March to Your Own Beat: Drum Tuning

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As we have discussed over the last few weeks, making sure that your instrument is properly tuned before beginning any performance, even just practice, is one of the best habits a musician can get into. For many sections of the band, tuning is an obvious thing, with fairly similar processes across each section. As we saw in previous weeks, the broad basics for tuning stringed instruments involve using the tuning keys at the head of the instrument, and for the brass section each member must find their tuning slide before making fine adjustments based on their particular instrument. However, the section we are going to discuss today is much more varied than most of the other sections, and unfortunately, tuning can often go overlooked.

This week we’re going to take a look at some tuning techniques for drums. As you may have guessed from the vast multitude of different kinds of drums around the world that there is no single way to tune all drums. In fact, it is hard to even get a consensus on how to tune one particular kind of drum; each drummer has their own preferred styles, techniques, and sounds. So to best cover the basics of such a global subject we’re going to focus on two distinct kinds of drum tuning, one mostly used for drum kits, and one reserved for hand or traditional drums.

Rod & Key Tuning

We’ll begin with the most popular drum tuning method: rod and key tuning. The very first thing you will need to do is get yourself a drum key. This is a simple tool used to adjust your drum’s tension rods as well as a bunch of other drum hardware and accessories. For our purposes, you will be using it to adjust the pitch of your drum. The most common style fits square headed tension rods, though there are slight variation among makers.

Once you have your drum key, there are a few thing that need to be taken care of before you can begin. First, check the physical condition of the actual drum. This means all of it, the shell, the heads, and all the hardware. Make sure it is all in working and appropriate order. We then begin by seating the head. Since seating a drum head is a large enough topic for an entire blog by itself, I’ll direct you to for a much more in depth look at that. Basically, seating the drum head attaches the drum head to the shell, followed by tightening the lugs until it is properly seated and sealed.

Once the head is seated it is time to begin applying tension to it. Begin with the tension rod closest to the tensioner. Once tightened, move across the drum head to the lug opposite the one you just did. Tighten this one the same number of turns as the first. This is done to maintain an even tension across the head. Continue in this pattern until all the lugs are tightened in order. Repeat the process again for each rod until the head is completely free of wrinkles, and you can produce a nice, low tone when you hit it.

At this point each rod is tightened again in order again, but but no more than a quarter turn each time. From time to time strike the drum next to each tension rod. Tighten or loosen each rod until the tone is the same all around around the head. This is repeated until you have reached your desired pitch, which may vary from gig to gig, or depending on which style of music you will be playing.
If your drums have a bottom, or resonant head, you get to repeat the whole process over again, this time on the bottom, and tuning it relative to your top, or batter head. Lastly, it you’re using a full drum kit, it is wise to make sure each of your drums is in tune with the rest of the kit, otherwise you may not be sounding a good as you hope.

For those of you using snare drums or bass or kick drums, there are a few extra points to be made. First, for the snare drummers, the bottom, or resonant head, is usually tuned much tighter than the top, or batter head, so keep an eye out for that. Conversely, for bass or kick drums, the resonant head is usually looser than the batter head, since it is mostly responsible for the deep audible tone of the drum.

Rope Tension Tuning

Rope tension is the oldest known system humans have for applying tension to the head of a drum. This style was popular until the later part of the 19th century, and could be found on most drums. Today rope tension is less popular, and is mostly utilized by hand or traditional drums. One long rope, or sometimes a series of smaller ropes are strung between the drum head and a point lower on the drum, depending on the style. There are several ways to apply tension to a drum head using rope tension, but we’ll focus on just two: single- and double-tension.

The single-tension rope tuning technique actually came about in the end of the 19th century to replace the ancient techniques that had been used prior, and can still be found on many drums today. In this system a single tension rod is a threaded end extends through the hoop holding the top drum head. The rod then continues down, outside the drum shell, to a threaded hole on the bottom hoop. You may find a small guide halfway down to help keep the rod in place. Tension is added by turning a special hexagonal key. Some drums, like some basses for example, have wing-nuts instead of keys.

Double-tension tuning is extremely similar to single-tension in that it uses tension rods to tighten the drum heads. The major difference is that in double-tension the rods connect to individual stanchions for both the upper and lower heads, or there is a single center stanchion that can tighten either head.

For both of these techniques it is suggested that you tighten and tune in opposition, meaning when you tighten one rod, move across the drum head to the rod opposite it next. This maintains even tension across the head.

Drum tuning is a skill that can be very easily overlooked. But just a few minutes out of your day, and the tones your drums produce can be perfect, even if your rhythm needs work.