Most people who have only seen a guitar could probably give you at least a vague idea of how to tune it, but tuning drums can seem like a bit of a mystery. While drums are “unpitched,” they do need to be kept in tune to produce a desirable sound. So, we’ll take you through exactly how to tune your drum set, step by step.
In this article, you will also find a glossary of important terms for following the instructions, plus tips on how to tune elements of your kit and how to tune for different styles of music.
Why Is It Important To Tune Your Drums?
While drums are an “unpitched” instrument, tuning will make a big difference in how they sound when you’re playing.
You need to tune your drums on an individual level to ensure they are producing a nice sound that has the right amount of overtones, ringing, and resonance. You also need to tune your drums as a complete kit so that all the individual elements sound good together. Additionally, you need to ensure that your drums are compatible both with the other instruments in the band and what you are playing. You need different drum tuning for a heavy metal band, for example, than you would for folk-rock.
Depending on how often you play, you may need to tune your drums pretty regularly. Some professional drummers may tune up once or twice a week. It’s also important to tune your drums before a performance as they can easily fall out of tune if they are knocked around while being moved.
The amount of time you need to tune your kit will depend on a lot of factors. If it’s time to change your drum heads, you’ll probably need to dedicate quite a bit of time. But if you are making adjustments before a show, it can be a rather quick process.
What You Need Before Tuning Your Drums
You need a few essential tools to tune your drum kit, and there are other tools that can also be helpful, especially if you are a beginner.
First and foremost, you’ll need a drum key. This is like a spanner that allows you to tighten or loosen the tension of the rods on the side of the drum that controls the pitch of each drum head. If you need the pitch to go up, you should be tightening the heads. If it needs to go down, then you are loosening. These keys tend to be very versatile and can be used for other important tasks such as adjusting your hi-hat stand or your kick drum pedals.
Expert drummers will often use two drum keys so they can tune the opposite sides of the head at the same time, to ensure they get even tension across the drum.
You’ll need to tap the head of your drum to produce the sound you need to tune them. The normal sticks that you use for playing should be fine.
Drums don’t have to be tuned to a specific note, and many drummers choose to tune by ear, but this is a talent that can take years to develop. It’s a good idea to get yourself a tuner so that you can get the note you want, and when you find a sound that you like, you can record what it is so you can reproduce it in the future.
Most drum tuners work a lot like guitar tuners, reading the note you produce when you hit a drum and then letting you know what it is so that you can adjust up or down. But, there are also some tuners that work without the need for you to hit. You just place them on top of the head and they read the tension.
Glossary Of Drum Terminology
To follow guides like this one to tune your drums, you will need to know the basic drum terminology. This should be something you’re learning as part of your study of the drums, but the glossary below will be helpful.
Batter Drum Head – This is the top drum head that you hit while you’re playing.
Claws – These are usually only seen on bass drums and are pieces of metal that fit over the hoop to ensure it stays in place. Claws will have holes that allow the tension rods to pass through.
Hoop – This is the round piece of metal (or sometimes wood) that holds the head onto the drum itself. There is a top and a bottom hoop for each of the drum heads.
Lugs – These are attached to the shell of the drum in order to hold the threaded part of the tension rod. Most drums will have 8-10 lugs, but other variations do exist.
Resonant Drum Head – This is the bottom head of the drum, which you don’t hit but creates resonant overtones while you’re playing.
Shell – This is the round wooden body of the drum, with different types of wood producing different tones. Even if your drum has a colored synthetic finish, the shell will be made from wood, except for the snare drum, which can sometimes be made from metal.
Tension Rods – These are the rods that are connected to the hoop and can be tightened or loosened to change the tension and sound of your drum. One end of the tension rod is threaded and the other is a square head. When tuning, you need to try to tune all the tension rods evenly to produce a good and even sound.
Vents – These are the holes built into the drum that allow air to escape. This breathing is essential to the production of sound.
Types Of Drum Head
You should also know the various types of drum heads that you are likely to be working with, so you know which heads to buy when they need replacing and which will achieve the sound t you are looking for.
- Single Ply – These are the most common type of drum heads and produce a bright sound that’s good for jazz or light rock, but they are relatively fragile and will need to be replaced most often.
- Double Ply – These are heavier and produce a darker sound, good for heavy metal and other loud music styles.
- Coated Heads – These heads have a sprayed-on coat that reduces the ring in the overtones. This also makes them more durable.
- Pre-Dampened Heads – These have a built-in muffling system that controls the overtones produced by the drums. They’re usually found on kick drums.
How To Tune Drums In 6 Steps
1. Change Drum Heads If Necessary
Before you start the process of tuning your drums, you need to decide whether you’re tuning your existing drum heads, which you may need to do as often as once a week, depending on how often you play or whether you are replacing your drum heads.
If you need to change your drum heads, then you’ll need to remove the tension rods, claws, and hoops to make the transfer. Make sure you take the opportunity to wipe these down and remove any dust. Also, remove dust from the drum shell before applying the new head.
When you are placing the new drum head, be careful that it’s centered so it will be equally tuned. You can do this by spinning the head to make sure it has free and fluid movement.
Replace the hoop, claw, and tension rods. At this stage, you can tighten them just with your fingers until you can’t tighten them any further.
2. Tighten Batter Drum Heads
You will use your drum key to tighten the heads of your drums. As you want to do this evenly, you can’t tighten one tension rod and then move on to the next. Instead, you should move in a diagonal pattern, giving each rod a half turn before crossing over to the next rod. You will probably have to do several rounds.
For example, if you imagine your tuning rods like the numbers on a clock, you should start at 12 o’clock, then cross over to 6 o’clock. Next is 3 o’clock, then 9 o’clock, and so forth.
You can tap the drum with your stick close to the edge of the head. If the drum is evenly tuned, the sound should be the same all over the head.
3. Stretch The Batter Drum Head
As you begin tightening your tension rods to tune your drum, you’ll want to press down firmly, but not too hard, in the center of your drum with both hands. You will hear a cracking sound. While this can be scary, it is what you want. This is the glue in the head cracking, which will allow the head to stretch and therefore hold your new tuning better.
This process should also eliminate any wrinkles that appear on the drum head.
4. Tune Resonant Drum Heads
Your resonant drum heads also need tuning and should be done in the same way, with gradual tightening of the tension rods in a diagonal pattern until the tension is even and there are no wrinkles in your drum head.
If you choose to strike the resonant head to check that the tuning is even, make sure you do this lightly! These heads are much thinner than batter heads and can be easily damaged.
5. Fine Tune Your Drums
So far you have tuned your drums to have the head properly placed and to produce an even sound.
Drums produce a fundamental tone, which you should hear when you strike the batter drum in the center. This will sound different from the tones you were getting when you were striking around the outside.
To check this sound, mute the resonant drum head and tap the batter drum head in the center. You will then need to continue adjusting your tuner rods until you get the sound that you want.
Once you think you’re happy, play the drums without muting the resonant head. If you have done everything right, the drum should now sound clear and even.
6. Tune To Pitch
Now is the time to start turning your drums to individual notes and the right sounds in relation to one another, probably using your drum tuner.
Choose which drum you want to work on first, but the bass is often a good place to start. Use the drum tuner to read the sound and then tune up or down to get the sound you want. You can then turn your other drums in relation to that one, though you might find yourself going back and forth to make small adjustments.
There are no standard notes for tuning your drums, and you may have a configuration that you have already determined with your teacher. But if not, you might consider trying the following configuration.
- Bass Drum – Low E1 to match the standard tuning of guitars and bases
- Floor Tom – E2 to achieve the same note as the bass drum but an octave higher (If you have a second floor tom, you might want to tune it a third of a fifth down from the other, so either G# or B)
- Rack Toms – G#, B, and D# (You should tune your first rack tom up a third from E, and then go up a fifth, and after that a 7th)
- Snare Drum – E3 to achieve the same note as the floor tom but an octave higher, making it two octaves higher than the bass drum
Drum Tuning Tips
Snare Drum Tuning Tips
The snare is the loudest part of your drum kit, so getting it right matters! While there is no rule for what your snare drum should be tuned to, most drummers choose somewhere between E3 and B3, with A3 as the most common choice.
If you want to dampen your snare, you might try something like the RTOM Moongel dampening pads. These adhere directly to the head to “spot treat” overtones and are much more effective than tape.
You can also modify your tone quickly and easily with Remo Tone Control Rings, which just sit on top of the head, with no adhesion required. They can be great if you need to make a temporary adjustment for a certain song.
Kick Drum Tuning Tips
Your kick drum provides your bass, which sets the tone of your entire set. It’s usually tuned to the low E on the bass guitar. But the bass of the kick drum is “felt” as well as heard, so docs on how the vibrations feel as well as the exact sound of the drum. You will want to feel like the beater is sinking into the head and not bouncing too much, as this can result in unwanted double strokes.
It can be a good idea to turn the resonant drum head a little higher than the batter head to tighten up the tone. Check the tension on this drum regularly as it can easily be accidentally adjusted when being moved.
Tom Tuning Tips
Most drum kits have two or three toms, but we have seen kits with eight! The more toms you have, the smaller the interval between them will be, as you need to keep them all within the normal pitch range for these drums.
Small toms of 8-10 inches are usually tuned between E3 and B3. Medium toms of 12-14 inches are turned lower, and larger toms of 16-18 inches will be even lower.
Start with the same pitch for both heads when you are tuning, and then try tuning the resonant head up and down to see what appeals.
Drum Tunings For Different Music Styles
Different styles of music lend themselves to different styles of drum tuning. It’s worth experimenting with these styles as you focus on different types of music.
Rock drummers tend to have larger drums in their kit and tune them to lower tones for a good base. The resonance of the toms is kept low, while the snare is tuned up for an emphasis on the crack.
Heavy Metal Music
Heavy metal tends to work well with tight and focused sounds, so drummers will often tune all of their drums low with the exception of the snare, which is tuned higher to cut through the sound.
This type of music needs a more balanced sound, so you are more likely to find medium-sized drums tuned evenly with the resonant and batter drum or as equal as possible.
Jazz musicians tend to want high, tight drums that provide a lot of resonance. It helps that they often include smaller drums in their kit.
Should you tune your resonant head tighter than your batter head?
Many drummers choose to tune their resonant head higher than their batter head, but this is only one style. You can also tune the resonant head lower or try to match the two. If you tune both the same, you will have an even tone. Tuning the resonant head higher will give the notes a light upward bend, and turning lower provides a downward bend. Which is right for you depends on your style and preference.
Can you over-tighten drum heads?
Yes, beginners often make the mistake of tuning their drum heads too tight. This chokes the tone and will leave your kit sounding terrible. If you go too tight, you can also damage your kit, but this tends to be only in extreme circumstances.
How often should you change your drum skins?
How often you need to change your drum skins depends on the quality of the skins and how often you play. But you would not expect your batter head skins to last for more than six months. While resonant drum heads last much longer, the general advice is to change these on an annual basis.
What is the difference between coated and clear drum heads?
Coated drum heads are used to muffle sound and produce a sound quite different from the bright tones of a clear drum head. They are essential if you want to achieve the kinds of sounds that you get with brushes, for example.
Just like any other instrument, to produce the best possible sound, drums need to be kept in tune! You will enjoy the sound that you produce from your kit much more if you take the time to tweak their tuning every few weeks and make sure you do it right each time you change your drum heads, which should be around every six months.
Follow our easy guide to get your drums in tune, and then experiment with some adjustments to achieve your own unique sound that works well with the type of music you’re playing and the rest of the band.
Looking for more tips? Read our guide on how to set up a drum kit.