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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Forming The “Power Square”

Now that we have the proper leg placement, let’s build the rest of the drum set from this position. We are going to create what I call the “power square.” On a standard 5-piece kit, the snare and your three toms form the “square” itself.

First, make the lower left corner of your square by placing the snare drum in its correct position: between your legs with the top hoop above your knees — right around your belt buckle. Your knees should be close to the snare on either side, but not touching it. It’s a good idea to start with your snare relatively flat, though some drummers enjoy an angle in one direction or another. Experiment and see what you like. Most importantly, your body should be centered behind your snare, facing the direction of your bass drum and not flaring out on an angle.

The smallest mounted tom forms the upper left corner of your square. Adjust it so the top hoop of the tom is a few inches above the top rim of the snare, but not touching, with a slight angle downward towards your body. At this point the snare, small tom, and your body should be in a fairly straight line. Commonly, young drummers set up too far to the right causing them to face the hi-hat and lose their neutrality and balance in relation to the rest of the kit. Staying centered behind your drums with good posture is a great advantage for not only playing but also for avoiding a common drummer ailment: back pain.

Fig. 4

Now, to form the upper right-hand corner of the square, position your second mounted tom so that it matches the height and angle of your first mounted tom (Fig. 4). The two toms should be very close together but not touching. If you see big gaps of air between your drums, close up the gap. Drums that are too far apart only add unnecessary work when trying to get around the drum set.

Fig. 5

The floor tom forms the lower right-hand corner of the square (Fig. 5). It should be even with the snare and relatively flat. The top hoop of the floor tom should be below the top hoop of your second mounted tom. Pull the floor tom nice and tight to your knee without touching it, about 4" to 8" away from your snare.

Your power square is finished. You’ve created a powerful base of operations for your drumming. Now that the drums have been “ergonomically” formed around your body, you can experiment with angle and height adjustments to fine-tune your setup to fit the way you like to play. And, if you have more drums, just add them as logical offshoots to the power square. Easy!

Setting Up Cymbals

Now you can also complete the drum setup by positioning the cymbals correctly. Here are some general cymbal setup tips:

Fig. 6

Your ride cymbal can be in any number of places, but there are two common ones: right above your second mounted tom (Fig. 6), or lower down next to just above the floor tom. Try both and see which you prefer. Remember, there is no “right” way — it’s a personal decision.

Fig. 7

Set your crash cymbals high enough above the drums where you can get some power and not hit your hands on the hoops of your toms (Fig. 7). I recommend a bit of tilt towards you, but some players like them set flat. Please, use glancing blows off the cymbals! Never punch “through” them. You’ll only break them and get an ugly sound. Cymbals always sound better with a flick of a wrist than with a stabbing jab.

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Fig. 8

Fig. 9

The bottom cymbal of your hi-hat should be above the top rim of your snare drum — the exact distance is a matter of personal taste. When I play rock music, I like my hi-hats a bit higher so I can get play with more volume, but I like them lower for jazz. Watch your favorite drummers and see where they set up their hats. Please remember that you must have air between your hi-hats to make the chick sound when you play the hi-hat with your foot (Figs. 8—9). So, when in the open position, there must be some space there, at least 2" to 3", if not more.

Tuning Like A Pro

Tuning is not a science but rather a matter of personal touch, feel, and sound. You must actually do it to understand it. The style of music you play has a huge part in what kind of tuning philosophy you use. For example, rock needs lower-sounding, more powerful drums than jazz, which demands a higher, more melodic approach. Like everything with music, trial and error is your best friend when it comes to tuning. Here are some basic concepts to help guide you on your tuning adventures.

Fig. 10

Fig. 11

First, I recommend using a crisscross method for basic tuning, which allows you to tune the drum and seat the head evenly by tightening the tension rods in a crossing pattern. Place the head and the counterhoop on the drum and then finger-tighten each rod so that it makes contact with the counterhoop. Then tighten each rod with a drum key (Fig. 10) three or four half-turns while tapping the head adjacent to each rod to make sure the pitch is the same at each tension point (Fig. 11). Once you have the head tuned evenly, you can fine-tune it by going around the drum circularly.

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Tune The Drum In Its Natural Range

The best way to make your drums sound great is to tune them in their natural range. Everything that goes into making a drum — the wood, the hardware, the bearing edges — all come into play in determining each drum’s natural range. Put simply, if you try to make a 10" mounted tom sound like an 18" floor tom you’ll be probably be unhappy with the results.

Listen to the drum as you raise and lower its pitch. Ask yourself, “Does it sound dead and choked or does it sound full and open?” As you use your drum key, feel the tension in the rods and listen. Notice how little it takes to significantly change the sound of your drum. Sometimes all it takes is a little tweak to make the drum sing.

Drumhead Relationship On Toms

This is one of the most confusing concepts for beginning drummers. Single-headed toms (also known as concert toms) get a dry fundamental tone with very little lasting resonance. However, two-headed toms really resonate. Both send vibrations and resonance into the shell, back to the heads, into the shell, and back again so the whole drum is reacting and resonating just like a fine violin.

Start with your smallest tom and work with it on your lap, not on a stand. Tap around the outside of each head first to make sure the head is evenly tensioned. Avoid muting one head to tune the other; you need to hear how they work together at all times. You’ll find the bottom head has a huge influence on the depth of tone and the top head has an equal affect on overall pitch.

To the common question of which head should be tuned higher or lower, my answer is that it’s different for every drum. I often wind up with both heads at around the same pitch because I feel that gives the maximum resonance with the lowest amount of stray overtones. However, I’ll adjust my tuning to the drums to suit the project I’m working on. Be flexible and let your ears be your guide.

MakeYour Snare Drum Speak

Most likely, you’ll want your snare to provide maximum sound with minimum effort. Since the snare is designed to be in a higher frequency than the rest of the drum set, don’t be afraid to tighten it up a bit. You’ll want your bottom head fairly tight as well, since the snare wires need a crisp surface to dance on. The throw-off also has a huge impact on the overall tightness of a snare drum. To check your snare tension, tap lightly close to the rim of the top head. Do you hear the snares responding? If you do, that’s good. If not, then you might want to loosen the head, the throw-off, or both. Here’s another tip: Hit a rimshot with the snares off. If you hear a satisfying crack with a well-defined pitch, then you will have a great sound for your backbeat when you put the snares on.

Make The Bass Drum Match The Music

Fig. 12

A bebop jazz drummer and a funk player need very different bass drum sounds. While jazz drumming requires a more resonant, open sound, you’ll need a little muffling in your bass drum for most modern pop music to get rid of stray overtones and help create a good fundamental, punchy sound. If you don’t have one of the commercially available muffling pads, use two small towels or a really flat pillow barely touching both heads (Fig. 12). Don’t overdo it, or you’ll just have a dead and unsatisfying poof sound rather than the needed thump.

You’ll also find that you’ll need significantly less tension on the bass drumheads than you do with your other drums. Try getting the drumheads just past where you don’t see any wrinkles on the head surface and try playing it. Increase the tension slowly until you hear what you like.

Choose The Right Heads

There are two good reasons to change your heads. First, heads resonate, respond, and just sound better when you change them periodically. And, second, the type and thickness of the drumhead you select will have a huge impact on your sound.

Which heads should you use? Well, thinner single-ply heads are good choices for lighter playing and softer music. You can get a lot of sound with very little effort from thinner heads. On the other hand, thicker single-ply and double-ply heads are good for louder music and produce a heavier sound with naturally less overtones.

I use medium weight single-ply heads on the top and bottom of my toms and top (or batter) side of snare, a double ply head on my bass drum, and the thinnest head possible for the bottom snare side. But I won’t hesitate to switch to a different drumhead to accommodate the music I might be playing at a given gig. As a matter of fact, it’s fun to try something different just to make it interesting.

One More Reminder

The only way to really learn setting up and drum tuning is to just do it. Try different setups and different tunings and pay attention to the way your drums respond. Believe it or not, the sound of your entire kit will change when you alter the sound of one tom. That’s because the drum set is one big resonating instrument. Good tuning can help you, your drum set, and your drumming reach their highest potential.