28th Oct 2014

How Should I Tune My Drum

You have been drumming for a short time and for your upcoming performance you want to tune your drum(s). The question becomes how should I tune my drum? Does my drum have a certain pitch it should be set to?

There is no simple right or wrong answer to this, but I will lay out a few suggestions. The ultimate answer is to do what sounds and feels right to you the performer.

The point to state first is, yes, there is a perfect note for each drum. All instruments have a natural resonance that projects along with the pitch that is being played. This is called the timbre. The timbre of a drum is defined by the resonance of the shell. Some manufactures will place a label displaying the pitch others won’t. You can discover this pitch by resonating the shell and listening for the pitch, or by tuning the drumheads and finding the right pitch of where your drum will sing.

The problem with this perfect pitch is it isn’t always the perfect choice and can be very time consuming to find. If you are playing on one drum by yourself, then that Fundamental Pitch might be just right but if you are playing with others there might be better choices.

To consider other options, there are two approaches that will yield similar results. One is to tune your drum to a particular pitch; the other is to tune to intervals. The biggest difference being that tuning to a pitch brings you in line with your ensemble while tuning to an interval brings all the drums you might be playing in line with themselves.

Tuning to a particular pitch is fairly straightforward. Pick a set of notes that reflect the key signatures of the songs your ensemble will play. The down side, of course, is that you may be playing in different keys and you cannot easily change the pitch during a performance. Instead many drummers will pick a set of intervals when tuning their drums. Interval means the difference in pitch between two notes. In Western music, intervals are based on the major scale and become the basis for building chords. Just like different chords create different feelings on a guitar or piano, different intervals on drums will create a different feeling as well.

Different genres of music have different common intervals. Find out what is common for the type of music you are playing. For example, a Jazz ensemble might use II, V, and VIII while a Blues ensemble might use I, IV, and V. Some famous drummers have, over the years, defined what notes they will play and stick to that regardless of the performance. Poncho Sanchez and Mongo Santa Maria are known for using E, G, and C (III, V, and VIII) which is good for Latin Jazz.

Your choices are endless. Feel free to experiment and find what sounds best to you. I will throw in a couple caveats: know your drum and its range. Sure, you can crank down on your conga to the point that they sound like bongos, but you would be defeating the purpose of investing in congas. And your drumhead (and drum) aren’t likely to survive very long. It could be fun to experiment to find what kinds of sounds you can produce but your audience will expect your drum to produce a certain color of sound and in most cases it is best to stick with that.

The other caveat is tuning the bottom head (or Resonant Head). If your drum has a second head on the bottom, generally, it should be tuned to a hire pitch. As its name implies, the Resonant Head helps the drum resonate. A higher tuned bottom head creates a crisper brighter sound. Beyond that the sky’s the limit. Remember to have fun and let the music flow.