is to develop all the fundamentals of playing, reading, counting, and listening. Establishing these fundamentals helps provide a group of solid core skills that will eventually transition over to other percussion instruments.
The snare drum is king
In most clubs that offer a backline drum set, it’s generally accepted to bring your own snare drum and cymbals as most of these kinds of drumsets have not been maintained well. In fact, it’s very common for drummers to share drum shells on tour even.
In a recording situation, however, a drummer may have dozens of snare drums and may use multiple drums on just one album. Sometimes a certain sound just fits a certain song. Depending on the producers and engineers, they may request trying different drums in a recording situation.
It’s truly astonishing how many different types of snare drums are available today. There’s everything from maple, birch, mahogany, bamboo, aluminum, steel, brass, copper, and the list goes on further. Pick up a catalog from your favorite instrument retailer and you’ll be shocked at how many different sizes and types are made. The snare drum is such an important drum that many drummers even use two in their setup!
So while this might not be the most exciting topic in the world, it is important. We drummers spend lots of precious money on our drums, so we ought to take good care of them so they last. We will be covering all the variations of cleaning, assembling, and tuning your drums. Be sure to bookmark this page to keep it as a reference in the future!
Here’s what we will be covering in this maintenance guide:
- Basic drum anatomy – How components affect sound and tone
- Basic maintenance – Disassembly, assembly, inspection, cleaning, repairs,
- Tuning and snare strainers/throw offs – How to use and adjust
Technique and striking the drum – Basic concepts for playing and techniques
Anatomy of a snare drum
Drums, particularly snare drums, can be made from many different materials:
- Wood – maple, birch mahogany, jara, beech, bamboo
- Metal – aluminum, steel, brass, copper, bronze
- Other – Carbon fiber, acrylic, impregnated wood, “cymbal alloys“
I happen to personally like the sound of wooden snare drums. They have a bit of a warmer tone and each has their own distinct character. This is just to my ears, however. Whichever type of snare drum you like will be up to you.
Let’s talk diameter and depth
The typical standard snare drum you will find is 14″ in diameter and 5.5″ in depth. Why is this the accepted standard? I believe this size drum allows for the widest range of tones, offering both a high-pitch choked piccolo sound as well as a fat detuned thick sound.
Despite that being standard, it didn’t stop A&F Drum Co. from creating what I believe is the world’s largest snare drum (in diameter, at least).
Snare drum heads – bottom and top
Snare drums contain two heads: batter and resonant. The batter is referred to when speaking of the side of the drum you hit. The resonant head is the side of the drum that the snare wires are attached to. Both hold very specific functions and the sound of your drum will vary greatly depending on how these heads are tightened.
These are two different types of heads. Be sure to not mistakenly buy two batter heads at the store. Why? The snares that rest under the resonant head will not fit properly onto a regular batter head.
Drum heads are generally made from the following materials:
- Plastic – cheap, very common
- Calfskin – older drums, traditional sound
- Kevlar – used for marching snare drums exclusively
Single plys tend to have more attack and are brighter whereas double plys are thicker sounding and are darker in tone. Both these variations come in either texture coated or clear and may consist of a dot for further tone control.
I tend to like the sound of the Controlled Sound from Remo, but your experience and taste may vary. Some of the overtones are muffled and, thus, negates the need for a ton of dampening. If you have no idea what any of this means, don’t worry, we’ll be getting into it much later.
Some drum heads, like the Aquarian Superkick and Evans EMAD bass drum heads, have internal muffling systems (rings) that help give the drum a more-rounded tone.
On to the counterhoops (rims)
The counterhoops of a drum are the means in which drum heads are seated and secured to the shell. The number of lugs a drum has will determine the number of holes a rim has for tension rods. Counterhoops are generally made of die-cast steel, triple flanged steel, or on some occasions, wood. The rims of a snare drum will have two “snare gates” that allow the snares to feed through the rim to lay evenly on the resonant head.
All the snare drums I own have die-cast counterhoops, but I long for the day when I get a snare drum (or maybe an entire kit) that has wooden rims. I love the sound and feel they give. It’s almost as if the heads stay in tune better due to the softer nature of wood, but I might be nuts.
Moving on to the wires that bring your snare to life, snare wires are either made of steel or plastic. These wires lay across the bottom of the resonant head and vibrate against it when the drum is struck. Steel wires are far more common and will give you that crispy crack we all know and love.
Historically, snare wires used to be made literally from animal guts and were stretched across the bottom head. Fortunately for us in modern times, this is no longer the case. The sound is imitated by its plastic counterpart. These wires tend to be much darker in tone and are used with field drums and certain concert snare drums.
The snare wires are controlled by what is known as the snare strainer and throw-off mechanism.
The strainer and the throw-off
Simply put, the strainer holds the wires and the throw-off controls whether or not the snares are “on“ or “off.” The throw-off also controls how tightly your wires come to the resonant head, allowing for loose snares with a long decay or tight snares with a crisp attack.
On higher-end snare drums, there is often a “preset switch” that allows drummers to have multiple settings for tight, loose, and medium snare wires, allowing them to switch quickly in a certain section of a song or piece.
Essentials for snare drum maintenance
In order to be an effective drum technician, there are some products you’ll want to keep handy. Now you’ll be using some of these more often than others, but you’ll still want to utilize them all to maintain your drums to keep ’em new.
- Drum keys: an obvious one, yes, but you won’t be able to make adjustments or change heads without one. I recommend keeping two at all times. For one, drummers tend to lose drum keys all the time. This figures, they are small after all. In the strange event that one happens to break or strip, you’ll have a backup as well.