Over all my years of drumming, I’ve spent countless rehearsals sitting silently at the drum kit while all my band members take time to tune their instruments. This is a classic scenario that many people in bands will find themselves in. Drums don’t produce melodic notes, so it seems likely that they don’t need to be tuned. However, that isn’t the case.
Drummers do have to tune their drums to get the best sounds possible, even though they stay in tune much longer than other instruments. You don’t need to tune the drums to specific notes or keys like other instruments, but you need to tune them so that the sounds they produce don’t have too many harsh overtones.
You may be wondering how drums are tuned, exactly? It’s pretty much just loosening and tightening components, but let’s dive in a little deeper.
Drum shells have two sides to them – the top side is referred to as the batter side while the bottom is referred to as the resonant side.
You’ll find that most drum sets have skins attached to each side on every drum. These are called the batter and resonant heads.
To tune a drum, you need to control how tightly those heads are resting on the drum shell and how much they are stretched. Each drum has multiple lugs at equal distances around its circumference, these lugs are basically long screws that hold the drum heads and drum shell together. To tighten or loosen the heads you need to tighten or loosen the lugs.
The only way to do this is with the use of a drum key, which fits over the lugs and allows you to turn them using your fingers. Drum keys are one of the most important pieces of gear drummers own. Using one of them is the only way of tuning a drum, so most drummers have multiple lying around.
The tighter the head is, the higher-pitched the drum will sound. The looser the head, the lower the drum will sound. That’s a simple way of putting it, but it’s a bit trickier in practice.
If a drum is out of tune, it will produce harsh overtones that ring out unnecessarily. You need to make sure all the lugs on the drum are tightened as evenly as possible to eliminate those overtones.
Once you’ve done that on both sides, you can play around with the top and bottom heads. The top head will control how tight or loose the drum feels to play. The bottom head will control how much the drum resonates, hence the name resonant head.
Many drummers tend to ignore resonant heads as they’re not what sees all the action when playing. However, they’re massively important in the process of tuning your drums to sound great.
In all honesty, tuning is one of the hardest aspects of being a drummer.
Some drummers are fantastic at it, but most of us are not – and all drum kits are made differently. The things that make up the kit, such as wood type and hardware, can drastically change how you need to tune the drums.
Another thing to note is that the more expensive kits are always easier to tune than cheaper kits. That’s a big reason why pro-level kits sound way better than entry-level kits. Typically, pro-level kits will have more lugs on the drums, giving you more control when it comes to tuning.
The best thing you could do for a cheaper kit is to buy high-quality drum heads for both the batter and resonant sides of the drums. Having those will make tuning a slightly easier process.
Once you have the right equipment, you just need to practice tuning as much as you can.
I’ve found that many drummers aren’t great at it because they don’t need to do it as often as they would on other instruments. So, most of us don’t gain as much experience as we could.
I’d suggest to any drummer to give the drums a tune before every gig they play.
When it comes to specific techniques, there are a few things drummers do that help in the tuning process. The two biggest tactics are to:
Starting out with our ears, many drummers just adjust the tensions of the lugs until they like how the drums sound. This is the most natural way to do it. I feel that it leaves room for human responsiveness. Tuning the drums this way will allow your drum sound to be unique to you.
The other way to tune is to use something like a TuneBot [external link]. The device will measure the exact tensions of all the rods on the drums, allowing you to easily match them all up.
Tuning with one of these makes the process a lot quicker. It also allows drummers to write down the specific tensions they like and get their drums sounding the same every time they tune them up again.
I think the best way is to use both these methods together. Drummers can get the initial tensions right with a device like TuneBot and then fine-tune the drums using their ears to create a more unique and personal sound.
The way the drums are tuned can make a huge impact on the environment they’re in.
Specific musical styles, such as jazz or metal, actually require certain sounds from the drums to enhance the music. Rock drummers will tune their drums to sound low and bellowing to get a sense of heaviness. Jazz drummers typically tune their drums to sound a lot higher and more resonating.
A drum set tuned for jazz would sound a bit out-of-place in a rock setting, and vice versa. So, the way drummers tune their drums is very dependent on the types of bands they play in.
Another aspect in tuning choice comes from what venues the drummers will play in.
If a drummer is playing at a large stadium with a massive crowd, it will sound better if the drum set booms and resonates.
If the drummer is recording in a studio, he’ll need to muffle the drums so that the microphones don’t latch onto the harsh overtones.
To wrap it up, drummers have to tune their drums just like every other musician. The difference is that drums don’t need to be tuned to fit into a specific musical key.
Instead, they get tuned to sound high or low-pitched. Most drummers tend to struggle with the tuning process, and all of us will tell you how it’s way more difficult to tune drums than it is to tune other instruments.
It’s up to you to decide if that’s true or not!
Daniel started drumming as a teenager after realizing just how fun air drumming is. He was blown away by the power of the drums at his first drum lesson and hasn’t looked back since.
He has almost 20 years experience drumming and was heavily into Metal when he first started playing but has since transitioned to Jazz, Funk and Progressive Rock.
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