Drum Tuning Made Simple

Drum tuning (commonly misspelled as drum tunning) is the art of modifying a drum’s sound into your liking. Unlike guitar tuning, in which you tune to a particular pitch, drum tuning involves varying a drum’s tonal quality as well as pitch. While there are many things you can do to change a drum’s sound, such as using different types of drum-heads or adding dampeners on the inside, this discussion of tuning drums will just concentrate on adjusting the drum head tension. This is the most essential skill for beginners, and what you must always do as you get a new drum or drum kit.

In a typical drum, the head is attached to the shell by a set of lugs that press on the shell though a hoop. If you are just assembling your drum, start by placing the head and hoop on the shell, and add the hardware that secures them. Then, turn the lugs lightly with the drum key until the first sign of resistance. I suggest doing this with the drum key rather than your fingers, because it will be easier to judge where the point of initial resistance is. If the drum has heads on both sides, do all this for both heads.

Now you’ll begin the drum tuning process by turning each lug the same amount all around the drum head, say 360 degrees. If your drum has two heads, finish tuning the batter (top) head, and then tune the resonant (bottom) head. The lugs stretch the drum head by pushing it down onto the shell. Each pair of opposing lugs works to stretch the head across a diameter. And just like for a string, the more tension there is on the head, the higher the pitch. If the head’s tension is the same all around, the drum will produce the clearest sound.

Since you tried to turn the lugs the same all around, each diameter of the drum should have approximately the same tension. But in this next drum tuning step, we will test the tension by listening to the pitch the drum makes. If you are tuning a drum that’s already assembled, you might want to start from here, or you might want to loosen the lugs all the way and start fresh from the first step. To test the pitch, tap the head at a spot right in front of each lug. If a particular spot has a higher pitch than the rest, loosen the adjacent lug, and conversely, if it has a lower pitch, tighten the lug. Do this until all spots have the same pitch.

If you’re having trouble hearing the pitch because of the overtones, placing your finger right at the center of the drum while tapping may help. Also if you are tuning a snare drum, disengage the snare wires.

The drum’s pitch is most affected by how you tune the batter head. A tighter head produces a higher pitch and a looser head produces a lower pitch. The tuning of the resonant head mostly affects the drum’s tone and ringing. If you tune the resonant head to the same pitch as the batter head, it will vibrate at the same frequency and work in conjunction with the batter head to propagate the sound. Therefore, the drum’s sound will ring and last longer. On the other hand, if you tune the resonant head differently, its vibrations will work against the batter head, and dampen the sound. It will also produce a different pitch and add to a fuller drum sound.

Drum Tuning, Final Notes

I like to tune my snare drum rather tightly so that it sounds high pitched and snappy. Tuning the batter head tightly also improves drumstick bounce and makes playing easier. Also, do not be afraid to tighten up your bass drum head. Just because it’s a base drum doesn’t mean the batter head should be loose. Bass drums still produce bass sounds with tightly tuned heads. Loose drum-heads will produce ugly sounding overtones. I also tune my bass drum’s resonant head considerably tighter than the batter head to dampen the sound. For more information on how to tune bass drums see the Bass Drum Setup Tips article.

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