Snaring the listener: 25 iconic snare drum intros
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Care to match our obsessiveness? The first reader to correctly name the song order of our snare solo supercut will receive a surprise. Email your guess and address here. U.S. residents only, sorry.
1. Led Zeppelin, “Whole Lotta Love”
The kick drum may be where the beat lives, but generally speaking, a song doesn’t truly begin until the snare enters. It’s the most valuable player of any drum kit, the anchor of every rhythm, the make-it-or-break-it force behind a song’s respective strength, the thing listeners tap their steering wheels to—and yet, it often goes unsung, likely disregarded as too utilitarian or ordinary to be of note. But under the right hands, the snare drum can be every bit as iconic as a guitar solo. Led Zeppelin’s John Bonham was one such master of precise snare work, and while he’s rightly celebrated for his hard-hitting double-bass thundering on “Immigrant Song” or the frenzied multi-headed cacophony of “Moby Dick,” he also demonstrated the arresting power of a simple snare drum intro on songs like “D’Yer Mak’er” and especially the muscular, minimalist wonder that kicks off “Whole Lotta Love.” After 30 seconds of seduction from Jimmy Page’s slow-vamping guitar and Robert Plant talking the audience’s pants off, Bonham breaks the mounting tension with a series of snare drum 16th notes so ballsy it’s like he’s rapping them out with his testicles, then rolls off down the toms like lovers tumbling into bed. Plant and Page may have set the mood, but—as with any solid rock tune—it’s the arrival of Bonham’s swaggering snare that announces it’s time to get down to business.
2. Nirvana, “Smells Like Teen Spirit”
Dave Grohl made his recorded Nirvana debut on the opening of Nevermind’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” simultaneously shaking off the grungy cobwebs of the group’s Chad Channing-driven era and blasting it onto the national stage with his monster flams—the first volley of the “alternative” rock war in four furious blasts. The song’s impact has been rehashed and overstated so many times it’s lost some of its power, but that’s not true of Grohl’s intro, which still kicks like cannon fire.
3. R.E.M., “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)”
Michael Stipe’s machine-gun delivery on Document’s “It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” continues to vex listeners who’ve heard the song a million times, yet still cling to “Leonard Bernstein” as the buoy in a sea of impossible-to-memorize lyrics. But even relative neophytes can air-drum along to Bill Berry’s equally rapid snare salvo—a playfully military-inspired rat-a-tat that jumpstarts the song with an instant kick of bombs-away energy. They’re drums of war that quickly turn into drums of danceable abandon, which is exactly what the song is all about.
4. Michael Jackson, “Rock With You”
Three years before Thriller officially became The Biggest Thing That’s Ever Existed In 20th-Century Popular Music, Michael Jackson perfected the formula for mass crossover success with 1979’s Off The Wall. Jackson set out to appeal to many different audiences simultaneously by subtly slipping elements from different genres into his music: an R&B groove here, a rock guitar there, and an easily digestible pop melody uniting it all. On paper, this might sound like pandering. But when the formula produces a song as perfect as “Rock With You,” who can fault pandering? The snare hits at the start of “Rock With You” instantly conjure one of Michael Jackson’s most loved songs, but for the first-time listener, they are cleverly non-distinct: This could be a disco track, a cool soul ballad, or a pop-rock song. In fact, it’s all three, though “Rock With You” makes such distinctions seem irrelevant for three and a half minutes.
5. Bob Dylan, “Like A Rolling Stone”
When inducting Bob Dylan into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1988, Bruce Springsteen referred to the opening of “Like A Rolling Stone” as “that snare shot that sounded like somebody’d kicked open the door to your mind.” Listeners spend the entire tune recovering from that initial hit, which serves as a concussive blast obliterating any limits to what a pop song can do. It’s a statement of purpose, a call to arms, and a preemptive strike (and it’s even more important when you think of rock music in terms of pre- and post-“Rolling Stone”). The most famous version of the intro probably occurs during the song’s most famous performance, captured on The Bootleg Series Vol. 4: Bob Dylan Live 1966, The “Royal Albert Hall” Concert (which was actually recorded at Manchester’s Free Trade Hall). After hecklers cried “Judas” and “I’m never listening to you again!” Dylan admonished the crowd before directing his band, The Hawks, “Play fucking loud.” Drummer Mickey Jones obliged with that single electrifying snare hit, and the rest is rock history.
6. The Doors, “Light My Fire”
Much like Dylan’s “Like A Rolling Stone” from a couple of years earlier, The Doors kicked off the breakthrough hit from their self-titled debut with John Densmore’s single snare crack—a surprisingly simplistic choice from one of rock’s fussiest drummers. Densmore’s patterns from there follow his usual lightly jazzy, Latin-inflected idiom, but the entire song lives in the wake of that reverb-laden opening smack, ringing out as startlingly (and theatrically) as a gunshot. As Greil Marcus wrote of the band’s performance of the song on The Ed Sullivan Show, “At the time, it was hard to imagine anyone hitting anything harder”—and while certainly other drummers have topped it in intensity since then, few have matched Densmore’s understated ability to make you sit up and listen with a single note.
7. U2, “Sunday Bloody Sunday”
In spite of anchoring one of the most successful rock bands ever for more than 30 years, Larry Mullen never gets mentioned among the genre’s most famous drummers. Being flashy is not Mullen’s role in U2: When you play alongside someone like Bono, it’s your job to minimize the bullshit. Mullen’s drumming is workmanlike in the best possible sense—it would only be noticeable if it weren’t there, at which point the whole stadium-filling exercise would fall apart. At the start of “Sunday Bloody Sunday,” Mullen gets a rare moment in the spotlight, when his martial snare pounding signals the start of U2’s angriest and hardest-hitting anthem. What Mullen does is not complicated, nor does it need to be. “Sunday Bloody Sunday” is U2 at its leanest and meanest, and Mullen’s steady beat announces the song as a call to arms that’s just as powerful as anything described by his grandiose singer in the lyrics.
8. The Smashing Pumpkins, “Cherub Rock”
Recorded in the midst of one of drummer Jimmy Chamberlin’s worst heroin benders, “Cherub Rock” was reportedly the breaking point for Billy Corgan, who punished Chamberlin by having him record the drum part over and over until his hands bled. The incident is but one of many examples of times when Corgan’s perfectionism bordered on tyranny, but whatever he did, it worked. While it may lack the showiness of, say, the barreling “Geek U.S.A.,” from the same album, Chamberlin’s “Cherub Rock” intro—a series of insistent rolls followed by quickening stabs that build in intensity that matches Corgan’s guitar riff—provides an unmistakable, arresting opening to Siamese Dream that’s worth a little bloodshed.
9. Paul Simon, “The Obvious Child”
If you’re going to put the word “rhythm” in your album title, you’d best lead off with something more intricate than a 4/4 backbeat. For 1990’s The Rhythm Of The Saints, Paul Simon hired the Brazilian troupe Olodum, whose introduction to “The Obvious Child” opens the album with a literal bang. The metallic rap of snare hits played by multiple drummers in perfect unison is almost militaristic at first, but the beat quickly shifts into a lopsided rhythm that feels more like a horse’s gallop. A pointed departure from the mellow mbaqanga of Graceland, those sharp opening reports of “Obvious Child”—both as the album’s first track and its first single—served notice that Simon wasn’t going to simply copy Rhythm’s hugely successful predecessor, and that he was still searching for new sounds.
10. The Police, “Can’t Stand Losing You”
The Police were masters of catchy, instantly recognizable intros, many of those coming from drummer Stewart Copeland. Copeland had more than his fair share of drums—probably still does—but the five-beat snap at the start of “Can’t Stand Losing You” (from the band’s 1978 debut, Outlandos D’Amour) announces the song’s intentions better than any Rototom monstrosity could.
11. The Who, “I Can See For Miles”
As the most spectacularly flamboyant drummer of his generation, Keith Moon never hit the drum once when 27 hits could be deployed just as quickly. Which is why his playing on “I Can See For Miles” is so remarkable: For a little while at least, he manages to hold back. His sinister taps on the snare at the song’s start perfectly complement Pete Townshend’s glowering guitar, foreshadowing the apocalypse of roundhouse blows he’ll unleash in the chorus. The sound is all repressed violence, though Moon hits with such force that it’s clear the threat will be followed through on shortly.
12. Weezer, “Undone (The Sweater Song)”
So much ’90s rock was about secretly aspiring to the hot-shit awesomeness of ’70s arena rock with the outward appearance of a noncommittal shrug. Rivers Cuomo pulled this off better than most with the hooky guitar-pop songs he wrote for Weezer’s self-titled 1994 debut. But drummer Patrick Wilson arguably accomplished the same feat in less time (and, it would seem, far less effort) with his brief, stutter-start drum intro to “Undone (The Sweater Song).” Wilson sounds like he’s about to kick off an extended solo, hitting the snare twice with a flourish. But he quickly changes course, as his very ’90s sense of self-consciousness pulls him into the song’s mid-tempo rhythm. Like the rest of Weezer, it sounds like a joke, but it’s actually a stroke of genius.
13. The Ventures, “Hawaii Five-O”
The Ventures’ recording of the theme to CBS’ long-running police procedural Hawaii Five-O shot to No. 4 on the Billboard charts, driven by its rollicking, snare-heavy intro. Mel Taylor’s drumming set the tone for the show, which lay somewhere between sunshiny beach-bum fun and booming seriousness. The Ventures’ seminal take has since become a favorite of high school and college marching bands, as well as the de facto theme music for the whole state of Hawaii. Australian proto-punk act Radio Birdman further cemented the song’s legacy with its snotty yet earnest ode to the show, “Aloha Steve And Danno,” which repeatedly referenced that instantly recognizable surf-guitar lick and rat-a-tat drum line.
14. Steve Miller Band, “Take The Money And Run”
Session drummer Gary Mallaber put together the iconic (in a proficient bar band/classic-rock jukebox kind of way) intro to the Steve Miller Band’s 1976 hit single. Mallaber’s hi-hat-dotted snare setup marks “Take The Money And Run” straightaway, even before the just-as-telltale “hoo-hoo” and somewhat-gratuitous handclaps give it away. It also helps distinguish the tune from a half-dozen other rock standards (Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama,” Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves Of London” etc.) that share the song’s same basic chord progression.
15. The Clash, “Tommy Gun”
The Clash’s Topper Headon does something seemingly obvious and yet vitally important at the start of “Tommy Gun”: He makes his drums sound like a gun. The percussive nature of drums has long made this trick a musical cliché. (See: Jimi Hendrix’s “Machine Gun,” or a million classical music pieces.) But Headon’s fired-off rounds at the start of “Tommy Gun” become the song’s catchiest recurring riff—it’s even more memorable than Mick Jones’ squealing guitar or Joe Strummer’s guttural vocal. And that makes Headon’s playing on “Tommy Gun” both crucial to the song and an expert display of first-rate firepower.
16. The Rolling Stones, “Get Off Of My Cloud”
Part of the fun of The Rolling Stones’ Charlie Watts is that the dapper drummer appears so impeccably buttoned-down, yet his playing is so loose and effortless. As guitarist Keith Richards has said time and again, the secret to his long, successful interplay with Watts is that Watts tends to play to him, lolling just behind the beat and emphasizing the “roll” part of the equation that so many rock bands seem to forget. Watts puts a little swing into everything he does, and the opening bounce of “Get Off Of My Cloud”—and especially Watts’ just slightly lazy and off-kilter sixteenth notes that tell Richards where to come in—represents one of the rare occasions where Watts is in the driver’s seat, setting up the entire groove of the song in just a handful of measures.
17. Gene Pitney, “Town Without Pity”
The low, hollow triplets that roll out Gene Pitney’s small-town blues carry the same emotional weight borne by their lovesick narrator: They’re jazzy, yearning-to-be free swing notes trapped inside a trudging march—“just like tigers in a cage,” as Pitney sings. Even before the bawling brass arrives to answer it, the snare drum has already captured the essence of the song’s mournful romance. It’s the rhythm of a man with a faraway dream in his heart, ambling down the narrow streets to nowhere.
18. Bruce Springsteen, “Hungry Heart”
“Mighty” Max Weinberg of the E Street Band has used the snare to great effect on many Bruce Springsteen songs: The revved-up snap at the start of “Born To Run” and the rifle-shot slaps in “Born In The U.S.A.” come immediately to mind as particularly dramatic examples. But the economical push Weinberg gives to the beginning of “Hungry Heart” stands out above the rest, in part because it doesn’t try to stand out, even though the song wouldn’t work without it. After all, while the Spector-esque piano riff of “Heart” is certainly indelible—this was The Boss’ first hit single on the pop chart, after all—it doesn’t really have an obvious starting point. Springsteen needed Weinberg to usher in one of his sweetest pure-pop melodies, and his drummer obliged without getting in the way.
19. Stevie Wonder, “Superstition”
For most listeners, the calling card of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” is the song’s jaunty clavinet riff. However, the true Motown aficionado can identify the first single from 1972’s Talking Book well before Wonder’s hands reach the keyboard, when the track announces itself with four distinctive thwacks to the snare drum. The hesitation between the first and second eighth notes of the intro preface the syncopated funkiness to come, echoed elsewhere in Wonder’s sizzling hi-hat work, his throbbing Moog bass line—and, yes, that clavinet figure. The song became one of Wonder’s signature numbers, but Talking Book guest player Jeff Beck conceived its drum part. (Wonder even offered Beck the first the stab at recording “Superstition.”) By the time the guitarist laid down his own version as part of blues-rock supergroup Beck, Bogert & Appice, drummer Carmine Appice swapped out Wonder’s understated intro for a monolithic, John Bonham-style powerhouse of snare.
20. The Jimi Hendrix Experience, “Crosstown Traffic”
It’s sometimes easy to forget there were other musicians in The Jimi Hendrix Experience, but bassist Noel Redding and drummer Mitch Mitchell were equally pivotal in creating the signature sound behind Hendrix’s guitar pyrotechnics. Mitchell often provided counterpoint to the famous opening riffs of tracks like “Fire” or “All Along The Watchtower,” but he got a moment to himself in the introduction to “Crosstown Traffic,” a short, propulsive number that ranks among the band’s best. Mitchell sets the mood with a pair of repeated staccato notes that have just enough space between them to create a mood of tension and chaos that mirrors the song’s frenzied confusion. That pattern repeats throughout, popping up just before the chorus to ratchet up the suspense before providing melodic catharsis.
21. The Temptations, “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg”
Short, simple, and sweet—and thus, unmistakably Motown—the opening snare roll for The Temptations’ classic “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg” comes courtesy of the label’s unsung hero house band, The Funk Brothers. The dynamic opening triplet roll was performed by Uriel Jones, but as fellow Funk Brother drummer Richard “Pistol” Allen said in the Standing In The Shadows Of Motown documentary, it was indelibly identified with Benny Benjamin, who made it one of the signatures of the Motown sound (similarly deployed in hits like The Four Tops’ “It’s The Same Old Song” and The Temptations’ “Get Ready”). But it’s at its most iconic on “Ain’t Too Proud To Beg,” confirming listeners are in for some incomparable Motown soul before The Temptations sing a single note.
22. Tom Petty And The Heartbreakers, “Here Comes My Girl”
More often than not, the power in Tom Petty’s songwriting comes from a sense of restraint—there’s impressively little fat hanging from Petty’s enduring work with backing band The Heartbreakers. In turn, original Heartbreakers drummer Stan Lynch took a light hand to keeping the band’s backbeat, even in the instances where his instrument is the first sound on a Petty recording. His opening salvo to the clear-eyed, full-hearted love song “Here Comes My Girl” is a brief burst of snare that rolls effortlessly into a tom-and-crash-cymbal exclamation point. It’s a straightforward, stylish way of initiating one of the sweetest songs in the Heartbreakers songbook, as the drums say their short piece before giving the spotlight to Petty’s half-spoken, half-sung ode to a romance that overcomes the small-town doldrums.
23. Cheap Trick, “Surrender”
Cheap Trick was the classicist power-pop outfit of the arena-rock generation, always making sure to bring rock back to basics whenever the music threatened to outgrow its roots. “Surrender” is the band’s grandest lighter-hoisting anthem, with a classic guitar-and-synth riff and a climactic “we’re all all right!” chant destined to be shouted by thousands of weeping Japanese girls. But before all that, chain-smoking drummer Bun E. Carlos lays down a brief drum intro that’s as simple as anything from The Beatles catalog. It might not sound like much to the casual listener, but for anyone who loves Cheap Trick (and, by association, any right-thinking American), it’s a sure sign that the local classic-rock station is going to be very all right for the next four minutes.
24. Bel Biv Devoe, “Poison”
The entire feel of New Jack Swing is encapsulated in the opening crack-a-lack of Bel Biv Devoe’s massive 1990 hit “Poison,” which takes the Gatling gun snare reports of hip-hop, then wraps them in the silky, oversized blazer of smooth R&B and mall-friendly dance-pop. That instantly recognizable opening is technically the work of a sampler, which squashed and dried out the snare to its lightest, tinniest timbres. The end result is brittle, plastic, and unquestionably cheesy—and for such a popular club song, really awkward to move to. Nevertheless, that series of snaps sounds the alarm to get on the dance floor in search of a big butt and a smile.
25. James Brown, “Funky Drummer”
Clyde Stubblefield’s bass, hi-hat, and snare are three of the essential building blocks of hip-hop: The longtime James Brown drummer gave countless rap tracks their “boom” and “bap,” most often via the commanding-yet-modest drum break from 1969’s “Funky Drummer.” Stubblefield was so deep into the pocket that Brown was moved to name the track in tribute to his drummer mid-session, but “Funky Drummer” belongs to Stubblefield from note one. His snare marches in step with the horns of the James Brown Orchestra for the first two beats, before breaking off into a stuttering, shuffling roll that recalls the so-called “ghost notes” that punctuate Stubblefield’s playing on Brown’s “Mother Popcorn” and “Cold Sweat.” Coincidentally, it’s the one moment of the track where Stubblefield flies freely from his responsibility of holding down the groove, the steadfast snare showing some flash before resuming its duty of keeping the improvisational track from spinning off into the ether.