You may be the best drummer in the world, with more chops than a Butchers shop but you’re not going to impress anyone unless your drums are tuned to a good standard and are sounding sweet.
Unfortunately most drummers are afraid of tuning drums and so never spend any time learning how to tune or even tweak their sound! This is a shame as tuning is not as scary as some drummers seem to think.
The No.1 fear I hear from most drummers is that once they start playing around with the tuning of their drums, they won’t be ale to get back to how it sounded originally. Well, I’m here to tell you that whilst this might be true for your first or second attempt at tuning, it certainly won’t always be true. And besides, it’s better to aim for a well tuned drum than to settle for second best because of the fear of making it worse.
Armed with your natural sense of pitch and the following method and you really can’t make it sound worse. Your ears won’t let you!
Develop Your Ear
It’s true that you don’t have to have a great feel for pitch or harmony to become a drummer. We play on what is technically an un-pitched instrument. But in order to tune our drums to the highest possible standard it is necessary to have a good ear for pitch. The best way to develop this skill is to learn another instrument such as the guitar or piano.
This will allow you to distinguish between pitches on your drums at a level that most other drummers might struggle with. Don’t get me wrong, this first step isn’t essential for great tuning of drums but it certainly helps!
So lets crack on with the rest of this article and help to alleviate those tuning fears, once and for all…
1. Clean The Rims & Hardware
Before we can add the new drum head and start tuning we need take the old head off and then clean the drum edge with a dry cloth. This will remove any dust or wood chips from the surface where the new head is going to sit. It’s also recommended that you quickly dust the inner lip of the new drum head as well. Basically clean any contact areas between the drum and the drum head.
2. Seat The New Drum Head
Place the new drum head evenly onto the beveled edge of the drum and then after placing the metal drum rim back on, start to tighten up the lugs with your fingers until they are all evenly tightened. This gives you a relatively even level of tightness all around the drum from which to start tuning properly from.
3. Tune The Top Head
Push down into the center of the drum head with one hand. You can be quite vigorous as you want to stretch out the head a little before you start tuning. You will hear the new head crack slightly, this is normal!
Now, with the bottom head muted and with your hand still pushing into the center of the drum, turn each lug just a 1/4 turn at a time. Tighten opposite lugs and move round the drum as shown in the diagram to the right. This way the drum gets tightened evenly.
As you tune, play 1-2 inches from the rim to hear the pitch at each lug. The final goal is to have each lug pitched evenly. This is where a good ear is very useful as you will ideally want all lugs to be at the same pitch as each other.
Realistically, you will have to turn each lug at least two whole turns before they start to really bite. You want to ensure that all wrinkles have been removed from the edge of the drum head so this will take a couple of turns of each lug anyway.
Keep tightening and tapping until you are happy with the evenness of sound and with the tightness of the drum, i.e. does it feel nice and conformable when you strike the drum properly?
Don’t tune too tight! The lugs should not start to squeak or creak because you’ve tightened it in all the way. Just over where the wrinkles disappear is usually good enough. Tighten just a bit tighter still for a tighter and snappy stick bounce as well as a higher pitch note.
4. Tune The Bottom Head
This should be a lot easier as you just have to repeat the process except this time try to match the pitch of the bottom lugs with the top lugs.
This is how most drummers tune their drums, with the top and bottom heads at the same pitch as each other, but there are plenty of drummers who purposely choose to have the two heads at different pitches to each other. Experiment yourself and see what a difference it makes to the sound of the drum when the bottom head is tuned much lower. I think it sounds really cool! 🙂
Yep, you guessed it, like most things in life you get better at it by practicing. What I’ve done in the past is take all of the heads of my drum kit and then just put them all back on again…just for fun and practice! The more you experiment the quicker and easier it gets and the more confident you become at tuning.
I also tune a lot of my pupils drum kits so I get lots of practice at it. So if you have a friends kit then ask if you can help tune it for them as well…or even your school/college kit if you’re lucky enough to be that young still!
I really don’t take the process too seriously. I aim for both top and bottom heads to be tuned to roughly the same pitch and this will usually do the job. It it’s a good drum with a decent new drum head then half the battle is won. Your tuning is just the icing on the cake as the drum is naturally going to sound good anyway.
So go and play with the tuning of one of your drums right now. Don’t be afraid of messing up the sound! Take a risk and get into drum tuning. Once you’ve learnt the process you’re drums will be set up for life and you’ll realise that at the end of the day it’s personal preference anyway.