Even if you have good drum sets, it’s still important to know how to tune drums to make them really sing. It’s a skill that many drummers learned over time through a trial-and-error process. To save you time, we’ve outlined some of the important things you need to know about drum tuning in this article.
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The Physics in Drumming
When you hit the head of the drum with your hand, a stick, or a mallet, the skin that’s stretched over its hollow body starts to vibrate. This causes the pressure inside the drum shell to change, which in turn leads to the formation of sound waves. The volume of the drum (how soft or loud it is) will depend on the sound wave produced.
There are several factors that greatly affect the sound of drums, including:
- The shape and size of the drum shell (the hollow body of a drum that’s made of wood or metal)
- The material of the drum skin (single- or double-ply sheets of Mylar, Kevlar, nylon, and other strong synthetic fibers)
- How you play the drum
- For instance, thick-skinned drums have more resonance than those with thin skins. As a result, you get more overtones (the extra harmonics you hear after the fundamental note), while you get more fundamental note (the sound produced after the stick first hits the head) from a thin-skinned drum.
Do Drums Have Notes That You Can Hit?
Drums are usually used to perform the rhythm or to put emphasis on a specific note of a song. They’re classified as an unpitched musical instrument, which simply means they don’t have a definite pitch (refers to the highness or lowness of a sound) when played. That’s why they sound good in each key, without having to tune them to various notes.
So, what does it really mean when we say a “drum needs to be tuned”?
First off, drums don’t usually go out of tune that often, unless you use them frequently (or at all) for a long amount of time.
When we say we’re tuning a drum, it means we’re going to adjust a drum’s frequency or pitch. We do that by loosening or tightening the drumhead or drum skin, which is the part that’s hit with sticks or hands. The tighter the skin of the drum, the higher the pitch of the sound.
It’s also important to point out that the amount of air inside a drum could affect its pitch. For instance, if there’s more air inside, the lower the pitch it produces.
The reason for tuning a drum is different for everyone. It could be any of the following:
- To eliminate overtones, which are the extra harmonics that you hear above the fundamental note
- To suit the type of music you’re going to perform
- To express various tone qualities and colors in your music
How often you tune your drums will really depend on your needs and preference. Some musicians don’t tune their drums for weeks. For professional drummers, they might do it at least two times per week. If you practice twice or thrice a week, you can do it once a week or every other week.
Basic Drum Set Tuning
Tuning drums doesn’t need to be scary or difficult. Most drummers started out not knowing how to do it. You just need to set aside time in your regular practice to tune your drums properly.
There are different ways you could go about this. Some people like the top (batter) head to have a higher pitch than the bottom (resonant) head. Others would intentionally detune a few lugs (parts of the drum that add tension or support) to stop the drum from buzzing.
Here are some things you can consider when tuning your drum set:
- Research on good techniques on tuning drums and choose one that best fits your needs.
- Tuning isn’t an exact science, so don’t be afraid to experiment and make the necessary adjustments.
- Remember: The batter (top) head or resonant (bottom) head should be in tune with itself. Your next priority is to tune both heads with each other. And lastly, your drums should be in tune with other instruments that are part and not part of the standard kit (e.g., tambourine, cymbals, and chimes).
Now, let’s talk about the specific steps of tuning toms, snare drums, and bass drums.
How to Tune Toms
- Using a drum key, loosen the tuning pegs by a quarter turn. Work around the drum from left to right. From there, turn the tension rods using your fingers to remove the counter hoops (the rings that hold the drum skin to the shell).
- Once you’ve removed the top head, wipe the bearing edges of the shell to remove debris that could damage and affect the sound of the drum.
- Place the replacement drum head over the drum shell then put the counter hoop back on. Tighten the tension rods until a tone is created.
- The next step is to seat the heads (important). To do this, firmly place the palm of your hand in the middle of the top head to apply a small amount of pressure. This allows the top head to conform to the shape of the drum shell’s bearing edges.
There are a few drummers who don’t seat the heads because they don’t find it necessary when going in between tunings. If you don’t want to do the same, you’re free to do so. However, if the top head doesn’t sit flush on the drum, don’t skip this step.
- Do a sound test by tapping the middle of the drum. The sound you’re looking for is a nice tone that tapers off with a smooth, even tone after the initial attack.
- If it sounds flat, fine tune the tension and length of the rod nearest to you by another half a turn, and then do the same to the rod opposite it. Slowly work your way around the drum, until you go back to your starting point. Keep repeating this process until you get the sound you want.
- Check the pitch by each tension road: Gently tap around 1 inch from the rim and hear the difference. Continue tapping around the drum to see which tension rods still need to be adjusted, until the sound at each tension rod is the same and meets your target pitch.
If you want to tune your toms to specific notes, remember to adjust the fundamental note, not the overtone when you tap at each tension rod. For the floor tom, you can tune it to the E2 note (same note as the bass drum, only one octave higher). You could tune your rack toms to G sharp (G#), D sharp (D#), or B-note.
On toms, the resonant (bottom) head is the most important focus of the tuning process. Once you get it right, tuning the batter (top) head wouldn’t be such a big problem.
How to Tune a Snare Drum
- Begin with your snare drum’s resonant head. Make sure you remove the snare wires (the coiled wire that gives the resonant head its crisp sound) and batter head. Test for tightness by applying pressure around the edges of the bottom head using your thumb.
- Use your fingers or a drum key to tighten the tension rods in a criss-cross pattern until they’re barely touching the counter hoop. Give each rod a half turn and full turns.
Make sure the tightness is even for all lugs. Just keep in mind that the skin of the resonant head is usually thin and weak. If it’s stretched too much, it could snap.
- Your next priority is checking the pitch of your snare drum. Hit the middle to know if it’s in the range you’re looking for. Also, tap roughly 1 inch from each rod to test if the pitch is even.
Some drummers like to tune their 14-inch snare drum in the range of E3 to B3. For a 6.5-inch snare drum, you can tune it in the range of G to B-flat (Bb).
Again, it’s up to you how you want your snare drum to sound. You could tune it independently or follow the same interval as your toms. The important thing is you don’t restrain the tone of your snare drum so much that it sounds like it’s choking.
How to Tune a Bass Drum
Tuning a bass drum is a bit different, but the main concept is still the same. You can follow the same steps that I mentioned in this article.
- Start with the bottom head of your bass drum: Finger-tight each lug casing. Do it in pairs and in a criss-cross pattern.
- With your drum key, tighten the tension rods by half a turn.
- Next, tap near the rim (1 inch) and work your way around the drum.
- Listen and repeat the same steps for the top head.
- If you want to match lowest note of a guitar, you can tune your bass drum to the E1 note.
This article about how to tune drums serves only as a guideline. Remember: There’s no “the only way” when it comes to tuning drums. Feel free to experiment, look for good techniques, use helpful tuning devices, and identify what you prefer as a drummer.