Something all working drummers struggle with everyday is the hunt for the perfect snare drum and cymbals. My personal hunt has spanned quite a few years (and pieces of gear) and still continues to this day. With doing a very diverse amount of work stylistically, live and studio, these tools become very important in serving the music to the best of my ability. I will break this into the two groups and hopefully clarify a few things for you to better understand what you may need in your musical toolkit.
THE HEART OF THE MATTER
First let’s state the obvious: the snare drum is the heart of the drum kit. We have the power to change the entire sound and vibe of a drum kit by changing the snare. The confusing part of this becomes all of the options we have these days for snares: steel, brass, aluminum, copper, bronze, maple, birch, mahogany, bamboo and more. Also don’t forget if we want reinforcement rings, the type of hoops and strainer, depth and diameter. This can become very frustrating and expensive in the process of finding the right one for us. I do subscribe to the old adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” This would mean if we have a drum that we know how to get different textures, tones and colors from, that might just be the perfect drum. If you watch clips of the great Buddy Rich playing, he made his one snare sound like 10 because he knew that drum very well!
So where do we start? Well, first I ask my students, “What players do you like? What gear do they use? And why do you think they use that particular gear?” Hopefully they do some research and find the answers and realize that the gear used was to suit the music they were playing. A prime example is John Bonham and that Led Zeppelin sound. I would tell any drummer if you want a snare that would be a work horse and cover almost any situation, get a Ludwig Black Beauty or a Ludwig Supra-phonic. These are the two most recorded snare drums in history. Everyone has heard these drums in music they have listened to.
The Black Beauty is a black chrome over brass drum that just always sounds amazing. The Supra-phonic can be different material depending on the year it was made. I am not a vintage drum buff, so you would have to do the research to get all of the details. I personally have a 1970s 6 ½ x 14 Black Beauty and a 1969 5 x 14 Supra-phonic that is chrome over aluminum. They both sound amazing and are very versatile.
Wood shell snares have been a favourite of many players and date way back, as wood was the first material ever used for drums on this planet. The type of wood obviously has an impact on the sound. My personal favourite is maple and again, we have all heard a maple snare in music we have listened to. A nice maple snare between 5 ½ to 6 ½ x 14 can also be a very versatile drum in any music and will have a mellower tone than a metal drum. Listen to the Kings of Leon album Only By The Night. I love the sound of Nathan Followill’s wood snare. Again we should ask ourselves what drummers sound do we like? What music are we playing? What is our personal budget? These answers will give us an idea of where we might start.
MORE, MORE, MORE!
Snares are one thing, but I believe there should be a 12 step program for drummers and cymbals. Cymbals also fall into the same questions as snares: What players do you like? What cymbals do they use and why? As we mature as musicians, we can start really hearing the sounds we like and gravitate to. The problem is that the companies keep coming out with amazing new sounds that are very useful and inspiring.
I remember reading an article years ago with Graeme Edge, the drummer for The Moody Blues. He made a comment that really made me focus on the possibilities in one cymbal. He said, “Any drummer that can’t get at least 12 sounds out of one cymbal isn’t worth their salt.” At first I thought this guy was crazy but quickly realized that I needed to spend more time discovering the possibilities in the gear I have. I spent hours just exploring my ride cymbal and the results were incredible. This is one thing I find is missing in students these days— just the time spent exploring and discovering their gear and their own playing. Again this is a whole other article to be written.
I have always been searching for a pair of hi-hats, one crash cymbal and one ride that are so versatile I would need no others. I think I am getting closer, but I am sure I will always have way too many cymbals. I have 13, 14, 15 and 16 inch hi hats that all sound great and have their place in the music I play. I am finding the 15’s to be the most versatile and use them the most for sure. For hi hats, a 14 inch is the most common size and my 14’s sound great; it just seems the 15’s have an extra gear for the “big” sections In the music.
As for crashes, I prefer the sound of hand hammered cymbals. They are a little mellower in their tone and blend well with vocals. They aren’t really in your face and they just feel nice to play. If a piece of gear just feels comfortable to play, I shouldn’t fight this and realize that it is right for me. If our gear feels “nice” to play, we are inspired to discover more of what it can do, correct? My crashes are all 18“ and 20″, I find the big cymbals when played correctly can cover all sonic possibilities.
For the ride cymbals, I have the same preference of hand hammered as well. I am looking for the perfect balance of stick attack, cutting bell sound as well as a wash and crash-ability. I do have a couple of rides that are a bit of both, but do have one on the way that I have pretty high hopes of filling this void. I guess if the companies made the perfect three cymbals for all situations, they wouldn’t have much business.
Listen to players like Billy Kilson and Billy Ward to hear what possibilities cymbals have in the music they are playing.
THE BOTTOM LINE
It is always intriguing to hear about the drummers who have 200-plus snare drums in their collection and over 1000 cymbals to choose from. The reality for most of us is our budget will determine the gear we use and thus we have to make educated choices to get the most out of what we have. We must also realize that the longer we play a piece of equipment, the more it becomes a part of us and we know what it can do. Now take Graeme Edge’s advice and go discover what your gear can do before you go and spend your hard earned money.
Jayson Brinkworth is a professional musician, educator, author and owner of Music In The House based in Regina, Canada. Find him online here.