In almost all areas of Western music, the snare drum produces the leading “voice” in a drum set. In styles like rock, funk, pop, and hip-hop, it delivers a backbeat that screams through walls of vocal and instrumental sound. It’s what anchors the rhythm of a tune.
These roles are just another chapter in the snare’s storied history. This single item in a kit has evolved greatly since its invention. With a start as a medieval tabor drum to military side drums that amplified the commands of military leaders, the snare has been a major player for historical and musical reasons.
These early examples of the snare led to it being an essential part of any modern drummer’s setup. Without the snare, the drum kit as we understand it wouldn’t exist. From our pros here at Drum Center of Portsmouth, here’s a look at how the snare evolved over the last 140 years and how those changes defined the drum sounds of their respective periods.
The Transition from Wood to Metal
As recently as the late 1880s, it was typical for drummers to double drum. This is a style of playing both the snare and bass with sticks. Double drumming can be seen as the first step toward the modern drum kit.
The snares of this time were rather simple in design. Usually, they featured single-ply shells that were steam bent with T-rods, single tension lugs, and wooden hoops. Only one drumhead could have the tension adjusted. Snare strainers did not feature levers to engage and disengage the snare.
The one exception to this was a prototype metal shelled drum. John Philip Sousa’s drummer Tom Mills had this model specially made by Sonor. It featured a 6.5x13” welded shell made of brass with separate tension lugs and metal hoops. It created a timbre from the revolutionary design. In time, this drum caught the eye of a Leedy drum salesman named William Ludwig. He kept pestering Mills until he finally sold the snare to Ludwig.
Ludwig hoped to convince his boss to look into manufacturing metal snares. However, his boss didn’t warm to the idea due to thinking metal wasn’t a suitable material for making snares. That’s when Ludwig went into business with his brother. They began selling metal snares among other percussion instruments. Their innovative designs became the standards of the industry. They are still the leading name in snare drums today.
Drum technology kept evolving in the 1920s and 30s. During this time, two snares were developed that would impact snare design to this day: The Slingerland Radio King and Ludwig DeLuxe “Black Beauty”.
Ludwig brought out the Deluxe line in 1926. It came in an assortment of depths with 14 and 15-inch diameters. This masterpiece also was available with hand engraved ornamentations and several colored enamel options. There was even a gold-plated version called the Triumphal. Their gunmetal black version became the most popular. In fact, it was so popular that Ludwig began to reissue the snare in the 1970s.
Despite the rising popularity of metal snares, wooden snares were still popular in big band, orchestral circles. This led to Slingerland creating their solid maple shelled snare known as the Radio King. Made famous by Gene Krupa, this snare had sleek, streamlined lug casings, eye-catching sparkle, pearloid wraps, and an adjustable snare system. This drum provided a boxy, warm sound that came with a level of sensitivity that would captivate drummers for decades.
Rise of the Supraphonic
Ludwig began producing the Super Ludwig snare line in 1941. These boasted some of the newest innovations in drumming technology. They were built around a 14” nickel-plated brass or reinforced mahogany shell in a variety of depths. The key improvement was the parallel snare system. This provided even tension to each snare wire and self-aligning lugs that wouldn’t strip if the head wasn’t placed on the shell evenly.
By 1963, Ludwig had switched to making snares with a seamless spun aluminum shell to cut manufacturing costs. Ludwig also began offering drummers their choice of two different snare systems: the standard P-83 version, which was the Supraphonic snare, and the parallel snare system, renamed the Super Sensitive version.
These snares had a bright, dry snap. They were immediately popular among the leading musicians of the 60s and 70s. From Jimi Hendrix Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell to Led Zeppelin’s timekeeper John Bonham, these snares produced great sounds. This line of drums popularity led to it earning the distinction of being the most recorded snare in history.
Back in Black
Other manufacturers struggled to keep up with Ludwig. However, the brand managed to stay on top with their constant innovations. One of these was with the re-issuing of the Black Beauty snare in 1976.
The reissue came with some modern updates. It featured the Art Deco look of the Supraphonic snare, ten imperial lugs, and a seamless beaded shell. Again, this snare proved to be a hit with recording artists. Many session drummers began using this model while promoting their use of other brands’ snares.
Currently, most every drum company has a variation on the Black Nickel-Plated Brass snare from Tama’s Trackmaster to Pearl’s Sensitone and the Collector’s Series by DW. Ludwig continues to produce this model with newer options like hammered shells, die-cast hoops, and tube lugs. It’s one of those all-time favorites that can be found in studios and stages around the world.
How Much Is Too Much?
By the 1970s, most snares were somewhat standardized. This changed in the 80s with the move towards bigger and more powerful drums. Shells became thicker to the point where there were 8x14 inch snares on the market requiring 12 lugs.
This movement was the result of the increasing popularity of metal and rock drummers. Their rise was thanks in part to MTV and the added importance of image over substance in rock music. Still, wooden and smaller snares remained popular in jazz and fusion circles.
This affinity for power maxed out with the advent of the free-floating snare. This design had two aluminum rings that functioned as the bearing edge. This ensured that the lugs were tightened against each other but wouldn’t require a hole to be made in the shell. This type of snare was most popular among marching bands drummers. However, they found a home in drum sets owned by drummers wanting a snare that sounded like a thunderclap.
Tama Recreates the Black Beauty
The 1980s also saw Tama create a snare that featured sand cast drums. With this design, the metal was poured into a casting made of sand to produce the shell.
Called the Masterclass series, these snares provided a deafening rimshot, a bronze shell, unparalleled sensitivity, and controlled musical overtones. It became a favorite in rock and pop circles. It has been called the modern-day Black Beauty. It can be heard on many of the most popular musical recordings made over the last 30 years.
Picking Your Perfect Snare
Snares have quite the dual nature. On one hand, they are constantly moving forward as innovations arise. On the other hand, they also are always looking back at their past to incorporate what has shown to work.
Picking the right snare is the key to having your own unique sound and look. Jazz drummers may opt for wooden snares and the warmth they provide. A metal drummer might go with a Reissued Black Beauty to get that bright, sensitive sound so popular in the ’80s. Regardless of their choice, the snare will help define their sound. It will provide a way for you to be identified by your choice of snare.