Drum Tuning 101
Tuning isn’t just for guitarists. Drummers need to be aware that how they tune their drums makes a dramatic difference both to their overall drum kit sound, their band and even to the feel and mood of the music. A well tuned drum kit won’t be noticed as much as a poorly tuned one — don’t be the latter. Here are some easy tips to tune your drums.
You’ll need two things to start tuning your drums — a drum key and a drum stick. It’s also a good idea to tune drum heads that are new — they have more stretch in them and are more pliable in terms of getting notes out of them. Old drum heads tend to lose their tuning after a while, so it’s a good opportunity when you tune to replace them.
There’s a fairly simply procedure to tune your drums, but it takes a bit of practice and a good musical ear to determine the notes you’re tuning to.
Put the head on your drum and finger tighten the tension rods so that they’re approximately the same tightness.
Using a criss-cross pattern, turn each tension rod a half turn of the drum key until the wrinkles are taken out of the head. Always tune in opposites — tune the tension rods directly opposite and don’t work around in a circle. Continue to repeat this pattern of half turns until you hear a distinct pitch or note.
Seat the drum head. Press the center of the TOP head (the “batter” head) firmly, like you’re giving it CPR. This slips the hoop of the drum head onto the rim of the drum and helps the head to conform to the shape of the bearing edge of the drum. Don’t be alarmed if there’s a cracking noise, this is normal. If you seat your head and notice that the pitch of the drum has dropped, you’ll have to retighten the tension rods and reseat the head. Keep going until the pitch stays the same post-seating.
NOTE: Don’t attempt to press directly on the bottom (“resonant”) head unless it’s a thicker, 10 mil or more head. Doing so will probably leave a nice imprint of your palm, as well as potentially ripping through the head.
Put the drum on a clean surface, with the head you want to tune facing up.
Tap the head a few mils from each tension rod (with a finger or with a stick) and listen for the note produced. Make a mental note of which tension rods sounded “high” and which ones were “low”. They work in pairs — usually the lug opposite will be the same pitch as it’s pair, high or low.
To finish the tuning, simply LOOSEN by 1⁄8th of a turn each lug that was “high” in pitch, and TIGHTEN each lug that was “low” in pitch. The idea is that by tuning in opposites, you bring the highs down and the lows up until they meet in the middle.
Seat the head again.
Repeat steps 5 – 7 until the head has the same pitch all the way around. You shouldn’t hear many funny overtones or ringing if your drum is tuned well.
Now, turn the drum over and repeat steps 5 – 7 with the rest of your drums.
There are a few ways to tune your resonant and your batter heads relative to each other. If you tune your resonant head LOWER than your batter, you’ll get more depth and stick response. Tuning HIGHER will result in a shallower sound with shorter sustain. Equal pitch will give you a rounded tone with good sustain.
This method of tuning works best for toms, with snare drums requiring a bit more fine tuning still. We’ll cover snare tuning in another tutorial, but it’s worth noting that when you put your toms back on your stands they can change pitch. Simply tweak as necessary and you’ll have a set of great sounding drums!