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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.