How to Listen to a Snare Drum
Moving our way up the rhythm section, we come to the snare drum. In modern rock, the snare drum fills in beats 2 and 4, known as the back beat. This is where the audience should clap. It’s called the snare because of a metal ribbon that rests against the underside of the drum. That’s what makes it “crack” like a snare rather than “doom” like a tom.
Drummers love their snares, and usually have a few to choose from depending upon the style of music. Metal, wood, deep, shallow, tuned high, tuned low, dampened, open etc. A snare drum can change the emotion of the whole kit. Let’s have a listen.
Living on a Prayer- Bon Jovi
The Endless Snare. Ah the 80’s. When reverb ruled the land. Listen to how “wet” that snare is. By turning up the reverb on the snare drum, it gives a sense of size, like the drummer is playing in the middle of a stadium.
Notice also that in verse 1 the arrangement of the song carves out space for that snare. If you count “1,2,3,4” the snare owns beats 2 and 4. The reverb wouldn’t stand out if the synth player played during beat 2. He instead plays on beat 1, and lets the snare have space to resound. Arranging counts as much as mixing.
Superstition- Stevie Wonder
The Dead Snare. If you listen to this track, the drummer isn’t hitting hard, and the snare isn’t particularly inspiring. But boy is he funky. In this groove, the hi-hat is actually more important, because all those little articulations get into you bones. It makes you want to move. By the time Stevie hits the clavichord riff, it’s hopeless. You will be dancing.
When you add the horns and the rest of the band, you don’t need a big “Bon Jovi” snare. You wouldn’t want one. It would distract from the rest of the groove. The lesson is that the whole band is more important that any one instrument. No one listens to snare drum albums.
Give Me One Reason- Tracy Chapman
The Tasteful Tambourine. This drum set has a fairly natural tone, in keeping with Tracy’s singer-songwriter vibe. She doesn’t want to be epic like Bon Jovi, she wants to tell you the truth. The drums feel appropriately life-like. But they need a little sparkle, so the drummer hits a tambourine on beats 2 and 4 to go along with the snare. That way you get the midrange oomph of the drum, the crack of the snare, and a little jingle on top. Nice. An excellent example of a tambourine used for good, not for evil.
Ice Ice Baby- Vanilla Ice
The “Everybody Clap!” Snare. And then we have the 90’s, when everyone forgot how to play instruments. Instead you have a drum machine and a synth bass. But if you listen closely to the chorus, you can hear a layer of claps on beat 2, and a layer of snaps on beat 4. Interesting… and now I’ve run out of things to say about Vanilla Ice.
Take Five- Dave Brubeck
The Virtuoso. We can’t end with Vanilla Ice, so let’s talk about the excellent snare work on Take Five. You may not be able to hear the snare clearly in the beginning for two reasons. First, this song has 5 beats to a measure rather than the usual 4, so counting is tricky. Second, Drummer Joe Morello uses his sticks to create a low chatter on the snare rather than chopping wood. But later on he lets loose with one of the most famous drum solos of all time. This is an excellent example of the range of tones the snare drum can produce when the drummer knows how.
Now for some homework. Retrace your musical steps over the last week. Go back and re-listen to something and focus only on the snare. Is it more like Bon Jovi or Stevie Wonder? Does it have additional layers like Tracy Chapman or is it from a machine like Vanilla Ice? Try to describe the sound. Where does it hit you in your body? If you are a musician, get someone who isn’t musical to listen with you and ask for feedback. Sometimes the most insightful responses come from non-musicians.