Tama Blackwell & Athenian Snares Reviewed!

Tama’s John Blackwell Signature Palette Snare And Warlord Athenian Snare

Back in the days of television — I mean waaaay back to the golden days of regular television, only one drum company (with an L in its name and offices in Chicago) offered a large catalog of snares that were predominantly winners. In fact, some of the earliest “signature” snare drums from other companies were simply well-crafted knockoffs of those popular originals.

But snare drum manufacture has since gone worldwide, and drum design has gone with it into exciting, uncharted territory. Most manufacturers now offer many snare drums boasting a wide rage of sizes, construction, and applications. Tama, parent of today’s objects of dissection, offers many “factory” and “signature” drums, including some that have garnered high praise for tone and playability.

Here are two more from Tama that are much more than just tubs with wires on the bottom — the John Blackwell Signature Palette 13" x 6.5" snare and the Warlord Athenian 14" x 6" snare. Both sound and play great. This is not always the case with review drums. And both, I am amused to report, elicit mixed and heated opinions regarding their cosmetics (I’ve heard them called both “cool” and “fugly”). See for yourself while I describe the details.

Blackwell, who held a prominent gig with Prince before moving over to the red-hot drum chair behind Justin Timberlake, went with the slightly-odd-but-gaining-in-acceptance 13"-diameter snare. The shell is made of 1.2mm steel finished in a black nickel coating. It has only eight lugs, centered, which secure steel, triple-flanged hoops.

From that setup, I expected a ringing, popping, one-word snare. I was wrong. The drum is quite warm and very throaty when played in the center. Off-center playing nets a slight change in ring (and I did notice the lack of real estate compared to a 14" drum). How about playing rimshots? Bang! Sharp but not harsh. Great cut but without sounding like a cartoon cap pistol.

On the bandstand, virtually straight from the Tama shipping box, the Blackwell sounded warm, responsive, and, when played with a rimshot, very aggressive. I received immediate positive comments from non-drummers around me, including a pretty good cash offer from the bass player.

Back at home, I dug into the drum a little deeper. I tuned the Remo Coated Ambassador head low. The center notes remained fat (phat?), still very throaty, and the rimshots took on a wetter sound. The drum produced great snare sensitivity at all dynamics, plus plenty of musical ring (much different than obnoxious ring). But that ring was totally controllable with tape, MoonGel, a wallet, and what have you.

The drum features Tama’s Hold Tight washers, which I barely noticed so have nothing to say about them, other than that they seemed to hold tight. But let me tell you, the drum tuned easily and delivered great response. As I turned the screws I heard changes that told me this drum would work with me, not against me. So I cranked both heads up, like a Stewart Copeland impersonator, looking for that popcorn-funk/ear-bleed sound. Paint me surprised, but the drum stayed warm in tone, becoming more of a fife & drum thing rather than a sharp-stick-in-the-eardrums thing. Nice.

The Blackwell drum has a substantial heft to it. 1.2mm steel is popular for drums (in a brief sampling, I found some made with 1.2mm and some with 1mm stock), and it’s sturdy material. The inside of the shell is smooth — there is no bead or crease save the bearing edge.

Those bearing edges are rolled tight but not sharp. The actual contact point of the edge is a narrow, rounded ledge, not a razor’s edge. At the snare beds, where the Tama-brand, high-carbon, 20-strand snare wires lie, the shell dips aggressively but the edge stays quite close to its original width.

The rolled edge hangs over about a half-inch into the interior of the drum, and Tama cites it as part of the sound. Looks a lot like the flanged edge on some old Ludwig snares, if you ask me. Nonetheless, this is the same bent ledge of steel that catches the nuts and bolts when you disassemble your drum or work a bolt loose through hours of slammin’. The smooth, black interior of the Blackwell shell is subtley punctuated by the black, Phillips-head cap screws that hold the lugs.

On the outside of the shiny, black-nickel shell, there’s a line of little diamonds and the initials “JB” in a continuous monogram. And there are three air vents with removable plugs (unscrew, yank out, try not to lose them) that make a big difference in the sound and feel of the drum and add to its already-impressive versatility. Oh, and the strainer is Tama’s MUS80, adjustable on both ends. It looks okay and functioned just fine, although I think the plastic adjustment knob and rubber tip on the lever look and feel cheap. Overall, the Blackwell is a handsome drum.

So why, oh why did Tama have to put the big JB initials on the side? Excuse me, but unless your name is John Blackwell, or James Brown, or Josephine Borumple, the letters look dumb. I caught as many snide remarks about the initials as I did positive remarks about the lovely sound of the drum.

Hoping to remedy this unfortunate oversight, I removed the batter head and set out to remove the letters. Voila! The mere removal of four Phillips-head cap screws liberated the letters from the drum. Although now I had to contend with, sad to say, four holes set into a pattern reminiscent of the Little Dipper. My experience with the excellent, removable air vent plugs suggested that leaving the holes open would be a sonic compromise. So my suggestion to like-minded dismantlers is to seek out the proper nuts, bolts, and rubber washers to plug the holes. And don’t mention any of this to John Blackwell — we don’t want to hurt his feelings.

Here’s more exciting news: I also found two unidentified holes, about an eighth-inch in diameter, located just below the lip of the batter edge, and two more of the same, directly opposing it, just below the lip of the resonant edge. These are mystery holes. I don’t know what the heck they do. One pair straddles the weld. Are they grab-holes for the welding process? Acoustic bleed for the cavitational resonance of the beaterbite? Conversational eyeholes for the relative Melquil dispersion? Maybe Tama will run a contest called “Name These Holes.”

Anywho, Tama Blackwell Signature Palette Snare: highly recommended, great bang for the buck, lose the big letters!

Beyond the fact that they’re both black, I found great contrast between these two Tama snares. The Blackwell snare is comprised of readily available parts — none fancy — put together with great taste (except for the letters taken off of the mail box) for a winning result. The Athenian snare, designed like all from the Warlord line to be as fancy and expensive as you’d want, is full of primo elements. How does the top end stack up against the luck of the middle class? Just fine. In this case, money talks.

The Athenian came out of its box with slack heads, untuned. I loosened both heads further, until the rods rattled, and then began slowly bringing the tension up. At a comically loose tension, about a half-turn or so, the drum already sounded good. I’m talking about wet-blanket tension, and still the drum gave delicate articulation; slight, detached, and very musical ring; noticeable and useable changes in off-center sticking; and a warm, woody rimshot sound. I’d barely gotten it started and we were off to the races! I wish I were kidding, because the drum lists for $1,199.99, and I’m not going to get one. Bravely, I carried on, pondering the various elements that were working so well together.

The Athenian’s 14" x 6" shell is 1mm brass, electrolytically plated by hand with a dark, brushed, blue-green black nickel color. It is handsome. It also collects fingerprints and scratches easily. The Evans Genera G1 coated and Hazy 300 heads are held on with Tama’s die-cast, “Star-Cast” hoops, treated to a sort of black nickel finish on this drum. The throw is Tama’s MUS80, with adjustments on both left and right sides. This is the same throw off as the Blackwell snare, and while it worked fine, I still think the plastic knobs make it look cheap.

The ten lugs are Warlord lugs, each one shaped into an ornate, “ancient” design. Is it Gothic? Is it Barbarian? Samurai, perhaps? Some have described it as “Dungeons & Dragons,” and I’ll say that’s not far off. These lugs, fearlessly placed on this fine drum, are bold enough design elements to chase away some drummers without so much as a listen to the instrument’s voice. It’s a pity. Ah, but fans of the ornate Warlord look will get to ponder and polish the authentic Swarovski black diamond crystals set into two spots on each lug, and one more big, fat one on the badge.

If you flip the drum over and gaze through that Hazy 300 head, things get very interesting. Most noticeable is the sealed flange. Tama has bent the edges of the brass shell over to create the bearing edge — same as on most metal drums — then continued bending until the flange rolled all the way over to touch the shell again. At the junction, Tama welded the flange to the shell wall. This is done on both batter and resonant edges, effectively making two tubular, sealed sound chambers in the drum. Tama calls it R.S.E., for “Resonant Sound Edge,” and proudly hails it as an original edge design. A couple of vintage experts I contacted told me that rolled, closed flanges date back to the highly sought-after Black Beauty drums of yesteryear. Tama has made its edges without any holes, for a complete seal. And perhaps treating it specifically as an acoustic chamber has allowed the company to improve the idea. Regardless, the inclusion of two chambers is an old, albeit good idea, and the R.S.E. sure doesn’t hurt the tremendous sound of the Athenian.

The Athenian is also surprisingly rich and mellow for a drum with such a very sharp bearing edge. Tight and crisp describes the bend in the brass at that edge, and I’m amazed at the consistency of the edge, even as it includes a slow, deep snare bed at each end.

I tuned the drum low; I tuned the drum high; it remained warm, responsive, slightly woody, and always with a sonorous, sweetly singing ring. Rimshots were fat, with a great knock sound that included a larger dose of that harmonious ring. With this drum you could rawk, you could jazz it up, you could do just about anything. I even tried out the included Mylar “studio ring,” putting it on the batter and detuning the four lugs next to the snare beds, and then cranking the other bottom rods. Instant ’70s wet funk.

I think Tama, which lumps the Athenian in with its “unique and aggressive” description of the Warlord line, is mistaken. Except for its appearance, I wouldn’t use those words to describe the Athenian. I’d call it musical, sensitive, versatile, muscular, and, dare I say, mature. Oh, and I’d also have to call it expensive.

Tama has produced both a high-priced snare drum and a mid-priced snare drum that each earned a “must hear” rating from this reviewer. Close your eyes to the controversial design elements if you have to, but do hear these drums.

MODELS Signature Palette John Blackwell And Warlord Athenian Snares
SHELLS John Blackwell Snare: 1.2mm steel; Warlord Athenian Snare: 1mm brass
FINISH John Blackwell Snare: black nickel coating; Warlord Athenian Snare: electrolytically hand-plated with a dark, brushed, blue-green black nickel color.
FEATURES John Blackwell Snare: triple-flanged hoops; high-carbon, 20-strand snare wires; MUS80 throw-off; Hold Tight washers; three air vents with removable plugs. Warlord Athenian Snare: Included Evans Genera G1 coated and Hazy 300 heads; die-cast “Star-Cast” hoops; MUS80 throw-off; high-carbon 20-strand snare wires; Swarovski black diamond crystals set into two spots on each lug and one on the badge; R.S.E. roll-over bearing edges.
  • John Blackwell Snare (JB 1365): 13" x 6.5" $459.99
  • Warlord Athenian Snare (KBR 146C): 14" x 6" $1,199.99
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