BY AJ DONAHUE | FROM THE FALL 2018 ISSUE OF DRUM!
While maple, birch, and mahogany have served us well as preeminent materials used for wood snare drums, a growing number of builders large and small are turning to more exotic tonal timbers to explore new sounds. Many of these materials have been used in musical instrument manufacturing for decades, but the recent rise of once less-common woods attracting attention seems to indicate a sea change in the previously accepted norms of essential tones.
But why are many of these woods considered uncommon or exotic if they’re clearly viable as high-grade shell materials? Well, there are likely a number of reasons. First, market trends and timber availability dictated much of what went into instrument making for decades, but changes in global accessibility have helped bring in different materials. Second, the growing number of shops able to build in smaller quantities has made way for more experimentation and exploration.
With no shortage of fresh, worldly woods rolling out of shops this year, we rounded up eight examples of less orthodox species from eight different drum builders to take a deep listen to what they had to offer. We’ll be focusing on the characteristics of the wood in each case, but keep in mind that all of these drums feature different constructions, shell make-ups, edges, hardware, finishing, and more, so we won’t be making any direct comparisons.
We’ve also included Janka ratings for each wood type to give a very base-level indication of hardness. The Janka scale measures relative hardness using pound-force (lbf), and can provide some insight into how a particular tone wood might reflect vibration. This isn’t always a direct correlation, but generally, harder woods will resonate with a stronger presence of high-end frequencies, while softer woods will often sound darker and drier. That said, shell and ply thickness, horizontal and vertical tension, interior and exterior finish, and vibration inhibitors (hardware) all contribute to a shell’s response, so the Janka number should be used only as a baseline reference. For an easy touchstone, American hard maple registers a 1,450 lbf (pound-force) rating, but there’s a wide variety of sounds available even within the world of maple snare drums.
And one final note: Unless otherwise indicated, all prices are listed in MSRP format. That means you’ll likely find these products on shelves for a lower cost than what’s printed here.
All right, now that we’ve got all of the super fun disclaimers out of the way, let’s talk about some swanky wood snare drums.
CHERRY HILL MACASSAR EBONY
Almost everything you see come out of Cherry Hill’s shop is handmade by owner/craftsman John Haddad. And I don’t mean he’s just designing the parts — the dude is actually using his hands to make each of the wood and metal components (except heads, snare wires, and gaskets) that go into everything Cherry Hill produces.
Cherry Hill has produced some absolutely stunning drums in its history, but the snare Haddad shipped over for this article is a work of art. The combination of vertical Macassar Ebony grain lines, semi-polished brass hardware, and mother-of-pearl details in the lugs and top rods is real-deal gasp-inspiring. It’s an all-time beautiful instrument that would be a museum piece if it didn’t sound so good.
And speaking of sound, this one packs a serious punch. Macassar Ebony is frequently favored in guitar building for its projection, clarity, and tone-rich character, and those qualities are reflected in what I’m hearing. This is far and away the hardest wood of any featured here, so the Cherry Hill unit is expectedly loaded with cracking, cutting highs. But below that, there’s a lurking dark tone that supplements the smack with some hearty bottom and a fairly quick decay, which I’d attribute at least partially to the contoured stave shell that comes in right around 1/3″ thick.
This drum is a walloping, back beat machine at medium or higher tunings, and settles into a broad, gong-y splat when dropped down low. The Macassar snare has a very distinct and assertive voice, with enough built-in body to work in any situation. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the incredible cross-stick those solid straight brass hoops deliver.
SIZE: 14″ x 5″
MATERIAL: Macassar Ebony
SHELL: 8.7mm, stepped stave
JANKA RATING: 3,220 lbf
BEARING EDGES: Roundover with 45-degree countercut over 45/45 bottom
SNARE BEDS: Medium-wide and deep
LUGS: 10, single-point stepped tube with white mother-of-pearl inlay
HOOPS: Brass, hand rolled and welded straight
HEADS: Evans Power Center Dot over Clear Snare Side 300
THROW/BUTT: Cherry Hill Top Hat throw-off (pearl inlay) and butt plate
FINISH: Satin natural
EXTRAS: Handmade solid brass hardware; 20 tension rods also with pearl inlay on the top 10; solid, hand-stamped “reserve” badge and air vent grommet
CRAVIOTTO PRIVATE RESERVE SYCAMORE
Craviotto’s Private Reserve label is the company’s home for drums cut from extremely limited boards of rare and exotic woods. It takes a truly special piece of timber to make the grade, and the Sycamore drum Craviotto shipped over for this article is no exception. The dark, dense, Morse-code-esque figuring on the wood’s otherwise maple-ish color is stunning and unlike anything I’ve seen before.
As expected, the build quality is superb at every point on the Private Reserve drum. Edges are smooth as silk, shell and matching reinforcement ring joints are flawless, and all hardware is perfectly aligned. I found no perceptible flaws in the construction of this drum.
But as beautiful as this sycamore snare looks, its sound steals the show. Sycamore is the softest of the woods covered here, and that translates to what I’m hearing in the drum’s response. Center strokes are deep and throaty with a huge tone that spreads out from the middle. There’s a touch of maple-ish sweetness on top that adds cut, but that barreling lower-middle range is what really leaps out. It’s fantastically sensitive at all tunings and responds with a dark but very active wire sizzle, a quality surely bolstered by its 45-degree edges and deeper snare beds.
The Private Reserve Sycamore sounded happiest at low and medium-low tensions, but it had no problem going up high, where it produced a full, cracking splack. I wasn’t able to find a choking point anywhere in the tuning range. This is a tone-rich, versatile drum with a slightly warmer and darker character than I’d expect to hear from a steam-bent maple shell.
SIZE: 14″ x 6.5″
SHELL: 7mm, steam-bent 1-ply with matching reinforcement rings
JANKA RATING: 1,050 lbf
BEARING EDGES: 45-degree
SNARE BEDS: Medium-wide and deep
LUGS: 10, chrome-over-brass tube
HOOPS: Steel 2.3mm vintage-style straight
HEADS: Aquarian Texture Coated over Classic Clear Snare Side
WIRES: 24-strand Deluxe
THROW/BUTT: Trick GS007
FINISH: Natural satin oil
EXTRAS: Limited Private Reserve stock; Signed paper label inside
DOC SWEENEY MYRTLE DUNES
Doc Sweeney’s emergence into the world of boutique building has been pretty remarkable. After only a few years in business, the California-based outfit has firmly established itself as a premier resource for expertly crafted drums featuring mostly steam-bent shells. The Sweeney shop is no stranger to exotic and rare wood types, but even with that history, the Myrtle snare we received still feels like an outlier.
Like everything that comes off the Doc Sweeney line, the Myrtle Dunes drum is a real looker. The pale brown, almost olive hue of the wood’s natural grain sits perfectly against the gorgeous figuring on the tiger maple and walnut hoops. Black nickel hardware and Sweeney’s single-point solid lugs add a touch of modern flare.
Sonically, the Myrtle Dunes unit reminds me a lot of several birch snares I’ve played. It’s got tremendous presence in the upper-middle range with strong, singing highs that spread out wide rather than attack the ear. It’s incredibly resonant and has a meaty middle and a long-ish sustain. The drum plays very evenly across the head as well as up and down the dynamic spectrum, which I think comes from a combination of the reinforcement rings and the added control of those contoured wood hoops.
Across the board, the Sweeney snare is sensitive and sonorous. That broad middle note keeps the wires dancing, and deep beds make sure that even the lightest touches are met with a pleasantly mellow buzz. With so much sound coming out of this drum, it would be a great option for live (especially unamplified) play, but just a touch of tone control brings out a fat richness ideal for recording.
SIZE: 14″ x 6″
SHELL: 8mm, steam-bent 1-ply with reinforcement rings
JANKA RATING: 1,270 lbf
BEARING EDGES: 45-degree roundover
SNARE BEDS: Very wide and deep
LUGS: 10, black nickel single-point solid
HOOPS: 7-ply tiger maple with walnut
HEADS: Aquarian Modern Vintage over Classic Clear Snare Side
WIRES: 20-strand Canopus
THROW/BUTT: Trick GS007
FINISH: Semi-gloss natural
EXTRAS: Signed and dated interior
DRUM WORKSHOP COLLECTOR’S PURPLEHEART
John Good, this industry’s most vociferous wood whisperer, regularly travels the globe in search of rare timber for DW. The recently introduced Collector’s Purpleheart is another in a long line of beautifully styled drums built to get the most out of the featured wood’s natural sonic qualities.
The 13-ply purpleheart drum is a shockingly heavy unit with a subtle satin finish that highlights the grain’s purple/brown color. The soft lines and deep hue really pop behind the chrome hardware. It’s a joy to look at.
DW’s purpleheart snare is powerful. Rimshots spring out like prime Tyson haymakers and then follow through with a squashed sustain that’s very microphone friendly. Some of the cutting highs produced by the thick, fairly hard purpleheart shell can linger on the edges, but those sweet tones help carry each note even farther in a live setting.
Purpleheart has a pinging upper register that contributes to a supremely cracking attack, but is supported by a rich middle with some warmth in the decay. This is a dynamic and complex drum with a lot to say, and plenty of headroom to say it. It’s extremely sensitive, and surprisingly delicate at lower volumes. It feels most naturally like a snare built for cracking backbeats, but I actually really enjoyed the crisp response in softer jazz settings. Plus, this one can get low, highlighting purpleheart’s depth. A tiny bit of muffling and a deep tuning yields a humongous splat with a powerful boom underneath.
SIZE: 14″ x 5.5″
SHELL: 10mm, 13-ply HVLT
JANKA RATING: 2,520 lbf
BEARING EDGES: 60-degree inside cut
SNARE BEDS: Medium-wide and medium-deep
LUGS: 10, turret-style
HOOPS: Steel True-Hoops
HEADS: DW by Remo coated single-ply over clear snare side
WIRES: 20-strand True-Tone
THROW/BUTT: MAG Throw, 3P Butt
FINISH: Satin natural
EXTRAS: True-Pitch tension rods; Numbered paper label
GEORGE H. WAY SIGNATURE CARTER MCLEAN
Carter McLean is a monster player with tremendous pocket, huge ears, and exquisite touch. Ronn Dunnett is renowned throughout the industry for crafting instruments near unrivaled in their tone, character, and sensitivity. The pairing of these two artists feels like a preordained partnership, and the snare they created together is a natural extension of their combined aesthetics.
McLean’s signature drum is built on a thin, 2-ply Acacia shell with matching reinforcement rings. The wood’s natural color lands somewhere in the middle between maple and walnut with broad, dark grain lines and a sandy-brown-colored heart. Classically styled chrome appointments combine with the shell to deliver a simple yet dazzlingly organic appearance.
Acacia is generally a denser wood with an equitable blend of smooth highs and deep body. This is another wood that shows up in guitar building due to its bright-ish projection and rich tonal depth. Here, it reminds me a bit of a maxed-out walnut sound. The highs are sweet and present even when the drum is played softly, but they’re never aggressive. And every center hit pulls up a big, round, warm low-end note that blossoms quickly and then cinches up shortly after.
It’s woody and remarkably balanced at every tuning, but the Acacia’s naturally deluxe voice blew me away when I brought the tension way down low. It’s tremendously resonant, and those peeking highs pack just enough punch on top to make it really hit you in the gut.
As expected, the McLean signature model is ludicrously sensitive under any stroke. The combination of deep beds and vintage-style wires, along with the drum’s smooth decay, yield an ultra-crisp response that leans on the dry side. The George Way–designed Double Edge/Double Flange hoops add a touch of extra control to the already well-contained unit.
SIZE: 14″ x 7″
SHELL: 4mm, 2-ply with reinforcement rings
JANKA RATING: 1,750 lbf
BEARING EDGES: Contoured inner, slight counter
SNARE BEDS: Wide and deep
LUGS: 8, Way Tuxedo
HOOPS: Steel Double Edge/Double Flange
HEADS: Remo Coated Ambassador over Clear Snare Side
WIRES: 20 strand vintage-style modeled after those used by Way
THROW/BUTT: Way 845
FINISH: Gloss natural
EXTRAS: AAA chrome plating, interior paper label with Carter McLean signature
HENDRIX ARCHETYPE BUBINGA
Hendrix Drums’ Archetype snares are constructed from 1/4″ thick staves that have milled-in 1/4″ reinforcement rings on both top and bottom. That thin shell helps bring out some of each drum’s natural low-end, but maintains structural strength with the thicker ring pieces at either edge. It’s a savvy design that’s helped define the Hendrix sound.
The bubinga Archetype snare Hendrix submitted for this article is one of the company’s most sought after. Despite the declining availability of bubinga wood, owner and drum builder Rhett Hendrix assured me that it will remain a part of the company catalog.
That’s great news because this is a killer drum. Visually, it’s easy to see the appeal. Bubinga’s deep, red/brown color and dense, vertically oriented grain lines are truly striking. Hendrix’s proprietary hardware is stylish, but small enough to never steal the show from the shell.
Under the stick, the Archetype is an even easier sell. Bubinga is very hard, and often projects a uniquely aggressive high-end note followed by a powerful low-end punch. But the Hendrix model’s thin shell and vertical stave construction seem to mitigate some of the most potent highs while allowing the staves to really sing in the lower-middle and extra-low ranges. Many builders assert that because vertical staves are not bent like ply or steam-bent shells, the wood is under less stress and as a result is able to resonate at a lower frequency. I don’t really have a way to test that, but this drum does have an exceptionally beefy core, so perhaps there’s something to it.
Played softly, it’s crisp and chattering with a slightly papery wire response, but it’s quick and biting across the board. The vintage-style bearing edge cut and S-hoops surely help reign in some of the wood’s highest voices, but they still leave in plenty of cutting upper-range frequency to make this drum a dream for high-energy pop and rock beats. It’s fat and assertive, but never overly dominating.
SIZE: 14″ x 6.5″
SHELL: 6.4mm, stave with integrated reinforcement rings
JANKA RATING: 2,410 lbf
BEARING EDGES: Vintage 30-degree
SNARE BEDS: Wide and shallow
LUGS: 10, solid aluminum single-point
HOOPS: Steel S-Hoops
HEADS: Remo Controlled Sound over Clear Ambassador Snare Side
WIRES: 4-strand Fat Cat Dual-Adjustable
THROW/BUTT: Trick GS007
FINISH: Polyester Mirror Gloss natural
EXTRAS: Tight Screw tension rods, sleeved washers
MAPEX BLACK PANTHER DESIGN LAB CHERRY BOMB
Russ Miller helped Mapex create the Design Lab series for its Black Panther line to offer working drummers a quartet of instruments with uniquely specialized voices. Among those, the Cherry Bomb model featured here was built to deliver hearty, big tones ideal for modern rock and country.
The drum’s appearance is beautifully subtle. A soft, satin finish sits well against the cherry’s cozy reddish hue, and allows the dark, spare grain lines to pop cleanly. Slim and sleek chrome hardware finds a sort of retro modern vibe while the dual-adjustable strainer and butt unit look like they belong on a much pricier piece.
Miller and Mapex selected cherry for its combination of warmth and power. Played cleanly in the center the Cherry Bomb speaks with a somewhat drier note that jumps off the top head and then follows through with a round, pillowy middle that leans toward the dark side. With or without the support of a rimshot it’s extremely fat, and kind of explodes horizontally instead of vertically. This is another drum where every tuning feels like a sweet spot. The fullness that comes from cherry’s combination of slap and softness is truly rare.
Dual air vents dry the notes out a hair and slightly abbreviate wire response. I think that helps rein in a little bit of the vibrating sweetness I’ve heard in other cherry drums. The result is a big, splatting tone perfectly suited for twos and fours at any volume.
SIZE: 14″ x 6″
SHELL: 9mm, 8-ply
JANKA RATING: 1,150 lbf
BEARING EDGES: 45-degree SONIClear with 3/8″ rounded countercuts
SNARE BEDS: Wide and deep
LUGS: 10, Black Panther single-screw tube
HOOPS: Steel Sonic Saver
HEADS: Remo Coated Ambassador X over Clear Ambassador Snare Side
WIRES: 16 strand Puresound Custom
THROW/BUTT: Cylinder-Drive Strainer & Butt-End Adjuster
FINISH: Natural Satin SONIClear Attenuation System
EXTRAS: Dual air vents
TAMA S.L.P. DYNAMIC KAPUR
Tama’s S.L.P. series was created to expand the number of voices and options represented in the mid-priced snare drum market. It’s been a tremendous success for the Japanese giant, and the company continues to grow the line today. The new S.L.P. Dynamic Kapur snare drum made the cut for this year’s rookie class because of Kapur’s blend of a controlled dry core and dancing, cutting highs. It’s got a contained voice that marries qualities frequently associated with both modern and vintage sounds. Often sourced from South Asian Pacific Island rainforests, it’s earning more acclaim as a commercial timber based on its availability and strong but workable density.
Kapur looks a little bit like the Mahogany that’s been used in drum building for years. It’s got a soft, semi-porous appearance with wide, waving grain lines and a milky-coffee base color. Tama’s Black Kapur Burst gloss finish highlights the grain and pairs very well with the thin chrome tube lugs and counterhoops.
But while Kapur may look like Mahogany on the surface, it has a sonic character all its own. I recognize some of the focused dryness and warm lows common to Mahogany, but there’s a presence and cut that reminds me a lot more of maple. And there’s a nice woodiness in the higher end that I don’t recall hearing in a drum that’s otherwise this dry and controlled.
At a medium tension, soft strokes pull out a dark core note that quickly activates a lush, mellow response from the wires. A heavier hand brings out fat, controlled splats that sound excellent in medium-volume and louder settings. Middle and lower tunings bring out a deeply satisfying splack that hits like a sample from a Nashville studio. This drum is built for a specific voice, and delivers on that design expertly.
SIZE: 14″ x 6″
SHELL: 5mm, 6-ply
JANKA RATING: 1,230 lbf
BEARING EDGES: 45 degree
SNARE BEDS: Medium wide and medium deep
LUGS: 8, brass tube
HOOPS: Steel Sound Arc
HEADS: Evans G1 Coated over Clear Snare Side 300
WIRES: 20-strand Starclassic
THROW/BUTT: MLS50A/MLS50B Lever adjustable
FINISH: Black Kapur Burst
EXTRAS: Surprisingly affordable price point considering quality