T Bruce’s free drum lessons & tips: (1) Turn the snares off!

When you don’t need the sizzle, reach for the lever. Please release them, let them go…

Snare strainer lever, Ludwig Standard brass snare

Ludwig Standard strainer lever drops snares...barely

Otherwise, they have a mind of their own. And a penchant for erupting at the least provocation.

The snare strands, usually wire, are that which distinguishes the snare from just another tom. Pull on the lever, the snares mate with bottom head and things begin to sizzle.

Therein lies the crunch: the lever. If days of old, when men were men, drummers frantically turned a threaded screw clockwise to engage snares and did the opposite when they didn’t want the strands chattering in sympathy with the upright bass (“we can’t stand it” The Roots).

Drop it!

When you don’t want that crisp snare tone, you turn the other way and the snares drop out of harm’s way. You do this following a sound check, during quiet passages wherein you are tacet, or between sets.

Leaving the snares on is not only sloppy drumming. It’s not just a hearty breaking of wind in a funeral home.

It’s a signal—nay, a sign you wear—to the effect that you are a rank amateur.

Professionals leave snares on when they want a little sizzle accompany the bass drum somewhat analogous to the way you could add a wee bit of white noise to the “bass drum” strip on an old Simmons SD-V brain. Now that is an example of fine discrimination not abrogation. You add a touch of this and that, as you add spice to some kind of meal I can’t make even if I try.

Aside: I sought additional “found noise” from a double-headed no-hole bass drum exceeding that modicum of sizzle the snares afford. So I filled my bass drum a quarter-full of hard strofoam chips that rattled around excitedly when I pedaled down on a DW plastic beater.

If you can believe it, I wasn’t getting enough rustling. Not enough trailing tone. So I phoned Jim Keltner, seriously, and I explained my problem. The pause on the other end suggested he thought I was nuts, on substances, or both. When Mr Keltner makes such a determination–same guy who played a trash bin lid on a Steeley Dan tune–you question your own sanity.

But when I explained the desired effect and the slightly longer decay, he warmed to my query. Jim suggested I try empty pill capsules—you know, the shiny, plastic-like outer surface seen on vitamins, antibiotics, and slow-release medication. But neither of us could figure out who’d sell empty caps by the hundreds.

You don’t want that trailing sizzle, though

Nine and a half times out of ten, all things equal, you don’t want the snares rattling in sympathy.  Not with the opening act, the DJ, the father-of-the-bride, or your keyboardist’s analog synth tones, which introduce unaccompanied a haunting ballad.

Makes you wonder. Maybe when the chart says drums tacet it might mean something more than “don’t hit stuff”. It might mean take all measures to ensure that you don’t leave a drum key atop a timpani head or the snares on during a French horn solo.

Two years plus a day

Leaving snares on is not only rude and obnoxious. It’s a felony offense against music.

Your snare strainer comes complete with a lever. It moves east to west, north to south, or, in the case of Trick round and round. I remember reviewing a Soprano (Italian brand) kit for Modern Drummer and remarking that when I released the snares they not only disengaged; the entire front “clam shell” portion of the strainer took a sudden dive towards the floor like one of those daredevils who attach a rope to their waist and leap into a canyon, making an unholy racket. Fact is, that Soprano snare drum tone was so desirable that I “learned the strainer” so that I could release it without offending. If I could do that with a medieval-style strainer, the least you could do is flick your Nickel Drumworks clear pastic tab this way or that.

You can do your bit to improve other musicians’ perception of drummers by following this rule: If in doubt, release the strainer.

And it follows, of course, that you remember to pull the lever back into place when it’s time.

Details, details, details!ver protocol on many occasions.

Statistics, however skewed

Ten out of ten, one hundred percent of the time, my students left snares on when I invite them to pause playing and ponder some piece of music. Similarly, when done their lesson, all of them left snares engaged. I mean, I sound really Freudian. But this is no obsession when you’re playing snare drum in a 100-piece concert band and it’s the finale of the Symphony for the New World (I paraphrase) and the enormous swell gives way to a hush and the oboe motif.  Or when your string bassist is soloing the low notes. In such instances, the snare rattle is an act of aggression.

I’ve had students beg me to listen closely to Gavin Harrison as he deftly inserts a ruff or drag to dignify an otherwise barren quarter-note fill between first and second tom. But they’re own faulty management of the snare release is thirty times as predominant as Gavin’s ghost notes.

Meanwhile, Gavin, who, incidentally, cuts away 8 of a conventional 16-strand snare wire set to reduce extraneous snare buzz wouldn’t dream of leaving his snares on when he’s tacet during the bridge of some Porcupine Tree ballad intoning about the droning wipers clearing rain off the windscreen. Help me with this: can’t remember the name of the song.

Historical note: Tony, Toni, Tone

Some snare strainers work quieter than others. Some drop the snare wires a good 4” clear of the bottom head (snare head). My old Ludwig Standard circa 1927 barely clears the bottom head and the reward is an ill-defined rattle, not without its charm.

Back on maybe Miles Smiles (I now listen to the box-set) Tony would toggle his snares on and off during “Footprints”. Obviously his snare drum (his Gretsch or perhaps his redone-to-look-Gretsch Slingerland…) resembled my old brass Ludwig. On a good day, you released the lever and the wires hung below the snare head the distance of a Visa card. His intentions were noble. The spirit vs the flesh and all.

In summary, if you don’t need to hear snares, use the supplied lever and drop them.

Snares shouldn’t speak unless spoken to—an etiquette lost on many, many drummers.

Our next tip will yield a surprising fact about snare engagement when drummers play with brushes.