BY MARK COOPER | FROM THE SUMMER 2018 ISSUE OF DRUM!
The strainer and throw-off are important parts of the sound, feel, and performance of a snare drum. Most modern snare systems are simple and straightforward, but this wasn’t always the case. The evolution of these all-important drum components has spawned some interesting and sometimes bizarre designs over the past 100 years, and here we take a look at the early days of the hardware that makes a snare drum special.
Like their modern counterparts, early snare strainers were relatively simple. Their main purpose was to adjust the tension of the snare drum wires to achieve a desired sound, or to eliminate snare wire sound entirely for a tom tom effect. These basic requirements were achieved with minimal design; as a result, most American snare drums of the 1920s varied little in appearance from one company to another. Most incorporated straight, single-flanged hoops and tubular lugs with basic shell finishes like black, white, natural wood, or nickel. If a drum company wished to set itself apart from the competition, designing a distinctive snare strainer was a good way to capture a drummer’s attention.
Ludwig & Ludwig
The Ludwig & Ludwig Drum Company of Chicago, Illinois, started manufacturing snare drums in 1912, and all models had strainers that were quite elementary in design and function. Drummers who wanted to quickly disengage the snares were out of luck — several turns of a thumb screw were required to gradually decrease tension. It wasn’t until 1918 that Ludwig & Lugwig would introduce a new strainer to remedy this problem.
Later known as the Professional strainer, the new design featured a small handle that would quickly and easily drop the snares completely from the bottom head. Ludwig’s Professional strainer would prove to be a very successful design. It was still in use well into the 1970s, though it was later renamed the Pioneer strainer.
A few years later, sensing the need for a new and innovative strainer mechanism, Ludwig & Ludwig developed a radical new strainer design called the Super-Ludwig. Patented in 1924 and introduced the following year, this apparatus featured individually adjustable snares, a component that was particularly useful for drummers using gut strands, which often loosened in humid weather. With the Super-Ludwig, a drummer could also change from gut or silk to metal wires very quickly.
At the end of each strand, a small adjustment screw could be turned with a screwdriver to attain the perfect tension. The wires extended past the diameter of the bottom head and maintained their tension even when disengaged. The strainer looked rather intimidating with its many small moving parts, but it was quite simple to use. A quick tap on the extension lever with a drumstick was all it took to throw off the snares. TheSuper-Ludwig system was available on both wood and metal shell drums, and drummers reacted positively, with large numbers being sold.
Designers at the Ludwig factory decided to capitalize on this success and took things a step further by adding more options, features, and versatility to their snare drums. In 1929, a new model was added to the Ludwig & Ludwig roster: The Super-Sensitive. This model incorporated the adjustable, extended snare wires of the Super-Ludwig along with a second set of wires, positioned underneath the batter head, that could be turned on or off with an additional lever. The drummer now had the option of playing the drum with wires engaged either on both top and bottom or on top only, for very light stick and brush work. The top set of snares also served as a muffling device to eliminate unwanted batter head overtones (the internal tone control would not be offered until 1932). The Ludwig & Ludwig Company claimed that the Super-Sensitive would “improve your roll” and “make snare drumming easier and more effective.” By 1938 the Super-Sensitive model, with its two sets of snares, was no longer being offered.
In addition to the Super-Sensitive, the company unveiled two more new snare drum models in 1929: the New-Era Sensitive and the Standard-Sensitive. Like the Super-Sensitive drums, both of these new models had snare wires underneath the batter head. For the drummer who found the Super mechanism a bit too complicated, unnecessary, or expensive, the Standard-Sensitive snare drum utilized a much simpler throw-off that could be used in conjunction with the top set of wires but was not individually adjustable like its predecessor. A parade drum version called the Super-Power was also available.
The New-Era Sensitive was quite radical in design. Like the other Sensitive versions, this drum had two sets of wires, but both were mounted inside the drum and could be used together or independently. This meant the New-Era Sensitive could be played on either head, just in case one broke during a performance.
Unfortunately for the Ludwig & Ludwig company, both the New-Era Sensitive and Standard-Sensitive drums proved unpopular with drummers. Produced for less than a year, very few were sold and existing examples are extremely rare today. By the end of 1929, the Ludwig & Ludwig company was sold to C.G. Conn, manufacturers of a variety of musical instruments.
The Chicago factory was soon relocated to Elkhart, Indiana. While Conn continued to manufacture Super-Ludwig and Super-Sensitive snare drums, the company chose to discontinue the other less popular models. That same year, a newly designed Professional strainer replaced the previous model. It featured an adjustable throw-off handle but was really no more reliable than the old Professional strainer. This design has become known by vintage drum collectors as the “clock face” throw-off.
Another successful drum manufacturer during the 1920s was the Leedy Manufacturing Company. Located in Indianapolis, Indiana, the company had been producing drums, percussion instruments, and banjos for many years. Like Ludwig & Ludwig’s, Leedy snare drums were equipped with a simple and effective strainer design known as the Utility strainer. Around 1925 the company experimented with a rather unorthodox strainer called the Marvel on its already popular Multi-Model snare drum. The new design made it possible to maintain constant tension while raising or lowering the strainer. Snare wire tension was maintained by the use of a bridge that could be removed relatively quickly, enabling a drummer to switch from one set of wires to another.
This design, which was rather primitive and fragile, proved to be way ahead of its time. The Marvel strainer had a relatively short life, and soon Leedy returned to its more modest and practical designs. Four decades later, the Rogers Drum Company used a similar concept with its Dyna-Sonic snare system.
Still in the mid to late 1920s, Leedy’s new Presto strainer was similar to Ludwig’s Professional strainer in that it too had a throw- off handle. That is where the comparison ends, however, as the Presto proved to be quite fragile and broke easily with continued use. This design was upgraded in 1926 with the addition of a long, adjustable throw-off handle, and was renamed the “Speedway” (a reference to the famed race track in Indianapolis). Unfortunately, the strainer remained quite breakable. It was improved again a year or two later with the addition of two more mounting screws, giving it extra strength and durability.
Nineteen-thirty was a landmark year for the Leedy Manufacturing Company. C.G. Conn had recently purchased the company and moved it to Elkhart, Indiana. With Conn’s recent purchase of Ludwig & Ludwig, this meant both brands were now made under the same roof.
The “new” Leedy company immediately went to work on several important design changes, placing it firmly on the cutting edge of drum technology. That year saw the introduction of the exciting new “Broadway” line, with three top-of-the-line models offered: The Broadway Standard, the Broadway Parallel, and the Broadway Dual. The Standard featured an improved version of the earlier Speedway strainer. The Parallel model, perhaps borrowing from Leedy’s Marvel strainer design and Ludwig’s Super snare mechanism, incorporated extended wires that were under constant tension and adjustable from both sides. The 1930 catalog boasted that the new Parallel model was “the easiest playing drum of all time.” For even more options, the Broadway Dual snare drums were equipped not only with the parallel snare assembly on the bottom head, but also with a second set of fixed adjustable snares just underneath the batter head. These drums could be played with the top and bottom sets both simultaneously on, separately on, or both completely thrown off, similar in concept to Ludwig’s dual snare Super-Sensitive.
In 1932 Leedy’s Broadway series was completely redesigned and dramatically improved. Bottom parallel snare wires were now contained in metal housings at each end, which were easily removable and adjustable with knobs. Unlike Ludwig’s Super strainers, the Leedy Parallel had no individual snare adjustment, which the company claimed was unnecessary due to the efficient design. The new Parallel mechanism was built much sturdier than its 1930–32 predecessor.
Leedy’s Standard throw-off received a total makeover in 1936, resulting in a much more solidly built unit. The following year saw even more improvements to the Parallel design, including a heavy, non-adjustable throw-off lever. Once again, perhaps mirroring Ludwig’s decision to discontinue the use of top snare wires, the Dual model was dropped.
The Broadway models underwent yet a fourth design change in 1939. The Boadway Standard strainer was completely redesigned and was renamed the Standard Extension Strainer. This new strainer had snare wires that extended beyond the diameter of the drum, providing extra sensitivity. It was paired with a new extended strainer base — a “butt” side unit — that was extra sturdy. The Broadway Parallel of 1939 was the most elaborate version of them all. The inner workings were housed at both ends in large metal boxes with individually adjustable wires and tension knobs. This rather complicated strainer had more moving parts than before and was, in retrospect, perhaps an example of overengineering. By 1946, the Parallel snare system was no longer offered.
During the 1920s, American music lovers were crazy about banjo music. The instruments were extremely popular and demand was high. One successful company that specialized in stringed instruments like the banjo was the Slingerland Manufacturing Company of Chicago, Illinois. Slingerland produced banjos, ukuleles, and guitars for years, but by 1927 the demand for banjos was waning and the company decided to expand into drum manufacturing.
When another Chicago instrument manufacturer, the Liberty Musical Instrument Company, went out of business, Slingerland purchased all of its drum- and banjo-making equipment, along with existing stock. Part of that existing Liberty stock included the first snare drum model offered by the newly named Slingerland Banjo and Drum Company. It was a somewhat bizarre looking instrument, more closely resembling a banjo than a snare drum. Known as the “Geisler” after its inventor Otto Geisler, the metal shell drum featured banjo hooks and rods, along with a very primitive strainer.
Liberty had also been making more conventional-looking snare drums, however, that were fitted with what would prove to be Slingerland’s most iconic and long-lived snare strainer, the Speedy Sure Hold. Most likely designed by Liberty, the #967 Speedy Sure Hold strainer was simple and practical in design and function. It featured a removable throw-off lever and a threaded knob for tension adjustment. It attached to the drum shell with three small screws, leading modern-day drum collectors to refer to it as the “three point” strainer. Adding to the confusing array of names for this device, Slingerland catalogs also referred to it as the Professional Throw-Off Muffler strainer.
All of Slingerland’s top-of-the-line snare drums were equipped with the #967 from 1928 until 1940. With a few minor design and name changes, this venerable strainer continued to see use well into the 1970s.
With hopes of competing with the extended snare systems being offered by both Ludwig & Ludwig and Leedy, Slingerland introduced its own version around 1933 called the DuAll. Like its competitors’ strainers, the new and extremely complicated throw-off incorporated tension adjustments on both sides of the drum and a connecting rod that ran through the diameter of the drum, allowing simultaneous raising and lowering of the snare wires. One version even utilized a wire cable or pulley instead of a metal rod to connect the two opposing strainers. Like Ludwig’s Super strainers and Leedy’s Parallel, the DuAll featured snare wires securely fastened to metal endplates for quick removal. The DuAll snare unit was constructed with a confusing array of small screws, springs, and knobs.
Even though this overly complicated extended parallel strainer design looked outwardly quite different from those of the competitors, the concept proved to be too similar. Facing potential lawsuits, the Slingerland company ceased production of the DuAll snare drums in 1934. The models appear only in the company’s 1934 catalog and in a brochure from that year, and were offered alongside its standard Artist model snare drums that were equipped with the old reliable #967 strainers. Because of the very short life of the DuAll, these snare drums are incredibly rare today.
Reeling from the loss of its flagship DuAll models, Slingerland needed something new in order to remain competitive. Choosing to return to a simpler, more standard drum design, the company introduced the “Broadcaster” snare drum in 1935. The new model employed the #967 strainer, but with a tweak to meet the demand for extended snare wires. Special metal brackets were installed on either side of the drum that allowed the connecting snare string to draw the wires outward, providing complete coverage of the bottom snare head for maximum sensitivity and response. Small adjustment wheels were added to these brackets for additional fine-tuning of the snares.
Due to the possibility of yet another lawsuit, Slingerland was soon forced to drop the “Broadcaster” moniker; the Gretsch Drum Company had already been using the name “Broadkaster” since 1928, and despite the spelling difference, it was too close for comfort. This development proved to be a godsend, for it impelled the Slingerland Banjo and Drum Company to unveil what would become one of the most iconic and legendary drums of all time: the Slingerland Radio King.
This line of snare drums went on to become hugely popular during the swing band era and was closely associated with swing drumming legend Gene Krupa. Beginning in 1936, the Radio King snare drum and its #976 Speedy Sure Hold strainer would become a mainstay for the company for the next 40 years. Special extended snare brackets with small adjustment wheels were used in conjunction with the #976 strainer, allowing for longer snare wires that extended past the drum head. These brackets were also used well into the 1960s.
In 1940, Slingerland designed a new, futuristic strainer called the Super strainer. It featured a brass body on both strainer and butt side, and a telescopic throw-off lever. This design also incorporated snare wires that extended beyond the diameter of the drum. This new design would be in use for another 20 years, but manufacturing of the Super strainer, as for many other metal products, was about to be put on hold for a few years.
World War II
In the Summer of 1942, everything changed for drum manufacturers. The United States had become involved in World War II the previous year, and soon materials critical to the war effort such as brass and steel were becoming scarce. In June 1942 the US government ordered restrictions on the use of such materials for nonessential products, drums included. The War Production Board put into effect “General Limitation Order Number L-37,” which directed all drum companies to limit the amount of critical materials used in drum making to just 10 percent per instrument.
This posed a huge problem for drum companies, who scrambled to design new drums to comply with the order. Slingerland introduced the Rolling Bomber line of drums, which replaced most of the metal with wooden parts. Strainers, hoops, and tension casings were all made from various woods like maple, rosewood, and walnut. The Rolling Bomber strainers were loosely based on the Super strainer, and were carved from walnut or rosewood.
Other drum companies followed suit, but only Slingerland and Leedy designed strainers made mostly from wood. By 1945, with the war nearly over, the L-37 directive was lifted and drum companies began to gradually return to pre-war designs and strainers like the #967 and the Super strainer.
Competition Shaped Innovation
Heavy competition among the top three drum companies was crucial to the evolution of the modern day snare drum, inspiring some amazing strainer designs during the formative years between 1926 and 1936. Some, like Ludwig’s Super strainer and Slingerland’s #976 proved so popular and effective that they are still in use today. Even Ludwig & Ludwig’s Professional strainer of 1918 is still being offered, although it is now called the P-80 and has undergone some slight modifications.
From the early primitive snare strainers to the most elaborate and overly complicated, this crucial component of the snare drum has been reinvented countless times over the years. The race to “build a better mousetrap” has spawned some amazing creations, but what wins out are designs that are quick, durable, and reliable. Modern snare systems are mostly just that, with companies large and small finding success with high-quality, simple, and practical snare units that satisfy virtually every drummer’s needs. But as long as there are drummers hitting snare drums, it’s safe to say that snare strainer designs will continue to evolve.