How To Tune Drums

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.

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Fig. 6: Seat the head

2. Seating The Head. Tap the head, and this time, memorize the pitch. Press the center of the head with the palm of your hand like you’re giving the drum CPR (Fig. 6). You may once again hear cracking sounds from the head — this is normal. Tap the head again and compare the pitch you just heard to the pitch you memorized a second ago. Did the pitch drop noticeably? Are there wrinkles in the head that weren’t there a moment ago? If you answered yes to either question, the head needed seating.

Retighten the head and remove the wrinkles if any are present. Press the center of the head and compare the pitch again. Repeat until the pitch drop is minimal and the wrinkles don’t reappear. (When this is achieved, the head is seated adequately.) Turn the drum over and seat the head on the other side.

Be sure to control your strength when seating heads. If you push too hard you can dent the head or even cause damage to the drum. Start with light pressure and apply only enough to do the job.

It’s also important to know the strength of your heads. The thickness of heads is measured in mil; 1mil equals a 1000th of an inch. To put this in perspective, a typical sandwich bag is 1mil thick. The thickness of Remo’s thinnest head is 2mil, and though Remo’s material is a lot stronger than a sandwich bag, it’s still very fragile. I recommend seating 2mil, 3mil, 5mil, and 7.5mil heads by pressing on the counterhoop instead of direct pressure on the head.

Heads that are 10mil and thicker can be seated with direct palm pressure, but again, start with light pressure and apply only enough to do the job.

3. Tune The Head To Itself. Once the heads are seated you can proceed to the next step and get each head in tune with itself. The goal is to get the same pitch all around the head to achieve a clean tone with the least amount of annoying overtones.

Method A: Tap the head at each tension rod and listen to the pitches. If the pitches are the same all around the head, the head is in tune with itself and you’re done with this head. Chances are, however, some pitches will be high and others will be low relative to each other. If they are, do the following.

At each location where the pitches are “low,” tighten the tension rods by about an eighth of a turn. As your tuning skills improve, you’ll develop a feel for how large or small your adjustments need to be. As you zero-in on the final pitch, only tiny adjustments are required.

Tighten only the tension rods where the pitches are “low.” Don’t make any adjustments to the tension rods where the pitches are “high.” I normally don’t seat the head when bringing the head up in pitch; however, it doesn’t hurt to do so. I always seat the head when bringing the head down in pitch.

Tap the head again at each tension rod and listen to the pitches to see if the head is in tune with itself. Are the pitches the same? If yes, the head is in tune with itself. If not, repeat the steps until the pitch is the same all around the head.

Note: The pitch of the head will get higher and higher as you repeat this process and the final pitch may be higher than you want. We’ll adjust this later.

Turn the drum over and tune the other head to itself by following the steps previously described.

Method B — “Tuning In Opposites:” I learned this method from a drummer named George Rutter and it works by lowering the pitches that are “high” and raising the pitches that are “low” until they meet in the middle at a common pitch.

As in the example above tap the head at each rod and listen to the pitch. Some are likely to be "high" and others will be "low." Then you loosen the tension rods by about an eighth of a turn where the pitches are “high” and tighten the tension rods by about an eighth of a turn where the pitches are “low.”

4. Fine-Tuning. should be able to tune the head up or down and still keep it in tune with itself by turning the tension rods tighter or looser to the same amount. An analogy is a zoom lens on a camera: Once it’s in focus, you can zoom in or out and still be in focus. However, it’s nearly impossible to turn tension rods with 100-percent accuracy, so it may be necessary periodically to get the head in tune with itself.

With two-headed drums, there are only three ways to ensure that the top and bottom heads are tuned relative to each other:

1. The two heads can be tuned to the same pitch.

2. The top head can be tuned tighter than the bottom.

3. The top head can be tuned looser than the bottom.

Tuning the top and bottom heads to the same pitch gives a pure tone and relatively long sustain. Tuning the bottom head lower than the top allows you to tune to your drum “low” while still maintaining good stick response off the tighter top head. Additionally, the sound will “pitch-drop” or “growl” as the drum is played harder. Tuning the bottom head tighter than the top produces a “shallower” sound and shorter sustain. The sound will also “pitch-drop” or “growl” as the drum is played harder.

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Fine-Tuning Toms. Now you have the necessary elements to tune all the toms in your kit. You can tune the smallest one first and progress to the largest, or tune the largest drum first and progress to the smallest, or start in the middle and work you way outward — it doesn’t matter. Just remember that each drum has a range of pitches where it sounds best and if you try to force a drum to tune higher or lower than its range, its sound will be less than optimal. For example, if you start with your smallest tom and tune it too low, by the time you get to your largest tom, the pitch may be too low for that size. You may need to get a larger tom or tune all your toms higher.

Take a tom whose heads are seated and in tune with themselves. Tune the top head close to the final pitch you desire by raising or lowering the tension rods as equally as possible. Tune the bottom head using one of the three top/bottom head relationships described earlier. Seat either head if necessary.

The most difficult of the three top/bottom head relationships is tuning both heads to the same pitch. Tuning in opposites is helpful in this situation. If the top head is higher, loosen it and tighten the bottom head. If the top head is lower, tighten it and loosen the bottom head. Seat the heads and get them in tune with themselves as necessary. Repeat this process until the top and bottom heads are the same pitch.

Mount the tom to your kit. The weight of the drum on the tom mount may change the tuning slightly so compensate accordingly. To hear the pitches more clearly, I touch the center of the head lightly with a finger while tapping the head at each tension rod.

A lot of drummers like to tune their toms the interval of a fourth apart. If you sing the “Bridal Chorus” (Here comes the brideā€¦) the interval between “here” and “comes” is a fourth. Once you have your intervals, try to get the resonance and sustain to be as similar as possible so your toms sound like boom, boom, boom, boom, and not boom, boom, blat, boom.

Once you find pitches you like, it’s a good idea to identify them by using a piano or other pitched instrument and write them down. This way, you can tune your drums to their former glory the next time you change heads.

Be aware that drums sound lower as you move away from them. You may have a killer sound in the close confines of your garage but in a real-world situation -- like in a club or on stage where your sound has more room to mature -- your drums may sound muddy. If possible, have someone play your kit while you listen from the audience’s perspective and tune them if needed.

The goal of getting your toms in tune with themselves is to eliminate annoying overtones so you can play them wide-open without muffling. However, if muffling is needed, “ring type” mufflers like Remo RemOs, Evans E-Rings, and Noble & Cooley ZerOrings are very effective in reducing or eliminating unwanted overtones. Self-muffled heads such as Remo Pinstripes, Evans EC2, and Aquarian Performance II are also excellent.

Fine-Tuning Bass Drums. The bass drum can be tuned the same way as toms with the same top/bottom tuning relationships: both heads tuned the same, the back head tuned tighter than the front, or the back head tuned lower than the front.

I personally tune the resonator head (front head) lower than the batter (back head) to get depth while maintaining good rebound from the tighter batter head.

Bass drums usually require some sort of muffling to control sustain and the simplest mufflers are pillows or blankets. However, if you want a cleaner look, visit your favorite drum store to see and test the wide variety of self-muffled drumheads and other types of mufflers that are available.

Fig. 7: Placement of airhole

It’s also popular to put a hole (Fig. 7) in the front head to reduce the amount of “boom” and/or to allow a microphone to be put into the bass drum. As a general rule: the smaller the hole, the fatter the sound; the bigger the hole, the flatter the sound.

Fine-Tuning Snare Drums. Put your snare drum on a snare stand. I use a hose clamp (hardware or auto-parts store variety) as an improvised “memory stop” on my stand to allow the basket to spin like a turntable for easy access to the tension rods.

Tune the top head to the approximate pitch that you want, get it in tune with itself, and seat it if necessary. Like toms and bass drums, you can tune the bottom head three ways relative to the top. Most drummers tune the bottom head tighter than the top; however, experiment with the other two tuning possibilities to find which one you like best.

Fig. 8: Wrinkles in snare head

Speaking of the bottom head, the bottom bearing edge on snare drums has two “cut-outs” called snare beds that allow the snares to lie flat against the head for optimal snare response. When tuning the snare head, you’re likely to encounter wrinkles at the snare beds (Fig. 8). There are two schools of thought on how to deal with them. One school says, “Tune the head to itself, and if you get wrinkles that’s OK.” I’ve heard of symphonic players tuning this way and using a hair dryer to take the wrinkles out. The other school says, “Tighten the head tighter at the snare beds and take the wrinkles out even if the head is not in tune with itself.” Both ways are valid, however I prefer the second method, and taking the wrinkles out. Try both methods and see which one works best for you.

I always tune my snare drum to the same pitches: I tune the snare head to the “G” above middle “C” and the batter head to the “E” or “F” below the “G” depending on my mood. I got these pitches from Paul Yonemura, a good friend and a great drummer who has perfect pitch. While listening to Ed Shaughnessy and Joe Morello tune their snare drums, he discovered that both tuned their snare heads to “G” and that Morello tuned his batter head to “E” and Shaughnessy tuned his batter head to “F.”

Just for fun, try giving these pitches a try. If they work, great! If they don’t, at least you’ll have a starting point to find pitches that you like better.

With careful tuning you should be able to play your snare drum wide-open. However, if you need muffling, you can use one of the ring mufflers mentioned earlier to eliminate unwanted overtones.

Final Words. Practice tuning to get proficient and fast, and experiment with different heads, muffling, and pitch relationships to build a mental “encyclopedia” of sounds. There will come a day when a musical director, bandmate, or producer will ask you to get a particular sound and when he or she does, you’ll be ready.