How To Tune Drums
Good tuning is foundational to getting a good drum tone. As with any instrument, it can take years to develop an ear for what a properly tuned bass, tom, or snare drum sounds like. That’s why we’ve put together this tuning companion on how to tune drums. Packed with theory and helpful tips ranging from head seating to drum dampening to tuning by genre, this primer will help you become a better drum tuner by detailing the following steps:
Tuning tips for each particular drum
Drum dampening tips & tricks
Drum tuning accessories
What Is Proper Tuning, and Why Is It Important?
Tuning drums can be a bit of a science, but the basics are easy to grasp. Here’s what you need to know:
If you troll drum forums, you’re bound to come across arguments about the “right” way to tune this snare or that tom. The truth is, there is no right way; the right way is whatever works best for you and your piece of music. That said, there are some basic principles at play in getting a drum to perform at its peak. Here are two principles that hold true for most applications:
Pure pitches sound best. This is especially true for toms. Our ears prefer a pitch we can sing—the head that is fraught with dissonances from tension rod to tension rod can reduce a shell’s resonant potential and make the drum less distinguishable in a mix.
Better drums tune easier. Quality shells, bearing edges, and hardware yield a drum that tunes faster and stays at pitch better than cheap components will ever do on their own (or together).
Preparing the Head
If you want your drums to sound as good as they can, you need to tune them. It’s not hard—you just have to know how.
First, detune all tension rods until the head and counterhoop spin freely; rods should be loose but still threaded into their lug casings. Tap the shell and note its resonant frequency. Sing it. Record it. That’s the pitch you want to try to match.
Twist the hoop back and forth until all tension rods are centered and upright. This will give you the least resistance on the path to a pitch-perfect drum.
Finger-tighten the shaft of each tension rod until you can’t twist anymore. Order is not important at this stage; it just gives a common starting point. Once all rods are finger tight, start in with the drum key.
Seating and tensioning the head
To tune your drums, you’ll need to give the tension rods on both sides of the head two half-turns of a drum key. Then move across the head to the opposite rod and give it two half-turns. Skip a rod (or two — see diagrams) counterclockwise, then give this pair of rods two half-turns. The goal is equal-tensioned pairs across the head. If your shell and hoops are true and your lug threads well greased, you can also use resistance as your guide.
Fine tuning the head
Once you have your drum tuned to the right pitch, it’s time to start fine-tuning. Play the edge of the drum (just before a tension rod) with your finger. Note the pitch; if you have trouble picking it out, you can rest a finger on the center of the head to better isolate the tone. Now tap in front of an adjacent (neighboring) rod. Is it pitched higher or lower than the first? Loosen or tighten to match. Continue moving circularly around the head from rod to rod until all sections produce an identical pitch. If done right, you’ll notice the drum start to sing as you approach resonant frequency. Now flip over and repeat with resonant head. Aim for same pitch or up to a minor third (three half-steps) higher or lower than batter head. Adjust to taste!
Checking the Sound
After carefully tuning both heads, if the sound you hear isn’t working, don’t be afraid to experiment. Try raising or lowering the batter head a whole tone. Detune just one rod. Muffle the drum with some dampening. With patience and care, your reward will be a drum that inspires you, responds the way you want, and suits the music you play.