You may wonder: drums don’t produce any melody; what could we mean by tuning?
And you would be absolutely correct: melodic instruments such as the guitar, piano, wind and brass instruments have at least a base range of notes that must complement each other.
Most drums, on the other hand, are considered non-melodic – the only exception being kettle drums.
In tuning a guitar, for example, one goes from the thickest string, usually the E, to the thinnest, listening intently for deviations from the single, expected note.
Traditionally, a pitch pipe was used in tuning those instruments; these days perhaps more musicians are relying on tuning apps – a common complaint against pitch pipes being that the reeds would harden or collect lint when carried in the musician’s pocket.
Rest assured that you will need no such device to tune your drums. All that is required is a keen ear and a firm, instinctive knowledge of the sound you want your drums to make, one that accords to the type of music you play.
Let us dive into the world of drum tuning, coming out on the other side with the ability to tune every drum in your kit.
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Tuning Your Snare Drum
Snares and bass drums are arguably the most important drums in your kit; indeed if your floor tom’s head breaks, you could continue your gig by hitting the other floor tom if your kit is so equipped, or you might beat one of your hanging toms instead.
True, you would get a different sound, but it might not be so bad!
But if you lose your snare mid-concert... well, we don’t even want to think about that! Much better you should maintain your kit properly to avoid any type of disruption in your playing, whether it is a paying gig or a jam session.
What if, during your last jam, you found your snare drum sound not to your liking?
Why you should rush to get your drum key straightaway!
Starting with the tension rod closest to you, seat the drum key and turn it a quarter-turn, and then move to the rod positioned diametrically opposite and turn it, also just a quarter-turn.
From there, you may move to the tension rod at the left of the one you started with, but always remember: as you tighten one, immediately tighten the one opposite of it the equal amount of turns (or quarter-turns).
You should never travel the circumference of the drum, tightening rods as you go, and you should never tighten them more than a half-turn at a time, unless you have just replaced the drum head.
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Finding the Tone You Want
Now that you have the desired tension on the batter head, you should find the right pitch for your style of music by beating a single drumstick against the drum’s shell – NOT the rim or the head!
The intent is to tune the heads to the drum itself; to establish a tone that is within the range of the drum’s capability.
Your ear should discern the tone that the drum makes, whose pitch you will complement by tuning the head.
If you have successfully reached a complementary pitch, you should then tap the drum head in front of each rod, about one inch from the rim, and listen to that sound.
If it is suitably pitched, move across the drum head to sound check the corresponding rod. You may need to tighten or loosen the rod, depending on if you get a higher or lower tone than its opposite.
In this way, you will ensure proper tension across the drum head while minimising overtone.
If, in spite of your best efforts at tuning your snare drum you still get undesirable overtones, you may consider using a damper, drum gum or moon gel.
However, damping should be a solution of last resort. Maybe you could ask a more experienced drummer or a professional instrument tech to check your work prior to applying any extra damper.
Perhaps you should change the drum head altogether!
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Tuning the Bottom Head
The bottom drum head, the one that provides resonance, should be tuned in much the same way as you tuned the batter head: first tap the drum shell, and then the bottom head.
The pitch should be close to or equal to that of the batter head.
If it varies too greatly to suit your taste, repeat the procedure used to tune the batter head on the resonant head.
Note: you should mute the batter head with a towel as you tune the bottom head. Or, you could simply invert the drum onto your drum stool; it should be just about a perfect fit!
The resonant head is much thinner than the batter head and should be tuned much more tightly. That means you should be cautious in tuning this head as you risk damaging it by trying to tighten it excessively.
Prior to tuning your snare, you should have removed the wires. Once you have your desired pitch and tone, take a good look at your snare wires before reinstalling them.
Do they lay flat? Do see any signs of stress or cracking? Do they touch the drum head?
Look for any bowing or sagging; if either one of those conditions exists, loosen or tighten incrementally.
A good rule of thumb is to tighten snare wires to just until they stop rattling.
If any snare wire looks ready to crack or if they bow even after tightening, you should replace the snare as soon as possible.
That brings us to the end of simple snare drum tuning; let us now find out how to tune the rest of your kit.
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Tuning Your Toms and Kick Drum
In essence, tuning your toms and bass drum is not so different than tuning your snare; the process is the same but the procedure is reversed.
You will be tuning to the body of the drum rather than to your desired sound.
You will tune the resonant head first rather than the batter head
You will use a drumstick to tap the bass drum’s shell even though that drum is beat with a mallet
You may start with your smaller tom, tapping the side of the drum while listening intently for the pitch the drum should make – a bit lower than the snare, a bit higher than the next tom.
With the drum inverted – resonant side up, repeat the procedure used on your snare drum for tightening the rods until you hit the desired tone.
You are looking for a smooth, single tone, hopefully with no overtone. Resonance should be as deep and long as required for the style of music you play.
Once you’ve found that tone, upturn the drum and repeat the steps for tuning the batter head.
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Tuning both heads to the same pitch will give you a very resonant sound; however, if your top head is tuned to a higher pitch than your lower head, you will get a very constant sound with little resonance.
How your drums should sound is really up to you. What type of music you play and the environment you play in all impact what pitch your drums should be tuned to.
For example, if you are playing in a recording studio, you will definitely want less resonance and definitely no overtone.
Some instrument techs advocate tuning the smaller tom first and progressing to the deeper-toned drums, all the way to the bass.
However, the order you tune your drums is subjective. Some prefer going from snare through the sizes to the kick drum.
Others will tune the snare and bass first, and then fit the toms in along the range of tones the other two have created.
They also caution that tuning these drums is a lengthy procedure and they suggest making yourself comfortable!
Perhaps you could place your drum on some sort of turntable; even a swivelling office chair would do... unless you are willing to crawl around on the floor, circling your drums.
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Takeaways from Tuning Drums
According to James G, songwriter and performer at Music Go ‘Round, a percussionist should tune his kit:
When installing new drum heads
after transporting or moving a drum set
after a change in temperature
or going from one humidity/temperature to another – say, from a lorry to an air-conditioned environment
fine-tune every time before you play the drums
at the very least, check to see that they are in tune!
How your drum sounds is entirely up to you and depends largely on the music you play and where you play it.
Jazz percussion differs vastly from drumming in a rock band, for example the difference in heads and resonance are just two factors that distinguish those styles of drumming.
And, you would need thicker cymbals for a rock jam!
Likewise, you would want less resonance in a studio environment than you would in concert, so you would work with the sound engineer to dampen each drumhead so that your kit sounds good without sacrificing quality.
Now that you’ve got all that down, it is time to play on!
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