Talk to ten different drummers and you’ll get ten different ways to tune drums. The reason is that there’s actually no wrong or right way to tune a drum, or right or wrong pitches to tune it to. So the best I can do is share the ways I tune drums. As the product manager at Pearl Drums, I actually use two methods: Method A is the quick one that I generally use at trade shows when I need to tune a lot of drums, and I use Method B to tune my own drums. Sometimes I combine the two.
Both methods include four steps: (1) preparation, (2) seating the head, (3) getting the head in tune with itself, and (4) fine-tuning. Steps 1, 2, and 4 are the same in both methods; only step 3 is different.
Learning how to tune effectively takes practice, and I recommend practicing on drums that are relatively easy to tune, such as 10" six-lug or 12" six-lug toms. The skills you master from tuning these drums can be applied to all other drums.
Fig. 1: Remove all tension rods
1. Preparation. Start by removing all the tension rods on one side of the drum (Fig. 1), then remove the head and counterhoop (the rim or hoop of the drum).
Fig. 2: Check the fit of the head
Especially if you’re installing a new head, check the fit of the head in the counterhoop (Fig. 2). The head should fit into the counterhoop like a glove or with just a little bit of play. If you have to force the head into the counterhoop the drum may be difficult to tune and the sound could be choked.
Put the head on the drum and center it squarely to the shell. The head should fit loosely on the shell — if it fits tightly it might choke the sound. Mount the counterhoop and center it to the head. Make sure the head and counterhoop aren’t lopsided relative to the drum.
Fig. 3: Tighten the tension rods using a crisscross pattern
Tighten the tension rods with your fingers to make sure none is cross-threaded. Use the crisscross pattern in Fig. 3 to ensure that the head stays square to the drum.
Fig. 4: Use a drum key to finish tightening the tension rods
When the tension rods are finger tight, switch to your drum key and continue tightening using the same crisscross pattern (Fig. 4). You may hear cracking noises — don’t worry, this is normal.
Fig. 5: Tap the head at each tension rod
Periodically tap (Fig. 5) the head at each tension rod to hear the progress of your tuning. I like to softly hit a “rimshot” with my finger however, many drummers prefer to use a stick or the end of a drum key. Whichever method you prefer, try to hit the head at the same spot near each tension rod for consistency.
Tighten the head until all the wrinkles disappear, then tighten it some more until the pitch is a little higher than what you normally tune to. Now you’re ready to seat the head.