Shop Talk

How To Tune Your Drums Properly

by Steve Lewis

shop talk copyIt’s really sad to say that throughout my years of professional playing, I’ve come across so many excellent drummers who don’t take the time to care for their instrument. You can talk to any horn man and they’re always doing something to their instrument; replacing pads, cleaning, etc. Drummers – not all mind you, but too many – have a tendency to neglect.

First off, you don’t have to use any special tools. Your drum key is really all you need. Let’s start with the gutsy drum of your set – the snare drum.

First, remove your snares from the bottom head, and then remove both heads. It’s a good idea to tighten up the screws which hold the lugs inside the shell at this point. They will occasionally loosen up over the years from vibration. Wipe off the dust that accumulates around the edge. Replace the bottom head and finger-tighten the lug bolts evenly around the drum. Tighten the lugs a quarter turn going diagonally across from one lug to the next until all the lugs are turned. (See diagram)

Be careful not to make the bottom head too tight. Press your finger gently on the head. If the head moves in slightly, the tension is probably about right; if not, turn back a quarter turn following the same pattern. The purpose of this is to create an evenness all around the drum. Follow the same steps for your top head. The top head should be tighter than the bottom and the snare should have a nice bouncy feel to it.

Keep in mind that drum heads do stretch, and after a period of time – depending upon how much playing you do – they loose some resilience. If your drum still doesn’t have a clean sound, you probably need new heads. It’s best to change both heads at the same time. If you tune your drums frequently, it’s not necessary to remove the heads and start from scratch. Just start from the quarter turns and go diagonally across as described in the diagram.

This same pattern should also hold true for large and small tom-toms. The top head should be tight for a good stick response. The bottom head is the one that gives you the depth of tone you want. Don’t make it too loose or you’ll sound like a timpani. Just get the ripples out with perhaps one or two complete turns, and maybe one or two more turns to get the exact tone you’re looking for.

One final point which I think needs mentioning. I’ve spoken to hundreds of rock drummers on the subject of removing the bottom heads from tom-toms. When you play with one head, you’re limiting your tone quality. The head is struck once and the tone is reproduced with very little vibration. With both heads, you’re producing greater tone vibration, plus resonance. The point is this; if you’re after volume, then one head is preferable. If you’re after good tone quality and resonance, then both heads should be used. The choice is yours. Experiment to see which is best for you. Good luck.