drum key

There are three basic ways to tune a double-headed drum:

  • Both heads (top & bottom) tuned exactly the same.
  • The top head tuned higher/tighter than the bottom head.
  • The top head tuned lower/looser than the bottom head.

The first method is more popular with jazz drummers, the second method is probably used the least, and the third method is easily the most widely used and the one I use the most.

I tune the bottom (resonant) head of the toms to the pitch that I am desiring, then tune the top (batter) head more for feel, which is fairly loose. The relationship between the top and bottom tom head is usually one of the following: Perfect 5th, Perfect 4th, Minor 3rd ... depending on what I am going for and the sound I need. The Minor 3rd interval seems to be the best for the least amount of ring ... probably due to the harmonic series and how the partials react to the overall sound.

The interval from drum to drum (toms only) is usually a Perfect 4th or Perfect 5th. The more toms I have, the closer the intervals. I typically use four toms, all even sizes (10, 12, 14, 16) and I have no problem getting a Perfect 5th interval between each of them. If I had my 13 inch tom in the equation it would definitely change things. When that happens, it's usually mounted to my left and I tune it with a entirely different sound in mind; I don't try to blend it with the rest. Each drum is only going to have a certain range that it can work in. If you've got two dozen tom toms in your set-up, you'd be hard pressed to get them all a Perfect 5th apart; it would be impossible actually because they don't make drumheads (or drums) that big!!!

I need to point out that each drum has it's own characteristics and will have a tuning sweet spot that you will want to find. It's physically impossible for a drum to have a perfect pitch of any sort. Even timpani, being a "pitched" instrument, does NOT reproduce a scientifically perfect pitch. It's close enough that our ears just accept it ... well, when tuned properly.

With my snares, I try to find the sweet spot; the tuning that enhances the natural pitch and vibration of the drum shell. The pitch relationship between the top and bottom is Method 3, with the interval relationship between the heads being anything from a Perfect 5th, all the way down to a Major 2nd (like on marching snares). You'll need to experiment to find the best tuning for each of your snares. Also I need to mention that you will have to tune the snare in such a way that it doesn't sound, via sympathetic vibrations, when you strike your toms. This has been a source of frustration for drummers ... for decades!

Lastly, the kick or bass drum, who's tuning varies a lot depending on what I want. I typically will crank the drumheads, get a good seat on the bearing edge, then back off the tension till the point where a pitch can not be heard. There's a pivot or breaking point where the head doesn't want to vibrate very much. I keep the tension of my primary kick drum right at that point; sometimes a little above and sometimes a little below.

It should be noted that drums will respond and sound differently depending on the drum, the drumhead, the room, the stick, the way it's played, etc., etc. It's not uncommon to have to "tweak" the drumhead a bit when playing in a variety of venues and studios.