The side drum, or snare drum, is the smallest of the cylindrical drums and is used in nearly every form of western music – from military music, where its origins lie, to jazz and rock and roll. At the same time, this instrument is a central part of the orchestral percussion section. Same as the other drums, it does not have a definite pitch, or at least a clearly distinguishable one.

History points to the snare drum descending from a medieval drum called the tabor. A single-gut snare was strung across the bottom of this drum. It was somewhat larger than a medium tom and was first used in war, often played with a fife.

The size of this instrument has since then increased and already had a cylindrical design by the 15th century. This rudimentary drum became popular with the Swiss mercenary soldiers who used the fife and drum from the 15th to the 16th centuries. Before the invention of the radio and electronic communications, snare drums communicated orders to troops. For instance, American troops woke up with drums and fife playing songs for several minutes, such as the well-known Three Camps.

Construction of the snare drum

The Englishman Cornelius Ward became a key figure in the development of screw tensioning by 1837. This system soon replaced wire and rope tensioning. The breakthrough meant that the snare drum could now be much flatter. Thus, the shell depth changed to 20 cm, often even to 10 cm.

During the second half of the 19th century, salon orchestras, dance bands, and jazz ensembles used these flat drums as rhythm instruments. It was at the beginning of the 20th century that this small version came to be known as a snare drum or side drum. Maurice Ravel’s Boléro is probably the best-known orchestral work in which the snare drum plays a critical role.

Materials

The snare drum shell is relatively shallow and usually made of either wood or metal. Plastic is seldom used. The grooves for snares, or “snare bed” lie on the underside of the shell. Pulling the strings taut forces them into the grooves, which increases contact with the head.

The head of the calfskin or plastic extends itself over both holes of the cylindrical shell. Plastic heads are either clear or coated. The drum head sits at the top of the drum, the snare head at the bottom. These heads stretch over a flesh hoop, which has a slightly larger diameter than the shell. Long screws or rods threaded to the tensioning brackets screw a counter hoop sitting on the flesh hoop. They sit around the middle of the shell.

The snares, of which there are anywhere from eight to eighteen, are primarily responsible for the instrument’s crisp sound. Which material is used for the snares depends on how and where the drum is employed, or from where it originated. For performing, the snare drum is mounted on a firm stand, with an angle that can be adjusted.  

Execution

The snare drum is beaten with two drumsticks, held on each hand. The vibrations stimulated by striking the head are magnified by the resonance of the shell and the air inside it. They cause the snare head to vibrate and this reacts both on the batter head and outwardly. There is always a small hole in the shell that acts as a vent, preventing a build-up of excessive air pressure inside it.