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How to Tune a Drum Set

Getting Your Drums Sounding Right

Last Updated: December 2023 | 2142 words (10 – 12 minute read)

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A lot of beginner’s to the drum set may not realize that there is still a small element of pitch to percussive sounds like the drums.

So it’s easy to neglect the fact that drum tuning is an important part of playing the drums like a pro.

In this guide on how to tune drum sets, we’ll tell you the how and why of doing things right so you can sound your best when you sit down to play.

If you’re completely new to playing the drums, check out our complete beginner’s guide to drumming first.

Otherwise, let’s get right into it…


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What Is Drum Tuning and Why Do It?

Drum tuning is the process of loosening/tightening your drum’s “head” (the part you strike) so you get the type of sound you want from it.

Because there’s still at least some pitch to a drum sound, we can loosely aim for a tonal center to our drum kit, to help us blend better with other instruments.

But beyond that, proper drum tuning allows you to get (and maintain) a full and clear tone from all your drums. 

Drum tuning, then, is an important skill to learn so that the drums sound punchy and that everything in the band sounds tight, like it fits together.

No one likes a muddy, rumbly tom…

How Often Should You Tune Drums?

The simple fact is, the better hardware you have the more likely your drums will stay in tune longer.

But all instruments get out of tune for a variety of reasons:

  • How often you’re playing your instrument
  • How often you move your instrument around
  • The material it’s made of
  • The instrument’s build quality.

But I guess the most important thing to consider is how much does having a “perfect” sound matter to you?

If it matters a lot, then you can fine-tune your drums every time you sit down to play.

If it doesn’t, then you can do it weekly or monthly. 

Of course, if you notice that your drums are out of tune or sound weird, it’s a good idea to fix it up.

What Pitch Should You Tune Drums To?

This can depend on a number of factors.

Of course, if you wanted to be anal about it, you would tune your drums to the tonal center (i.e. the root note/key) of the song you’re about to play.

But that’s completely impractical, especially in live settings (unless all your songs are in the same damn key).

So what some drummers will do is tune to the “genre” of the music they’re about to play. A lot of genres of music have specific drum tones associated with them. That “sound” often depends on more than just the tuning, however (like the drum heads used).

But what many drummers also do is tune one drum to an overall sound they like, and then tune the rest of the drums relative to that main drum they started with.

Of course, if you’re just starting out that type of ear training (just knowing when something sounds “right”) can be elusive.

Just keep experimenting, and you’ll eventually learn what sounds good to you.

What to Know Before Tuning Your Drum Set

There isn’t a lot you need to know, but there are some crucial elements.

The drum “head” is the mylar surface that you actually strike when playing the drums. It’s a plastic sheet that is stretched across the drum “shell.”

It’s held in place by several “pegs” which we call the tuning pegs.

Those pegs are turned by using a small device called a “drum key” to tighten or loosen the drum head’s stretch.

There are drum heads on both sides of each drum shell. You’ll need to tune both.

The Physics of Drum Sounds

When you hit the top head of a drum, air gets pushed downwards toward the bottom. The bottom drum head then pushes the air back up to the top.

This air moves back and forth and keeps the drum head vibrating. That’s what allows a drum’s sound to sustain.

The thicker the bottom drum head, the more resonance the drum creates.

If you remove the bottom head, the resulting sound has less resonance. That can sometimes be a creative choice, if that’s the “sound” you’re looking for.

But normally you’ll tune both heads to get a nice, sustained sound.

How to Tune a Drum Kit

This guide assumes that you’ve already got your drum hardware set up and you’re only looking to tune the heads for a cohesive sound.

We won’t be going over the steps to actually setup new drum heads on a shell.

Step 1 – Loosen the Tension Rods

The first thing you need to do is choose your “focus” drum (like the snare, for example) and completely detune both drum heads.

The tension rods should be completely loose. Make sure the drum head is seated properly on the shell.

Step 2 – Start Tuning Your Focus Drum

Start with the bottom drum head first, then move on to the top head when tuning a drum.

Now, start by turning the tension rods with your fingers until they are “finger tight.”

Now that they’re “sort-of” tight, you’ll be using one full “turn” of the drum key at a time, per rod to tighten them the rest of the way.

Diagonal Pattern

You don’t want to tune the rods clockwise or counter-clockwise. Instead, you should move along the drum head in a diagonal pattern.

Tune one rod, and then tune the rod directly opposite to it. Then move diagonally across the head again to tune another rod.

Remember to use one full turn of the key each time, so each rod is worked equally. You don’t want different amounts of tension for different tuning rods.

You’ll need to do this several times to get a good, firm level of tightness across the head.

Strike Gently While Tuning

Using your drum stick, gently strike the drum head that you’re tuning while you continue to tighten the rods.

Repeat this process until you start to hear the drum sound “good” to your ears.

Remember, you want a full and punchy sound coming from the drum.

Fine Tune Pitch

Now that the head is tight enough to be played, you can start to fine-tune the pitch of the drum (if you desire).

Keep working in the same way – diagonally, lightly striking the drum head with your stick – with quarter turns of the tuning rods this time.

Try out different things. If you want the drum to be in tune to a song or specific tonal center then tune both the top and the drum heads to the same pitch.

But if you want to try and get a more interesting tone from your drum, try mismatching the pitches of the top/bottom heads and see what happens.

Step 3 – Tune the Rest of the Kit

Once you’ve got your first drum head tuned to your liking, you can use it to compare to the rest of the drums when tuning them.

If you started with your snare, move to the kick drum next. 

Use the same method of tuning as you did with your first drum. Tune it to a tension that makes it sound like it “fits together” with your first drum.

This can take some trial and error, but over time you’ll learn what you like as a sound.

Once you’re done with the kick, you can move on to the toms, starting with the high tom and moving down from there.

Tips for Tuning Specific Drums

Now that you’re familiar with the overall drum tuning process, let’s talk about some specifics. Below are some tips for tuning each type of drum in the most effective way.

These aren’t hard and fast rules, and your preferred sound will depend on your personal tastes.

But these are some general guidelines you can use to help you tune the right way, especially when you’re first starting out.

Tuning Tom Tom Drums

Snare Drum

Your choice of drum head for the snare will definitely impact the sound you’re able to get. If you want a more controlled sound, opt for a thicker head. A thinner head will have more sustain to it.

And when you’re tuning your snare drum, remember to disengage the actual snares (the thing draped across the bottom head of the drum) while you’re tuning. This will allow you to hear the true tone/pitch of the snare drum.

As you’re tightening the rods, hit the head nearby the rod to make sure you’re getting a consistent sound for each one.

Bring up the snares and test the drum head all around. Fine-tune the rods until you get to the type of sound you like.

Toms

When you’re tuning your toms, start with the high tom first. Usually your toms won’t need a ton of tightening to find the ideal tuning.

You’re looking for a sound that is nice and tight on the attack (the initial “pop” of the drum sound), along with a nice, sustained ringing that trails off gradually.

Since toms have more pitch than a snare or kick, you can try using a tuner if you’d like to match a certain note.

When tuning the rest of the toms, they are normally tuned a fourth interval apart from each other.

If you’re unsure what a fourth interval is, check out our basic music theory guides. But for the sake of an example, if you tuned your high tom to an F, the middle tom would be tuned to a C.

The same interval can be used between the middle tom and the floor tom.

Or just throw that rule out the window and do whatever sounds right to you!

Kick Drum

What you’re looking for from a kick drum is a nice deep sound with a “punchy” attack (the initial “pop” of a sound). 

Normally, a kick drum will be tuned below the low E note of a bass guitar. But an easier way to do things is to just experiment until you get a tone that you like and one that compliments the snare drum.

The kick is felt as much as it is heard, so make sure that full, clear punch is present.

If you want a tighter tone, then tune the batter head (the drum head that gets hit by the pedal) lower in pitch than the back/resonant kick drum head.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are Drums Tuned?

Yes, drums are always tuned because the drum heads stretch over a drum shell with a certain amount of tension. The amount of tension stretching the drum head directly impacts the tuning of each drum’s pitch center.

Are Drums Tuned to a Key or Note?

Yes, sometimes drums are tuned to a specific key, but not always. Most drummers focus more on the resonance and “stick bounce” when tuning, rather than tuning to a specific pitch or key center.

Does Drum Tuning Matter?

Yes, drum tuning matters and directly impacts the sound, resonance and overall fit of the drums in relation to other instruments. Tuning your drums too loose does not allow for proper resonance. And tuning your drums to a specific key can help them “fit” better with other instruments being played.

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    Final Thoughts

    It’s important to note that this guide is exclusively about tuning your drums properly, and not about achieving any specific tone, necessarily.

    That’s a whole other guide in and of itself. But achieving a great overall drum tone, is separate from having properly tuned drum heads.

    And even this beginner’s guide, doesn’t get into the nitty-gritty of experimenting with various drum tuning techniques.

    Both achieving a great tone and drum tuning itself are giant rabbit holes you can now fall down, if you like.

    If you really want to level up your drumming, I highly recommend you use a drum practice/training app like Melodics – you’ll improve your rhythm and groove whether you use electronic/acoustic drums or want to finger drum.

    Thanks for reading this guide on how to tune a drum kit properly! I hope it was helpful.

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    About The Author:

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    Omar Zulfi

    Omar Zulfi is a music producer, rapper, singer, songwriter and digital entrepreneur. He is the founder and head writer at Deviant Noise. Learn more about what he's doing by clicking here.