Do you know what a snare is? If you think it’s that drum squeezed between your legs, upon which you love smacking 2 and 4, we’re sorry to report that you’re wrong. Or maybe just half-right, because that drum is called a snare drum, named after the set of tensioned spiral wires that rest against the bottom head. These are called “snares,” and they create the unique buzzing sound that differentiates the snare drum from the rest of your kit.
But while every snare drum is supplied with snare wires, not all snare wires are alike. Perhaps the most common model is a 20-strand conventional chrome-plated wire set. While this had been the industry standard for decades, today’s drummer has a much wider range of choices to make about the material used, the number of wires in the set, the thickness of the wires, and the configuration used to make snare sets.
According to Yoav DeBasc, snare wire specialist and founder of Puresound Percussion, the sound of any snare drum can be altered simply by changing the composition of its snares. Standard wire has a crisp, fast attack, while high-grade steel alloy snare wire with some carbon content will be more papery sounding and sensitive. The thickness of the wires corresponds directly to the sensitivity required by the player. If you play soft jazz with brushes you will want to use a snare with thin wires that respond to the slightest touch, while a heavy hitter will want heavy gauge wires that can withstand a more powerful impact.
Whether you know it or not, your choice of snares also determines the balance between the snare buzz and sound of the shell. “We did some studies and found that if you use 16 wires you get approximately 50 percent drum sound, 50 percent snare sound,” DeBasc says. “With 20 wires you have more snare sound than drum sound, and 24 increases the snare sound even more. Those general guidelines allow you to manipulate the sound of your snare drum. For example, if your 6.5" x 14" wood shell drum doesn’t respond with its current set of snare wires, by using a 20- or 24-strand snare, you can increase the snare sound.”
Even the material used to connect your snares to the throw-off and snare butt has an effect on your snare sound. A Mylar strap will enhance the sensitivity of the snare drum at the edges, but tends to stretch when the drum is played hard, giving the snares a longer decay. Cable or string will make the drum slightly less sensitive to soft playing, but will provide a crisper response with less decay.
Whatever you do, don’t ignore your snare wires. They stretch over time, and gradually lose their tone, so be sure to change them before the wires become brittle and break. Never tension your snare wires so tightly that they choke the snare sound. Instead, find the sweet spot that allows them to sing. And be sure to mount the snares straight, so that they last longer and respond optimally.