Drum tuning is one of the most overlooked and misunderstood aspects of drumming. While drums are not typically tuned to specific pitches, they do require tuning to produce clear, full tones.
Learning how to tune your drum set will improve your sound and encourage you to play more frequently. Even a beginner drum kit can sound great with the right tuning.
If you’re new to drumming, this guide will show you how to tune drum set.
What you will require before tuning your drums
Drum tuning requires only a few basic items:
A percussion key:
A drum key is the first thing you’ll need to tune your drums. A drum key is a small tool used to tighten or loosen the tension rods that control the drum’s pitch.
Tightening the tension rods raises the pitch of the drum while loosening them lowers the pitch. Drum keys are also useful for adjusting hardware like hi-hat stands and kick drum pedals.
While it is not required, some drummers use two drum keys to tune opposing sides of the head at the same time, giving them equal tension. Professional drum techs (those who set up and maintain drum sets for professional-level bands) may use a turntable to easily rotate the drums as they adjust the tuning.
A percussion instrument:
Drumsticks will be required to tap on the heads while tuning them.
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A drum’s components
Percussion instruments include drums. Their sound is created when a drum head is struck by a hand, a stick, or a mallet. People have been playing drums for thousands of years, but the modern drum set was not invented until the 1920s.
Drummers finally had everything they needed to drive a band with the invention of the kick drum pedal and the development of the hi-hat. Drums evolved from animal skin heads tied together with rope to a modern system with multiple parts.
To fully understand how drums work, you must first understand their various parts and what they do.
As you assemble your drum set, keep the following in mind:
The shell is the drum’s wood body. Drums are commonly made from maple, birch, oak, cherry, and mahogany. Each wood type has a slightly different tone. Some drums have a natural, stained wood finish, while others have a “wrap,” which is a colored synthetic material that is extremely durable. Metal snare drum shells are also available. This makes them sound more powerful and bright.
Hoops for drum
The drum hoop is a round metal piece that holds the drum heads in place. Wooden snare and kick drum hoops are occasionally used. Each drum is typically equipped with a top and bottom hoop, one for each of the drum heads.
Tension rods are threaded through the hoops and tightened or loosened to achieve the desired sound. The tension rod has a square head on one end and a threaded end. The tension rods, as you might expect, provide tension on the drum heads. When tuning drum heads, make sure to distribute the tension evenly across all tension rods. The drum will not produce a good tone if one part of it is loose and another is tight.
Claws on a drum
Drum claws are found on bass drums. The claws are metal pieces that go over the hoops and hold them to the shell. The tension rods are threaded through the claw holes, then threaded into the lugs and tightened.
Lugs of drum
The lugs are secured to the drum’s shell, and the threaded portion of the tension rod is inserted into the lug. Most drums have eight or ten lugs. Six lugs are common on older vintage drums. The number of lugs on a drum can affect its tuning stability and sound.
Top drum head (batter)
The top head is referred to as the batter head. It regulates the drum’s attack and “ring” (unwanted overtones). Single or double-ply batter heads are available. Single-ply heads are louder and brighter than double-ply heads, but they are less durable. Batteries can be coated or uncoated. Coated heads tend to sound “drier” and darker.
Drum head at the bottom (resonant)
The bottom head of the drum is the resonant head. The resonant head will shape the drum’s overtones or resonance. Thinner resonant heads are more sensitive, while thicker resonant heads sound darker. Because the resonant head is not directly struck, it can last longer than the top heads, but it will eventually wear out and need to be replaced.
Vents are often overlooked, but they are extremely important when considering how drums work. These small air holes are built into drums to allow air to escape when the drums are struck. This allows the drums to “breathe” as the heads’ vibrations resonate. The vents improve the stick feel of the drum as well.
*** Read more: How To Set Up A Drum Set? Step By Step Guide
A step-by-step guide to tuning your drums
Tuning your drums only takes a few minutes, but the effort is well worth it. You’ll love your sound, and all it takes is a few simple steps.
Decide if you want to start with a new drum head or tune your old one
You may notice that the tone of the drums changes as you practice. The more you play, the more you’ll need to tune your drums. The drum heads will need to be replaced after extensive use. The old heads will not hold tune as well, and they will eventually wear out and break.
There are many different types of heads, so which one should you use? Each head produces a distinct tone, and some are more durable than others. Drum heads are typically made of various types of plastic:
Single-ply: The most common type of drum head is a single-ply drum head. They are the least durable type of head and produce a brighter sound. This drum head is suitable for jazz and light rock.
Double-ply drum heads have a darker sound and are better for heavy metal music and heavier, louder styles. They sound darker and are more durable.
Coated drum heads have a sprayed-on coating that darkens the tone and reduces the amount of “ring” or overtones. They’re also more resistant to wear than uncoated or clear heads. Single- and double-ply coated heads are available.
Pre-dampened heads have a built-in dampening system that controls the overtones of the drum. These are commonly found on kick drums and are also known as mufflers. They generate a more controlled, focused sound with fewer overtones.
In general, if you play frequently, you should replace your batter heads every six months to a year. Because the snare drum is the most frequently struck, it may need to be replaced more frequently. Kick drum heads are the most durable. Resonant heads do not need to be replaced as frequently as batter heads; they should be replaced every second or third time you change your batter heads.
When it comes time to replace the heads, the old ones must be removed by loosening the tension rods and removing the hoops. Keep track of all of the tension rods and claws. After removing the hoops and rods, wipe the edge of the drum shell with a cloth to remove any dust.
Then, place the new head on the drum’s shell. To ensure that the new head sits evenly on the drum, center it so that it can be tuned to equal tension across the drum. Place the hoop over your head, then insert the rods into the hoop’s hole and thread them through the lugs. Tighten them until they are only a finger’s width apart.
Drum head in the center
When you put the new head on the shell, rotate it to make sure it’s centered on the drum. Once the head is centered, slip the hoop over it and align it with the lugs on the shell’s side. Tighten the tension rods to a finger-tight fit.
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Tension each tension rod in a diagonal pattern with a drum key
When tuning your drum heads, you’ll tighten the tension rods with a drum key. Giving each rod a half turn in a diagonal pattern, gradually bring the drum up to pitch. This keeps the tension on the drum head even. While tuning, lightly tap the drum head with a stick close to the head’s edge, using the rods as a guide. If the tension is balanced, the pitch of each area should be the same.
As you go along, stretch the head and remove wrinkles
When you first start tuning your drum, you must “seat” the head by pressing down on the drum head with both of your palms together. Firmly but not too firmly pressed. You’ll hear a cracking sound, which is completely normal and caused by the glue in your head cracking. This stretches the head and improves tuning retention. Any wrinkles in the drum head should disappear once you begin to tension it properly.
Tune your drum head’s bottom (resonant)
Increase the tension as you tune your resonant head until the wrinkles disappear and there is equal tension across all tension rods.
Strike the resonant head carefully:
Take care not to strike the resonant head too hard, as it is very thin and not intended to be hit as hard as the batter head. If the tension is not equal, you will hear strange, erratic overtones.
Repeat drum tuning for the top (batter) head
Repeat the process for the batter head as you did for the bottom head. Tune the drum gradually until it is roughly the same pitch as the bottom head.
Tune your drum to the pitch you want
You must now fine-tune the drum. When a drum is struck in the center of the head, it produces a fundamental tone. This is not the tone you’ll hear when tapping near the tension rods when tuning.
To hear the tone, mute the opposite head while hitting the drum a few times. Adjust the fundamental tone until you are satisfied with the result. Now, without muting both heads, play the drum to see if the tone is clear and even. Each drum has a frequency range that contains the drum’s natural frequencies. Tuning your drum below this range produces a muddy and dull sound while tuning above this range produces a thin and choked sound.
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Additional drum tuning advice
There is no single, universal method for tuning a drum set. Much of it comes down to personal taste and the type of music you play. Here are some methods and pointers to help you achieve your ideal drum sound:
Try muffling or drum dampening
Drum dampening is accomplished by inserting something into the batter head to reduce the unwanted “ring” of a drum. Gels are small pieces of soft plastic that can be stuck to drum heads, or small strips of gaff tape are sometimes used.
Vintage drums frequently used internal mufflers that, when activated, pushed a felt disc onto the underside of the head. This produces a softer sound with less attack and sustain.
To keep your drums in tune, maintain them
Maintaining your drums on a regular basis is critical to keeping them in tune. Lubricant can be applied to the tension rods to prevent them from stripping out the lugs. Set up your equipment so that you can play comfortably. Change heads as needed, and try to strike the center of the drum head to avoid denting the edges.
Think about using a tuning aid
There are numerous tools available to help you tune your drums. These include drum tension and torque measuring devices, which allow you to quickly tune to equal tension across the drum. There are even drum tuners that display pitch in the same way that guitar tuners do.
Drum tuning guide
As previously stated, each drum has a pitch range that it can accommodate. This is sometimes referred to as the drum’s resonant pitch. The resonant pitch of a drum is determined by its size and the type of wood used. Smaller drums have higher resonant frequencies, while larger drums have lower.
Perfecting your Kick drum
The kick drum (also known as the bass drum) is the kit’s bottom end. It should have a rich sound with a strong attack. Most kick drums have a diameter of 22 inches, but smaller kicks are occasionally used for jazz or quieter gigs. John Bonham of Led Zeppelin frequently used a 26-inch kick drum to achieve his monstrous sound.
Kick drums are typically tuned lower than a bass guitar’s low E. Begin by tuning the kick drum until the wrinkles in the head disappear. Then, play around with the pitch until you find a tone you like. The kick drum is often felt as much as it is heard, so consider the bounce and feel of the drum when deciding how to tune it.
If the tone of your kick drum is lacking definition, pitch the resonant kick drum head slightly higher than the batter head. If you move your drum set frequently, make sure to check the tuning because it’s easy to adjust the tuning inadvertently while moving the drums.
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Perfecting your Snare drum
The snare drum is the loudest component of the drum set, with a high attack but little sustain. The snares are attached to the bottom head and produce the drum’s distinct sound. Snares are made of wood or metal, which has a significant impact on the tone. Metal snares are typically louder and cut through a band more effectively than wood snares.
While there is no standard note to which the snare drum should be tuned, most drummers pitch their snare between E3 and B3 (the third octave is the octave below what is referred to as middle C on the piano). A3 is a reasonably common snare drum pitch.
Tuning your snare drum is largely a matter of personal taste. Try to match the pitch of a recording of a snare that you want to emulate. If your snare head has a lot of dents and is difficult to tune, replace it with a new one.
Perfecting your Toms
Most drum sets have two or three toms, but some drummers, such as Rush’s late Neil Peart, had as many as eight toms (including the floor toms). You can tune two or three toms to wider intervals if you have two or three toms. Multiple toms are typically tuned closer together so that all of the drums are in their “normal” pitch range.
The toms can be tuned in a number of different ways. Small toms (8-10 inches) are typically tuned between E3 and B3. Large toms (16-18 inches) are tuned even lower than medium toms (12-14 inches). As you move from smaller toms to larger toms on your drum kit, the pitch decreases.
The pitch is determined by the diameter of the drum. The majority of drum sets are four or five pieces with two or three toms. Rock drums (weighty metal drums) typically have larger toms than jazz kits.
The tension of the resonant head is especially important when tuning toms. If you’re satisfied with the fundamental pitch of the batter head, fine-tune the resonant head to maximize the drum’s resonance.
Begin with the same pitch for both heads and then experiment with ranges by tuning the resonant head of the drum up and down. Remember, it’s all about personal preference!
- How tight should your drum be tuned?
When tuning your drums, avoid over-tightening the heads. Most beginners tune their drums too high, which causes the tone to “choke.” You want the drums to ring out loudly and evenly.
- Should your bottom head be tighter than your top head?
A drum can be tuned in three ways: with the resonant (bottom) head higher than the batter (top) head, with the resonant head lower than the batter head, or with both heads tuned to the same pitch.
Tuning the heads, the same produces the evenest tone, tuning the bottom head tighter than the top produces a slight upward bend in the notes, and tuning the bottom head lower than the top produces a slight downward bend in the pitch. Experiment with different drum tuning ranges to find the sound you prefer.
- Which pitch should you listen to?
While drums can be tuned to specific pitches, most drummers tune in relation to the other drums in the set. Toms have typically tuned a quarter note apart (the first two notes of “Here Comes the Bride”).
This is also affected by the number of toms in the kit; drum kits with multiple toms may need to be tuned at closer intervals to allow all of the drums to sound their best while not being tuned beyond their comfortable frequency range.
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This post has provided a comprehensive guide on how to tune drum set.
Tuning takes practice to become proficient and fast and experimenting with different heads, muffling, and pitch relationships will help you build a mental “encyclopedia” of sounds. There will come a time when a musical director, bandmate, or producer will ask you to get a specific sound, and you will be ready.