Instruments #5: The Windsor Dual-Tension Snare Drum, late 1920s

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Baby Dodds’s famous Ludwig dual-tension snare drum, which he used throughout his life.

We’ve already had a look at the ‘Snapper’ type of snare drum commonly used during the early years of the decade – in many ways a relic of the 1910s. Today we’ll see how the instrument evolved throughout the 1920s to become something more recognisable to modern drummers.
The main snare drum I use when playing 20s music is a fairly typical example from the middle to late years of the decade. Unlike its earlier forerunner, it’s an exact 14 inches in diameter, and four inches deep. It’s made of brass plated with stainless steel, has tubular lugs and a drum-key-operated dual-tension tuning system (i.e. top and bottom heads can be tuned independently of each other). It is, in short, a modern snare drum – very similar to those you’d later find between the legs of Ringo Starr, Keith Moon or Phil Collins – give or take a few minor details.

The snare drums of the 1900s and 1910s were strange hybrid affairs as the old military drums of the previous century were slowly phased out and improved upon; deep wooden shells gave way to shallower metal ones similar in design to the bodies of banjos, whilst the fiddly rope-tensioning systems standard on all drums since medieval times were superseded by timpani-style tap handles turning threaded tension rods. But by the mid-20s technology had advanced yet further, resulting in dual-tensioned, key-tuned instruments like these, pioneered mainly by the innovative designers of the Ludwig company. The snare drum as we know it had effectively arrived to stay.

Duals

A catalogue from the period offers a wide range of dual-tension drums

The small differences between my drum and its modern equivalent are only in the fittings:  it has single-flanged ‘stick chopper’ counterhoops rather than the modern triple-flanged design which are stronger and  kinder to sticks. The tension bolts are slot-headed rather than square-headed, and are fixed to the counterhoops with claws rather than passing through holes in the counterhoops. The snare strands are made of wire-wound silk, and resonate against natural vellum drumheads. These small variables are the reasons for the noticeable differences in sound between my 20s artifact and its modern counterpart: older snare drums generally sound warmer and more mellow, with the natural tone of the drum (i.e. the sound with snares released) being more noticeably present when the snares are engaged.

Counterhoops

Profiles of drum counterhoops seen in cutaway view

According to the man I bought my drum from, it used to belong to Leon Roy, a well-known London jazz and dance-band drummer. It was manufactured by Windsor, a company based in Birmingham founded around 1890 during the height of the Victorian banjo craze. Founder Arthur Octavius Windsor had the skills and the enthusiasm to build musical instruments, being a furniture-maker by trade and a keen amateur banjoist in his spare time. Based in Newhall Street, his company originally specialised in producing banjos, mandolins and other stringed instruments but soon branched out into percussion, the construction process for early snare drums being very similar to that of contemporary banjos. Bearing in mind this is 1920s Birmingham, I can’t help but be tempted to imagine A.O. Windsor as a colourful character straight out of ‘Peaky Blinders’, but in reality he seems to have been a man of sober probity, since the company continued to thrive until 1940, when the factory was destroyed in the Blitz. ‘WINDSOR / BIRMINGHAM’ is engraved into the top counterhoop, rather askew.

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Drums like these, made by Ludwig, Leedy, Gretsch and others became the standard model for leading American jazz drummers from around 1923 onwards, judging by photographs from the period, although even the best Europeans seem to have persisted with their ‘Snappers’ and similar for some time afterward. Dual-tension snare drums in various forms can be seen in the possession of many of our Heroes, several of whom were official endorsees of the top manufacturers. We can see and hear similar examples being played by 20s Drumming Heroes such as Baby Dodds (top of page and immediately below),  Chauncey Morehouse (below left) and Sonny Greer (below right), among many others.

Baby snare

Dodds’s setup with King Oliver in 1923, complete with a deep dual-tension snare

 

Just like any modern drum, the dual-tuning system found on late-20s snares like these allows for a wide range of possible sound profiles combining different combinations of tighter and slacker batter and snare heads at various tensions. In general it seems to perform most comfortably with both heads medium-tight, since the relatively shallow depth of the counterhoops doesn’t allow for extremely high tunings: tension too tight and you find the rims have sunk level with (or even below!) the bearing edges. Not a nice situation. The snare strainer apparatus – whilst being rather puny-looking – does its job well enough, and even the primitive throw mechanism hasn’t let me down yet. With natural vellum heads top and bottom you do hear more of the drum’s fundamental tone over the snare sound, something common to all snare drums of the period and clearly audible both on period records and when the drum is in the room with you today.

In the video below I’ve attempted to demonstrate some of the sounds of early 20s drumming playing the Windsor dual-tension model with both sticks and brushes, and making a comparison with a recorded example from one of our forthcoming Heroes.