Tuning Your Drums

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ranges

In this illustration I have used a keyboard graphic to show pitch comparison between drums. This graph came about after many years of listening to recordings of different styles and comparing the pitch of each drum on each recording to notes on a piano. What I found was that drummers were tuning individual drums within a certain range to make them sound their best and give the best response. As you can see, the natural range of each drum is a major third (augmented fourth for the snare), although from time to time this range can be extended either higher or lower.

Whether they were aware of it or not, I also found that drummers were tuning their drums in a musical way, so the drum pitches relate harmonically to each other. A very common and modern-sounding way to tune toms is to tune them in fourths, where the pitch of each tom varies consistently by 5 semitones (for example 10"Eb, 12"Bb, 14"F). Another common tuning is where drummers tune the top toms closer together with a bigger gap between the low toms (for example 10"E, 12"C, 14"F - this outlines an F major 7th chord). Some jazz drummers choose a major triad for their tom tuning (for example 10"Eb, 12"C, 14"Ab), but generally tune their drums tighter for better response.

By comparing each drum's fundamental tone to a note on a piano (or other melodic instrument) I have found I can tune individual drums very quickly. Suspend the tom or snare (with snares off) off the ground and strike in the middle to assess the drum's fundamental tone. Adjust the tension according to what pitches you need for your drums. A good starting point for a 'fusion' sized kit is this:

Rock Tuning (medium-tight head tension):

14" Snare 

 10" Tom

12" Tom 

14" Tom 

Ab

 D or Eb

 Bb

 F

Jazz/Fusion Tuning (tighter head tension):

14" Snare 

 10" Tom

12" Tom 

14" Tom 

A

 F

 C

 G

When I'm recording, this method allows me to tune each drum to a pitch that will sound harmonious with the tonality of the song. For example, if the song is in the key of G major, you might tune the drums around a G major chord or G major scale (G, A, B, C, D, E, F#), for example:

14" Snare 

 10" Tom

12" Tom 

14" Tom 

B

 E

 B

 G or F#

This suggestion uses a tighter head tension. It is very similar to Vinnie Colaiuta's tuning in the example later. Another tuning suggestion for G major using a lower head tension is:

14" Snare 

 10" Tom

12" Tom 

14" Tom 

G or A

 D

 B

 E

Nowdays it is popular to tune each drum towards the top of its range (tighter head tension), as can be heard in the following examples of Marco Minnemann, Vinnie Colaiuta and Keith Carlock: 

marco Click to hear Marco Minnemann's drums on Youtube.

In this video Marco's toms are tuned in fourths, and the snare is very tight:

14" Snare 

 10" Tom

12" Tom 

14" Tom 

 16" Tom

 C

 F

 C

 G

 D

 

vinnie videoClick to hear Vinnie Colaiuta's drums on Youtube.

In this video Vinnie's toms are tuned one semitone lower than Marco's, again in fourths, and the snare is tuned a minor third lower than Marco's:

14" Snare 

 10" Tom

12" Tom 

14" Tom 

 16" Tom

 A

 E

 B

 F#

 C#

 

keith videoClick to hear Keith Carlock's drums on Youtube.

Here Keith's toms are tuned to Bb Minor, and the snare is tuned to the 7th of that chord:

14" Snare 

 10" Tom

12" Tom 

14" Tom 

 16" Tom

 Ab

 F

 Bb

 F

 Db


Bob Gatzen (from Evans Heads) offers some very sensible advice about drum tuning in his Youtube videos.

 
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