What Are The Differences Between Snare Drums & Bass Drums?

Drum kits have been around for a bit more than a century. The most primitive drum kit featured a simple combination of snare and bass drum, the latter operated by a pedal, allowing both hands to focus on the former.

What are the differences between snare drums and bass drums? The differences are as follows:

  • The bass drum is mostly operated with a pedal, while the snare drums are operated with sticks/mallets.
  • The bass drum is larger and different in design than the snare drum.
  • The bass drum has a deeper, more booming sound, while the snare drum sounds sharper.

In this article, we'll be going more in-depth into these differences. However, let's go over some history first.

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The Backgrounds Of Snare Drums And Bass Drums

The drum set was first created out of a need to assemble a more compact rhythm section so that vaudeville and Dixieland bands could fit within smaller venues across New Orleans.

The first use of the drum kit was witnessed within jazz music circles. Jazz drummer Edward “Dee Dee” Chandler was the first recorded musician to utilize a makeshift pedal to play the bass drum while employing both hands to play the snare. This enabled him (and other drummers) to experiment with different rhythmic patterns and seize more control over the rhythm section in general.

Before this, drummers would use a technique called “double drumming”, by which they'd play the bass and snare drum simultaneously with their hands, naturally limiting the number of rhythms that could be expressed on both drums. While the aforementioned contraption was heavily rudimentary and didn't resemble the modern kick pedals seen today, its underpinning concept was already beginning to take shape.

Now, let's look at each drum separately to get an idea of where they came from.

The Background Of The Snare Drum

The earliest versions of the snare drum were first spotted in Eastern Europe during the crusades. As it was called, the tabor was portrayed in thirteenth- and fourteenth-century art as a drum that had snares on the top drumhead and was tensioned by ropes.

Foot soldiers originally played the tabor to send signals during military operations. After some time, it was employed in tournaments, dances, and theatrical performances.

In addition, tabor players were wont to play their tabors simultaneously with a three-holed pipe. Later, they'd be joined with fife players (as the fife required two hands), producing the staple “fife and drum” setting referenced in medieval folklore.

The Basel drum, developed in 16th century Switzerland, came with a much larger chassis, measuring up to 16” in diameter, with just as much depth. Snares were stretched across the bottom head this time around, which were made from animal guts.

This drum became very popular in North America, being dubbed the “field drum” as its main purpose was to be utilized for communication between troops on a battlefield. Eventually, as the American Civil War was coming to a close, drummers would take their instruments home and give them a different, more musical end.

Meanwhile, by the 18th century, the drum would make its way across European concert halls, with the likes of Marin Marais prominently using it to create a storm sound (particularly in his opera Alcyone). Generally, European classical composers found the snare drum very handy for conveying a military feel in many of their works.

In America, the drum came to be featured in more popular musical settings such as vaudeville, ragtime, and Dixieland.

The Background Of The Bass Drum

The bass drum had a slightly different background. The Turkish davul (or tabl Turki) is said to be the first known precursor to the modern bass drum, going as far back as the 14th century. Many of these instruments made their way into Western Europe by the middle of the 17th century and were laboriously used by military personnel.

A century later, bass drums would predominantly be featured in orchestral music, such as the opera “The Vestal Virgin” by Spontini. Western musicians then began playing these drums with felt-covered mallets instead of the wooden beaters traditionally used by Turkish drummers. By doing this, they effectively suppressed the drum's typical “oriental” tone.

The creation of the bass drum pedal appears to be attributed to English inventor Cornelius Ward circa 1850. It was finally registered in the U.S. by R.G. Olney in 1887. This contraption drew the interest of many engineers of that time due to its functionality, although its first prototypes were largely inconvenient.

One of the first fully-functional and responsive kick pedal models was registered and commercialized by Ludwig at the turn of the 20th century.

Ludwig is featured in several top drum brand articles at My New Microphone. Check out these articles here!

What Are The Differences Between Snare Drums And Bass Drums?

Now, we'll be diving into the differences described at the beginning of this article:

Difference 1: Playing Method

In the initial answer, I declared the following:

“The bass drum is mostly operated with a pedal, while the snare drums are operated with sticks/mallets.”

As disclosed earlier when analyzing the history of the bass drum, the kick pedal was designed around the mid-19th century, and it would not be used until decades after. Meanwhile, the bass drum had been already in existence for over five centuries.

While we may find many instances of bass drums being played with mallets or beaters, the popular Western way to play them – specifically in the context of a drum kit – is via pedals. This allows drummers more freedom to perform ostinato with both hands without sacrificing bass drum beats.

The pedal is essentially a big mallet or beater that is handled via a footboard. The pedal's mechanism is intricate and comprises a series of interconnected movable parts to transfer mechanical energy from the footboard to the beater. As you press on the board, this mechanism makes a camshaft rotate and the beater – held in place by a cam – proceeds to move towards the batter drumhead.

On the flip side, the drumhead of snare drums is incapable of withstanding the heavy blows from contraptions like the kick pedal to the same extent, and, furthermore, they won't render the desired sound.

Difference 2: Size And Design

Earlier, I stated:

“The bass drum is larger and different in design than the snare drum.”

To give some perspective, the standard size of bass drums is 22″, while the snare drum roughly reaches 14″. This means that the bass drum is approximately 50% larger, a difference that will undoubtedly translate into differences in sound, as we'll see shortly.

In terms of design, there are some differences. Both instruments are highly similar in that they have a rim or edge, a shell, drumheads (batter head and resonant head), lugs, tension rods, and many other similar parts.

However, the bass drum has one additional distinguishing feature: the tom mount brackets. These brackets allow you to install “rack toms” on the bass drum. These rack toms are drums that are similar in size to the snare drum but lack any snare wires.

On the other hand, the snare drum can be identified by the inclusion of the snare wires at the bottom. These wires come in sets of different sizes, designs, and materials to achieve different sound profiles. You can find sets of up to 42 wires to attach to the drum's underside.

Finally, while the bass drum can be played upright, its orientation within the drum kit is horizontal relative to the snare drum, with the batter head facing the kick pedal's beater.

The bass drum's “legs” are placed in a perpendicular position, allowing the drum to remain in place and not roll on its shell. Conversely, the legs on the snare drum are positioned parallel to the shell's orientation while also being taller so that drummers may more easily reach the instrument.

Difference 3: Sound

Finally, I acknowledged:

“The bass drum has a deeper, more booming sound, while the snare drum sounds sharper.”

This difference is one of the most noticeable ones on the list. The first factor to consider is the size difference, which plays a huge role in this respect.

This goes in line with the principle that states that the frequency of the sound is inversely proportional to the length or size of the medium. We ought to be reminded of the fact that both drums are double-headed membranophones, meaning that the bulk of the sound is rendered through the vibration of the stretched membranes.

In that sense, as should be expected, the bass drum produces notes on a much lower frequency than the snare drum, considering how much larger it is compared to the latter.

The snare drum not only produces a brighter and sharper sound, but this sound lacks the “melodic” aftertaste of the bass drum's sound because of the presence of the snares. These snares, to a greater or lesser degree (and depending on their tension), hamper the instrument's ability to generate prolonged vibrations across its membrane. Hence, much of this vibration is transferred to the snares, which, in turn, would produce a characteristic “buzz”.

Read How Snare Drums Compare To Other Instruments

Read How Bass 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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