Tuning the “Right” Way
Interestingly (and, perhaps, maddeningly for new players) drums don’t come with a standard tuning sequence nor even an agreed-upon approach to physically tuning a kit. While some players may be content to enjoy the chaos of “no right way”, there is indeed a right way to tune your drums. Other ways can work, but after interviewing lots of drummers, TYD is here to show you the easiest way we have found.
We recommend starting the tuning process with the bass (or kick) drum to establish the foundation for the rest of the kit’s tones regardless of which Standard Drum Tuning you use. Once the bass drum is PROPERLY TUNED, tune the smallest floor tom one octave above the bass drum, the snare an octave above the floor tom, and the rest of the kit based on the tunings outlined in the Standard Drum Tuning section.
Leveraging Opposing Forces: Physically Preparing the Drum Head
Because tuning a drumhead requires adjusting more than a half-dozen tension rods to create uniform tension surface across the surface area of the head, it can be tempting to just start with a tension rod and tighten sequentially in a circle. This, however, is not the best approach. By tightening and loosening tension rods across from each other in a crossing pattern, you create an even, gentler tension that allows the drumhead to more naturally and easily stretch into tune. We’ll start our process with a fresh drum head, but as long as you have a good existing one just follow this simple procedure from the appropriate step. Refer to our videos for additional assistance.
To muffle the opposite head and avoid damaging the floor when turning and tuning the drum, place the drum on a towel or cloth with the drumhead facing up.
- Place your drumhead on your drum and tighten the tension rods by hand so the head is lightly secured.
- Alternating to opposite tension rods in a clockwise direction, use a drum key to tighten each tension rod 1/2 turn to slowly flatten the wrinkles in the head until the head has a small amount of tension. (Please see Standard Drum Tuning for recommended pitch).
Seating the head is as simple as pressing the center with the palm of your hand and applying light pressure, like you are doing CPR. This pulls the hoop (the band around the head) into the channels of the rim and ensures the head conforms to the bearing edges of the drums. A cracking sound is sometimes produced while seating the head. The pitch of the drumhead tends to lower after seating, meaning another round of the tension rod tightening done in Step 2 is required.
Be careful when using this method with heads 5 mil or thinner, and never use this approach with bottom snare heads or heads less than 4 mil as you could permanently dent more fragile heads with excess pressure.
- Using your finger or a drumstick, tap the head beside each tension rod and listen to the tone produced. Take note of which areas created pitches higher or lower than desired. On drums with even numbers of lugs, if a pitch is high on one lug it will likely be high on the opposite lug.
- Having identified the high and low tones of the head, make small adjustments of about a 1/4 turn on each lug, loosening the rods where the drum sounds high and tightening the rods where the drum sounds low until the drum’s tone normalizes at the desired pitch. Use a tuner or tone generator to get a reference tone. Free tone generators are available online.
- Re-seat the head again as per step 3, then repeat steps 4 and 5 until the pitches match at all tension rods; at which point the drum is in tune with itself. This will result in a drum that lacks unwanted overtones.
- If the drum has a second head, turn it over and follow Steps 1 through 6 so the other head is also in tune with itself.
- Now that the drum is generally in tune with itself, you can tune the head up or down by adjusting all the tension rods by basically equal amounts. This allows you to tune the head to the target note while keeping the balance of tension on the head. Continue tightening until the desired tone is produced (Please see Standard Drum Tunings for recommended pitch).
- Repeat Steps 1 through 8 with the rest of your toms and bass drum(s). Save the snare drum for last.
Tuning the Top and Bottom Heads to
While the top head is the principle element in defining the pitch of a drum, the bottom head, also called the “resonator head”, plays a contributing role to good pitch, and greatly impacts resonance and sustain. There are three different approaches to tuning double-headed drums:
- Match the pitch of the top and bottom heads- This gives the purest tone and strong sustain.
- Tune the bottom head lower than the top. This adds depth and growl to the drum tone.
- Tune the bottom tighter than the top. This also give the drum tone growl, but with less depth and sustain.
- Start with your smallest tom and tune it to the same note as the bass drum, but one octave higher (“E”, in most cases).
- Tune the bottom head using any one of the tree methods described above. Remember to seat the heads after each adjustment, before final tuning.
See the Standard Drum Tuning section for recommendations of the notes to tune each drum to.