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Marching Percussion

Snare drum Field Drum Tenor Drum
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Marching Snare
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For basic information about the snare drum, read about the orchestral snare drum here. The marching snare drums of today are quite different to those you would find on a drum kit or in an orchestra. The diameter is still mostly 14" although occasionally 15", but this is really more field drum size. A marching snare is much deeper however - more like 15" or 16" deep. Although we still see some marching snare drums with wooden shells, it becoming more common to have machined aluminium or steel shells as these are more able to withstand the tremendous pressure from the tight heads. Marching snares usually have very tight heads to make the sound as high and cutting as possible - especially in the Scottish tradition. The plastic heads used on normal snare drums are not strong enough for this kind of tension, so most modern drum corps use a skin made from woven kevlar. To get an extra snappy and direct snare sound, an extra set of snare wires are often tensioned on the underside of the batter head in addition to those on the lower head.

We usually see marching drummers use fatter sticks than normal to work more effectively on the tighter heads, and they are often made of maple rather than the more usual hickory, as maple tends to absorb the impact on a tight head a little better. Of particular interest is the distinctive shape of the sticks used by the drummers in most pipe bands. These tend to be quite fat, with a very pronounced taper that starts about halfway along the stick, and have a large rounded ball tip.

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Relevant links
Snare drum as an orchestral instrument
Snare drum on the drum-kit

Originally the drums were hung around the neck and over one shoulder by a piece of rope. This enabled the rather deep drum shell to hang out to the left of the drummers legs which was important as otherwise it would swing against is legs as he marched. Even with the drum angled out to the left side it could still sometimes be a little difficult to control so often a "leg brace" was added. The leg brace is a curved piece of metal which cups around the drummer's left thigh and is also attached to the shell of the drum. The snare drum is sometimes called the "side drum" because of this angled position required for marching, and we still see this name used in orchestral scores on occasion today. Most modern drum corps no longer use a strap or brace - instead preferring to use a full harness which is a relatively new invention of solid aluminium bars curved over the shoulders and providing a solid plate at the drummer's midriff for the drum to be bolted to. This means that the drum no longer has to be on an angle.
detail of batter head snares
Detail of Batter head Snares

The "Traditional Grip" which we still see many drummers use was developed as a result of the sideways angle of the original marching drums. Because the drum rim was so much higher on the left side, a grip was needed for the left hand to enable the shoulder to be dropped, otherwise the left shoulder would get pretty tired after a few hours of marching! This is why we only ever see the left hand use the "traditional grip". These days some drum corps are changing to "matched grip" as the drum harness holds the drums flat, although many also stick with the tradition even if they use the harness, as the traditional grip works just as well on a flat drum as on an angled one.

The original uses of the marching drum were twofold. Setting and maintaining the march tempo was one function which was very important as it allowed the strategien to know in advance how much ground would be covered in a day's march. Another function of the snare drum in particular was often as a signal in battle. Different rhythms were invented to give different signals and these "calls" or "cadences" are still in evidence particularly in the Scottish drumming tradition.

Field Drum
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The field drum is like a bigger and more mellow brother to the marching snare. The field drums of today are probably pretty similar to the older types of snare drums. A field drum is usually a little bigger at 15" in diameter and most often has a wood shell with only moderate tension on the heads. The snares originally would have been made of gut like the original snare drum's but may be made of wire these days. Whilst gut is considered tricky to deal with in a modern drum corp, the less brittle sound is often preferred on the field drum. Many modern field drums use a snare made from nylon strands rather like very thick fishing line. The field drum or "parade drum" as it is sometimes called, is dying out as far as drum corps go but it is still used occasionally to create nostalgia or quite commonly in film scores for a "period" sound, or just to create a more earthy, gritty, and humanised feel in a military sounding soundtrack.

Most drum corps these days have pretty much replaced the field drum and the tenor drum with "quads" or "trios" which do the same job of filling up the middle pitch ranges between snare drums and basses. Most Scottish style pipe bands retain the tenor drum at least however.
detail of lower head/nylon snares

The picture here is of and old 14" marching snare made in London, which I have restored and modified for use as a field drum. The shell is made of sheet brass folded at the rims. The lower rim is the original wooden hoop over an original calf skin head. The snare used is the modern nylon type which sounds much more mellow than wire snares would do. I have replaced the top rim with a metal hoop as it has a lower profile than the wood, making playing much easier and more practical. Whilst I do have another calf skin head for this drum, I use it on another drum. Instead I have used a remo double pin stripe powerstroke3 texture head, which is very heavy for a duller sound, but way more durable than the calf skin would be.


The tenor drum is still an important part of the pipe bands of today, but in the American marching world they have largely been replaced with "quads" or "trios" which do the same job of filling up the middle pitch ranges between snare drums and basses. Sometimes these are referred to as tenor drums or tenor toms but although their function is the same as a traditional tenor drum, the drums themselves are actually very different.

The traditional tenor drum is a bit like a field drum without the snares, although usually with a deeper shell, and it is hooked to a strap or belt assembly and sits on the performer's left leg. Unlike the field drum the tenor drum is played with soft headed beaters which are usually strapped to the hands with cords which enable the player to twirl or "flourish" the mallets between strokes. For a tenor drummer, the flourishing routines are just as important as the playing of the notes. Originally the tenor drum was tensioned by ropes but these days they all use the modern screw tensioning.

In a pipe band there are usually at least two tenor drummers, and in standard formation they would be in the row between the bass drummers and the snare drummers. Musically they are unique as their function is both to keep the beat, and to embellish the snare drum parts.


"Quads" has now become the generic term for the set of four marching tom toms used by the drum corps. More properly "quads" should only refer to a set of four drums as anything from three to six are in common usage, but as four is the most common number the instruments themselves are often referred to as quads. More specific nicknames for numbers other than four are things like: "trios", "tris", or "tri toms" for three drums - "quints" for 5 drums - "sextets", "six-packs" or "hexes" for six drums. These instruments might also be generically referred to as "toms" or "timp toms". The function of these drums is the same as the older tenor drum still used in pipe bands - to fill out the middle register between the snares and basses. The drums themselves are very different though - much more shallow and with only the single head, they are quite similar in sound to roto toms. Other instruments like cowbells are often bolted onto these rigs as well.

Quads use drums ranging from 6" to 14" in diameter and are arranged so that left to right from the performer's perspective we have the lowest drum - second highest - highest - second lowest. Fifth and/or sixth drums are positioned in the middle behind the other drums so they are snug against the drummer's body. This type of arrangement is designed for balance and for easy playing of common patterns.

The tuning of quads is usually pretty high - much higher than traditional tenor drums. They tend to be tuned in equal intervals like minor thirds, fourths or fifths with the exception of one or two of the highest drums. These are tuned as high as they will go and used for accents - they are sometimes referred to as shot, gock, or spock drums.

Mostly quad players will use normal drumsticks or hard mallets with no covering but other mallet heads are sometimes used. Matched grip is universally used as it is easier to perform the sideways movements required.

Marching bass drum
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The bass drums found in marching bands tend to be smaller by necessity than those found in orchestras. Traditionally a marching band has one bass drum only but modern American drum corps often use whole sections of bass drummers with different pitched drums. One of the main differences between a bass drum used in orchestras and a bass drum used in a marching band, is the tuning. An orchestral bass drum is always tuned low with no specific pitch, but a marching drum is often tuned higher to produce a distinct tone, sometimes even a specific note. In particular, bass drums and tenor drums in a pipe band tend to be tuned to the specific notes featured in the bagpipe drones.

In a pipe band or military marching band the bass drummer's normal position is in the middle of the band - he marches in front of the other drummers and behind the other instruments. This means that the beat can be heard more equally by the other musicians with less time delay or volume problems. From a more traditional perspective, it also means that this most important of musicians is surrounded and more protected. The bass drummer is literally the heart of the band and is usually a large man commonly wearing a leopard skin or similar. The drum itself might be emblazoned with the battle honours of its Regiment. A straight crotchet beat is most often played, meaning one beat per footstep when marching.

In earlier times mallets with hard heads were used to produce a sound as loud and penetrating as possible, and some military bands still use these harder mallets. Most modern drummers tend to use softer fluffy mallets to round out the sound, and produce a more distinct and musical tone. A pipe band drummer uses mallets that are a larger version of those used on the tenor drums and he will also be called upon to "flourish" the drum sticks while playing.


Marching glockenspiel
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Desert Vista High School Marching Band
Desert Vista High School Marching Band

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