Snare Drum : Introduction

A drum kit snare drum.

A drum kit snare drum.

The snare drum or side drum is a well known percussion instrument that is popular for a variety of uses. Some of these uses include orchestras, concert bands, marching bands, parades, drumlines, drum corps, and more.

It originated from the Tabor drum, which was originally used to accompany the flute. Since then, it has evolved into more modern versions including the kit snare, marching snare, or even the piccolo snare.

drum kit

The drum kit
1 Bass drum | 2 Floor tom | 3 Snare drum
4 Hanging toms | 5 Hi-hat | 6 Crash cymbal
7 Ride cymbal | 8 Splash cymbal | 9 China cymbal

Each type presents a different dimension and style to this art. The snare drum that someone might see in a concert is typically used with a backbeat style to create rhythm.

In marching bands it can do the same technique but it is mostly used for a front beat. In comparison with the marching snare, the kit snare is typically smaller in length between the two heads, while the piccolo is the smallest of the three. The snare drum is known for its loud crack when a person strikes it with a drum stick or mallet. The depth of the sound varies from snare to snare because of the different techniques and construction qualities of the drum. Some of these qualities include tightness of the head, width, length, and brand.

The snare drum is constructed of two heads—both typically made of plastic—along with a rattle of metal wires on the bottom head called the snares. The wires can also be placed on the top, just like on the Tarol Snare. The top head is typically called the batter head because that is where the drummer strikes it, while the bottom head is called the snare head because that is where the snares are located. Tension of the drum heads is held constant through the tension rods. The ability to tighten them provides an opportunity to differ the sound of the hit. The strainer is a lever that releases and tightens the snare. If the strainer is relaxed, the sound of the snare is more like that of a tom because the snares are not present. The rim is the metal ring around the batter head, which can be used for a variety of things, although mainly for rimshots.


Snares on a drum

Snares on a drum

The drum can be played by striking it with a drum stick or any other form of beater, including brushes, rute and hands, which produce a softer-sounding vibration from the wires. When using a stick, the drummer may strike the head of the drum, the rim (counterhoop), or the shell. When the top head is struck, the bottom (resonant) head vibrates in tandem, in turn stimulating the snares and producing a cracking sound. The snares can be thrown off (disengaged) with a lever on the strainer so that the drum produces a sound reminiscent of a tom-tom. Rim shots are a technique associated with snare drums in which the head and rim are struck simultaneously with one stick (or in concert playing, a stick placed on the head and rim struck by the opposite stick), Rudiments are sets of basic patterns often played on a snare drum.

Snare Strainer

Snare Strainer

In contemporary and/or pop and rock music, where the snare drum is used as a part of a drum set, many of the backbeats and accented notes on the snare drum are played as rim shots, due to the ever-increasing demand for the typical sharp and high-volume sound. In Latin and/or Jazz music, notes may be played as rim knocks, where the stick’s back (butt) end is placed on the edge of the top head and forced downward on the rim to the opposite side, to keep a more smooth and syncopated beat. So-called “ghost notes” are very light “filler notes” played in between the backbeats in genres like funk and rhythm and blues. The iconic drum roll is produced by alternatively bouncing the sticks on the drum head, striving for a controlled rebound. A similar effect can be obtained by playing alternated double strokes on the drum, creating a double stroke roll, or very fast single strokes, creating a single stroke roll. The snares are a fundamental ingredient to the pressed (buzz) drum roll, as they help blend together distinct strokes that are therefore perceived as a single sustained sound. The snare drum is the first tool to learn in preparation to playing the drumset, without playing a full drumset.


snare drum

A blue snare drum

Snare drums may be made from various wood, metal, or acrylic materials. A typical diameter for snare drums is 14 inches (36 cm). Marching snare drums are deeper in size than snare drums normally used for orchestral or drum kit purposes, often measuring in at a foot long. Orchestral and drum set snare drum shells are about 6 inches (15 cm) deep. Piccolo snare drums are even more shallow at about 3 inches (7.6 cm) deep. Soprano, popcorn, and firecracker snare drums have diameters as small as 8 inches (20 cm) and are often used for higher-pitched special effects.

Most snare drums are constructed in plies that are heat- and compression-moulded into a cylinder. Steam-bent shells consist of one ply of wood that is gradually rounded into a cylinder and glued at one seam. Reinforcement hoops are often needed on the inside surface of the drum to keep it perfectly round. Segment shells are made of multiple stacks of segmented wood rings. The segments are glued together and rounded out by a lathe. Similarly, stave shells are constructed of vertically glued pieces of wood into a cylinder (much like a barrel) that is also rounded out by a lathe. Solid shells are constructed of one solid piece of hollowed wood.

The heads or (calf) skins used include a batter head (the playing surface on the top of the drum) and a resonant (bottom) head. The resonant head is usually much thinner than the batter head and is not beaten while playing. Most modern drums use plastic (Mylar) skins of around 10 mils thicknness, sometimes with multiple plies (usually two) of around 7 mils for the batter head. In addition, tone control rings or dots can be applied, either on the outer surface or the inner surface, to control overtones and ringing and can be found positioned in the centre or close to the edge hoops or both. Resonant heads are usually only a few mils thick, to enable them to respond to the movement of the batter head as it is played. Pipe band requirements have led to the development of a kevlar-based head, enabling very high tuning, producing a very high-pitched cracking snare sound.


The snare drum seems to have descended from a medieval drum called the Tabor, which was a drum with a single gut snare strung across the bottom. It is a bit bigger than a medium tom and was first used in war, often played with a fife or pipe; the player would play both the fife and drum (see also Pipe and tabor). Tabors were not always double headed and not all may have had snares. By the 15th century, the size of the snare drum increased and had a cylindrical shape. This simple drum with a simple snare became popular with the Swiss mercenary troops who used the fife and drum around the 15th to the 16th century. The drum was made deeper and  carried along the side. Further developments appeared in the 17th century, with the use of screws to hold down the snares, giving a brighter sound than the rattle of a loose snare. During the 18th century, the snare drum underwent changes that would improve its characteristic sound. Metal snares appeared in the 20th century. Today the snare drum is used in pop music and modern orchestral music.

Much of the development of the snare drum and the drum rudiments is closely tied with the use of the snare drum in the military. In his book, The Art of Snare Drumming, Sanford A. Moeller (of the “Moeller Method” of drumming) states, “To acquire a knowledge of the true nature of the [snare] drum, it is absolutely necessary to study military drumming, for it is essentially a military instrument and its true character cannot be brought out with an incorrect method. When a composer wants a martial effect, he instinctively turns to the drums”.

Before the advent of radio and electronic communications, the snare drum was often used to communicate orders to the soldiers. American troops were woken up by drum and fife, playing about 5 minutes of music, including the well known Three Camps. Troops were also called for meals by certain drum pieces such as “Peas on a Trencher,” or “Roast Beef.” A piece called the “Tattoo” was used to signal that all soldiers should be in their tent, and “Fatigue Call” was used to police the quarters or drum unruly women out of the camp.

Many of these military pieces required a thorough grounding in rudiment drumming; indeed Moeller states that: “They [the rudimental drummers] were the only ones who could do it [play the military camp duty pieces]”. Moeller furthermore states that “No matter how well a drummer can read, if he does not know the rudimental system of drumming, it is impossible for him to play ‘The Three Camps,’ ‘Breakfast Call,’ or in fact any of the Duty except the simple beats such as ‘The Troop.'”

During the late eighteenth and nineteenth century, the military bugle largely supplanted the snare and fife for signals. Most modern militaries and scouting groups use the bugle alone to make bugle calls that announce scheduled and unscheduled events of the organization (from First Call to Taps). While most modern military signals use just the bugle, the snare is still retained for some signals, e.g. the Adjutant’s Call.

Snare heads originally were of calf skin. The invention of the plastic (mylar) drum head is credited to Marion “Chick” Evans, who (apparently) made the first plastic drum head in 1956.

The development of drum rudiments seem to have developed with the snare drum; the Swiss fife and drum groups are sometimes credited with their invention. The first written rudiment was in Basel, Switzerland in 1610. Rudiments with familiar names are listed in Charles Ashworth’s book in 1812 such as the (single) paradiddle, flam, drag, ratamacue, the roll (a double stroke roll, also called the “ma-ma da-da” roll), among others.


Military, or field drum: a snare drum, 14 to 16 inches in diameter, 9 to 16 inches deep, with a wood or metal shell and the two heads stretched by tensioning screws. It has a snare release lever to activate or deactivate a minimum of 8 metal, gut, or plastic snares. The term came into use in 1837 with the invention of the tensioning-screw mechanism. It is frequently placed on a stand.

Side drum: Common British and Scottish Highland term for a snare drum.
Tamburo piccolo: An Italian expression, literally “Little drum” in Italian, and when used in orchestral music means a snare drum.


There are many types of snare drums, including:

Marching snare (regular and high tension)

Marching snares are typically 12in deep and 14in wide, as the larger design allows for a deeper sounding tone, one that is effective for marching band. Famous uses of this include the Ohio State marching band or Texas A&M’s

Drum kit snare

Drum Kit snares are usually about half the depth of a marching snare. They are typically 14in wide and 6in deep, with 8″ depths available.

Piccolo snare

The piccolo snare is a type of snare used by drummers seeking a higher-pitched sound from their snare. Because the piccolo snare has a smaller width (diameter) than that of the marching snare or set snare, a higher-pitched “pop” is more widely associated with it. Although the piccolo snare has a more distinctive, unique sound, it has some downsides. Because of the “sharper” sound of the piccolo, it’s sound travels farther, being “heard” by other microphones during recording, making it tough to record effectively. There are many kinds of piccolo snares, including popcorn, soprano and standard. Popcorn snares typically are 10 inches in diameter, Sopranos are 12 to 13 inches, and standard piccolos are 14 inches. A well-known user of the piccolo snare is Neil Peart, the drummer of Rush, who has used a 13 inch X Shell Series Piccolo.


The Tabor Snare dated back to around the 1300s. It was used for the marching beats in wars. It is a double-headed drum that has a single snare strand, often played along with the three-holed pipe flute. The dimensions vary with different types of the Tabor. It is typically 4.5 inches in width and around 11 to 13 inches in diameter.


The Tarol Snare has similar dimensions to the kit snare; however, the only major distinction is that the snares are on the top head rather than on the bottom.

Popular Brands of Snare Drums

  • Ludwig
  • Pearl
  • DW
  • Gretsch
  • Mapex
  • PDP
  • Remo
  • Tama