At every stage of your drumming career, tuning your kit will be one of the most crucial things you have to do, so it is best to learn early. There are various methods that you will come across and they should be explored with great care in order for you to determine your own preference. You will find that tuning your drums a certain way (for better or worse) will affect how you play, how your drums sound, and the health and longevity of your equipment.
This article will not go into all of the different methods. This is a simple guide to tuning your kit quickly without compromising your preferred tone and feel. I mean let’s face it. Nobody wants to sit round for an hour and a half watching you meticulously fine tune your kit to fit in perfectly with the C major scale. Unless you are Terry Bozzio, you won’t encounter many instances where your entire drum kit needs to be in the same key as the song.
If it is your preferred method, you swear by this routine and have a quick way to achieve it then fine. If the producer or band in the recording studio is asking this of you – also fine. There are plenty of magazines, online tutorials and drum accessories that will teach you how to tune to a melodic pitch.
The rationale behind this article is to get you up and running in a situation where time and money is limited and you need to be onstage or ready to record immediately. I learned this technique from a couple of seasoned drummers who are no strangers to being under pressure in live and studio situations, not to mention that they have incredible sounding drums. So let’s get down to business.
Tuning Your Snare Drum
If you are putting new heads on for the first time or replacing old heads, place your head on the shell with your snare hoop on top of the head. Screw all of your tuning rods in as tightly as you can by using your fingers.
If you already have used heads on your snare, then just unscrew the tuning pegs with a drum key as loosely as you can without removing them completely from the lugs. Then tighten them as much as possible, using your fingers. Do this for the batter and resonant heads. Then, starting with the resonant head, tighten each rod with 2 complete turns of your tuning key, being sure to tune one rod followed by its directly opposite rod.
The idea is that we want the resonant head to be very tight and evenly balanced, which is why it is important to count the turns and keep track of which lugs you have tightened.
Don’t be afraid to use a marker, and don’t worry about snapping the head (they are stronger than you think!) At this point, the head will still probably need to be tightened more. So turn each rod again, this time with one full turn and then check again for tightness. If you need to go round the rods again, turn the key by a quarter turn each time until you are satisfied.
Turning the drum over, the process is the same, but we don’t want the top head to be any tighter than the bottom head. So this time, begin with one complete turn, starting with one rod and then the rod directly opposite, until you have gone around the whole drum once. Strike the drum with a stick in the centre to check for tone.
If you need to tune again, use half/quarter turns. Because your resonant head is extremely tight, it is now very sensitive to tone, so you will notice the pitch change when you use smaller increments to tune the top head. Do this until you are happy with the tone/feel of the drum. This entire process should take you all of 5 minutes.
Tuning Your Toms
Generally, toms are the hardest drums to tune, but again this trick should help you to avoid most common issues. Here, you do need to have at least a basic grasp of pitch.
The principle here is the opposite of the snare. We want the resonant head to be tuned lower than the top head, or at worst they should be even. Start with the bottom head, tuning the rods with fingers first. Then, take a drumstick and use either the tip or butt to press down (with medium pressure) into the very centre of the head.
You will see creases appear around the edges of the head. Working your way around in opposites and maintaining the same pressure on the head, tune each rod until their corresponding creases immediately disappear. Then, do exactly the same with the batter head. If done correctly, you will have a very even tone with a medium to long, but balanced resonance.
With practice you can fine tune accordingly, but using this technique will always give you a balanced tone in a short time. Also, some moon gel will be very handy if you are continuing to have trouble tuning and time is against you.
Tuning Your Bass Drum
The kick is the easiest to tune and probably the least sensitive to pitch as it will remain in the lowest register. Feel and attack will be the best indicator of how well your kick is tuned. The resonant head will be fine by being tightened as much as possible with your fingers alone.
The batter side can be tuned to finger-tightness plus one whole turn around the entire head. It is also worth placing a light blanket or pillow inside the shell for dampening (and having a hole cut in the resonant head so you can easily move the dampening around).
And that’s all there is to it. With a standard 4 or 5-piece set-up, you can realistically have your kit tuned in the space of 15 mins. The more you play and tune your drums the more intuitive and effortless this technique will become. Try not to leave tuning your kit 15 minutes before a show or recording session though! You will do yourself a lot of favors and keep a lot of friends by being prepared and punctual.