It’s been said many times over the years, by top drummers and producers alike, that the most sonically significant component of the drumset is the snare drum. This is why recording studios and cartage companies often boast extensive collections comprising all different types and sizes, and this is why manufacturers consistently add new models each year.
While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all snare that will sound perfect in every situation, you really can’t go wrong by basing your collection on a well-made wood-shell drum. As touring and recording great Kenny Aronoff explained in the September 1991 issue of Modern Drummer, “Start with a [shallow] metal drum and a [deep] wood. That will cover a lot of situations.” We’ll leave the discussion of metal options for a later date. Here, we’ll focus on wood snares, specifically those featuring plywood shells, since they’re the most cost-effective and readily available options.
Not all plywood shells are created equally, and there are many factors that go into the quality of sound that these types of drums produce. The most important piece of the puzzle is the timber being used.
Ply shells are crafted from thin laminates of wood that can be from one species of tree or combinations of different species. Oftentimes more expensive and visually/sonically pleasing timber is used for the inside and outside laminates, while cheaper wood is used for the interior plies. Back in the day, this was a way for companies to cut costs while still being able to advertise their products as featuring a high-quality maple shell, for example. But if you look closely at the makeup of any vintage 3-ply drum shell, you’ll spot exterior plies of maple or mahogany and an interior ply of poplar or gum. That’s not to say that those drums don’t sound great. In fact, many would argue that they’re actually superior sounding to some contemporary drums. It’s just important to point out that simply because a drum is advertised as maple, birch, mahogany, bubinga, etc., it doesn’t mean that the shell is 100-percent that species.
It’s also important to point out that there are different types of wood that fall within a single category, such as birch, maple, and mahogany. Again, some due diligence on your part will go a long way when you’re determining whether or not a particular drum is the right choice for you. For instance, Philippine mahogany (aka luan) sounds quite different from African mahogany and is considerably less expensive.
The profile of the bearing edges and the overall shell thickness, as well as the thickness of the individual plies, are also critical factors in how a wood snare sounds and performs. To a lesser degree, the glue used to adhere the laminates together and the finish (lacquer, stain, or wrap) influence the final outcome as well.
The Control Group
In order to compare the sonic characteristics of different wood types, Chris Carr at Bucks County Drums built identical 6×14 4-ply snare drums out of six different species: maple, birch, cherry, walnut, jatoba, and hickory. These were chosen because they provided a nice balance between some of the most popular options (maple, birch, cherry, and walnut) and two harder species (Brazilian jatoba and North American hickory). All the drums feature the same bearing-edge profiles (45 degrees with a slight round-over), triple- flange steel hoops, a Trick GS007 throw-off, and Evans drumheads (G1 Coated batter and 300 Series snare side).
We tested each drum across the entire tuning range to get a sense of where each timber sounded best. The heads were pitched- matched with a Tune-Bot digital tuner to ensure that the sonic similarities and differences we observed between the drums were due to the wood itself and not discrepancies in drumhead tension.
Maple: Big, Warm Classic
If you’re only going to own a single wood-shell snare, maple is a great place to start. It has a big, warm, balanced sound that works well at any tuning and in any musical style. Because maple has been the top timber choice for drum shells for nearly a century, it has a very familiar tone that can feel a little vanilla if you’re looking for something with a more specialized flavor. But it’s a mainstay for a reason: it works.
Birch: Focused Punch
Contrasting the open, full voice of maple, birch-shell snares tend to have a shorter sustain, a snappier attack, and a more focused tone. Traditionally, birch drums are favored in the recording studio because they excel under microphones, producing fewer extreme frequencies and lingering overtones that can wreak havoc on a mix. I’ve always shied away from birch drums, mainly because they were often marketed as “budget” options. But a well-made birch drum is a strong contender for being “the one,” especially if you prefer a quick, articulate, studio-ready snare sound.
Cherry: A Happy Medium
More and more manufacturers are offering cherry wood, either blended with other timbers or as a single-species shell. Possessing a similarly focused, punchy attack to birch but with a wider frequency spectrum like maple, cherry snares are very versatile. If a maple snare has too much tone and the sustain of birch is a little too short for you, cherry could be an ideal choice. It’s not drastically different from either wood, however, so I’d caution against adding a cherry drum to a collection already containing high-quality maple and birch drums. Conversely, if you’re looking to thin out your lineup, then you could ditch those and get a cherry to cover both roles.
Walnut: Dark Yet Modern
Walnut is an interesting timber. It has a lot of the rich, low frequencies that you’d expect from a dark-sounding vintage drum, but the high end is crisp and snappy, and the midrange is scooped out a bit. The combined result is a satisfying earthy tone within a clean, contemporary context. If you play mostly acoustically—that is, without close mics or extensive processing—you’ll likely prefer the deep, ear-friendly vibe of walnut. It’s also an excellent choice if you want something that provides a stark contrast to a drum with a more biting tone.
Jatoba: Extra Bite
Speaking of bite, jatoba is a dense timber that has a similar hardness to more traditional drum-making woods like oak and bubinga. While it can be coaxed to produce a deep, fat tone—via tuning, head selection, and dampening—jatoba excels in the middle and higher registers, effectively bridging the gap between wood and metal. It has a bright and clean tone, super-crisp attack, and a lot of projection. If you often steer away from wood snares for a lack of power, check out a drum made from a hardwood like jatoba. It’s a beast.
Hickory: Airy Snap
While not as dense as jatoba, hickory is one of the hardest timbers found in North America. Sonically, hickory has a unique tone. It has a lot of cut and projection, but its overtones are airier than those of any of the other timbers discussed here. This results in a drum with a strong and powerful attack, crisp and snappy articulation, and a more powdery tone. I think of hickory as the aluminum of the wood species. It hits hard and sits perfectly in nearly any mix, but it leaves plenty of sonic space for other instruments.
We’ve just scratched the surface here when it comes to the various types of woods being used to make snare drums. But hopefully this primer helps put you down the right path when it comes time to purchase a high-quality plywood snare drum. Just remember to always trust your ears. They will guide you right.