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   On the surface it seems somewhat silly: a drum is a shell with a vibrating membrane covering one or both ends; when the membrane is struck a sound is created. The characteristics of that sound depend on many factors: shell, membrane ("head") properties, striking velocity, striking area, head tension, and the room acoustics. "Head tension", or tuning, is the subject of this page, and the silly part is this: the basic principle behind the acoustical physics of a drum might seem to deny any complexity - a struck head will produce a sound - however, the range of types of sounds any given drum can make are unlimited.

   One major factor in this variance is the tension of the drum head - the tuning. Shell composition, size, and depth all play a factor in the timbre, volume, and sustain of the resulting tone, but head tuning impacts the pitch, resonance, attack, decay, and tone - as well as contributing in a large part to the final timbre, volume, and sustain. No other single factor affects your drum's sound, and no other single aspect of drumming is as overlooked by the majority of amateur and semi-professional drummers.

   The reasons are myriad: ignorance of tuning techniques, lack of practice, insufficient realization of the range of subtle and dynamic changes simple tuning methods can elicit, and - the biggest, I think - fear. Fear of changing the current sound of the drum because

  • The drummer doesn't understand how that sound was arrived at, and
  • He or she is afraid he'll never get that sound back.

   I've listened to many drummers, and played many other drummer's kits. There is, almost without exception, a distinction in sound between a "professional" drummer's kit and a "non-professional" drummer's kit. But, this doesn't have to be. The techniques the "pros" use are available to anyone. The best things a drummer can do if he wants to understand and learn drum tuning are

  • Experiment, and understand that nothing you do to your drums can harm them, and that a better sound is always waiting for you to take some risk.


   It doesn't get any simpler than this: the head is held against the edge of the drum shell by a hoop; the hoop is held in place by nuts. Tightening the nuts moves the hoop closer to the drum shell, stretching the head tighter against the shell edge. The tighter the head against the shell, the higher the pitch the head returns when struck.

   There. Is that enough information? That's basically it!

   What causes the wide range of variation in sounds from one set of drums to another (even identical makes and models) is how this basic principle is used, as well as some other special tricks we'll get into later.

   If you're never tuned your drums before, the best thing you can do is take the heads off your drums and do it from scratch. You can use your old heads, but the results will be better if you get new heads. If you don't know what size head you need, simply measure the diameter of the shell: that's the size of the head (usually in inches).

Important: Remember the position of the hoop befoe you remove it (eg., which lug hole straddled the mount). The hoop has formed itself to the shell over time, and it will sit best in this position.

   So, you've taken me up on my challenge, and you're sitting there with your heads off your drums. Great! Throw them away and get the new heads out. If you're using a top and bottom head, you may want to consult Heads to see how each type differs. For now, you're going to put the top head on first. In order to prepare for this, you'll need some very fine sandpaper (jewelers works best) and some parrifin (this is assuming you're using wood drums: if you have plexiglass, fiberglass, or metal drums, forget the sandpaper - just the parrifin will do).

    [While you have your heads off, you may want to give each drum a thorough cleaning - inside and out - before re-heading them. You might also want to get a screwdriver and check to make sure all the hardware is tight (don't over-tighten these screws, especially if you have plastic shells!).]

   First check out the edges. Are they smooth? If not, run the sandpaper over them lightly to knock off any rough spots. Don't go too crazy here, or you may damage the edges by making them uneven. You can check the evenness of the edge by placing it on a thick piece of glass (that's resting on a flat surface). If the drum rocks a bit, it probably isn't flat and you may want to fix the edge.

STOP before you decide you want to correct this!
Is it really bad? If not, leave it alone.
If it is, take it to a music store that does repair.
Don't get into serious edge repair unless you know what you're doing!

   OK. You've smoothed out the edge. Now, take the parrifin and run it along the edge, just enough to deposit a thin layer of wax. This will allow the head to move over the edge more freely, preventing areas of the head to be looser than others. Don't put it on too heavy.

   Now you're ready to put on the head. You'll notice when you first lay the head on the shell that it will rock from side to side a bit, like a see-saw. This is normal, because the head probably isn't flat. Rotate the head until this rocking motion is minimalized. Now put the hoop over the head. If you put the hoop back in the same position it was before you took it off, it sould be OK. Otherwise, you'll have to repeat the rocking test for the hoop (make sure you don't rotate the head again!).

   Now everything's as flat as it can be. Put the lugs back into the hoop and finger-tighten them down until you just begin to put tension on the hoop. When you're finished replacing the lugs, you can then begin tightening.

   Much has been written about the proper method of tightening a drumhead. The basic rule of thumb is to tighten opposite lugs. The following diagrams show the tightening order for 4-, 6-, 8-, and 10-lug drums. Follow these orders! Don't just go around the drum.

4-Lug Tuning          6-Lug Tuning

8-Lug Tuning          10-Lug Tuning

   When you begin tuning a new head, you should put a medium amount of tension on it, distributed equally across the diameter of the shell. The head should return a good pitch. Then, with the drum on the floor, place your palms on the head in CPR fashion and press firmly. You'll head a distinct "cracking" sound (don't be afraid to really lean on it: the head won't break!). This does two things:

  • It "cracks" the head, loosening the stiffness where the head attaches to its lead-like rim - heads will loosen up naturally as you play them: doing this now will minimize loosening in the future, helping the head stay in tune.
  • It centers the head on the edges: if the head isn't quite centered and you tighten it, you'll notice one area will always be loose next to the edge; this "cracking" helps center the head and evenly distributes the sound.
  • [This "cracking" technique also has a purpose when tuning: it helps to get the head in tune with itself. More on this later.]

   Now you're ready to start "tuning". The first thing you want to do is get the head in tune with itself. Leave the drum on the floor: this will allow only the head your tuning to sound - not the shell or the opposing head (if you're using a top and bottom head). Strike the head lightly about one inch from the edge next to each lug. You should hear a slightly different pitch from each lug. Tighten or loosen the lugs until you have a single pitch coming from each lug.

       I use the "cracking" technique again here, alternating between tuning the head to itself and pushing; I do this about 3 - 4 times (notice the drum returns a slightly lower pitch after pushing on the head).

   Once the head is tuned to itself, you can now tune it to a specific pitch. Everything up to now has been pretty standard: everyone uses these techniques and works towards these results. Now, we get subjective.

  • Paul Griffiths of St. Albans, England writes:
  • I have a tuning tip for you - this came from my tutor, Erik Stams. When tuning around the head, trying to balance the pitch adjacent to the tuning bolts, use a soft headed mallet instead of a stick. It takes all the attack out of the sound and makes it much easier to hear the pitch. Also, as you tighten the bolt you can hear much more easily the head coming into tune.

    Also, when tuning double headed drums, rest the drum on a folded towel to eliminate the sound of the head you aren't tuning. This works better if the drum is on the floor (instead of a table).

   The pitch of the head will depend on the pitch of the shell, the pitch of the opposing head, the relative pitches of the other drums in your kit, and your taste (the acoustics of the room you are playing in usually doesn't affect pitch - it affects tone).

The pitch of the shell

   This will impact the tuning dramatically. Each shell will vibrate at a certain frequency. You can determine that frequency by picking up the shell without heads, holding it loosely, and striking it with a soft mallet (you can also do this with the heads on, striking the shell with your knuckle, but it's harder to hear the tone the shell produces without some practice). When the head is being tuned, try starting at a low pitch and gradually increasing the tension (make sure the head remains tuned to itself during this process). You'll notice that some pitches ring right out, while others seems dead. What's happening is the resonant frequency of your shell (the frequency at which the shell vibrates) will either contribute to the vibration of the head, or else it will cancel it out. It's basic wave physics:

Complimentary Waves

Out of Phase

   The object is to find those pitches where the shell and head will work together within a range. There should be more than one (maybe even three or four), depending on the quality of the shell.

The pitch of the opposing head

   This is very important. Add another wave to the images above, and you get the picture of the complexity a bottom head can bring to the picture. For this reason, some folks just don't use a bottom head. However, the bottom head - if used right - can be an important tool in creating and developing your sound.

   You have three options when it comes to the tuning of the bottom head:

  • The same pitch as the top head.
  • A higher pitch than the top head.
  • A lower pitch than the top head.

   Each of these options produces a different sound. It's important to remember when raising or lowering the pitch of the bottom head relative to the top head that only a slight variance is necessary! If the two heads are too far appart in pitch, they will cancel each other out and the sound will be dead.

    The two heads the same pitch

       This will produce a warm, round tone with lots of sustain. "Bong." The attack can be sharp (depending on the tension of the batter head), and the decay will be long, with no variation in pitch as the sound dies. Overtones are usually not affected.

    The bottom head lower than the top head

       The decay and sustain are diminished somewhat, the sound is rounder, and the tone deeper - even if the pitch is the same (remember, when you raise or lower the pitch of one head relative to the other, the pitch of the entire drum - when struck while suspended - will either raise or lower. To keep the pitch the same, you will have to change the opposing head in the other direction). The pitch will remain constant through the decay. Overtones are minimized a bit.

    The bottom head higher than the top head

       Here's where things get interesting! The effect is similar to bottom head lower in terms of sustain and overall tone, but the pitch of the drum will drop somewhat through the decay! This is how you get that cool "bwow" sound! (There is another way to do this - see Special Effects below). Overtones are minimized a bit.

       Rob Varro, drummer and educator from Ontario Canada, e-mailed me and explained why this happens:

         When you strike the top head of a drum, the air inside the drum is immediately compressed. This causes the bottom head to resonate. The top head, for a fraction of a second, is muted slightly by the stick contact. Therefore the bottom head actually produces a full tone before the top head. So if the bottom head is tuned higher than the top head, you will indeed hear the pitch of the bottom head first, followed closely by that of the top head, giving the effect of a pitch bend or "bwow" (I love that word).

       Thanks, Rob!

Relative pitches of the other drums

   Each drum will impact its neighbors. Sometimes this impact is very subtle and will go unnoticed to most listeners. Where these intertonalities affect your sound is when you strike more than one drum at a time. You can use this effect to your advantage, and whether the drums are tuned to a particular mode or scale depends on what type of tonal interaction you're after.

Your Taste

   Taste develops and changes over time. This also depends on what type of music you're playing, and the venue you're in (eg., a jazz tuning probably won't work in a heavy metal band!). Here's where experimentation comes in; the more you play with different tunings, the broader the range of musical styles you'll be able to play. You may have to re-tune your drums from time-to-time (especially if you cross genres alot), but once you get the hang of it and get over your fear, it should be no problem.

  • Scott Parker writes:
  •    I use one the same techniques you talked about... top head first, then bottom head higher than the top. I find the pitch for the drum on the top head and then tune the bottom head a natural fourth above the top. And for any of the drummers that might be reading this and doesn't know what a natural fourth is. [The first two notes of "Here Comes The Bride" is a natural fourth.].

       Anyway, after you tune your highest tom to the forth you tune the next drum a fourth apart from that (but also a fourth from it self). This creates a more tonal sound when you hit the toms together. And go around the toms...because your using natural tones, you get a more musical overall sound. I should tell you that my drums are set up with a 3" drum size difference. 10" 13" 16". If you are using a traditional rock size set up - 12"13"16" - you might not be able to get the toms to create the forth intervals. But in that case you can tune them in thirds. Another good reference for a third is the horse race trumpet call: "dun dun dun dut diggadaga dut diggadga dut dut dut duh.... the first part is the third "dun dun dun". Both the forth and the third are very musical ways of tuning your drums.

       I use an Aquarian Super Kick One for the batter when I want a longer tone. And a Super Kick II's when I want a more punchy rock sound. I found with the Aquarian, you don't have to use any muffling on the drum if you use the regulator resonant head on the front. Toms I use Coated Double Thins on the top with Classic Clears on the bottom. And you don't have to seat the head like you do a Remo. I.E. no "cracking" and the drum will stay in tune longer and won't go out of tune as much. My snare is a Texture Coated with a power dot with a 3" piece of mylar ring I cut out and lay it on the head freely to kill a little ring but not the drum. Well every one has there own way of doing things and this is the one way I do it for my funk and rock sound. (with some variation).


   There are as many different heads out there as there are drummers. Remo, Aquarian, Evans, . . . many different head makers, and within each manufacturer many different head types: single-ply, double-ply, hydraulic (fluid-filled), coated, clear, opaque, woven, . . . .

   Just a cursory glance through any drum catalogue can confuse even a drummer who thinks he or she knows it all. However, despite the dizzying array of heads out there, some basic rules apply.

  • Thick heads will have a lower pitch than thin heads.
  • Coated heads will muffle out unwanted overtones better than uncoated heads.
  • Dotted heads (heads with black or silver dots on them) will also muffle overtones.
  • Double-ply heads will produce a rounder, warmer tone than single-ply heads, and will also muffle overtones better.
  • Fluid heads will produce a rounder, warmer tone than standard double-ply heads.
  • "Woven" heads will withstand more punishment than standard heads, but will require more work to generate the same sound as a single-ply clear head.
  • Heads with "Sound Control Rings" (Remo Powerstroke3, Evans Genera with Muffle Ring) will drastically reduce overtones.

   So, what kind of music do you play: something needing a light, high, bright tonality, like jazz? Pick thin heads - coated or uncoated - and make sure you use coated on the snare so you can hear the brushes (ever try to play brushes on a clear head?). You want that big, boomy rock sound? Go for the thicker, double-ply, or hydraulic heads. Anything in-between is your call.

   Of course, rules are made to be broken. Try something different: experiment. Mix up different type on double-headed drums; how does the sound change with a double-ply batter head/single-ply bottom head as opposed to a coated batter head/double-ply bottom head?

   And, since this is my drumming site, you should know that I currently use Evans Genera Coated with Muffle Ring on the snares, Evans Hydraulic Oil on the toms, and Remo Powerstroke3 on the batter side of the bass (this is an excellent bass drum head: the muffling ring built in to this head provides all the overtone eradication you need, making possible minimal internal muffling, which allows for a really big, boomy bass sound). The front bass head is a manufacturer's signature head (made by Remo) with a six-inch hole cut off-center protected by a plastic Holz ring (highly recommended!).

   This is my head setup for rock music. These heads work for this style of music. When I play jazz I switch to Remo Coated Ambassadors on the toms and snare, tuned to higher pitches. When I play country I switch to Remo Pinstripes on the toms (same tuning as rock), and leave the Evans on the snare. The Powerstroke3 stays on the bass drum for any style of music.

  • Eric Renner writes:

   If you have an old bass head floating about somewhere- cut it in half and seperate it from the rim as close to the rim as possible. Take off your existing batter head and mount the half head inside your batter head- kinda like the old drum head ring concept, except using the shell and lugs to keep it tight. You have to align it carefully and maybe use some small foamies to eliminate any extra plasti-slap, but the sound is monster! Full, thick and tight, with minimal loss of volume.

Snare Drum

   The snare drum is a another matter. Many factors impact a fundamentally different approach to tuning.

   First off, the drum is smaller - more like a timbale than a tom - and is usually made of different materials than the toms, usually metal. Secondly, the snares require a unique approach to the tuning of the bottom head.

Bottom Head

   Let's start here. The bottom head doesn't have the impact on the top head tone as it does on the toms; that's not it's purpose (this is why a timbale - essentially a metal snare without the snares - doesn't have a bottom head - it doesn't need one). The bottom head of a snare drum is there to provide a vibrating surface for the snares; that's it. So, tuning the bottom head is mostly about snare vibration.

   [I should state here that tuning the bottom head to the same pitch as the top head will help "open up" the tone of the drum - the effect isn't as dramatic as in the toms, but it's still there.]

   The rule of thumb is this:

  • The tighter the bottom head, then more the snares will vibrate.
  • The looser the bottom head, the less the snares will vibrate.

   Tune the bottom head to get the desired snare effect.

   As a sidebar, keep in mind that the snare vibration is also affected by the tightness of the strainer - the tighter the strainer the shorter the duration of the buzz; the looser the strainer, the longer the duration of the buzz. You can use this to interesting effect, depending on the type of music you're playing.

   (See below under Special Effects for ideas to help eliminate snare buzz.)

Top Head

   The tuning of the top head is more of an independant taste thing, again depending on the type of music you're playing. If you're playing rock which requires a lower, fatter sound, then tune the top head more loosely. Music that requires a higher, articulated sound would see the top head tuned very high. But, of course, this is all a matter of personal taste - some of the best rock drummers tune their snares very high!

   Your best bet would be to spend an afternoon fooling around with the snare tuning and muffling, trying all kinds of different combinations. You'll be amazed at the array of different sounds you can get, especially if you incorporate the striking position into your mix! (See Technique.)


   Here's where things get really subjective. Many drummers over the years have employed some really wacky methods of muffling drums. The reasons for doing this usually fall into three categories:

  • Getting rid of that nasty ringing overtone.
  • Muting the sound and shortening the decay.
  • Getting a warmer, rounder, "fatter" tone out of the drum.

   How is this acheived? Tape, pillows, napkins, yarn, foam, wallets, goopy stuff, kleenex, sheets, felt, packing chips, band-aids, blankets, paper, clothing, money, small animals. . . .

   The end is listless!

   The muffling effect depends on how much material you apply and where you apply it. To eliminate ring, a small piece of tissue taped to the edge of the head usually suffices. You can also get mylar rings to place over the drum to rid the overtones and "fatten" the sound (or, as Geoff Kozma suggests, cut rings from old heads - they do the same thing and don't cost you any money!). Some people put foam rings or strips on the inside of the heads - I've even seen people stick big hunks of foam to the top of the drum: I don't know how they hit the thing!

  • If all you want to do is kill overtones, a small amount of material taped near the edge of the head will do.
  • If you want to seriously limit (or even kill) the decay, more material will be necessary; lots of gaffers tape usually works here (take a look at the liner shots from The Beatles "Let It be" album: Ringo put a towel or small sheet right over the snare drum! Try it! Your drum will sound just like Ringo's!).
  • If you want to make the sound warmer, rounder, or "fatter" those mylar rings work very well. They can usually make even the crappiest heads sound pretty good (no excuse for not learning proper tuning methods, though!).

   When playing rock with the Evans Hydraulic Oil heads, I usually don't use any muffling on the toms. When I use Remo Coated Ambassadors on the toms I use Mylar rings to muffle the overtones and give me a warmer sound. Since I use an Evans head on the snare with a Muffle Ring, I don't need any other muffling on this drum. The bass drum has a small DW pillow - the hourglass-shaped one - and is pretty potent; no more blankets or pillows, thanks to the Powerstroke-3 head!

  • Jared Nichols writes:
  •    A good technique I found that works good in muffling toms and snares is to just cut out different sizes of felt with a hole in the middle and place them on the outside of the head. You may need to secure them to the drum. Some kinds of felt can glow in blacklights and in the dark. It is a cool visual sometimes.

Special Effects

   Earlier on I alluded to a method of acheiving that "bwow" sound - where the pitch goes down during the decay - either without tuning the bottom head higher than the top, or on single-headed drums. This is done by simply de-tuning one lug on the top head, usually the lug farthest from you. You will have to crank up the remaining lugs to get the original pitch of the drum back. How much should you loosen up this single nut? Loosen it so that it just disengages from the hoop, then tighten it about two turns so it won't loosen anymore on its own and rattle.

   Some drummers use small chains on their cymbals for a sizzler effect. What would happen if you used them on your toms? You'll probably have to tape them to the inside of the bottom head so you won't have to worry about hitting them.

   Most snare drums come with 20-strand snares. You can buy 40-strand snares. These will give you a wetter sound: more snares, more snare effect. it's not a doubling of the snare action, but you can definately hear the difference. These usually help with those deep drums: the deeper the drum the less snare response you will get when you hit the drum lightly.

   Try using small chains instead of snares. Cut the wires off an old snare and replace them with the chain.

   Before you put your heads back on, lay down a small, circular strip of thin cotton on the edge. This will diminish the attack of the head, giving the drum a softer sound.

   Do your snares buzz when you hit the toms? Two things will help (one or the other, or both):

  • Loosen up the lugs that straddle the snares on the bottom head .
  • Put a small pad of kleenex between the snares and the bottom head (close to the edge). Use only about two layers of kleenex; this will diminish your snare response somewhat, so it's a trade-off.
  • Tom writes:
  •    In regard to your advice on putting "a small piece of tissue (kleenex) between the snares," you might want to try using dryer sheets as an alternative. You can place these on the top head, along the snares, or even inside of the shell for unique muffling applications. Experiment by cutting the sheets into different shapes. You can cut them in a crescent shape to fit along the edge of the rim (so as to not interfere with sticking). To prevent the sheet from floating away, you can add a little tape to it just to add weight. Plus, they can make your drums smell nice when you and the rest of the band don't!

  • Steve writes:

   Since the toms are tuned to a specific "frequency", they will often cause a sympathetic buzz on the snare. One way to eliminate this is to first tune the toms in fourths or thirds (depending on drum size) and then tune the snare. The batter head should be tuned somewhere between the mid and low end toms, going back and forth between the tom and the snare batter until the "buzz" is gone, tuning only the snare batter. This will allow the player to come full circle without getting a "buzz." For lighter, jazzy styles, the snare batter can be tuned between the high and mid tom with the same result.

   If playing live, you can tune with the bass player, leading to a complementary sound and getting rid of buzz from the bass or keyboard as well.

   Getting that nice, fat "thump" from your bass drum can be a challenge. Most people usually resort to a big blanket or pillow. Proper tuning, however, is always the best place to start. As with the toms, tune the batter head first. A nice, low pitch will do: make sure the head is in tune with itself. Then, tune the front head a bit lower, usually just tightening it past the point at which it's completely loose.

   A small hole cut in the front head has three uses:

  • It lets the air escape so the batter head isn't too tight: this can cause the footpedal to bounce too much and may result in unwanted double-kicks.
  • It allows you to stick a microphone in the drum using a goosenecked stand.
  • It lets you adjust the internal damping.

   As for the last item, a well-tuned bass drum head will require a minimum of damping. Make sure only a small amount of material is touching the batter head. I use one of those DW pillows, and it works great! It doesn't kill the tone of the drum like a blanket, but it controls the overtones. This is really all you're after.

   One trick I have found is to do with the bass drum skin, I know there are special bass drum skins with like a nylon patch in the middle to get a better sort of "snap" but also bass sound out of the skin. Now since I'm extremely poor (I'm a musician by trade... so we can all imagine!) I couldn't afford one of these skins, so I tried some other things instead of a nylon patch. The best thing I found to work is a credit card. If you tape a credit card onto the side of the skin where you strike it with the kick pedal (so the credit card is on the side of the skin facing you) you will get a sort of snap sound to your bass drum which I must say beefs up the sound no end! I found if you use gaffa tape (the musicians friend) it sticks it too hard, you want to get a sort of resonance from it, so I found if you use ordinary sellotape on the top and bottom edges of the card you get a much better sound!

   For bass drum tuning... I found the following to work best: In order to get that nice attack "thump" sound, tighten the batter head lugs finger tight only. Tighten them as tight as your fingers can get the lugs. Do the same for the front head, only use the drum key to tighten about 1/4 turn past finger tight. And as noted make use of porting the front head and use an EQ pad and/or EMAD or Power stroke head.
   This method provides excellent attack and the little bit of muffling provided by the EQ pad and EMAD head (my personal preference), provide control over unwanted overtones and head vibration. I have found controlling the batter head vibration with an EQ pad or small pillow is paramount for consistency in using double bass pedals.

  • David Cleaves writes:

   Sometimes if I am playing heavier music, especially death metal, I take a half dollar coin or a silver dollar, and tape it on the outside of my kick drum skin where the beater hits the skin. With the right beater (not the soft pillowy kind) it provides a 'clicky' attack to the kick drum that a lot of metal drummers are looking for.

   When all else fails, try hitting the drum with something other than a drumstick! You never know what kind of sounds you'll discover.


   I get alot of e-mail from drummers all over the world, and the #1 issue they want answers to is the area of tuning. That says something, doesn't it?

   Also, please keep in mind that room acoustics play an important role in a drum's sound. Some rooms make my drums sound great, other rooms are very frustrating to me: I can do nothing to improve the drum sound.

   Remember: the more experimenting you do, the less you'll fear the tuning process and the more range of interesting sounds you'll get from your drums. Drop me a line and let me know if this has been useful! Also, let me know some other tuning tricks you've come up with and I'll share them here with other visitors to my site.

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