Introduction: How to Tune a Drumset

About: After a number of years in Austin, I relocated to New England and have spiraled into a black hole of obsession with woodworking. I love woodworking - I hate sanding. IG: @resourced_woodworking

Perhaps the most important skill that a drummer can have is the know-how to get the proper balance and maximum performance out of their drumset. The ability to tune a drum or an entire kit is an invaluable tool for a drummer who wants to sound his (or her) best. Even experienced drummers have trouble tuning their drums, but with some good advice and a little practice, you can conquer the technique and be on your way to a better drumset. And a better drumset makes a huge difference.

Things you'll need:
-- a drum
-- a drum key
-- a drum head
-- patience

A few considerations before you begin...

1. Don't be cheap:
Its more than worth investing in good drum heads whenever you make a trip to the music store. Good, high quality drum heads will make a huge difference in the way your drum will sound, and the difference in performance between the low and high end drumheads is well worth the slight cost increase. I used to to work at Guitar Center, and I often explained this point to the customers when buying drumheads: a crappy drum with a good head can sound significantly better than a good drum with a crappy head. Brands such as Remo (the time-tested drumhead company), Evans (the industry standard for many pro drummers), and Aquarian (they have lots of unique sounding heads) are probably your best bet, but its worth experimenting. If you want an endless amount of info on various types of drumheads, its worth checking out The Drum Tuning Bible.

2. Consider your source:
This is my first instructable, so bear with me. If you have any suggestions I would appreciate the advice, as I am planning on writing several more. Also, the info that is to come is general knowledge and you will be able to find similar instructions on the internet. This is my method for dealing with this madness, and just about everyone will have their own way. Read around, experiment, and you will eventually find your own style.

Also check out some of my other drum instructables:
Cymbal Polishing
Cymbal Repair
Effects Snare Drum

Step 1: Getting Good Heads

The first step in tuning your drums properly is to make sure you have the right heads. Depending on the drum that you are tuning, the style of head that you put on the top and bottom should be planned out to maximize the sound, performance and life-span of the heads. The relationship between the heads depends solely on the sound you want to achieve. I will list a few common pairs and you can decide where to go from there.

Head Types:
1-ply: always used for bottom (resonant) heads, and for some top (batter) heads
2-ply: a good choice for batter heads, but be very wary of using as a resonant head
snare side: an extra-thin head made specifically for use on the bottom of a snare drum
coated: there is a thin layer of opaque plastic applied to the face of this head, adds
warmth, controls overtones
clear: essentially a non-coated head, these heads tend to have more sustain and overtones

Pairing Heads: (batter - resonant)
2-ply coated - 1-ply clear: This is a common combo used on toms. The coated batter heads will provide a little more control and a little less ring, plus they look cool.
2-ply clear - 1-ply clear: Another good tom configuration, and again, this is a preference issue. You will get a lot more tone and sustain from your toms with a clear batter head. Experiment with both, and you'll find your niche.
2-ply coated - snare side: What can I say, use this on your snares, always. Some people like using a clear 1-ply on the snare side, but just dont, ok? I dont want to rant, so take my word for it.
1-ply clear or coated - 1-ply clear: A good set-up on toms of you are playing jazz, or something lighter. Its just not practical for rock and most styles; your heads will last only weeks vs. months.

Now that you've got your heads all picked out, its time to get down to business. Put on some coffee, turn on some angry music, smoke em if you got em, and get ready for some frustration.

Step 2: The General Steps for Drum Tuning

The following steps are designed to give you an overall view of how a drum should be tuned. The next few pages go over steps and tips for specific kinds of drums in your kit. Drum heads vary in size, thickness, reinforcement, amount of oil, coating, and just about any other variable you can think of, but the tuning method is always rooted in the same basic technique.

With the fresh drum heads in hand, grab the corresponding drum and gather the separate pieces. You will want to have the metal hoop and tension rods off of the drum before you start. In order to save yourself a few curses and fist shakes at the sky, start with the bottom (resonant) head first. This will allow you to first set the proper tone of the drum, and you can adjust the sustain and attack of the drum with the top (batter) head.

Find the bottom side of the drum (if you cant figure it out just look for the badge and then turn it upside down). Lay the resonant head onto the shell, and then place the metal hoop on top of that. Insert all of the tension rods into the holes of the hoop, and make sure they are in line with the lugs on the drum shell. The best way to start is to finger tighten the tension rods into the lugs, one at a time, going around the drum. Don't over-tighten here, just make sure the rods are snug and that you cant move the hoop back and forth across the head.

Ok, now grab the only tool you will ever need (as a drummer), the drum key. There are several style and function options when it comes to buying a drum key, but the basic drum key always suits us just fine. For info on other keys you can find, jump over to the last page. Now, follow the pattern on the numbered picture below, and starting with number 1, tighten the tension rod only a quarter of a turn. Follow along the numbered pattern from 1 through 8, always tightening the rod furthest across the drum from the one you just tightened.

(FYI, if you are tuning a 6 lug drum rather than an 8 lug drum as shown in the diagram, just make sure you are always tightening across the head of the drum.)

Depending on a whole host of factors, you may have to tighten each rod only a couple of quarter turns, or it may take you five or six. Once you have done a few quarter turns, try tapping your finger or the drum key on the drum head right next to each tension rod. If you cant get a distinct tone from this, go another round of quarter turns and try again. The goal here is to get the pitch of these taps consistent across the head (i.e. make slight adjustments by turning the rod so that you can get the same pitch every time you tap next to a rod). This step can take some time, and if you get frustrated and cant find the magic tension for each rod, just loosen them all and start again. Its worth getting some practice in anyway. The results will reimburse you for the work in the end.

Once you have achieved a conformed pitch, its time to flip over and move to the batter head. The tuning of this head determines the timbre (sound quality) of the drum while the tuning of the resonant head determines the tone. Follow the same steps to get the head and rods in place, and continue with the numbered pattern of the diagram below.

Keep tightening the batter head until you have a sound that you like. Everyone over-tightens the heads on the first few attempts at tuning their kit, but in time you will discover that only a few turns of the key are necessary. The sound that you want to achieve here is a thumpy, pow sound rather than a short boom. I know its abstract but you will see what I mean.

These are the basic steps needed to tune any drum. Its not that hard and with a little practice you will develop your own technique. Now, for tips on tuning specific drums, lets continue.

Step 3: The Snare Drum

If there is a drum in every drummer's kit that defines their signature sound, its the snare drum. It is the cornerstone of the kit, and along with the bass drum it is by far the most used drum in your arsenal. There are hundreds of different snare drums that you might have, and even more ways to tune that particular snare. So, lets get to it.

The first step, as always, is to tune the resonant head first. So grab that snare side head you bought earlier and get out your snare. First, make sure to remove the snare wires as well as the hoop and tension rods. Set the snare wires aside, these will go on last.

When you place the metal hoop on top of the drum head, make sure you configure it so that the slots for the snare wires are lined up with the snare switch on the side of the shell. You wouldn't want to tune the head only to find out that you have to take it off to reposition the hoop for the snare wires.

Finger tighten the rods until they are snug, and then follow the diagram, tightening in quarter turn incriments along the 1-8 pattern. You may have to tighten the snare side head more than you would a normal 1 or 2 ply head. This is fine, because you want a good tight head to resonate the snare wires properly. You don't need to concentrate on achieving specific pitches at each tension rod, because your snare drum wont sound like that pitch in the end. Just try to get them close.

Once you are all set with your snare side head, move on to the batter head. If you are playing rock or other heavy music, it is a good idea to invest in a more heavy duty (thicker) head than what you might use for your toms. Heads like the Remo Emperor X or even the Aquarian Hi-Energy (what I use) can give you a heavier sound and a much longer life-span. Tune up the batter head, making sure that is nice and balanced, and then give your drum a good whack. The snares shouldn't be installed yet, so you should get a solid ring out of it. Once again, it isn't necessary to have a specific pitch, just make sure its close.

Now, grab those snare wires and set them on the top of the resonant head, weaving the straps or string on the ends through the slots in the hoop and out to the bracket and snare mechanism on the sides. Screw the straps/string into the bracket first, and then move on to the switch. Make sure the switch is down (in the off position) and attach the snare wires so that there is a little bit of slack, enough to allow the switch to re-tighten. If you don't loosen the switch first, you'll never be able to tighten the wires enough to get a good sound.

You can play around with how taught you want your stare wires but changing the length of the snare straps/string or by turning the knob on top of the snare mechanism. You will hear the vast difference in sound and attack while adjusting the tension of the snare wires, so just mess around and pick your sound. Thats all for the snare drum, now lets move on to the much-easier-to-tune-toms.

Step 4: The Toms

Tuning your toms may seem like a daunting challenge since there are so many of them, but never fear, the technique is the same for each of them and you will figure it out with practice.

Once again, make sure your are looking at the bottom of your drum shell, and start with the resonant head. If this is your first time replacing drum heads, try using a 2-ply clear or coated head on top and a clear 1-ply head for the bottom. Follow the 1-8 pattern again and make sure you try to get uniform pitches at each rod across the bottom head. Since these drums will be ringing out, you don't want some muddy, god-awful tone shouting out each time you strike a tom.

When you have reached the desired pitch, move on to the batter head and begin tightening. Toms are over-tightened more than any other drum, especially with novice tuners. Try your hardest to tighten only when you need to, and maintain the true tone of the tom by letting it ring. If you really hate the sustain of your toms but have a tone you like, check out the last page for tips on muffling.

It is not only important to achieve a good balance for each individual drum, but you must look at the set of toms as a whole. Is there equal balance between the tones of each drum? Do they have about the same amount of sustain? These are questions you want to consider when tuning your set of toms. There is no stead-fast rule when figuring this out, as it depends all on your personal preference and the style of music you play.

If you are feeling particularly ambitious, you can try tuning the toms in your drumset to specific notes. Try tuning your kit to a major triad. Going from your smallest tom to the biggest, tune the drums to the notes C, E, G, and another C if you have a fourth tom. Play around with different triads and note combos.

Step 5: The Kick Drum

Ah yes, perhaps my favorite drum, the kick or bass drum is essential to the overall sound of your drumset. No drum in your kit has a wider range of possible tones or timbres than the kick. It can be a gentle giant accenting the rest of your kit, or it can be a juggernaut of destruction that rains down bomb-like beats upon your audience. The choice is yours, and yours alone.

Anyway... selecting the heads. The most important head on your kick is the batter head. You definitely want to go with a sturdy 2-ply head here unless you are playing jazz or acoustic music. The tuning of the kick drum is a little different than the others, so lets check it out.

The first thing you will want to do is grab the batter head. Yes, thats right, throw everything you just read out the window and set aside the resonant head. The batter head determines just about everything when it comes to the kick. So take whatever head you bought (let me just say here that if you are playing heavy music like I do, make the best decision you have ever made and go buy an Aquarian Super Kick II. Your drumset will love you for it and so will your band) and get it set on top of the shell. With your kick drum, you have a set of wood hoops rather than the metal ones, and your tension rods will come with a sort of claw-shaped thingy that is known as... ok so its called a claw.

Get your head on and then place the wood hoop on top. Make sure each tension rod is now paired with a claw. Slide the rod into the claw and then place each pair on top of the hoop next to the corresponding lug. Similar to the other drums, you are going to want to finger tighten as much as you can, and then grab your key. There is no need to go with the conservative quarter turn here. Just go crazy and tighten a half turn. Thats right, you heard me. Half turn. In this moment of unbridled excitement you may have forgotten about having to tune your drum to a specific pitch. Thats good actually, because you're not supposed to.

After a few turns for each rod, you should be able to get a good thump by slapping the head with a stick. This is good. Flip it over and grab your resonant head. If you happen to have a front head that is sporting a logo of some sort, make sure its lined up here so that it will be nice and straight for when the drum is sitting on the ground. If you are considering doing some interior muffling here, grab a pillow or blanket or similar item and toss it inside. Muffling is a very important part of the sound you will get out of you kick, so its certainly worth doing. Another option, rather than using interior muffling is to get a head with a muffle ring on it (such as the aforementioned Super Kick II or an Evans/Remo equivalent). Use the same process as you did when putting on the batter head. Half turns all the way. There is no need to over tighten the resonant head here.

At this point, it is a good idea to go ahead and set up the kick with the pedal and all, and give it a few good kicks. What do you like about the sound? What don't you like? If the drum is too ringy, tighten the front head a little. The pitch too high or low? Loosen or tighten the batter head. If you haven't used any muffling up to this point, this is usually the time that you realize it would have been a good idea.

Well, that should be the end of it, and now that you have spent the last few hours tuning your kit, you are probably way too tired to want to play it. So, tomorrow, give it a shot and play for a little while. Similar to guitar strings, drum heads tend to loosen a little bit after they have first been tightened, so if your drums sound a little different than they did when you finished yesterday, you're not going crazy. Make any slight adjustments that you deem necessary and get ready for at least a few months of not having to do this damn tuning thing anymore.

If you want some advice on some things you can get that will take a lot of the dread you may feel about the process of tuning your next drums, then keep reading.

Step 6: Life Savers

So you may have just read this, my first, instructable about how to tune a drumset. I have been playing for about 12 years, which now that I think about it is more than half of my life. Damn, thats crazy. Anyway, it took me those 12 years to find all of these invaluable add-ons and gadgets that have made life and drumming a whole lot easier. So take my advice, and invest in some of these. I am not endorsing specific brands or models over others for any reason other than that I have found these to be superior. I certainly haven't tried all of the available options, so shop around and ask others for advice.

There are three types of muffling.
Interior muffling:
The idea of placing items such as pillows or blankets inside kick drums has been exploited for decades, but recently there have been alternative methods for adding some (occasionally) much needed muffling into the shell of a drum. Items such as the Remo Muffs slip onto the drum shell before putting on a head and kill a lot of the overtone and sustain of the drum.
Exterior Muffling:
So there are a ton of different items you can use here. Remo rings have been around forever, and putting one or two of these plasic rings on your snare or toms can bring out an awesome tone. Clip-on muffling pads are also a good choice for those pesky floor toms that ring forever or if you want to get a super sharp crack out of your snare. I cant go into all the options, just look at this. Moon gel is awesome by the way.
In-Head Muffling:
Many drums heads for kick drums are available that offer muffling attached to the head. Aquarian Super Kick II is my favorite kick head, but the Evans EMAD II is another good choice.

Drum Keys:
You will find just about as many types of drum keys as you can find drum heads. Just to list a few, there are ratchet keys, torque keys, speed keys, drill bit keys, this list goes on and on. Happy hunting. Don't worry though, a basic drum key is all you ever need.

If you need a little help:
If you have trouble getting your resonant head tuned to a distinct pitch, or if once both heads are on you just cant get your drum to sound any good, check THIS out. It is basically a tension tuner that you can use to read the amount of tension that you have at your drum head along the rim. It not only tells you how much tension you have on your head, it will actually tell you the desired tension for various head types and drum sizes. I feel like it takes a bit of the fun out of the tuning process, but if you just cant get it right or need to tune up some drums really speedily, this can be a life saver.

Well, thats it. If you have any suggestions or advice for me, seeing that this is my first instructable, please let me know. Thanks for reading, and enjoy those great sounding drums.