1980’s, Premier “1026” Snare Drum. An experiment in making and fitting “traditional” gut snares

My “tidied-up” Premier “1026” snare drum is ready for its’ final prep. The heads are on – all I really need to do is tune it up, and sort the snares. This being a first effort in drum “restoration”, I’m keen to understand some of the technical details, and I’m beginning to think about things I can do which might influence the sound it will produce. High or low tunings?… the number and configuration of snare wires… correct snare tension and adjustment… relative batter side / snare side tunings… tensioning-out unwanted “rings”… etc. I’m also within a few weeks of, potentially, having at least a couple of Premier “2000” snare drums at this same stage too. Since the “2000’s” use a very idiosyncratic, “parallel” wire snare system – I’m pretty certain that a lot of what there is to learn about metal drums and steel snares will be encountered there, as I try to build and adjust them properly. My “1026”, in contrast, is a sort of, run-of-the-mill, “traditional” steel snare. Maybe I can “off-track” a bit, and try a little experiment with it?…

Premier “1026” Snare Drum – 14″ x 6.5″, Chrome on steel

This “1026” drum was built in the 1980’s, when snare drum sounds were starting to become as much a result of studio processing, as anything to do with the actual drum and its’ construction. New, electronic drum machines did a considerable amount of heavy lifting when it came to getting 80’s and 90’s dance floors moving. By the 90’s – you literally just needed a short sample, which sounded vaguely rhythmical. In the studio – if you miked up any “suitable” source, gated it, slapped a bit of delay on it and EQ’d it in the mix – you could end up with an effective, cutting edge, contemporary “thwackk”, without any need to break out an expensive vintage Ludwig. Crucially, the characteristic drum sounds of the period were becoming as much about post-processing, at the desk, than anything to do with instrument construction or character.

Arguably – this is a good thing… You now only need relatively cheap, mass produced instruments, (together with a suitable digital processor), to enable you to sound like a pro. But equally – it’s a bad thing… Surely something of the inherent, natural, acoustic nature of an instrument is lost, as the general, sonic pallette becomes less to do with individual instrument construction, and more to do with external, post-production, digital manipulation, processing power and “effects”? The gap between those “playing”, and those “listening” has arguably widened…

Of course – things didn’t used to be like this. The musical “contact” between player and audience used to be so much more straightforward. Both were in a room, and both heard the instrument played live, direct and, (originally), un-amplified. It’s a simple arrangement – but one which the modern development of musical technology, has considerably changed.

I’ve long felt that any aspiring player needs to ideally understand how their chosen instrument sounds in that basic player / listener framework, and then how it fits acoustically into any particular band, (group, or even orchestra) situation. You really need to understand the nature of the basic “bang”, “honk” or “twang” your instrument makes – before you can begin to properly craft it for the enjoyment of others. I think it was Keith Richards who said that you can’t really learn electric guitar, until you’ve learned how an acoustic guitar works first. Additionally – there’s also the added confidence you get from learning on an instrument which, itself, sounds pleasantly musical, to begin with. It’s a basic, positive reinforcement to your first efforts. Personally speaking – early attempts at trying barre chords on a crappy sub-Woolworths guitar, through a crappy transistor amp, probably quashed any real initial progress, in terms of learning how to play, at a vitally early stage in my development. If it sounds bad at the very beginning – it’s just not encouraging for those first steps. It’s almost as if the sonic quality of an instrument pays additional rewards to the student, if the efforts to play it sound “proper”. As I’ve been able to play better instruments – I’ve found it easier to learn more complex things too. The instruments are generally better set up to play, and they impart the sound you create with a certain basic “quality”, which sounds more accomplished.

Bellson, Rich, Krupa – Which snare are you?

So – in coming to drumming at a fairly late stage myself, (and also bearing in mind the fact I now play primarily in domestic settings, and have nervous neighbours like anyone else) – I’d really like to have a “pleasant”, professional-sounding snare drum, with which to learn about the subtleties of the basic rudiments. (Or else I may as well tap out the basics on any old biscuit tin). Like anyone else – like any other beginner – there’s a part of me that wants to sound a little bit like my heroes, as I learn how particular figures and riffs are played. (I’ll also be better based to work on my own “sound” later, once I understand how the instruments actually work). Since I’m partly using a method based on Gene Krupa’s original rudiments – I thought I’d have a look at how vintage players set up their, unamplified instruments, and what made the vintage sound so intrinsically “musical”. I did the usual digging about on the web, and I eventually came upon the YouTube video above. The contrast between Louis Bellson’s, Buddy Rich’s and Gene Krupa’s snares, was an absolute revelation to me – and what an unbelieveable treat to have them soloed, and played in comparison against each other.

That Krupa sound is so much drier – so individual – so musical… Learning in a solo setting – I’d much rather learn on a drum that sounds like that. Once I found out some of the difference was down to the different snare wires he was using – I began trying to find out everything I could about using alternative snare wires. I realise I’m not going to, in any way, rival the superb sound of that Billy Gladstone, custom-built beauty – but I might just be able to fashion an individual-sounding snare of my own, which has a, hopefully, more pleasant sounding, musical character.

Drum snares… all our yesterdays…

When I say “find out everything I could about alternative snare wires” – in reality – that actually amounts to – “not a lot”. In fact – I can’t find any modern equivalents in current production. The thing is – musical technology seems to have transported drummers far away from the way things used to be, at the beginning of the modern music era. Rather than the pre-formed heads and pre-soldered snares now commonly encountered – early Music-Hall and Jazz drummers would have actually stetched their own calfskin heads, and attached “cat” gut, (actually sheep gut), snares, by hand, to the butt plates and strainers, on their drums. Technical innovation and mass production did much to change the sound of the snare drum over the years, and in switching to a system of interchangeable, pre-formed components – drummers have, arguably, become much more focused on simply switching out these various consumables to control their sound – than on the actual methods and processes at hand, in personally modifying the instrument.

What little information I find, boils down to a few blog posts from (very few) traditional snare drum builders, and even fewer photographs of vintage snare drums, and (very expensive), original sets of Ludwig gut snare sets. But this shouldn’t be rocket science. It’s pretty basic, logical stuff surely? My relatively modern “1026” Premier snare is still equipped with a very traditional looking butt plate and strainer combination. Although the presumption is that it should be fitted with a modern, pre-soldered set of snare wires – surely I can still fashion my own snares? – (if only I can find the right materials…)

1.4mm gut line… if you can find it

Of course, since the actual process of hand-tying gut snares seems now to be shrouded with the mists of time – the sourcing of a suitable base material proves equally as difficult. I suppose it’s inevitable in the modern day and age. As a flexetarian when it comes to my diet, (mainly vegetarian, wannabe vegan), and having, (kind of), accepted the use of animal by-products in this case – since they’d go to waste anyway – The fact that we nowadays, seemingly prefer using plastics from the polluting oil industry above more “natural” stuff which just gets chucked away, makes mockery of our use of the world’s resources, and makes me wonder just where the rest of the animal goes, once we’ve extracted our packaged chops and fillets? Nowadays – animal gut is only seemingly acceptable to make chew toys for our pets. I wonder what happens to the rest of it?

Anyway – the only modern suppliers I can find for this “traditional” snare material, happens to be “traditional” clock restoration suppliers. Seemingly – 1.8mm gut line is used for pendulum lengths or “fusees”. I’ve measured the distance on my snare from butt to strainer plate, and I’ll need roughly 20″ per snare wire length. I’ve found spools of gut line available, each of which provide 21 feet of potential snare. Most snares seem to use anything between 16 and 24 individual snare wires. I’ll need two spools…

For a while – I consider alternatives to gut line. Vintage snares were also apparently made from waxed linen twine – even silk-wrapped wire. Both of these alternatives seem to be available out there, (if you look long and hard) – but clearly the drumming world has long moved on and, in the end, even the hard-to-find gut line, proved much easier to source than some of the alternatives.

Fashioning the gut snares, and attaching to the butt-plate

In terms of getting the snares onto the drum – it’s essential to remove the butt plate entirely, first. This waxed gut cord is springy – and once uncoiled – has a mind of it’s own. It’s also the ideal cat toy, and Minnie our house cat is immediately entranced by the way 40″ lengths of gut, coil and spring in the sunlight. I presume they also still retain a certain “animal scent”. This is going to be fiddly enough work as it is. I do myself a favour, and shut the cat out of the kitchen – where I can concentrate at a well-illuminated table.

I cut a dozen, 40 inch lengths from the two spools. Each length is then doubled over, and crimped halfway with a small pair of pliers. This provides a series of looped ends which I can thread under the clamping piece on my butt plate. I try to keep the wires tightly bunched, and so only slacken the clamp off as much as is absolutely necessary to allow the loops to slip under. It also helps to thread the loops through, so they coil off in the same general direction. Whilst the butt plate looks neat – the other end is a bit of a flyaway mess, at first.

The clamp piece provides just enough friction to help keep the loops in place and in line – but as the number of loops builds , I find it’s helpful to use an medical-type “artery” clamp to double up support, and to keep the growing line of wires flat and even.

“Tidying-up” the ends at the butt plate

With the wires pushed up tight next to each other – I manage to thread 9 loops through the clamp plate, between the two securing screws. That’s 18 wires in total. I note from research that snare drums usually have around 20 wires – so I’m not far off, although a slightly lighter gut line would obviously give me a few more loops. Leaving a short loop from each pair of wires above the clamp plate – I temporarily secure the lines by tightening the two securing screws. One has seen plenty of use in the past, and the head is in danger of deforming – so it’s tightened carefully.

The clamp already does a pretty good job of holding the line firmly – but I’m concious that I also need to keep the lines as equal in length as I can. I take a spare piece of the line and weave it through the loops, from one side to the other, in turn – back to front, and back in again – all the way along. When I reach the other end, I return – but weave the line through in the other direction – so that it balances oout the effect, and doesn’t tend to twist the loops over sideways as much. The excess is trimmed off at the end. The extra mass of line provides a strong physical “anchor” at the top side of the clamp. I slacken the clamp off slightly again, and I can then pull the whole bunch of snare wires through – taught against the top of the plate. Once the clamp is re-tightened – those wires aren’t going anywhere.

Attaching the gut lines to the throw-off

The butt plate is re-installed on the drum, and the loose wires draped over the re-installed snare side head, in a way so they won’t (hopefully) kink or get too tangled. At the throw-off lever – the tensioner plate is adjusted until it’s a half of the way along it’s range of adjustment. With the throw off lever still in the “up” or “on” position, I then begin the fiddly task of threading each line through the clamp plate – so that the array travels across the reso head without any of the individual lines crossing or kinking. The clamp plate is loosened just enough to allow the lines to be threaded through – and this little bit of friction helps to keep the snares in place.

Applying some tension to the gut lines at the throw-off

Gradually, I get all 18 lines in a row. Now – with the throw off lever set to “down” or “off” – I set about taking up the slack, and applying a bit more tension to each line in turn. The snares will need to make good contact against the edge of the reso head, and the side of the drum shell, and should also all have approximately the same tension. At the moment – there’s still way too much coil from the original packing of the line, and this will need to be stretched out. However – by tightening the clamp plate a little more – (just enough to hold the line, yet still allow the lines to be pulled through) – I can draw each line in turn with a pair of pliers and gradually stretch them, whilst they’re still held, securely enough, in place.

“Stretching-out” the gut lines

Eventually – I manage to get all of the lines (reasonably) equally taught, and I clamp off the end fully at the throw off. There’s still enough slack, however, to allow me to lift the throw-off lever to “up” or “on”, and apply the extra force from the strainer. This pulls the lines taught, and I’ll leave them there for a while to stretch the gut out, and hopefully reduce the natural “curl”. In the meanwhile – I can double-check the alignment of each wire, and check that none of them cross. As I check – I realise that despite my best efforts – there are two lines which do cross a neighbour. I have to throw the lever to “off” again, and slacken off the clamp enough to allow me to re-thread the offending lines.

After everything is checked again – the clamp is securely tightened once more, and the lines are stretched, as the throw off applies the extra tension again.

Premier “1026” Snare drum with Premier SD Studio batter head, and gut snares

The drum heads still need proper tensioning – but I’m aware that the snare lines will probably take a bit of stretching, and time to settle, before I can more accurately adjust them to the desired operating tension. I’ll hold off on the tuning for now – but will return to the drum in a few days, once the natural coil in the gut line has been eliminated. I think it will be useful to deal with the whole tuning, (or tensioning) of the drum, at the same time as I deal with the snare tension, and proper operation of the throw-off. So there’s at least one more post to come, on this particular build…

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