Tuning drums well is something that many new drummers struggle with. We all struggled at first, but we learned a few helpful tricks along the way.
In this article, we’re going to give you a basic rundown on how to tune drums, as well as share some of those tips and tricks that have helped us so much with our own setups.
Some tools are necessary for tuning drums, while others are just helpful to have. We’ll also show you a few of these fantastic tuning tools to help you get excellent drum tones.
- 1 How are Drums Tuned?
- 2 Everything You Need
- 3 Drum Tuning Guide
- 4 Drum Tuning Tips
- 5 Tuning Different Drums
- 6 Tuning for Different Styles
- 7 Final Thoughts on How To Tune Drums
How are Drums Tuned?
Drums are tuned by having the top and bottom drumheads tightened to the shell. The amount of tension that the drumhead has determines the sound of the drum.
The way to tighten the drumheads to the shell is by twisting the lugs on the side. If the lugs are relatively loose, a drum will have a low-pitched tone. If they’re very tight, a drum will have a high-pitched tone.
However, the trick is that all the lugs need to have even tension so that the drum sounds good. If they’re uneven, you’ll get unwanted overtones that make the drum sound out of tune.
That’s the basic fundamental aspect of drum tuning, but there’s plenty of fine-tuning that happens after that to get subtle tone changes.
Everything You Need
A drum key is an essential tool that every drummer needs to have. Using a drum key is the only way to tune drums, as it’s used to adjust the tension of the lugs on every shell.
We suggest that you get multiple drum keys, as they’re incredibly easy to lose. They’re very inexpensive, so buying several of them won’t set you back by much.
Drum keys are also needed for some pieces of drum hardware that have tension screws to lock parts in place. So, always keep a drum key near your kit as you’ll need to use it very often.
Drum tuners aren’t essential pieces of gear, but they’re valuable to have when you want to tune your drums. They measure the tension of the drumhead near each lug and allow you to see how much you should adjust those lugs to make all of them even.
You get digital and analog drum tuners. Analog drum tuners have a pin that measures tension and work similarly to kitchen scales. Digital tuners give you a digital reading, and they typically have some very useful electronic features.
If you want to get a drum tuner, we suggest using a digital one. One of the best features is being able to save tuning settings, allowing you to tune your drums in the same exact way when setting them up in different environments.
You should always try tuning your drums with the drumheads that are already on the shells. But if they’re old and worn out, getting a new set of drumheads will revitalize the tone of your kit. It’s a lot easier to get a great tone with a fresh pair of heads.
Drummers who tour with professional bands change their heads before every gig. Other drummers tend to change drumheads every few months. If you’re new to drumming, we suggest changing your drumheads at least once a year.
One of the biggest tips we can give you is to get new drumheads if you’re still using the heads that came with your kit. High-quality drumheads from Evans, Aquarian, or Remo will always make your kit sound far better than stock drumheads will.
Drum Tuning Guide
Let’s move on to the practical side of tuning your drums. Here are a few steps to take, which form a process that you should follow every time you want to do a big tune.
Sometimes, tuning a drum simply requires you to twist a few lugs. The process we’re about to show you is what you should do if you want to do a complete and thorough tuning of your entire drum kit. You don’t need to do this every time you set up your kit for a show, but it’s a good idea to do it if you’re moving a kit that’s been sat in one place for a long time.
We’ll talk about tuning a single drum shell, but this is what you should do for every drum that is part of your set.
Remove the Drumheads
To remove the drumheads, you need to use a drum key to loosen all the lugs around the shell. Start with the top head and move to the bottom head afterward.
Once the lugs are loose, you’ll be able to lift the counterhoop off the shell. We suggest keeping the lugs resting inside the holes of the counterhoop as they’re easy to lose.
Remove the drumhead as well, and then do the same process for the bottom side of the drum. At this stage you’ll have a drum shell, drumheads, counterhoops, and lugs all resting separately from each other.
Check All the Hardware
Before you start putting the shell back together, inspect the inside of the shell to see if there are any damaged areas. If something is wrong with the shell, it could be the reason why it won’t be easy to tune.
Also, check the counterhoops and lugs to see if there are any dents or odd shapes. Thankfully, the hoops and lugs are very easy to replace. If the shell is damaged, you’ll need to contact the manufacturer to see if you can get a new one for your kit.
The biggest thing to look at with the drum shell is the bearing edges. These are the points at which the drumheads rest. They play a big role in determining how the drums sound, so it’s bad news if the bearing edges are damaged.
Place and Stretch the Drumhead
After checking the quality of the shell and hardware, place the top drumhead on the shell. If it’s a new drumhead, stretch it out by pushing a fist into the center. If it’s an old drumhead, it will already be stretched.
We stretch the drumhead out so that it’s a bit more malleable when tightening the lugs. After that, place the counterhoop on top of the shell and align all the lugs with their grooves.
The next step is to tighten all the lugs as much as you can with your fingers. Finger tightening the lugs is the best way to get even tensions across all of them, and this will be your starting point for tuning.
Once you’ve done that for the top head, repeat the process for the bottom head.
Use a Drum Key to Get Desired Tensions
The next step is where you choose how the drum will sound. Starting with the base point of the lugs all being finger-tight, you must use a drum key to tighten them.
The tighter they go, the higher the pitch will be. To preserve the drumhead as much as possible, you should tighten the lugs in a crossing order. Start with the bottom lug and give it a half-turn, then move to the lug that rests diagonally across from it.
Repeat this process until all the lugs have been twisted half a turn. Hit the center of the drum to see if the pitch is where you want it. If you want it to go higher, give each lug another turn in the same diagonal pattern.
Check the Tone Near Each Lug
Once you’ve achieved the overall pitch that you want, you need to check the tensions of each lug to make sure that the drum is fully tuned. If it’s not, you’ll get some unwanted overtones whenever you hit the drumhead.
To check the tensions of each lug, you must tap your finger on the head near the lugs. If the head sounds a bit higher on one lug, you should tighten the previous lug so that the pitch is the same when you tap your finger.
A quick tip is to always tune up. It’s easier to tighten lugs to get higher pitches that match as opposed to loosening them.
Do the Same for the Bottom Drumhead
Do the same process for the bottom drumhead. However, the goal here will be a bit different. The top drumhead is called the batter head, and it controls the tone you get when hitting the drum. It determines the pitch as well as the amount of attack you get.
The bottom drumhead is called the resonant head, and it controls how long the drum rings for when you play the top head. The tighter the bottom head, the longer the resonance of the drum.
So, you need to make sure that all the lugs are evenly tightened, but you also need to choose whether you want more or less resonance and then adjust the lugs accordingly.
Apply Muffling If Needed
Once you’ve tuned the drum on both sides, you can choose to put muffling on the top drumhead. If the drum has a few unwanted overtones even after you’ve tuned it, muffling will get rid of those.
You can muffle the drum by placing something on the head. Some drummers simply use gaff tape, but we recommend using something that won’t damage or leave residue on the drumhead.
One of the most popular muffling tools is Moongel. The more muffling you apply to the top head, the more dampened the sound will be. However, more muffling also leads to less tone coming from the drum (and often less noise overall).
Drum Tuning Tips
Use Cotton Balls
One of the problems with dampening your drums is that most muffling kills a lot of the tone. A trick that we’ve picked up is to place cotton balls inside the shell before tightening the top drumhead.
The cotton balls round out the tone a bit, but they keep all the attack from your sticks hitting the batter head. The reason they keep the attack is that the cotton balls jump off the bottom head every time you strike the drum.
Use Drum Tuners for Consistency
Drum tuners are a major help when tuning your drums. They make the whole process go a lot quicker, and the ability to save tuning settings is incredibly valuable if you play gigs often.
A drum tuner will allow you to get consistent tuning, no matter what venue you have your drum kit in. However, they’re still just tools, and your ears will always be the ultimate factor when it comes to tuning drums.
Listening is Very Important
The more you tune your drums, the more your ears will get accustomed to the tones that you want to hear. Always listen carefully when tuning, and work on those listening skills by practicing tuning drums as much as you can.
No one starts out by being excellent at tuning drums. All well-tuned kits come from drummers who have worked on their ears and learned to identify the best tones and tuning settings.
Tuning Different Drums
Snare drums are the most diverse drums in a setup, and you can get a variety of tunings from them to cater to different styles and preferences.
Most snare drums sound amazing when they’re tuned very high, even the ones that come with entry-level drum kits. If you’re struggling to get a good sound from your snare, try tightening all the lugs as tight as you can, and the snare will most likely sound fantastic.
It’s also fairly easy to get a good low tone from a snare. By keeping the snare lugs and wires loose, you’ll get a fat tone that is excellent for slow beats.
Medium tuning on snares is the most difficult setting to get an excellent tone, and trying to get a great medium pitch will be very frustrating on a cheaper snare drum.
Bass drums should sound deep and impactful. The best way to achieve that tone is by keeping the lugs finger tight. If the heads are still a bit loose, try to twist the lugs slightly to get them tight. A quarter turn on each lug should work.
If you want the bass drum to have a higher-pitched tone with more resonance, then you’ll need to tighten the lugs a bit more.
Rack toms can also be quite difficult to tune, especially ones that are 12”. Your smallest rack tom will have the highest pitch, while the middle rack tom should fit between the tom and the floor tom with its tone.
You may find yourself spending a bit of time on the middle tom, so we suggest using a bit of muffling if you’re struggling to get a good tone from it.
It also works fairly well when you finger tighten a floor tom. Finger tightening will always give you the deepest and flattest tone. If you want that low tone to ring, then make the bottom head of the floor tom tighter than the top one.
If you want a more resonance and high-pitched floor tom, you’ll need to tighten both the top and bottom heads significantly.
Tuning for Different Styles
If you’re going to play jazz, your drums should be tuned to sound highly resonant. The nature of jazz drumming has you playing the kit in a more melodic way than most other styles, so the drums fit better if they sing.
Jazz drum kits are typically tuned quite high as well. So, you should have high-pitched toms that resonate strongly. The bass drum will be lower pitched, but it should still have a good amount of resonance.
Drums in rock music should sound large. You get this effect by tuning the toms low but tightening the bottom heads to make them resonate strongly.
You should also try your best not to dampen any of the drums too much, as ringing drums sound amazing in rock music settings.
Metal drummers typically tune their toms to sound very punchy with little resonance. The nature of metal drumming has you playing fast patterns around the kit, and those patterns will start sounding very muddy if your toms resonate too much.
Bass drums in metal are also tuned to have a lot of attack. The best thing to do is tune the bass drum a bit higher and place a pad where the beater strikes the head to get more impact.
Most other styles of music don’t have very specific drum tuning requirements. There are certain snare tunings that are preferred, like having a tight snare for gospel music and a loose one for country music.
When it comes to tom and bass drum tunings, it’s up to you as the drummer to decide what sounds best in your environment.
Final Thoughts on How To Tune Drums
Tuning a full set of drums can be daunting if you’re not experienced. We suggest focusing on a single drum and learning how to make it sound great. Once you get that down, you just need to follow the same process with the rest of the drums. Repetition is key, and you’ll get much better at tuning the more you do it. Remember to listen as best you can, but using a drum tuner will always make things a lot easier.