As a drummer, tuning your skins is part of the job. How to tune your drums, while being a craft in and of itself, is largely dependent on the type of sound you want.
The thing to remember is that you can tune your drums to the key of a song, which will give the sound of your set a sense of belonging within a composition. For instance, if you’re playing a tune in A-Minor, you can tune your set to that key. Alternately, if the tune is in a major key, you can also tune accordingly.
But, before we even think about melodic drum tuning, there are a couple basics to consider.
Drum Tuning Basics
The basic skill of tuning a drum head is very similar to putting on a tire. You first want to place the head on the drum, and hand-tighten the lugs just so it’s barely holding the head in place.
Then, many people will push on the head with their fist. You’ll see there are wrinkles on the drum head—then, choose one lug and start to tighten slightly. But, don’t tighten the lug all the way, as you want to switch the lug on the opposite side of the drum and start to tighten that one.
Then, move to the next lug on the opposite side of that one, until you’ve been around a couple times. Once the wrinkles on the drum head are gone, you will have a secure and, for the time-being, ready-to-play drum head.
Tuning Without a Tuner
The essential point to consider when tuning drums is whether or not they all sound good together. After you’ve got your drum heads securely in place, you can start creating a pleasing relationship between them.
Assuming you understand the idea that drums can have notes, you can take a couple simple approaches. Without a tuner, you are essentially choosing a pitch, and going from that one to establish the pitches for the rest of the drums.
It’s also important to know that in tuning a drum, you will always follow the “changing tire” rule—start with one lug, then go to the lug on the opposite side of the drum, and so on.
Now you need to think about intervals. One of the most common interval sets is a major triad. So, you’ll start with your first drum, then tune the next one a whole third from the first. Then, the next drum a fifth from the first, and so on.
You can also tune a drum into a minor key, for which the same rules apply. However many drums you have to tune, you’ll simply tune the second drum in relation to the first, the third in relation to the second, and so on.
Tuning With a Tuner
If you’re lucky enough to have a drum tuner—which most serious drummers do—you’ll be able to identify the exact note your drum is tuned to.
This makes it easy to tune to, say, F-Major. Your first drum, most likely your snare, will be tuned to F. Place the tuner either on or near the drum, and give it a hit. The reading you get from the tuner is what note the drum is currently tuned to.
Make the slight adjustments on the drum lugs to bring the drum up or down, with special attention to tightening or loosening all the lugs in the same “changing tire” fashion. Then, once F has been tuned, move to the next drum and tune it to the third tone in F-Major, A. Then, move to the next one and tune it to G, the fifth in F-Major.
Again, you can change the notes based on preference, scale, or tune. It’s also important to remember that there is no hard-and-fast rule to tuning drums—many people will find their own tunings they particularly like, or different tunings to achieve different effects.
Now that you’re all tuned up, get playing!