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Facts About Snare Drums

The snare drum was originally used by marching soldiers.
the drummer. image by Iourii from Fotolia.com

The snare drum is a percussion instrument used in musical styles from classical to pop. It takes its name from the metal wires stretched across the bottom head, and it has a piercing “snap” sound. The snare drum is sometimes called a “side drum,” as it was originally worn by soldiers on a strap under the left arm. It can also be placed on a stand, either on its own or as part of a drum kit.


Snare drums are typically 13 or 14 inches in diameter, but can range between eight and 16 inches. They are usually between three and eight inches deep, though marching drums may measure up to 12 inches. Most modern snare drums are made from maple, birch, brass or steel, but materials such as aluminum, oak, bamboo, carbon fiber and even recycled cymbal bronze can also be used. Snare drum heads, or skins, were originally made from calfskin, but plastic is now more common. Kevlar heads are often used in marching bands. The hoops that hold the heads onto the drum are usually steel, but wood may be used. The metal, plastic or gut snares can be released from the head with a lever, giving a less piercing sound much like a shallow tom-tom. Drum manufacturers sometimes produce signature snare drums for successful players, often featuring bold design touches. The Ludwig Black Beauty is a highly collectible snare drum, first produced in the 1920s, with an elaborately engraved brass shell plated with black nickel.

Early Use

The snare drum is descended from the medieval tabor, used in the 13th and 14th centuries. Snare drum rhythms were used for hundreds of years to give orders to troops, and to keep their marching and maneuvers in time. The "crack" of the snare helped the sound carry across the battlefield loudly and clearly. This tradition can still be seen in modern marching bands, as featured in the movie "Drumline." One important technique used in this context is the double stroke or "mama-dada" roll, in which each hand plays two notes in rapid succession. Played at sufficient speed, this produces the continuous sound known as a drum roll. Ravel's "Bolero" is famous for its use of the snare drum, which was influenced by military marches. The drummer plays the same two-bar phrase throughout the piece, repeating it 169 times at a steadily increasing volume.

Modern Applications

The snare drum's main use in popular music is to emphasize the backbeat: the second and fourth beats of a 4/4 bar. The backbeat made its way from African drumming through early Gospel to rhythm and blues, rock and roll and other styles; it can be heard in most popular music. The drum is also used for rhythmic fills and embellishments, such as in "Rain" by The Beatles or the intro to "Crosstown Traffic" by Jimi Hendrix. In jazz, the snare drum is less dominant, playing loud accents and soft "ghost" or "grace" notes in improvised patterns mixed with the other drums. This can be heard clearly in Joe Morello's playing on Dave Brubeck's "Take Five." The drum is often played with wire brushes in jazz music, using techniques originally developed using fly swats.

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