Learn Drums | Tuning Basics

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Fig. 1 Gently touching the center of the drum while tapping will help you hear the harmonic more easily.

Tuning a set of drums can often seem complex. However, once you grasp the basic concepts, it''s surprisingly easy to find a sound that makes sense for you. Like everything else in the music biz, it just takes some practice and patience to figure it out.

Before we begin tuning, let''s see what''s involved in changing the heads.

The basic parts of a drum are the shell, the head, and the hardware that connects the two (counterhoops, lugs, and tension rods). When you change the heads, you want to make sure each part is in good working order. For example, if the lugs are difficult to turn with a drum key because of rust or grime, it''ll be hard to tune the instrument. It''s a good idea to clean or replace any damaged hardware before you re-assemble the drum.

The head rests on the bearing edge, which couples it to the drum like the bridge couples a string to a guitar''s body. If the bearing edge has irregularities, or if the shell is out of round, the drum will be a challenge to tune and the tone will be compromised. These are two things to check if you have had difficulty getting the drum to sound good.

After removing the old head, wipe away any grease or dirt that has built up on the inside of the hoops and on the bearing edge, and dust out the shell. Place the new head on the bearing edge so that it''s evenly seated, then add the hoop, being sure to line up its holes with the lugs. Place the tension rods through the hoop and into the lugs, and then tighten them down with your fingers until they touch the hoop.

Next, tighten each tension rod a quarter-turn, using a drum key. The order that you tighten up the rods at this stage is important, because you want to tension the head evenly as you''re seating it. Always move to the rod that is across the head, not the one to the immediate left or right. For example, think of an 8-lug drum like a clock: Give the rod in the 12 o''clock position a quarter-turn, then turn the one at 6 o''clock, followed by the one at 3 o''clock, then 9 o''clock, and so on. If you hear crackling noises as you do this, don''t worry: It''s just the sound of the head materials and glue being stretched. Continue around the drum in this manner until the head becomes resonant.

At this point, use smaller turns of the drum key, being consistent as you move around the drum. Don''t get impatient and turn the rods too far, or you might ruin the head by over-tensioning it or mounting it cockeyed. If you see one side of the head wrinkle, adjust the rods near the creases to even them out. If that doesn''t work, try adjusting the rods at the opposite side of the head.

Head manufacturer Evans suggests you tune the head slightly above the tone you want, being careful not to overdo it. Then, lower the tension to the desired pitch. By momentarily tuning higher, you pre-stretch the head, which gives you greater pitch stability.

Now it''s time to fine-tune the drum and make sure it''s tensioned evenly. To do this, test the pitch next to each lug by gently tapping the head about one inch away from it with a drumstick. (If you have trouble hearing the tone clearly, gently dampen the center of the head using the fingertips of your other hand; see Figure 1.) At first, you''ll hear a different pitch at each lug. Your goal is get the same pitch no matter which lug you tap next to. This indicates that the head tension is spread out equally around the drum.

As you''re turning the drum key at this stage, quickly go counter-clockwise and loosen the head slightly before tightening it past the previous tension. Lowering the tension before raising it helps with tuning stability.

There are no rules about tuning the relative pitch of each drum. The tone you''ll strive for depends on the demands of the player and the music, so you''ll need to rely on your ear to know that you''ve nailed it. With that in mind, let''s look at a few starting points.

For the toms, start by matching the tones of the top and bottom heads. Some drummers tune the bottom head higher or lower than the top head to hear a slight pitch change during the decay of the drum.

On the snare, the bottom head is usually thinner than the top, and many drummers tune them differently. Commonly, the batter head is tighter than the bottom head by as much as an interval of a fifth. If you''re new to tuning, start there, but don''t be afraid to loosen the top head if it doesn''t fit what you need musically.

For the bass drum, tune it to the lowest tone you can get without the head becoming flappy. Old-school methods of getting a punchy kick include tightly stretching a strip of felt across the batter head, putting a pillow in the drum, or both. A number of manufacturers sell products for use inside the kick, as well as heads that have built-in muffling systems. It''s worth a trip to your local music store to see and hear the options available.