Learning to tune drums is like learning to ride a bicycle: even if you have someone showing you how to do it, you’ll need to practice over and over until the balance is just right. It’s all about trial and error.
In this video, you’ll learn just one of several methods to tune your drums, but there’s nothing better than getting in your practice space, taking off the heads, and trying different things.
We tune drums for many reasons, including:
To get your drums ready for tuning, you’ll need to start with zero tension, which means detensioning all batter heads. Some people use a drill to loosen it more quickly, and if you do this on a high tension drum like a snare, make sure you don’t completely loosen one tension rod at a time. Instead, go slowly around the entire snare – loosening bit by bit – or do it in a star pattern.
1. All tension rods should be nice and loose. Start by finger tightening each one. Getting it ‘finger tight’ means you let the tension rod just touch the edge of the rim. Do this all the way around. If the lugs are a bit tight, use a drum key to make sure each one is touching the rim.
2. If you’re putting on new heads, make sure the tom is on the floor and press down on the center of the drum head with the palm of your hand to stretch it out.
3. As you stretch the head, some tension rods might loosen a bit, so double check that everything is still finger tight, making adjustments as needed.
4. Start with your smallest tom, bringing up the tension in a star pattern. Give the rod closest to you one full turn to increase the tension, do the same with the one across from that, then the next one, and so on. Each one gets a full turn in order to get them up to tension evenly. Hit the drum – if it sounds a bit flat, tighten all the tension rods with another quarter turn. There are tools that may make tuning easier for you (like the Drum Dial), but it’s great if you can do it by feel and by ear. The ultimate sound you should get from the tom is that initial attack, followed by a tapering-off of the sound.
5. For the resonant heads, try to get a similar pitch/note. You might want to tune the reso head a bit lower than the batter side, but see what works for you. To confirm an even tension around the drum, you can tap your finger on the head close to each lug. You can use this technique for your high toms but it may change when you get to the floor tom.
6. Tune your next tom, giving each tension rod a full turn to start, then give each one another half turn if you need a slightly higher pitch.
7. Compare the drums’ pitch to each other. It’s okay if the notes aren’t evenly spaced (a third, a fifth) between drums if it sounds how you hear it in your head. Try singing it out loud!
8. To tune a floor tom, give each tension rod half a turn, going around the drum in a star pattern. Now hit the drum and compare how it sounds to the other toms. In the video, we do another quarter turn. Next, tap the head around the drum in front of each lug to make sure the pitch sounds even. For the floor tom, you might want to tune the bottom head a bit higher than the top head.
1. Get all of the tension rods finger tight. Bring the snare drum up to tension with a full turn of each one moving in a star pattern around the drum. No matter what technique you use, the most important thing to do is listen. Try to bring up the snare nice and tight right away.
2. Once you have the overall sound in the range you’re looking for, test the pitch by tapping around the drum.
3. For the snare’s resonant head, detune it like the batter head. Tune it ‘tabletop tight’: so flat you could confidently rest a drink on it (don’t do this, though). Bring the head up to tension. You want to hear the wires, but not so much that it overwhelms the attack.
Your choice of drum heads makes a big difference. If you want a more controlled sound, you’ll need a thicker head (2-ply) like an Evans EC2, Evans G2 Coated, Remo Pinstripe or Remo Emperor. If you’re looking for something really responsive with more ring, get a 1-ply head like an Evans UV1 on the toms, or an Evans Genera HD Dry (the one in this video) or Evans UV1 on the snare drum.
1. Turn the bass drum on its side, batter side up, and detension the head. If it’s a new head, press your palm in the middle to stretch it out.
2. Bring up all tension rods to finger tightness. If you want a tone out of the drum (if you’re playing jazz, for example) you can use a mallet and pitch match each section of the head. Otherwise, just bring everything up to tension. You aren’t looking for as much of a tone as you are a certain amount of attack.
3. If you run your hand around the edge of the drum, there should be no wrinkles. The batter head in this video is an Evans EQ3 with internal control rings, which provides lots of attack and a little bit of tone.
4. If you want to muffle your bass drum, you can use something like Remo’s internal muffling system, or you can just put some beach towels inside.
5. Next, tune the resonant head the same way you tuned the batter head. The resonance of the bass drum – and the action on the batter head – is largely dependent on if there is or isn’t a hole in the reso head. A hole lets a lot of air escape every time you hit the batter head. If you want to check the tone, you can do it by feel. Stand the bass drum back up and press the center of the head on both sides, seeing how they compare to each other. If you notice any wrinkles, tighten the tension rod nearest to the wrinkle.
Tuning drums really is about personal preference. It can take some time to find the heads, tension, and pitch that you like the most. It’s not rocket science; you just have to put in the work. Once you have a method and sound that works for you, eventually you won’t even have to think about it.
(P.S. If you’re new to drumming, learn more about tuning drums and a dozen more beginner topics in this article right here.)
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