July 09, 2021

Snare Drum Fundamentals

Snare Drum Fundamentals

Listen to the Podcast Episode

The Snare Drum is one of the primary and cornerstone percussion instruments in a band. Today we are going to reintroduce and highlight the parts and key aspects of Snare Drum fundamentals. Note, by not having a physical drum in front of you, you will need to take a moment to envision and reflect as though you have one at your fingertips.  However, with your ingenuity it will be easy to make this adjustment! Let’s get started.

Setting Up the Snare Drum

Envision that you physically have a snare drum and on a snare drum stand. The first order of business is to make sure that you adjust the stand so that the snare drum sets at your waist. Be sure that the snare is not set too high at your stomach or too low at your thighs. If you find that you cannot get your drum at the right height, be sure to invest in a concert snare drum and stand that will adjust correctly. Note that on occasion some people purchase a shorter snare stand which is designed for drum sets and is not adequate for the concert setting.

When you raise or lower your snare drum stand be sure not to tighten the stand screws too tight. The reason for this is because it will shorten the life of the stand. Having an ultra-tight screw tension setting is not necessary.

There are limited number of types of parts on the snare drum. Under the bottom head of the snare drum, there are wiry looking pieces which are called snares. The wood or metal that serves as the largest part of the drum is called the shell. Multiple screw-like pieces that are attached at the top and bottom of the drum, along with a round rim-mount, are called lungs and they are designed to help tighten the head onto the shell of the drum. Each snare drum will possess a top and bottom head which will be tuned differently to create the best sound possible.

Tuning the Drumhead

Tuning the drumhead is one of the most important components in creating a characteristic sound for the snare drum. Begin by completely taking off the head of the drum and then resting it back on the shell. Put the circular rim over the head and then finger tighten all the lugs. Be aware that you do not want to tighten the lugs so much that the rim starts to come down but rather you want it to rest naturally on the drum. With this configuration the drum should sound low.

In the next step you will need a drum key. This is like a little wrench that fits over each lug or screw. Then, on each lug, you will tighten each one a half a turn. Note, it is important that when you tighten the lugs you do it in an “X” pattern where sequentially you go across the drum. By doing this we know that we have tightened the drum evenly.

Once you have cycled through the first round of tightening, double check to see if you can wiggle any of the lugs with your finger. If you can, use your drum key to tighten them a little more so they match the tension of the other lugs. This wiggle could be the result of a warped rim, the head or other imperfections.  

The next step is to repeat the previous tightening process, however, be sure you keep track of the order of tightening lugs you did previously. Once this is done you will want to listen to what the drum sounds like. For standard concert snare drums, you want the top head to sounding close to an “A.” You can either use a piano or tuner to reference the pitch. Check the head pitch by tapping in front of each lug to see if any of them sound drastically higher or lower than the “A” pitch or different from the other lugs. This is so you can have the purist sound on the drum.

Now that the head sounds even, it might still be lower than the “A” pitch. To correct this, use your drum key to cycle around tightening the lugs like you did before however, with only a quarter turn this time. Again, tap in front of each lug to see if any are drastically higher or lower than the others. If so, make the adjustment with the drum key. Finally, reference the “A” again and if it is close to the pitch then it is good to go until more fine tuning is needed.

Tuning the Snares

The last step to tuning the drum is to tune the actual snares. Most snares look like a series of metallic or plastic cables between two metal pieces. If these two metal pieces on either end of the snares is too far inward on the head, you may notice that the snares will be too loose to create a characteristic sound.

drum key

To fix a loosened series of snares, gently loosen the two screws that hold the thick plastic strip of material that attaches to the larger end metallic pieces. Once this has been adjusted so that the metallic pieces, which are connected to the snares, is closer to the edge of the drum it is appropriate to tighten the two small screws.

Next, place the drum on the snare stand. Be sure that the snare “throw-off” which is the leaver that puts the snares on and off the drum, towards you (the musician.) If the “throw-off” is in the up position, then you will hear the snares when you strike the drum. If you do not hear the snares, then you will need to tighten the screwing mechanism next to the “throw-off” to get the required tension needed in order to get the characteristic snare sound. Just be careful not to tighten the mechanism too tight otherwise you might break your drum.

Playing Position

The playing position is when you are actually ready to play and you are behind the snare drum. To start stand with your feet about shoulder width apart. This should be a natural position which allows for good standing stability.

Stand relaxed with both hands at your side, the chin straight ahead and little to no tension in the shoulders. As you place your hands and sticks above the drum - keep this natural. Do not tighten or raise your shoulders. If you do raise your shoulders you will find that they will get increasingly sore throughout the rehearsal.

Remember the palms need to face downwards. You can envision this as if you were to put your hands on top of a table.

The stick position is important too! Plan to strike the drum just off-center. I would recommend slightly beyond the center. In addition, the sticks should rest and be played at a relative forty-five-degree angle. Be sure this stick angle is not too far out or too far in. Ultimately, you want the snare drum playing position to be as comfortable as possible.

The Grip

As a reminder, you will need to envision this as you learn the snare drum grip. First you will need to open your hand with the palm facing up. Next, with weaker of the two hands place the snare stick in the primary hand. Rest the stick in every first joint of the hand, which is the furthest joint out. Then curl in the fingers just off center. This should almost run aligned with one of the primary wrinkles in your hand.

Be sure not to place stick straight in the middle of the palm because then your pinkies will not be able to be used. In contrast, do not just hold the stick extended just with the fingers. Remember the stick should still be in contact with the palm.

The thumb pad should lay on top of the snare stick and should be across from the first and second fingers. Next, roll over the wrist with the hand in the same position and palm facing downwards.

Caution beginning students not to place their thumb underneath the stick which leads to them improperly smacking the drum. Also caution them not to place the thumb above the stick which hinders the learning process as percussionists learn more advanced sticking patterns.

To review the grip:

Step 1 – Stick on the first joint.

Step 2 – Curl the stick in off-center.

Step 3 – Thumb print on the stick.

Step 4 – Then palms are down.

Snare drum grip

The Three Major Strokes

To simplify how to strike a drum we will divide the mechanics of drum strikes into three categories.

As we begin to teach beginning percussion students, we should focus on players only using their wrists to strike the drum. This should last the first several weeks. The proper motion of this attack requires the knuckle come above the plane of the wrist. It is important to understand that in this first type of stroke the actual moment of impact will always be from the wrist.

The second type of stroke includes the use of the arm. Despite the use of the arm in the attack of the stroke, the wrist will still move at the last moment of impact. Therefore, the wrist must be developed first.

The third stroke includes the fingers. Beginners need to avoid using the fingers too soon. Be watchful that students do not start slapping the back of the hand or palm with the stick.

Most importantly, help beginning percussionists develop the mechanics of their playing. There is a ton of music literature out there that could help develop these skills. But be watchful that students continue to use good technique to maximize their learning efforts.

snare drum music


Final Thoughts

The snare drum is an important musical instrument that should not be taken for granted. Proper equipment, maintenance and technique use can truly enhance the overall musical effect of your performing ensemble. My recommendation is that if you introduce and review these snare drum fundamentals with you percussionists, they will have even more success in making the appropriate transfers to other instruments within the section. Ultimately, this is the growth oriented mindset we want for all our students.

0 comments: