One of the most common questions I receive from beginner drummers is "how do you tune drums?" If you search online for the answer there are literally thousands of results to shift through, and it can be quite intimidating. Indeed, there have been books written on this subject, as well as multiple videos and DVDs. It is the source of much frustration for drummers of all levels, and we are here to help!
The reality is that tuning a drum kit can be a very difficult thing to do. The people that do it well have normally accrued years of experience through trial and error, and have learned a lot about the nuances of drums and pitch along the way. This is not intended to be a comprehensive guide to tuning, and there is a reason why there are books and videos on this subject - it can be quite complex. I am however, going to give you one of my best tips to help you tune quickly, consistently and hopefully, frustration free. Stay tuned. No pun intended.
As a background, one of the best DVDs on this topic was presented by renowned drum writer Bob Gatzen. Simply entitled "Drum Tuning", Mr. Gatzen really gets stuck in to the nuts and bolts (literally) of tuning snare drums, toms and bass drums. I first discovered this title while managing a drum shop in England, and it was a bestseller. This was in 2004, and at the same time, some groundbreaking tuning tools were starting to alleviate the need for the more scientific approaches that had become the accepted norm.
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Over the years, there have been some pretty cool innovations in drum tuning that really do take the frustration out of the process. The best device I have seen for tuning drums is the DrumDial. You can spend $30 on a DVD that will give you the knowledge to really dive in to the nuances of this subject, or you can spend about $30 more and buy a tool that I never leave home without when playing a show, or doing a recording session.
At Drum Ambition, we are not affiliated with DrumDial in any way. The fact of the matter is that this device works so well, that I am always confident when recommending it to students and subscribers alike. The DrumDial attains balanced tuning on the drums by measuring the tympanic pressure of the drum head. There is a video on their website that shows you how to do this, but in a nutshell, you place the device a little away from each tension bolt, with the goal of achieving a certain number on the display face. Now just like any tool, using a DrumDial effectively will take some time to master, but once you have done so, you can achieve a consistent and quick tuning. It is important to remember that drum tuning is extremely subjective, and experienced drummers will tell you that the drum head type, the depth and diameter of the drum, and the drum shell construction all make a difference. This is all true, but I have found the DrumDial to be very accurate regardless of these variables.
I mentioned that I first experienced this product while managing a drum shop. At this shop, we used to regularly run drum clinics and events, and on one occasion, we hosted the legendary Ian Paice. We were so blown away by his tuning, that we put a DrumDial on his drums to find out the secret. Once we discovered the settings, we tuned just about every drum set, with a few minor tweaks here and there, to the same parameters with very consistent results. If you want to know the settings, just email [email protected], and I'll happily share them with you.
Before you turn your attention to tuning, there are some basic fundamentals that should be followed in terms of fitting the drum head. Seating the drum head over the bearing edge, and "point to point' tightening of the tension bolts using your fingers first, and a drum key later is an important first step. All of this is discussed in our video on drum set assembly, along with a demonstration of the desired pitch between each drum.
Remember that when you buy a drum set or an individual drum, they rarely come tuned. Now that we spend more time shopping online rather than visiting dedicated drum stores, this is increasingly more the case. A good drum retailer will tune the drums for you, and failing that, your drum teacher should also be able to lend a hand. When my students bring their drums to me, I can tune a whole set using a DrumDial in about 20 minutes. Again, we might want to make some minor tweaks, but for the most part, it is usually very consistent. Also, there are other things that you can do to make your drums sound great out of the box, and this article explains how.
If you have any questions relating to this article, please feel free to email [email protected].