How to Tune a Drum set


 I have used many different types and brands of drum heads on the market.  Normally it is the style of drumming and musical interests of the drummer that dictates the drum sizes and head selections.  

There are some great drum heads on the market that produce a crisp, full sound right out of the box so don’t be afraid of experimenting.  It is obvious that certain heads are better with certain styles of music and drums and we could talk for hours about different heads for different playing styles and different drums.  To keep us from going on forever on different heads and styles, I will offer up to you what heads I use on my sets, tuning tips and how I like to tune them.    









TUNING tip - When changing drum heads remember to wipe and wax the wrap at the bearing edge and the hoop to help the head to slip freely on the drum and also place a few drops of oil on the tension rods to help make it smoother to tune.



             Snare Drum Heads:

 On each of my snare drums there are different heads and sounds on each one of them.  One snare may sound tinny and bright and another thick and dark.  Most of the snare drums that are metal will be brighter than the sound of wood.  Even if you use the same head on two wood snares it will produce a different sound.  Example:  My 1940 Slingerland Radio King snare drum sounds great when using a REMO white coated Ambassador head for the batter side but,  my 1968 Trixon Telstar snare sounds best with a REMO Fiberskyn Powerstroke head.  On both snare or bottom heads, I use a clear Diplomat and they sound great.   I personally like a snare drum that produces a nice clear no choke sound at a low volume  and when hit hard, comes to life with lots of punch and both of these do the job.  So the key for a great snare sound is to experiment with different heads to bring out the sound of that particular snare drum.  Remember that the snare is the single most personal drum in a drummer’s sound. 


TUNING Tip: Use two drum keys opposite each other while tuning to help keep yourself clear on the next placed torque on the head and make it go faster.


                  Tuning The Head:

 Set the drum on the floor to have one head muted while you tune the other head. Then with a new head on the drum and the hoop in place, begin with putting each lug inline with the hole for the tension rod.  Next, finger tighten each rod into the lug, working your way around the drum in a star pattern so each can get the same tension and the head stays level only so that the tension rod touchs the hoop. Then start a half turn on the rods using one of the star patterns below.  Tighten the lug 1/2 turn at position 1, then the same at position 2, then same at 3,  then 4 and so on.    Once you get the head so all the wrinkles are out it's time to seat the head. 


           Seating The Drum Head

Now, to seat the drum head place the palm of your hand and press into the middle of the head so that the head dips an inch or so. Don't  push so hard that you put your hand through the head ( think of it as giving your drum CPR ). Push hard enough to stretch the head to the drum. Do this 7-10 times. This will seat the head on the bearing edge and get you the best tone and keep it tuned longer.  Now working your way around the drum in star formation half turns only,  tapping the outside edge and listening for the drum to start to give the tone you like.  Once here ,you can start the fine tuning process of 1/8 or 1/16 turns up to the note you like.  If you passed the note you like,i go back a half turn and up it 1/16 turn untill you find it. Remember to Tune up to a note not down.

I personally tune both heads on my toms the same tone or the bottom head just a tiny bit higher depending on the drum size.

When tuning the drum, remember that you tune the top head to the general pitch you want then you tune the bottom head to produce the desired resonance.  Here are the three ways the drums heads can be tuned.

1. Top and bottom heads are the same. This will usually produce the most sustain, or resonance. It also gives the drum the most pure tone or pitch. This depends on the depth of the shell.

2. Bottom tighter than the top. Depending on the depth of the shell, this may increase the resonance if it is slight. But as it gets tighter, it will start to choke sustain.

3. Bottom head lower than the top. Less sustain the looser it gets. Normally the drum will follow a downward sound on the sustain.


TUNING Tip: Always turn the key up to a note not down if you go past the tone you want. Tune down 1/4 turn and back up a 1/8 turn at a time to find the sweet spot on that one lug.  For fine tuning, come up to the note slow within a ¼ turn then 1/16 at a time to pull in the tone that rocks. 


              Tom Drum Heads:

Good all around head is the Remo pinstripe heads let the toms sound full and have no big ring.  Full open sounds like with a single or two thin ply type of coated heads. 

          Tom Tuning:

When tuning the toms with the normal 2 mounted and 2 floor setup, a quick  and easy way to get them tuned is the wedding march (here comes the bride) notes approach.  These notes will put all your toms in fifths apart mode, and normally gets your set a quick satisfactory sound.  On my Ludwig set it has four mounted toms, 12",13",13" and 14" with two short octobans mixed in, two floors 16",18" and four super deep octobans that I play as my primary set.  The problem some drummers have on tuning this type of set is they tune the toms to sound like one big continuous scale and for me this sound gets boring quick.  I find that a large set sounds best if the mounted toms jump thru a tone range, the floor toms have a separate tone range and other drums like roto toms or octobans get a special range.  This way to me, the set overall sound does not sound like one continuous set of toms but completely separate sections of toms that have separate ranges but compliment each other.   


TUNING Tip:  If you find your self getting frustrated, just take a break and try it again in a few minutes.  Sometimes, all that is needed is a short ear break and the drum magically tunes it’s self.


             Bass Drum Heads:

  Most kick drums need a punchy sound, and evenly tuned head. On the resonance side, If you use custom painted, plain, drum manufacturer brand name, with holes, without  holes, or whatever heads, you will get a good bass sound once you tune the batter side correctly and just get the reso head tight enough get the wrinkles out and have a tone that compliments the batter head.  Something that is a visual more than tone, is to give each tension rod on the bass drum enough of a turn so that each lug sits parallel to the edge of the drum.

Tuning Tip:  Tap the heads about an inch in from each lug using the eraser side of a pencil to check for even tone. This gives a light tone without much over tones.


      Drum Head Muffling:

 Try to go lite on muffling, because a drum sounds best if less muffling is used. The amount of muffling also changes the drum sound and chokes the real drum sound.  For on the road live sound, try muffling both heads of the bass drum at once using a 2” thick piece of foam about a foot wide and Velcro it to the bottom of each bass drum shell.  This is the easiest and cleanest way to muffle.   Try using a moving blanket folded for the best sounds in the studio.  Obviously it’s a different thought needed when you set up the drum set for recording versus playing in a different hall every night.



Drummers will need to experiment and find what tuning, drums and head types fit his or her personal style.  Hopefully these ideas I have shared with you will help you find a starting place to find your own personal sounds.

                    Thanks and keep smiling, 

       Your friends at  Oakland Beach Drums