What Are The Differences Between Snare Drums & Djembes?

In this article, we'll take a closer look at two surprisingly contemporary drums that come from very distinct backgrounds, namely the snare drum and the djembe. Both instruments share many similarities, along with a corresponding number of distinctions worth discussing.

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

  • Snare drums have a very different shell design and build than djembes.
  • Snare drums have a punchier sound. Djembes have a sweeter tone.
  • Snare drums are played with beaters. Djembes are mainly hand drums.

Throughout the length of this article, we'll be going over the differences between snare drums and djembes just uncovered. Before moving on, however, we should flesh out a bit of their background.

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The Backgrounds Of Snare Drums And Djembes

All drums seem to share a common ancestor in the first set of drums found in China, dating from around 5,500 B.C. These drums, made with highly basic materials, were used initially for signalling and ritual purposes.

Drums reached Africa circa 1,000 B.C. and were further developed according to the cultural and religious values of the various tribes that abided in the continent. They would eventually spread to Europe and Greece from around 200 B.C. onwards.

The Background Of The Snare Drum

The exact origin of the snare drums is uncertain. The earliest record attesting to the existence of these drums dates from the time of the crusades in Eastern Europe.

These drums were called tabor and mostly had military usage, though they would later be utilized for entertainment. The Basel drum, a refined version of the classical tabor, would feature snares at the bottom in a similar fashion to modern snare drums.

The drums were introduced in America during colonial times and played a key role in the American Civil War, after which they'd make their way into what would become the vaudeville and Dixieland music scenes. Meanwhile, in Europe, they were firmly established as instruments proper to chamber and orchestral music.

The Background Of The Djembe

The djembe appeared in Western Africa at around the same time as the snare drums appeared in Eastern Europe (approximately 1,200 A.D.) around the region that used to be called the Mali Empire. Throughout their history, these drums have undergone little to no major modifications.

The djembe originally belonged to a specific caste called the “djeli” (which exists to this day), and the members of that caste were traditionally the only ones allowed to play the instrument. After the Western African countries recovered their sovereignty, the instrument seemed to regain relevance and began to be heavily employed in national ballets.

The drum was relatively unknown in Europe and America until around the '60s and '70s, gaining quick notoriety, especially with the popularization of world music.

What Are The Differences Between Snare Drums And Djembes?

Now, we'll flesh out the differences mentioned at the start of this article:

Difference 1: Design

The first difference that I brought up was the following:

“Snare drums have a very different shell design and build than djembes.”

This distinction is readily apparent. Starting with the size, one may already catch the stark contrast between the taller djembe and the shorter snare. Also worth noting is the curious goblet-like shape of the djembe's body, in contrast to the standard cylindrical shape found in regular snare drums.

The materials utilized for both instruments' construction also show several variations. While djembes mostly stick with rawhide (usually goatskin) heads, snare drums are manufactured with more synthetic heads made of Mylar plastic or polyester. In most cases, they're installed at both the top and bottom of the shell.

In addition, djembe shells or bodies are made predominantly from a type of African hardwood (though you might occasionally find fibreglass models). In contrast, snare drum shells are made of either metal or wood.

No less important is the presence of vertically-aligned ropes in the djembes, which would serve the same purpose as the tension rods and lug casings in snare drums, that is, to adjust the tuning. Alas, this rope system is very rudimentary and, unfortunately, quite tricky to maneuver in comparison.

Of course, I shouldn't neglect to mention the addition of the snare wires facing the bottom head of the snare drum (also aptly called the “snare head”). These wires bestow the snare drum with a peculiar sound trait (more on this later).

Difference 2: Sound

Next, I pointed out that:

“Snare drums have a punchier sound. Djembes have a sweeter tone.”

Admittedly, the sound of the djembe drum can closely resemble that of the snare drum if one listens to it in isolation and when compared to more similar drums like the conga. Nevertheless, when assessed side-by-side, the differences in volume and overall tone become really noticeable.

The first distinguishing characteristic of the snare drum is its powerful attack and sound projection. This might have to do with the fact that it's played with beaters instead of the hands, but there are other factors, such as the heads' material and the fact that snares carry two heads, creating an acoustic chamber in between that enhances the drum's resonance as a whole.

The snare drum is likewise more percussive and renders a less discernible pitch than the djembe, owing to the presence of the aforementioned snare wires at the bottom that adds that peculiar metallic “buzz” at the end.

Difference 3: Playing Method

Finally, I stated that:

Snare drums are played with beaters. Djembes are mainly hand drums.”

This is a given for many people, but it bears stressing that you can, in theory, play djembes with sticks or brushes and snare drums with your hands.

However, you'd have to deal with some inconveniences, such as the protuberant rim in the snare drum possibly hurting your hand or the beaters potentially damaging the delicate rawhide on the djembe. Many people have, nonetheless, played djembes with brushes, as they're a lot softer for the skin.

Lastly, you can deliver bass tone slaps with your djembe by striking towards the center with the palm, something you'd not be capable of doing with sticks.

Read How Snare Drums Compare To Other Instruments

Read How Djembes 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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