Drum Tuning: The Art of Tension

“Only a person with an experienced ear can do it right. It cannot be solved by a certain formula; only those who are so experienced that they possess extraordinary skills are up to the task” (Hyoung-Kwon 3). Drum tuning takes a flexible precision; it is impossible for anything but a trained human to do it properly. Any kind of tuning device is insufficient, due to the fact that there’s so much more to it then just making the tension even around the heads (The part of the drum you hit). A drummer must take into account their personal preference, the quality of the drum and the head you’re dealing with, the venue you’re getting ready to play in, the style you want to play, and the pitches that resonate best in the drum. I will do my best to explain what I know about this art, but in the end it really just takes a developed ear and a lot of practice.

The main variable that separates the way drums are tuned from drummer to drummer is personal preference. Jay Kahrs, a sound technician, says, “There is no ‘right’ way to tune drums. There are guidelines you can and should follow, but to each his own.” (Par. 1) I tune my bass drum as low as possible without it sounding too punchy and then tune the floor tom a perfect interval above it (A perfect interval is when you have two pitches that don’t clash with eachother at all). After I tune the other two toms the same way, they are then all perfectly in tune with themselves and eachother. I’ve seen other drummers tune their bass drums somewhat higher in pitch to give it a drier sound, but besides that most drummers tune their bass drums and toms about that way. The snare drum is always the one that many drummers vary on. Some like it low to give it a smoother sound when their playing rapidly. Others like it high so that it cuts through any and all sound that the drummer is playing along with. Some drummers play with it tuned according to the same principal as the toms so that it blends with the rest of the set.

One of the things I’ve really had to learn is how to deal with is all of the different manufacturing qualities of drums. Some drums have the potential to sound like a gift from above, and others have very little hope. Even when I have to play on a drum set of poor quality, I have to be able to make it sound as good as possible, because that is what’s expected of me. On a good drum set I can usually just tune it the way I would tune any other drum set: Just keep in mind my personal preferences and make it sound good.

Tuning drums that are of poor quality, however, is possibly the most difficult thing any drummer will have to deal with as far as tuning goes. When I’m dealing with good heads, this is much easier. But all too often bad drums will almost always have the heads that came with them still on them. Whether old or new, the head that came with the drum is always of poor quality. To get a good sound I first need to figure out how tight the bad head wants to be. Usually it will have a tenancy to sound better at a lower pitch than what they have been set at previous to the tuning. I loosen the head all the way and retighten it evenly to get an even resonance throughout the entire head. Whatever pitch it ends up at, the head has to be in tune to itself and be close to where the drum itself wants to resonate. After I do this, I have to also tune the head on the other side. If I tune that head to a different pitch I always make sure it is tuned to a perfect interval or else the pitch will be all over the place. In most cases I tune this head higher because it mutes a lot of the extra noise (Overtones) that will usually come along with a bad head.

Tuning in the venue I’m going to play in is very important. What sounds good in my house will not necessarily sound good anywhere else. The shape and size of a room has a lot to do with how I’m going to tune, because a room has a significant effect on how the drum resonates. For instance, if I’m going to be playing in an auditorium that is designed for classical concerts, any imperfection in my tuning is going to be heard in the audience. As I said before, tuning the bottom of the drum higher mutes the extra overtones. Every head and drum is going to have imperfections in them, and no drummer can ever get something absolutely perfect, so this is a great solution. In a smaller room I want a short crisp sound out of all my drums so the audience only hears the initial sound and not the drum resonating a few seconds later. For this I tune all of the drums very low so the head mutes itself shortly after being struck (Except my snare drum, that’s always very high in pitch). In a large room that soaks up sound like a sponge, I tune my drums to where they will vibrate and resonate the most in the shortest amount of time. This makes the sound more compressed and gives it a chance to carry across the room so that everyone can hear it. The only exception to this is when I have microphones. In that case I’ll tune them however they sound best from where I’m sitting.

When I play on the same drum set for a long time, I usually get to know it pretty well. After I tune a drum set two or three times I begin to get a feel for where the drum set overall wants to be pitched. DW drum makers will actually match their drums according to the pitches they sound best at. This makes all the drums get maximum resonance, and be perfectly in tune with eachother at the same time (DW 2 par 5). On my DW snare drum I don’t really pay attention to what pitch the drum is at, but I listen to how it sounds and the pitch usually ends up at the recommended pitch because my ear naturally wants to hear the sound it gives when it’s at that pitch. There are times, however, when I can’t do this because I always bring my snare drum whenever I play whether I’m using my set or not. I have to tune my drum according to what works for the rest of the drum set. Since DW drums will sound pretty good no matter what you tune them to, I sacrifice some of the sound in that drum so that the rest can sound a little better.

When I’m drum tuning for somebody else, I’m usually doing it for a genera other than rock (The style I’m best at). If I’m tuning a drum set for a jazz band, I instantly think higher in pitch (unless I’m doing the snare). Jazz always has a very smooth sound, and therefore, the drums need to ring out longer than they would in rock so that the individual hits sound more connected. To do this effectively, it is actually better to have the head the drummer hits a little bit out of tune with itself. That means I need to put uneven tension around the head so that it makes a little bit of noise after the original impact. But at the same time, there’s a very fine line between being tastefully out of tune, and making it just sound bad. The pitch of the snare should do the exact opposite from where I usually have mine tuned. In jazz the snare needs to be able to pop and be smooth at the same time. If it is tuned incredibly high, it will be nearly impossible for the drummer to make the drum sound like the style at hand. In most cases it should be tuned like it’s the next tom up from the highest tom. When tuned like this, a drummer can hit it hard and make it come out of the texture of the music, or hit it softer and make it sound like it’s just a part of everything else that’s going on. The snare drum should never be out of tune at all, but because of the nature of the drum a drummer can hit it near the rim and give it roughly the same sound that the toms are tuned to.

This is what your jazz set should sound like.

Concert percussion (or classical) is a different type of drum tuning altogether and is something I don’t have all that much experience in. The challenge here is to get all of the drums in tune with each other throughout an entire percussion section and not just a set. From what I know, most of the different drums are tuned in some combination of ways I’ve already explained. The snare would be tuned about where you’d want it for a jazz band. The toms would be tuned the same way you’d tune the toms for a rock setting. The only thing that would be totally different, as far as I know, would be the timpani. Since these drums are designed to change pitch at the pushing of a pedal, it needs a more universal tuning. This is done by tuning it over a couple different pitches. Because the drum is designed to change pitches, it may not necessarily be in tune at every pitch just because one pitch is in tune (Cook 174). Because they are pitched instruments, there is no room for creativity. They can only be tuned one way, which may be the reason I’ve stayed away from them.


Check out my piece for timpani and piano, “Application”


Learning drum tuning is really a never ending struggle. Every time I sit down to tune a set I’ve never touched before, it offers new challenges and surprises. But it is an art that must be perfected by any drummer that wants to play in the real world, because the only tuning devices that have been made for drums are very expensive and the human ear can do it better. This is because drummers have to account for so many different variables that the technology we posses at the moment couldn’t even come close to getting it right. Until our knowledge as a species increases enough for a computer to do it for us, tuning will be a necessary skill that every drummer must posses.

Works Cited

Cook, Gary D. Teaching Percussion. Thirdth ed. Belmont. Thomson Schirmer, 2006.
“The DW Story.” 25 Feb. 2006 .
Hyoung-Kwon, Lee. “Yun Tok-jin: Fifty Years of Making Drums.” Korea Foundation. First Search. Diciplenet. 17 Feb. 2006.
Kahrs, Jay. “How to Tune Drums.” Brown Sound Studios. 17 Feb. 2006 .

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