Before The Beat: Drum Setup & Tuning Basics

Most drummers I know think a conversation about drum setup and tuning is about as exciting as watching paint dry. But when you think about it, there’s no better way to get a good start and progress quickly on this beast of an instrument than simply setting up your drums correctly and having them sound great. The sad fact is that all the practice in the world won’t help you get around a drum set that’s fighting you every step of the way. Drummers, more than any other musicians, have to create a comfortable musical environment with a multi-instrument, multisurface contraption that we play with all four limbs! That’s a tall order, but together we’re about to slay the beast. Let’s get to work.

The First Steps

Please remember the tips I’m giving you are for general reference. Every drummer’s body is different, and there is more than one way to be comfortable behind a set of drums. Don’t get sucked into the “right” and “wrong” trap, because what’s right for you may be wrong for someone else. This article is designed to give you a great place to start and from there, suit to taste. Also, if you are a lefty, just do the mirror image of what I describe here.

If you watch your favorite drummers play, you’ll hopefully notice how they are completely free to play the music, rather than having to think about the drums. That’s our goal. Here’s a top-secret and very complicated list of the three things you want from your setup:

1. A comfortable instrument to play.
2. A comfortable instrument to play.
3. See 1 and 2.

Get it? Now “comfortable” doesn’t mean you can take a nap behind your drums: It means you can reach everything you need to, everything is positioned for maximum playability at all dynamic levels, and you don’t have to move your body in an unnatural way to play any part of your drum set. Most importantly, it means that you are balanced, neutral, and centered — no hunching over, no slouching, no jumping up out of your seat to reach a cymbal.

Fig. 1

Everything starts with your seat. Sitting too low or too high is a common problem for young players. The general rule for seat height is that your thighs should be parallel to the floor when your legs are on the pedals. If your knees are above your hips, you’re sitting too low (Fig. 1).

Fig. 2

If you are towering over the drums and pedals, you’re sitting too high (Fig. 2). Move your seat into position behind your drum set, and rest your feet on your pedals.

Fig. 3

Both legs should have approximately the same angle at the knees and be spread evenly apart (Fig. 3). A little lower or higher from this point is fine and, as with all things about setting up, very personal.

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