Tonal Properties of 5 Metals Used in Snare Drums

Wood is warm, wood is organic, but wood cannot capture the entirely distinct tonality offered by a drum comprised of metal alloy. The preference for wood or metal snares is purely subjective, and both possess attractive qualities, but broadly speaking metal-alloy drums amplify the instrument’s favorable characteristics. They’re louder, brighter and more articulate.

Found in genres from thrash to jazz, and loved by players from Dave Grohl to Elvin Jones, there’s a metal snare for any taste. The tricky part is selecting from the many types of metal snares available. Armed with this research, anyone can make an informed decision between brass and bronze, for example, and hammered- vs. seamless-shell construction.

Seamless vs. Hammered

Gretsch 6.5x14 Hammered Copper Snare

Before getting into the different alloys, let’s take a look at two factors that play into the tone of a metal drum: seamless- vs. hammered-shell construction and black-nickel or chrome plating.

Seamless shells are usually machine-spun for a high degree of precision and finished with a smooth interior. The interior of the shell plays a crucial role in the sound due to how the air moves within the drum after it has been hit.

In smooth, seamless shells, the air meets no impedance on its way up or down, creating a column of sound for a brighter, louder drum. Conversely, a hammered shell’s rough-hewn interior obstructs the air column and forces it to bounce around, producing a warmer, more sedate response. Hammered metal snares are said to articulate the bright end of the spectrum inherent in metal while emulating the warmth and low tones of wooden snares.

Black Nickel vs. Chrome

DW 6.5x14 Black Nickel over Brass Snare

Steel, brass, aluminum and occasionally bronze snares can be found with either a black-nickel or chrome-plated finish. In these instances, function follows form: the black nickel imparts a slightly darker, warmer edge to a snare while the highly-polished chrome emphasizes treble in the attack.

Though argued in the community, these aural effects from the plating are nominal and function primarily for their aesthetic value.

1. Aluminum

Gretsch 6.5x14 Solid Aluminum Snare

The most widely used non-ferrous (without iron) alloy in commercial and industrial applications, aluminum is found everywhere from window frames to baseball bats to MacBooks. Light and durable, aluminum drums benefit from ease of transport, thanks to their lighter weight, and sport a dry, airy response with an aggressive bite.

These drums also are easier to maintain over the years because of aluminum’s resistance to corrosion. Next to steel, aluminum drums are the most affordable on this list. The popular Ludwig Acrolite is a best-selling and easily attainable example.

Notable players: Steve Ferrone of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Modern Drummer Hall of Famer Dave Weckl

2. Steel

Taye 6.5x14 Stainless Steel Snare

Unless you’re somehow reading this article in the middle of a forest, there’s an almost 100% chance there’s something made of or with steel within ten feet of you. The metal on which the modern world was built, steel is bold and resilient, and these qualities translate into steel drums. Less expensive than others on this list and commonly associated with beginner to intermediate-level drums, steel snares slice through mixes with ease and sit a bit higher in a mix with accents on treble and mids.

More susceptible to rust and corrosion, steel drums require a bit more upkeep to ensure the shells retain their integrity, but if properly maintained, will consistently deliver bright, aggressive attack any guitarist is sure to hate for years on end. Signature Chad Smith and Taylor Hawkins snares are both steel shells with a black nickel plating that can be picked up for a very reasonable price.

Notable players: John Blackwell Jr. of Prince’s band, Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Taylor Hawkins of the Foo Fighters

3. Brass

DW 6.5x14 Smooth Brass Snare

One of the most intrinsically musical alloys on the planet, brass has long been used in musical instruments. Rich, warm and responsive, brass is best known among musicians for constituting an entire orchestral instrument section, but its qualities translate into drums as well.

The sound of brass snares sits between wood and metal thanks to the alloy’s darker character and full, low-end attack. Brass has been responsible for some of the most widely-heard and coveted snare sounds, from Ludwig’s Black Beauty to the immediately recognizable crack of Stewart Copeland’s signature snare. But more affordable models of equal quality can be found in Tama’s MetalWorks and Mapex Black Panther snares.

Notable players: Stewart Copeland of The Police, Kenny Aronoff of the John Mellencamp band, Jeff Porcaro of Toto

4. Bronze

Pearl 6.5x14 Phosphor Bronze Snare

Usually mentioned when discussing cymbals or bells, bronze’s clarity and projection make it an excellent candidate for a drum. Simultaneously musical and loud, bronze drums beautifully articulate ghost notes and pianissimo playing, but with a solid hit can fill a stadium with enormous presence. The most expensive entry on this list, bronze drums can be a stretch, but offer a clear, powerful sound no other drum can.

Notable players: Danny Carey of Tool, Dave Grohl of Nirvana and Foo Fighters

5. Copper

Ludwig 6.5x14 Copper Phonic Snare

More than the wiring in your iPhone cable or the pennies you don’t really want from the cashier, copper’s found a new popularity in snares in the past few years thanks to new models produced by Ludwig, Gretsch and C&C Custom.

Like brass, copper can be perceived as an aural hybrid between wood and metal because of its low-end emphasis and organic warmth and response. Take a look at Gretsch’s USA or Yamaha’s Nouveau series for an entry point into copper snares.

Notable players: Jazz drummer and group leader Roy Haynes, Mike Bordin of Faith No More and Ozzy Osbourne

Buying Guide: Snare Drums
Everything you need to know about snare drum sizes, styles, and other considerations
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