T Bruce’s free drum lesson #3: Fix your snares, align them, and say goodbye to snare drum problems!

How to eliminate snare buzz and rattle. And improve snare sensitivity dramatically. It’s easy. You don’t need to rush out and buy a set of boutique snare wire sets.

What you have to do is align your snare wires—meaning straighten out the wire strand sets that run across the bottom of your snare drum. These are the ticket to turning what would ordinarily be a mere tom into a different instrument. All it takes is a flick of a switch—and properly aligned snares.

T Bruce Wittet diagram of snares poorly aligned

You need to exhibit the patience of a saint, you sinner!

No question, patience is what you need most.

Drummers rush through life, scurrying across their batter heads in search of the latest running ghost note pattern, forgetting about the part of the drum where the sun doesn’t shine.

That would be the bottom of the snare drum—often referred to as the “snare head” or “snare side—and those crazy wire strands non-drummers like to pluck as if playing banjo.

You don’t need a new snare-side head

But you do need one that’s free of pits, craters, crevices, and lacerations. Your new found patience will steady you as you take the drum key and negotiate the two screws that release the expensive white bits of string that hold snares to snare strainer and butt (see diagram).

You mess with these patiently, reassured it’s not rocket science, and, well, let’s put it this way: I’ve taken young drummers’ snare drums’ and done the deed and the drop of their jaws is such that I’ve magically transformed a Westbury into a Reference. Incidentally, you want to know who is a real-deal musician? Jojo Mayer. My good friend Jojo can cause a rabbit to jump out of a hat and more. If you see him in clinic, promoting his upcoming video on bass drum technique, ask him to do something magical. Okay, his bass drum work is magical…but this is a different dimension.

The diagram: Da Vinci?

It might well have been a Leonardo toss-off. But it’s me and I’ve done it exclusively for you—for now, at least. What I mean is that if nature has its way, two things could happen:

(1) People will be panting up the steps of the Met to view it under glass, or (2) that dude in Sweden will steal it like he’s stolen my photos before and try and sell them to you for God knows how many kroner but around $35 US.

No fly zone and train tracks

The top of the diagram—the area above the barbed wire—is a sorry state. Your snare drum should not look like this. If it does, it will sound like it looks.

We can fix this without buying stuff (hopefully). It is probably a matter of aligning the snares. This means, in lay terms, making them look like train tracks. If one track begins wandering while the other stays its path, there’s going to be a train wreck.

You don’t have to read further if you grasp what I’m saying. You just use common sense. Adjust the strings (might be plastic or fabric tape, same remedy applies) until you’re pulling evenly and the wires begin to run parallel.

If you’re not patient, it’s not going to happen. Or it will happen by happenstance. The former takes 10 to 20 minutes. The other takes us back to the realm of magic.

Get it so that the plates at both ends, marked zones 1 and 2 are equidistant from the shell/edge and stay that way by means of strings that are pulling at 90 angle to those plates. Any variance—any tugging sideways—spells trouble.

The snare head, or, as I’ve mentioned, the bottom head, is constructed as thin as a condom for good reason. Thin promotes sensitivity. If that snare head is tensioned too loosely, you reduce sensitivity. Too tight and it’s doing it’s job, magnifying any little rattle and buzz.

Right, so step 1 is placing the drum “face down” as shown in the drawing. For now, simply toggle the lever on the snare strainer back and forth, or, as the case may be, up and down. This is the time, and not when you’ve place the snare back on the stand, to observe how the snare wires behave when you nudge the lever.

They ought to snuggle up to the bottom, or snare, head in one fell swoop. The entire unit should smoothly engage the snare head like my Jaguar sedan when shifting into 2nd gear—no rumble, shudder, or gyrations.

Problem is, I don’t own a Jaguar.

And your snares don’t engage smoothly.

Watch the how the rails run. Don’t touch rail #3

Think of the snare strand unit as a train track. You have wooden things called ties that have to be in place keeping the metal rails anchored and parallel. Anything goes wrong, the train parts ways with the track and we hear about it on the evening news. It’s not that you see wooden ties lined up like matchsticks on the bottom of your drum. But you get the point. Everything works together; everything’s got to work in sync.

The procedure

In preparation for aligning snares, verify that the snare head is free of protrusions, contusions, lacerations, welts, and craters. If any two of the previous appear, remove the head and throw it like a Frisbee. This is called recycling. Dogs love it. Children go running. Society is better for recycling, as is the environment. An aside about recycling heads:

Recycling of a different sort

Neither my garbage men or my recycle men accept old heads. That poses the same decision I have with paint cans, not that I have ever crushed them or reshaped them in order to fool garbage men into thinking they’re regular garbage in a green bag. No, since my garbage techs refuse them, ditto with my recyclers, I take them to the city dump. The city dump accepts anything.

One of my adolescent students verified the above. His summer job was in the medical waste sector of the municipal dump. This is the fenced in portion of the dump that takes waste from pharmacies—drugs past shelf life, for example. My student reports culture shock. His elder colleagues were swallowing, every 20 minutes or so, pills that sell for $75 a pop on the street. Or crushing them up and…well, you get what I’m saying. Don’t quote me on this, please, but apparently employee job satisfaction is high.

Back to planet earth, you’ve removed the snare wires and you’re staring at a snare side head that’s as good as new.

I suggest you don’t spend all day tweaking tension rods at 12:00 then 6:00, 3:00 then 9:00 and so on. Forget about tension watch devices that measure torque or resistence.

Get the head as tight and as even and as quickly as you can. No bottom snare head is ever going to be in perfect tune because of the shallow concavities called snare beds, which provide an almost imperceptible dip in the snare head—a sort of trench into which the wire strands snuggle up.

The most important thing is to get the bottom head tighter than the top. George Way, the legendary Leedy (later steward of his namesake company), once declared the opposite but he was referring to fashion circa 1949. These days, we keep the bottom head significantly tighter than the top.

This way response is not sloppy; rather, it’s quick and crisp. Hey, don’t reach for that tension measuring device. Try this: Test the bottom head by pressing your finger into it at some point. If your finger sinks an eighth of an inch or less below the surface, you’re done. The finer details will come another day. Crank the bottom head and don’t fret it. We’re focusing on snare wires and not stuff weights & measures.

Red Zone 1: Top of diagram: The strings holding the snare unit to the strainer side and butt side are not visibly equal in length. There’s more head showing at one end of the drum than the other. In fact, at the butt end, as you see, there’s no head showing at all between plate and bearing edge. The snares stretch past the edge of the shell. I refer to zone 4.

I’d suggest beginning at the butt end, not the strainer side, and secure the snares where you feel they ought to be. Try a half-inch or a centimeter or so. It’s a crap shoot; it varies from drum to drum. Secure the plate (into which the snare wires are soldered) via strings to the butt end. Tighten those 2 screws with key (or screwdriver).

Now cast an eye to the strainer side. Engage that lever, or knob. How’s the assembly behaving? When you pull the snares tight, do you see equal space at strainer and butt?

Start over if need be. Put off that text message for a moment. Do not slough off this step.

I bet you’ve spent hours learning how to pick a lock or tweak your fuel injection. Don’t tell me you can’t spend a few minutes yanking your strings until they’re doing a good job of it. Get the wires correct at the butt end and you’ll be left with adjustments on the lever-side and then, presto, you’re done.

During the operation, loosen off the fine tension knob/screw

Before you get too far into our procedure. Really loosen the fine tension adjustment. What you want to see is lots of threads on that center screw. Lots of threads allow for considerable latitude when all is said and done.

If you loosen off the fine tension screw significantly, you can actually engage the lever that pulls the entire snare unit to head and leave it to this knob to make final adjustments.

Note: When engaging this knob, as part of our remedial procedure, you’ll notice there’s no particular tension within the system to encourage it to stand its ground. Wedge something against the lever or it’s bound to loosen a wee bit and mess things up. You’ll see. Tape it to the shell after you turn it on; or wedge your knee against it. Then, with needle nose pliers, pull the strings up, tighter and tighter. Only then do you secure the 2 screws atop the plate, thus locking the strings.

You don’t win ‘em all

You take a stick to the drum and it sounds rattly and not at all your dream drum. Don’t be too hasty and quit. All might not be lost.

Remember: we left the threaded fine tuning knob loose. Now is the time we tighten it. Leaving the snare lever on, turn clockwise until you hear the snares engage properly.

If the result falls short of ideal, you probably didn’t leave the fine tension knob loose enough. So loosen the 2 screws—enough to loosen the strings slightly, and redo the operation. Make sure you tighten the 2 screws again so the strings wont’ slip. Get everything snug and, now that you’ve got more threads to work with, keep the lever on and begin tightening the fine tension knob.

Zone 3: This is the hot one, somewhat like the third rail of the subway track. You don’t want to touch it. You’ll get burned. You’ll mess things up royally. Some people in studios used to put adhesive tape across this portion.

Fact is, this middle portion responds to the relative tension you set at butt vs. strainer. Your goal at present is to get all wires, from edge to center, tensioned equally.

Do the train track thing your way. Tighten each end equitably and the rails will run straight, parallel; and things will be snappy and sensitive beyond your wildest dreams (if you are prone to dwell on such matters when darkness falls).

See those jangling, askew wires in (red) zone 3? It ought not to look like this when you buy snare strands. When I was a kid, I’d go to the drum shop and the guy would try and sell me snare wires that were all bent, all dreadlocked, out of the box!

I remember one guy advising me, “Well, these wires are crooked now but when you tighten them, the wires will straighten out.”

Yeah, when hell freezes over and monkeys fly.

Snare wires that fly in straight lines out of the box can only fly straighter. Worse ones get a little better but never approach the gold standard.

It may sound odd to hear that many top pros prefer loose snares. The key to “loose” is relaxed tension, not wires that have been forced into line, now let go and free to wander.

Loose snares and doubling up the strings

If you prefer loose snares, you loosen those expensive white strings that secure wire strands to strainer side and butt side. When you loosen strings, they gain wiggling room—they are free to move around in those two holes in the plates at each end of the snare strands.

Lots of people believe that those strings break from over-tightening and while this may be true, in fact it’s the opposite that’s more prevalent. With the snares loose it becomes rather like placing strings across a knife-edge and gently sawing back and forth. Sooner or later, something’s going to give. If you guessed “the strings” you were correct. Nobody guaranteed the sides of those holes were filed to perfection (although snare strand units do exist that protect against such an eventuality).

How do you prevent strings from dancing loose in those holes and damaging themselves? Dave Mattacks taught me the following. When he’s touring and playing a lot of spreading backbeats (ie, he’s loosening off the snares), he’ll double the strings—exactly as it sounds. Instead of using 1 string inside each snare plate hole, he’ll thread 2 strings through each plate hole. Exactly how it reads: instead of using the conventional single string to hold the snare strands, one at strainer end and one at butt end, he’ll use two.

When I first tried this the notion of the camel fitting through the eye of the needle came to mind. Not the stink fortunately.

Doubling the strings eliminates such friction/rubbing inside those plate holes by packing the contents tighter and reducing greatly the offending lateral motion & friction.

Remember that if you’re buying new snare wires, they come with fully two strings. You’ll need to ask the salesperson to sell you an extra pair of strings. And it is at this point you will learn that certain garden variety drum parts are disguised as NASA-designed and are priced accordingly.

Tart up your snare with a fancy new, boutique snare wire set

One thing I’d like to stress here: If your new unit comes with strings the thickness of fishing line (ie really thin), you might want to hedge your bets and pick up a regular, white string that’s noticeably thicker. When you tighten down the bolts on the strainer plate and butt ~ to secure those strings holding the wires, the thicker string will grab better. I’ve always had trouble with the thinner cords; ditto with the plastic/glass tape, which, incidentally, I find more difficult to align. Ahh, it’s probably just me, lad! Something to consider though.

Speaking of after-market snare units, they come in really interesting options. I’ve tried only a few so I can’t really report much here except that I enjoy Pearl snares—the ones that come with Reference drums and that end ,particularly, with the “C” designation. Canopus are great, too, both the gold/bronze vintage models and the chromed units. I’m not so nuts about other popular ones but then again I haven’t really given them enough time. I’ve purchased them, had a go at them and taken them off. Many, in my experience, are simply too thin and spindly to qualify as, to use retro jargon, snappy. Especially when I can buy a generic, Chinese-made chromed snare wire set for $9.95 (the upscale units sometimes cost up damn near $40US) and get emphatically sensitive response and a desirable, almost orchestral sizzle.

At the end of the day, try them all if you’ve got the cash—but first learn how to align them or all is for naught.

Again, it requires patience. Okay, so I’m no saint but I’ve got enough patience to cover this job. And if I can do this thing, you can, too.