Drum Tuning - How To Tune Toms (In-Depth Tutorial)

2 Aug 2013

Toms, or Tom-Toms, are the glue that holds our drum kits together. Whether you have two or twelve, each provide a means of movement throughout a musical piece. When tuned correctly, they can be our favorite drums to play. Tuning the Toms can be daunting at first, but once you’ve grasped the techniques outlined in this tutorial, you will be amazed at how awesome your drums will sound.

This tutorial assumes you are putting new drum heads on your tom. If you’re using older heads and want to follow the tutorial, just evenly loosen the tension rods on both sides of the drum and remove the rods, hoops, and heads to start anew.

First Things First

I prefer to begin with the resonant or bottom side of the drum. This lets us focus on the fundamental pitch of the drum first, so that’s where we’ll start.

The first step to tuning a tom, or any drum for that matter, is clearing the bearing-edge of debris. Most commonly they are dirt, grease, and wood chips from sticks.

Just use a clean cotton cloth (micro-fiber if you’re fancy) and run around the edge of the drum. This provides a nice clean contact between drum head and bearing-edge.

Seating The Head

The most important thing you can do to ensure that your toms tune up correctly and will stay in tune, is properly seating the head. While this may sound like a “no-brainer”, most drummers either overlook this step or just assume that by placing the head on the drum and rotating it a couple times, that they’ve seated the head correctly.

A properly seated drum head is one that is centered on the drum shell, and at an equal distance from the ring of the head to the bearing edge throughout the diameter of the drum. This allows the hoop of the drum to apply an even amount of downward pressure on all sides of the drum head and prevents over tensioning of a single side.

It sounds far more difficult than it is when put into words. Just place the drum head on the shell, secure the hoop atop the drum head, then, eye down over the drum and adjust its position until the distance between the hoops edge and the bearing edge are equal around the drum.

Begin Tensioning

After seating the head, thread in the tension rods until they are almost touching the hoop. At this point make sure that you haven’t louis vuitton luggage set the head around while threading the tension rods, throwing off your seating. If the head has moved, just repeat the previous steps to ensure that the head is seated correctly and will receive even tension.

Now grab a set of tension rods toms shoes outlet opposing sides of the drum with your fingers and begin tightening them until you feel they are snug on the hoop. This is commonly referred to as “finger tight”. Don’t overdo it though. From there, skip over one tension rod in a counter-clockwise fashion and grab the following set of tension rods bringing them to a finger tight position. Repeat this around the drum until all rods are finger tight.

When all rods are finger-tight, break out the drum key and pick a tension rod. I like to begin with the rod at the 12 o’clock position. Begin by turning the key 1/4 of a turn. Move to the tension rod on the opposite side of the drum ( the 6 o’clock position in my case ) and turn it 1/4 of a turn just as before. Again, in a counter-clockwise fashion, skip over a rod and land on the following one. Turn this tension rod 1/4 of a turn. From this rod, move across the drum to the opposing tension rod and turn it 1/4 of a turn. Are you sensing a pattern yet?

The Star Formation

This is known as the star formation of tuning. It ensures that you evenly tension down the hoop in a consistent pattern. The pattern is dependent on the number of lugs the drum you’re tuning has. Six and ten lug drums are the easiest. The only alteration when dealing with a ten lug drum is to skip over two rods instead of only one. For eight and (the rare) twelve lug drums it gets a little more complicated, but is the same practice.

The Desired Pitch

When all tension rods around the head have received your first 1/4 turn, you have made your first pass. Of course 1/4 turn on each rod is going to result in a very loose and lifeless head. In general two to three passes are required to bring the head up to a resonating tension. This is where personal preference comes into play. If you want a lower sounding tom with lots of body, two passes should be plenty. If you want a higher pitched tom clearly more passes are required.

This is why I prefer starting on the resonant side of the drum. Here we can find the desired pitch we want our tom to be set at. There’s no one correct pitch to tune your drum to, it’s all dependent on the sound you’re after and what is pleasing to your ears.

Fine Tuning

Now that our resonant head is at the desired pitch, let’s make sure the tension at each rod is even.

If the opposite head is on the drum while fine tuning, remember to mute it with carpet, pillow, etc.

Tuning By Ear-

One form of achieving this is tuning by ear. Simply stated, this is closely listening to the overtones that are sounded by tapping near each tension rod and matching those pitches around the drum. John Good of DW Drums has a method which I prefer. It involves using both pointer and middle finger together ( like making finger pistols ) and tapping over each lug so that the center knuckle of your middle finger hits directly on the hoop and the tip of that finger strikes the head. This results in a far more accurate striking position when moving around the drum rather than tapping at random with your finger, stick, or drum key. Listen to the overtones of each respective rod and find the one ( or louis vuitton luggage set ones ) that you prefer. When matching the rest of the overtones remember this one simple rule-

Always tune UP to pitch, never down.

If a tension rods overtone is too high, loosen it by 1/4 turn, tap with your “finger pistol”, and bring it up to the desired pitch matching that of the other rods.

Tuning With A Tension Watch-

If you don’t have perfect pitch, or would like to make this process a little easier on yourself, look into purchasing a drum tension watch. I personally use the Drum Dial. (pictured at right) They make both an analog and digital version. My experience lies with the analog version and I love it for fast and easy fine tuning. On toms, I find that a reading between 70-75 on the resonant head is just right, though this is entirely dependent on the drum head. With an Evans G1, a reading of 73 is perfect.

Hey Batter Batter

With the resonant head seated properly, at the desired pitch, and fine tuned, we can move on to the batter head. It’s OK… take a breath. You’ve already done the difficult part. Tuning the batter head is the exact same process, except we now have a fundamental pitch already established to base our tuning off of.

They’re a couple of ways to approach the batter head.

Heads at the same pitch (In Sympathy)
Batter head tuned at a higher pitch than the resonant (Downward drop in pitch/ less sustain)
Batter head tuned at a lower pitch than the resonant (Less defined pitch/ longer sustain)

My favorite is matching the pitch of the batter with that of the resonant. This method lets the heads resonate sympathetically, resulting in a full-bodied tone with a controlled sustain.

With any of these methods, just follow the previous steps we went over on the resonant head, making sure the bearing-edge is clean and the head is seated properly. As you make each pass, strike the head in the center (remembering to mute the opposite head) and listen to the pitch. Flip the drum and strike the resonant head (again, while muting the opposite head) listening to its pitch, then compare between the two. Continue your passes on the batter until you’ve reached your desired pitch in respect to the resonant.

After the pitches of both heads are relatively close, it’s time to fine tune. As with the resonant, this can be done either by ear or with a tension watch. Do your best to get even tension around the head and, if afterwards the pitch between the resonant and batter head are off, make fine adjustments to correct it. (Tension Watch settings vary here, but aim for a reading between 73-82 on the batter head)

One thing to keep in mind; the batter head is typically thicker than the resonant head, so it will require more passes to reach the proper pitch.

At the end of the day, the goal is to find what sounds good to YOUR ears and not obsess over the minor details. Like any practice, the more you do it, the better your results will be!


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