Jim Bailey – Taking the Mystery out of Tuning a Marching Snare Drum

By Jim Bailey, 
Evans’ Educator Relations Manager

A question at which I am often asked by students or see on internet forums is how to tune a marching snare drum. The good news is there isn’t any black magic to get a good sound but there are some steps that may be overlooked or even undervalued by some. Let’s take a look at some of the higher-level points in getting that good snare sound we all love to hear in the parking lot and stadium.

In a perfect scenario we’d be starting with new heads not yet put on your snare drum. With the heads off start with making sure the top and bottom bearing edges are free from debris. Especially if a drum is used outside you’d be surprised how much dirt and grass may collect around the bearing edges. I like to start by putting the bottom (resonant) head on first. If you are using a drum with a completely free-floating shell such as the Pearl FFX, make sure the snare bed cut into the shell is aligned with the strainer before putting on the bottom head. (Tip: If you align the front badge in its proper place you’ll be good to go.) As with any new heads you don’t want to over-tighten on the initial install regardless if it is a plastic or an aramid fiber head. Bring the head up to a good, even tension. Eventually you’ll want to bring your bottom head up quite high once it has had some time to seat itself. There is some debate about just how high, but let’s remember that for a snare drum to produce a snare sound the bottom head must resonate to vibrate the guts. A marching snare isn’t going to resonate or push as much air through the cylinder as a drum set or concert drum. This means we’ll need to make the bottom head hyper-sensitive to resonation and vibration by tuning it very tight. Again, don’t over-tighten on the first install. The bottom line is (no pun intended), the resonant head on a snare drum requires a lot of maintenance, and especially if it is an all-plastic head such as an Evans MS3. Many people like the aramid fiber heads, like the Evans MX5, not only for their sound preference but also because they require less maintenance. Food for thought.

After the bottom head is on and has begun the seating process go ahead and put the guts on. Don’t turn the tension knob on the end of the strainer real tight but put enough tension on the guts so that they are all taut. Leave the strainer in the “off” position and slide a pencil under the guts all the way to the end towards the butt-side of the strainer. This lifts the guts off the head so we can more clearly hear the pitch when they are plucked or strummed. The process of tuning guts is tedious but I strongly feel is the single most important thing you can do to make the drum sound good. The tension of the bottom head follows closely at number two. Using a screwdriver to adjust the gut tension, pluck each gut and tune them to the same pitch. There are theories of tuning the guts to a specific note or even tuning the guts differently based on location in the strand. I like to keep it simple and feel the uniform pitch/tension of each gut is more important than what specific pitch to which they are tuned. By having the guts all the same tension it allows us to better dial in the snare response with the overall tension knob on the snare strainer.

Now with the guts tuned remove the pencil, turn the strainer in the “on” position and adjust the height of the guts using the vertical adjustment knobs on either end of the strainer. This is where I see a lot of drums choked off by making the angle at which the guts touch the head too steep. An excellent trick is to start with the guts not touching the head and tap your finger on the guts at the end of the strainer. You’ll hear a distinct snapping sound. While continuing to tap, turn the height adjustment knob slowly to bring the guts closer to the head. The moment you stop hearing the snapping sound stop turning the height adjustment knob. The guts are now the perfect height and are completely touching the bottom head. Be sure to do the same process to both ends of the strainer. Since the gut tuning process probably took some time you can probably tweak the bottom head tension a little as it has probably settled some by now. You can now use the tension knob on the snare strainer to adjust the overall tension to your liking.

Tuning the top (batter) head is no different than the bottom in that you don’t want to bring it up too high, too fast. At this point we all want to play the drum so we get real anxious to crank the top head but resist that temptation where possible. In the marching world we don’t always have the luxury of allowing a head to properly seat because we’re busily changing heads during a dinner break or you have to be at the gate in 5 minutes. In a perfect world you’d be putting on new heads well in advance of a drum needing to be played on but obviously that’s not always possible. Just how tight you tune the top head is also a point of debate but the current trend, and my personal preference, is to not tune the top head to the stratosphere. This not only makes the drum more comfortable for the player, but also promotes more resonance of the drum which results in a better quality of sound.

You now have a good baseline from which to work where can tweak the overall gut and head tension, apply tape or muffling to the heads if desired, or whatever your preferences may be and situation requires. I prefer to leave the drum free from any tape or muffling for individual playing but that may not always be appropriate. There are other tricks out there like spraying your guts with acrylic, for example, but whatever you want to try be sure to not stray from the basics of tuning a marching snare drum. They will always apply.