What would The Beatles be without Ringo Starr or Rush without Neil Peart? While the two are now celebrated as legendary songwriters and producers, they first won acclaim behind a drum kit, known as much for their steady flow as they were for their percussive powers (see: Rush’s “Tom Sawyer” or The Beatles’ 1966 B-side, “Rain,” for proof).
These days, everyone from Questlove to Travis Barker continue to impress on the cans, though more and more amateur musicians and enthusiasts are taking on the drums as well. Just look at the number of drum sets you see at your local high school recital, or the street performers rattling off insane drum solos in front of astonished crowds. A set of drums, it seems, isn’t just about creating music, but also about giving yourself permission to let loose and have a little fun.
That’s what Mike Sleath, believes, at least. Sleath, a Toronto-based drummer who’s been part of Shawn Mendes’ touring band since 2015, says drumming for him is about bringing people together. “My uncle is a drummer and he really showed me early on how fun it is to play music,” Sleath says. “When I first started all I had was a pair of sticks, and I would build drum sets out of pillows and boxes,” he continues. “Still, I’ve always loved the idea of using drums to work with other people and creating something together.”
While a set of boxes will hold up to light stick work, a basic drum kit these days should include a kick drum, toms, hi-hat, crash cymbal, ride cymbal and most important, a snare drum. “The snare,” Sleath explains, “is the backbeat. In genres like rock and pop it normally lands on beats two and four, and it really helps to set the tempo and feel of the song. It’s definitely the meat and potatoes of the drumset.”
From leading armies into battle to keeping a drumline in formation, snare drums have been used for centuries, as a way of keeping people in line (literally) to rattling off some excitement for a big parade or event. Before they pull a winning lottery ticket or a winning name from an envelope, you hear a drum roll from a snare drum. And some of today’s most popular songs — regardless of genre — find their groove thanks to the snappy snare.
When buying a snare drum, it’s important to consider the and the material used to make the shell. Most snare drums have shells made from either wood or metal. Generally speaking, wooden snare drums sound light and bright, while an aluminum snare, say, tends to be louder. You’ll also want to consider the width of the drum: the wider the drum, the fatter the sound. These days, 14-inch snare drums are the most common.
“Sound,” Sleath explains, “is the most important part. “When someone says a snare is out of tune it normally speaks to an uneven tension around the drums, and/or the top and bottom head aren’t nicely tensioned together. Unlike most melodic instruments though,” he continues, “there’s not necessarily a right or wrong way to tune a drum. A drum doesn’t need to be tuned to a specific note (unless the drum is acting as the melodic element) and it doesn’t need to be any specific pitch. You can tune it and dampen it in anyway you think sounds good.”
Unless you’re a professional musician though, Sleath says it’s okay sometimes to just pick up a snare drum and let it rip. “Drums are incredibly fun,” he asserts. “The struggle of trying to learn an instrument is so rewarding, but then with drums you [also] get to hit things and just be loud!”