Drum Tuning

Drum tuning is the most important factor in determining how your drums will sound. Drum tuning can alter your drum tone more than the drum's material, size, construction or even how you play it. Many drummers find tuning drums to be difficult and time consuming, however when your drums are sounding their best, they’ll inspire you to play at your best. Take the time to learn to tune drums correctly and to experiment with different drumheads and tuning.

How you tune your drums and the drumheads you choose will depend on the drum sound you are looking for. In many ways this is a personal, artistic choice. Important considerations when tuning your drums are:

  • Music genre and style
  • Amplification (acoustic vs close-miked)
  • Environment (live vs studio)
  • Playing volume

Drumheads

A drumhead or drum skin is a membrane that is stretched across one or both ends of a drum shell. Originally drumheads were made from animal skins but now days they are made from plastic, since it is cheaper, more durable and less sensitive to heat and moisture. Modern drums typically use two drumheads, which are held in place by a hoop, tension rods and lugs. The drumhead that is struck is called the batter head and the drumhead on the other side of the drum is called the resonant head. On the snare drum, the resonant head is known as the snare head since the snares lie across it.

Types of Drumheads

There are two main types of drumheads: clear and coated. Clear skins are smooth and transparent, producing a bright sound. These are almost always used for resonant heads and are also used for tom-tom and bass drum batter heads. Coated skins have a white, textured coating on the surface which produces a warm tone. Coated skins are almost always used for the snare drum batter head. The rough texture allows brushes to make a swish sound when swept across the head. They are also used as batter heads for toms.

There are many different weights of drumheads:

Single ply heads e.g. Remo Ambassador, Evans G1

Single ply heads are used for resonant heads and are also a good all-round batter head, particularly for acoustic playing and recording. They produce a brighter tone with more overtones than other types of drum heads.

Double ply heads e.g. Remo Emperor, Evans G2

Double ply heads are used for heavier playing and when the drums are close-miked. They produce less overtones with a stronger fundamental, since the second ply dampens the harmonics.

Dampening ring drumheads e.g. Remo Powerstroke and Pinstripe, Evans Genera and EC

These drumheads have an additional ply around the edge of the head. These are often used for bass drum batters heads as well as on other drums. They are used for heavy playing when a dry, punchy tone with fast decay is desired.

Center dot drumheads e.g. Remo Controlled Sound, Evans Reverse Dot

These drumheads have a an extra ply in the center of the the drumhead. This has a dampening effect on the drum, producing greater attack and shorter sustain. This makes it a good option for snare drum batter heads.

Parts of a Drum

The drumhead is held onto the drum by a hoop or rim. The hoop is usually made from die cast metal or wood and has a flanged edge which sits against the edge of the head. The drumhead is tensioned by tightening the tension rods with a drum key. The tension rods screw into lugs that are bolted to the side of the drum to hold the hoop in place. By tightening or loosening the tension rods, the hoop stretches the head tighter or looser over the bearing edge of the drum, changing the pitch.

Tuning Drums

Follow these five steps to quickly and correctly tune your drums.

1. Detune the head

Begin by completely detuning the head that's on the drum. Using your drum key, unscrew all the tension rods by one or two turns at a time, alternating tension rods so that the head is detuned evenly. Continue until all the tension rods are loose. If you are replacing the drumhead, completely unscrew the tension rods and remove the old head. Wipe off any dust from the hoop and shell, put the new head on and replace the hoop and tension rods. Make sure that the head and hoop are centered on the shell.

2. Tension the head

Rest the drum on your lap or on a soft surface so that one head is dampened and you can hear the head you're tuning on its own. Begin tightening the tension rods with your fingers until they are finger-tight. Press lightly on the center of the head with your fingers so that the head is seated evenly against the bearing edge of the drum. Maintain this pressure while you tension the head.

Using your drum key, tighten each tension rod by a half turn. Tighten pairs of tension rods on opposite sides of the drum so that the head is tensioned evenly. Continue to tension the head until it is close to the desired pitch.

If the drum head is new, tension it higher than the desired pitch and press hard in the center and around the edge of the head. You will hear the skin crack as it stretches and the glue snaps. This stretches out the head and seats it against the bearing edge of the drum. You will also notice the pitch of the head drop. If you don't do this, the head will gradually detune as it stretches over time and you will have to tune it again later.

3. Get the head in tune with itself

Even though the head has been tensioned evenly it won't sound in tune just yet. There will be overtones and harmonics due to the slightly different tension at each lug. To get the head "in tune with itself" you need to even out the tension so that the head resonates evenly with one note.

Using your drum key, stick or finger, lightly tap the head about an inch inside the rim next to each lug. You will hear the pitch vary from lug to lug. Where the pitch is higher than average, slightly loosen the tension rod. Where the pitch is lower, slightly tighten the tension rod. Repeat this process until the pitch is the same all around the edge of the head. The head should now have quite an even pitch.

4. Adjust the pitch

Using the same process described in step 2, but using smaller turns of the drum key, adjust the head up or down to the desired pitch. Check that the head is still in tune with itself.

5. Repeat for the other side

Turn the drum over and repeat for the other head. Compare the pitch between the two heads and adjust accordingly.

How to Tune Different Drums

The pitch you tune your drums to and the relative pitch between the batter and resonant heads of your drums will depend on the tone you want and the style of music you play.

Tuning tom-toms

A good way to tune your toms for all-round playing is to tune the batter and resonant heads to the same pitch. Many drummers like to tune the resonant head a minor third lower than the batter head. You can also experiment with tuning the resonant head higher than the batter head.

How high or low you tune your drums will depend on the style of music. Tom-toms are usually tuned high for jazz, medium for funk, Latin and pop, and low for rock, metal and big band music.

Tune your toms to the sweet spot where they "sing". Many drummers like to tune their drums in fourths ("Here comes the bride") or if there are a lot of tom toms, in thirds ("Oh when the saints").

Tuning the snare drum

Tune the batter head of the snare drum higher than the snare head to produce a sharp crack. The snare drum should be tuned higher than the high tom.

Tuning the bass drum

For most styles of music, the bass drum is not tuned to produce a note like the tom-toms, but is tuned to produce a low, muffled thud. Tune the front head lower than the batter head to muffle the drum.

For bebop drumming the bass drum is tuned higher to produce a note, as if it is another tom-tom. In this case tune the front head closer to the pitch of the batter.