Let’s face it, tuning drums can be one of the most frustrating parts of owning them. Drums can be finicky, each one is different from the other, and no one enjoys dealing with sympathetic snare buzz. Even as a percussionist, I have had many irritating experiences trying to get a drum to sing true.
In October 2015, I was hired by D’Addario to build relationships with key venues in NYC by supplying drumheads and maintaining their backline. I suddenly found myself in a position where I was changing and tuning more drumheads than ever before. Along the way, I learned a few tips and tricks that made tuning a much faster, efficient and enjoyable experience.
When it comes to changing and tuning drumheads, having the right tools will make your life much easier. Whenever I go visit a venue, I make sure to bring my Evans Drill Bit Key and Magnetic Drum Key. The drill bit key will make quick work of removing old drumheads, and when you’re changing batter and resonant heads on a six-piece kit, it can make a huge difference. I don’t generally recommend using the drill bit key to tune the drums, but if you’re very careful, it can speed up the process of getting the tension rods just above the hoop. The Evans Magnetic Drum Key is ergonomically designed to be comfortable in your hand, and makes fine tuning easy. Another added benefit: you never have to worry about losing it, as it stays secured on the tension rod.
Once the old drumheads have been removed, take the opportunity to remove any dust or debris from the inside of the drum, bearing edges, and areas behind the tension rods/lug casings. This is really the only time you can access these areas, and having a clean bearing edge will ensure proper contact with the new drumheads.
When applying tension to a new drumhead, I like to take my time. I begin by finger tightening the tension rods as tight as I can before I even pick up my drum key. When I’m ready, I then apply quarter or half turns with the drum key in a cross-lug tuning pattern. Depending on how many lugs the drum has, there are a few different patterns, the important thing is just to make sure that you put tension across the drumhead evenly as it stretches for the first time. Continue to do this until you remove the wrinkles from the drumhead and it starts to come to pitch.
From this point on, it can be difficult to discern whether you are hearing the true pitch of the drum or its overtones/harmonics. I find that it helps to get the drum near a pitch or tone I like, and then fine-tune each lug. You can easily isolate overtones while applying light tension to the center of the drum with a single finger and tapping near each tension rod. Tuning to the overtones at each tension point on the drumhead will ensure a clear, consistent pitch when the drumhead is struck. It’s crucial that each tension rod is tuned evenly around the drum for a clear and true tone. To achieve the most open, resonant sound, tune the batter and resonant heads to the same pitch. If you’re looking for a deep sounding drum with lots of low end, tune the resonant head lower than the batter. The possibilities are endless. With these tips and a little experimentation, you should be able to achieve any sound you are looking for.