Editors note: This article was originally written a couple of years ago and contributed to a web site that is now defunct. I felt it a good time to re-post, with a few updates. Enjoy this primer on why the snare drum is so special to drummers.
When we think of the drum kit, we may conclude that all the drums are of the same brand and type. A drummer wants to make sure their drums have the same ‘timbre’ throughout, so that even though the sizes differ, the drums tonally match regardless which size is struck.
A similar case can be made for speakers. You could buy two different brands of speakers, similar in size, with identical specifications as far as watts per channel, impedance, sensitivity, etc. But when you set them up as a left and right speaker in a stereo setting, they sound different. Likewise if you mix and match brands of speakers in a surround sound environment, the sound difference can be quite pronounced between speakers. This has a lot to do with the design of the drivers within the cabinets, the placement of the drivers within the cabinets, the construction quality of the drivers and cabinets, and so on.
The same can be said about drums. If you have a 10” tom from brand A, say, Ludwig, and then another 10” tom from Tama, even if they have the same type of head and tuned similarly, they would tend to sound different. Sometimes even if they’re made of the same material, such as maple or birch, they may sound different due to the different manufacturing process of each, thickness of the shell, etc.
So due to the above, for good reasons, drummers tend to stay with one brand of drums for the whole kit. This doesn’t necessarily include specialty drums, however, such as mini timbales, Roto toms, or Tama’s famous Octobans. These have special sound properties (usually higher pitched) that give more options and melodic possibilities for drummers who want that flexibility. However, there’s one particular drum in the kit that, well, most drummers in the know would rather you ‘leave it alone’.*
That drum would be the snare drum. Most drummers after they’ve played for a while may gravitate towards a particular sounding snare, and actually may never part with it. Others hold on to their first snare drum because they got used to that sound. The rest of the kit could come and go, but the snare stays.
For the longest time, Neil Peart of Rush used one of his original snares, the brand being Slingerland, way up until the Counterparts tour (circa 1993). He affectionately calls it his “Number One”. He went through some kit changes through the years, both configuration and brand. He went from Slingerland to Tama, then to Ludwig, and then for the last 15 years or so he’s been using Drum Workshop. But his ‘Number One’ he had been using up until the last brand with all the others prior.
The thing about the snare is that it is as individual as the drummers themselves. For those that can only afford one snare, they try to make it sound as much to their liking as possible, and stick with it. If they ever buy or trade their drum kit, sometimes they’ll think twice about parting with their snare.
Many times, though, drummers will have multiple snares for different types of music, or even for different room acoustics, and these they may keep no matter what brand kit they have. Because once you have the sound you want, you want to keep it with you.
This is why many drum companies not only will have kits with snare drum included, but will also have their own line of specialty snares to cater to the individuality of their customers. You can go to the web sites of Tama, Drum Workshop, and Pearl, for example, to see their extensive line of specialty snares to cater to those who are looking for specific features and sounds in a snare, that they may not be getting from the brand of kit they’re currently using.
Such is the specialty of snares that there are drum companies that make only snares. Two examples are Dunnett Classic Drums, and Longo Drums. As you examine the product line of these drum companies, you’ll notice the various materials used to make the snares, be it metals (titanium, brass, bronze, copper, and more) or woods (walnut, maple, cherry, oak, and more). There is such an assortment of sound from the abundance and availability of the snare drum that you’re bound to find one (or several!) that you’ll absolutely love, and never want to part with.
As an example of one of these snares, Drum Center of Portsmouth, NH has a video on YouTube demonstrating the sound of one of the Dunnett Classic snares, the Stainless Steel 6.5x14”. It would be a great exercise to listen to the different sounds of as many snares as possible, from as many companies as possible, to discover how versatile and varied this very important drum can sound.
I personally own two snare drums currently. I have a DW Pacific FS Series 5x14” birch snare (which is part of my 5pc kit of the same make and model), natural to charcoal finish. I also have a DW Pacific metal snare, 5x13”. The FS Series snare is adequate and sounds pretty good, but I’ve heard better sounding snares that I would rather have; I’m not that attached to it. My metal snare is my ‘Number One’, a gift from the Mrs. It has a higher pitch than the FS snare, which I like because it sounds somewhat like a piccolo snare. Please check out my cover of the Yes classic “Future Times/Rejoice”, where I use the 13” metal snare on my left for the higher pitched sections of the song, and the main FS snare the rest of the time. See if you notice the difference!
So as you can see, us drummers are very attached to our snares, so much so that there are drum companies dedicated to just that drum. As mentioned, taking a field trip to a music store, or a drum store if you’re lucky to have one close by, is a great idea so as to play around with all the different snares to get a feel for what sounds best to you. Eventually, you also will become so attached to your snare that you also will be saying, “leave that snare alone!”+
*The title of this article, “Leave That Snare Alone!”, is actually a play on words from an instrumental by Canadian rock power trio Rush called “Leave That Thing Alone!”
+For yet more coverage on our favorite drum, please read "Great Snares of Rock"