What Are The Differences Between Snare Drum & Tom Drum?

Modern drum kits are made up of four major sections: The kick drums, the snare drum, the tom-toms (or tom drums), and the cymbals sections. Each provides a unique sound and use case for drummers. The tom-toms and snare drums are possibly the most comparable components, being at arms' reach for the drummer.

But what are the differences between snare drums and tom drums? The differences can be condensed into the following bullet points:

  • The tom drums lack the snare wires found in snare drums.
  • Snare drums sound crashier and less distinct in terms of tonality. The tom-tom is more “melodic” or “pitched”.
  • Snare drums generate the main driving sound in a drum kit, whereas tom-toms are used for flavour.

In this article, we'll be exploring these differences. But, first, let's go over some background.

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The Backgrounds Of Snare Drums And Tom Drums

The drum kit (or drum set) was a concept that developed over time, specifically in the New Orleans musical scene. It was created out of a need to save space for the rhythm section in smaller venues for vaudeville shows.

It may be said that the drum kit rose in parallel to jazz music. In fact, it was jazz drummer Dee Dee Chandler who first used a makeshift pedal for the bass drum (which would later receive the moniker “kick drum” for this reason). This allowed one drummer to play two drums at the same time (the snare and bass drum) and marked the first stage in the creation of the modern drum set.

Over time, these concepts would be refined, and many other additions followed. The tom-toms and cymbals would be inserted soon afterward.

The Background Of The Snare Drum

The snare drum could be traced back to medieval Europe, particularly to medieval Eastern Europe (during the crusades). This drum was called tabor, a portable drum typically held in hand or attached by a strap wrapped around the drummer's arm.

The primitive tabor had various uses. It was utilized in tourneys or to accompany performers and dancers. It was also played alongside a fife, hence the common term “fife and drum” that was regularly employed in medieval chronicles.

The Basel drum was developed for use in larger military settings, often measuring more than 16″ in diameter and depth. By the 16th century, snares were incorporated into the drum, which stretched across its bottom head. These snares were originally made with animal tissue, just as the strings used in string instruments of that era.

In North America, the drum received the name “field drum” because it was utilized as a signalling instrument. Troops would play the drum to communicate with one another, while in some places, it was played to announce church services.

With time, this snare drum would be endowed with a new use case by its incorporation into concert halls. French composer Marais included snare drums into his repertoire to convey the sound of a storm. At the same time, Beethoven and other contemporaries like Rossini wanted them for the military atmosphere they fostered.

Ultimately, the snare drum made it into Dixieland and vaudeville ensembles. This would later segway into its prominent placement within the modern drum kit.

The Background Of The Tom Drum

Despite its visual resemblance to the modern snare drum, the tom drum (also called tom-tom drum or simply tom-tom) comes from a strikingly different background. While the snare drums have a markedly European origin, the tom drums appeared to have originated in East Asian and Native American cultures.

Tom drums were initially beaten with the hands and mainly used for communicating and signalling.

The Chinese tom-toms go back to the late 19th century and were made with rudimentary wood shells, with diameters ranging from 8 to 14″. These earliest samples had no tuning rods or hoops, and their skins were stapled to the top and bottom.

These tom-toms were imported to America by Chinese immigrants at the turn of the 20th century, sporting noticeable Chinese decorations onto the skin. American manufacturers eventually began to take an interest in these drums and imported them en masse.

The earliest examples of people who used tom-toms in jazz music include Fletcher Henderson and Duke Ellington, who were keen on integrating tom-toms to add an oriental or “jungle” sound to their music.

The 1920s proved to be a very good decade for tom-tom marketing, with companies like Ludwig and Slingerland beginning to include them as essential parts of their respective drum sets. Gene Krupa then worked with Slingerland to manufacture tom drums with “dual tension” tuning, which basically meant that drumheads could be fine-tuned and replaced when needed.

What Are The Differences Between Snare Drums And Tom Drums?

The differences between the snare drum and tom drum were outlined at the beginning of this guide, but I'll proceed to offer more disclosure on them below:

Difference 1: Design

Earlier, I stated:

“The tom drums lack the snare wires found in snare drums.”

The snare wires are a defining characteristic of snare drums. They consist mostly of coiled wires tightly stretched across the bottom drumhead.

These wires are available in a wide array of presentations and designs. Some sets come with 12, 24, and even 42 wires. They're also made with various materials, such as chrome-plated steel (which are the most common) or plastic. I already mentioned how antique snare drums utilized animal guts for the wires, a practice that has largely waned in more recent times.

Finally, the tension will define the intensity of the “buzz”. Tighter wires will deliver more articulated and sharp snare sounds.

On the flip side, the tom drums lack this feature. Nevertheless, in all other respects, modern tom-toms carry mostly the same characteristics proper to snare drums, such as the drumheads, shell, tension rods, and a rim for “rim shots”.

On a slightly related note, both the snare and tom drums are made in different types and models.

The different types of snare drums include the marching snare drum, the concert snare drum, the piccolo snare drum, or the standard “drum kit” snare drum, among others.

Meanwhile, tom-toms are designed in four main types: The “floor toms” (standing on the floor), the “rack toms” (mounted on top of a kick drum), roto toms (lacking a drum shell), and concert toms (single-headed, meaning that they only have one drumhead on top).

Difference 2: Sound

Another difference I pointed out was with regard to the sound. With small variations in design, deviations in sound are also bound to ensue.

We emphasized the following in the initial response:

Snare drums sound crashier and less distinct in terms of tonality. The tom-tom is more “melodic” or “pitched”.”

As affirmed in the previous section, what most distinguishes snares from toms is the presence of the snare wires, which produce a very distinctively bright “buzz”.

The wires allow drummers to create the illusion of multiple drums beaten together and to render the famous “drum rolls”. The snare's tone, when hit hard, can be described as a tight, powerful staccato.

On the other hand, tom toms have more “musicality” to them. They are powerful yet lack the sharp, penetrating punch of snares. They are also drier (with little to no buzz) and deliver a more defined thumping effect.

Difference 3: Use

In the answer given above, I stressed that:

“Snare drums generate the main driving sound in a drum kit, whereas tom-toms are used for flavour.”

Admittedly, this is not always the case. In the earlier days of jazz, it was common to find tom drums being utilized as the main drum sound. Nevertheless, the snare drums have been given the role of primary timekeepers for a longer time, at least within the context of popular Western music.

Tom drums are played in most instances to add colour to the rhythm section of a piece of music and, sometimes, even as substitutes for cymbals.

How an ordinary drum kit is configured can give us hints as to the different roles fulfilled by each drum. To illustrate, the snare drum is traditionally situated right in front of the drummer, lending credence to the notion of it being the primary drum. Meanwhile, the tom drums are placed adjacent to the snare.

Ironically, while the snare may easily be the most played drum, one hardly finds more than one snare drum installed in a kit. In contrast, it's usual to see a plethora of different tom drums with diverse sizes and pitches.

The floor toms are normally located on the right-hand side of the snare, while the rack toms sit behind the snare, mounted over the bass drum and lifted slightly above the other drums for easier access.

For the record, floor toms could be used as kick drums in some instances by adapting a kick pedal. This process involves some tweaks that would allow the pedal to hit the underside of the tom. This video shows how to do a “cocktail drum setup” by flipping the cam of the pedal (the piece of metal that transfers mechanical energy to the beater from the footboard).

Read How Snare Drums Compare To Other Instruments

Read How Tom Drums Compare To Other Instruments

This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.


Arthur is the owner of Fox Media Tech and the author of My New Microphone. He's an audio engineer by trade and works on contract in his home country of Canada. When not blogging on MNM, he's likely hiking outdoors and blogging at Hikers' Movement (hikersmovement.com) or producing music. For more info, please check out his YouTube channel and his music.

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