17th August 2008 - Drum Tuning Tips by Bob Armstrong (RS Archive Post)

Bob Armstrong is the UK's most respected drum teacher.  His roster includes many top professional drummers, including Alan White, Andy Gangadeen, Andrew Small, Alan White, Darrin Mooney and many more...

Tuning a drum is an acquired skill that takes patience and experimentation but more importantly the tuning of your own ears to the sound that you actually want to hear.  I often get students bringing a snare drum or tom tom along to a lesson with a cry for help.  The most common fault I find is that they have tried to tune a ten-inch tom (for example) to the pitch of an eight-inch drum, or the other way, to the pitch of a twelve-inch drum.  Looked at simply, a drum is a tube and the tubes come in different lengths (take a look at a pipe organ!) and each tube will resonate at its natural pitch.Before we go into further detail on the tuning subject, let's briefly talk about some routine maintenance which I hope will be logical…

General Tuning Maintenance

When a drum is struck, air is expelled very sharply through the air hole on the side of the drum as the heads compress, and as the heads return air is sucked back into the drum, sucking in all sorts of dust and grit.  This same dust and grit gradually works its way under the hoop of the head and the bearing edge of the drum.  When replacing drumheads just make sure that the bearing edges of each drum and the hoops are thoroughly cleaned and clear of any grit. 

I am sometimes amazed that many people seem never to have heard of 'a drop of oil'.  Put a small amount of oil on each tension rod before returning them to the nut boxes.  This will ensure that each rod will turn easily which will of course help with fine-tuning.  It is also important to oil the snare release, as this is one piece of the mechanism that you don't want to be struggling with.

When you put a new head on a drum line up the logo on the drumhead with the badge on the side of the drum.  This ensures that if you have to take the head off for any reason, you will be able to put it back on the drum in exactly the same place.  This is important because over time the head will have seated itself, like a valve, to the bearing edge of the drum.

The Snare Drum

The snare head should be of a thin weight, such as the Remo Diplomat or Ambassador or the equivalent in other makes.  The batter head (the one that you hit) is personal to the sound that you are looking for.  For example, a Remo Ambassador (rough coat) would suit jazz or light funk work, while a Remo Emperor head would suit something heavier.  

I believe that you tension a snare drum rather than tune it.  For the most responsive snare snap the head should be tightened right up.  If you can push the head in with your fingers then the head is not tight enough, but go easy at first, you will get a feel for it. 

When you put the head on the drum tighten all the tension rods down with your fingers until you can't turn them any more, "finger tight", then start to tighten up with the drum key using opposite screws.  With the snares off continue tightening up the head as before but now, as you go, tap the drum in all different areas of the surface until a sound comes out that pleases you.  As I mentioned earlier, careful not to try and turn a five and a half inch snare into a six and a half inch snare!  When you have reached the desired tension and have a sound that pleases you, tap the head next to each tension rod and try and get the pitch the same all round the drum by fine-tuning.  This might seem impossible at first but it will come. 

I hate the use of gaffer tape or any other form of dampening on the snare and I will only ever use a very thin and narrow 'O' ring to take away any unwanted ringy overtones.

Setting up the snares is also very important.  With the strainer on, loosen off the screw quite a lot, and then attach the snares to the snare clamp on the opposite side to the strainer.  This will ensure that you have enough leeway to tighten up the snares as they give a bit.  One final observation, don't ever over-tighten the snares as this will only choke the sound of the drum.  The best way to get a feel for this is to lightly buzz the stick at the edge of the drum.  If you get no snare response then the snares are too tight.  Loosen of the snares while still buzzing the stick until the drum comes to life.

The Toms

First of all, what heads to use?  This is really personal as there are many possible combinations but the tuning principle remains the same.  Be advised that the combinations listed here are what I am used to.  Other makes do have equivalent weights.

Popular Drum Head Combinations

  • ¥ Remo Pinstripe (top) and Remo Clear Ambassador (bottom): Probably the most popular combination in recent times for live and studio work has been the.  This gives a warm sound without too much ring.
  • ¥ Remo Emperor (top) and Clear Ambassador (bottom): For more attack, with lots of power but still keeping a warm sound.
  • ¥ Remo Clear Ambassador top and bottom: Very bright and ringy tones
  • ¥ Remo Ambassador Rough Coat (top) and Clear Ambassador (bottom): For a more jazzy, lively and ringy sound.
  • ¥ Ambassador Rough Coats top and bottom: For that classic Gretch sound
  • ¥ My own personal favourite is the Emperor (top) and Clear Ambassador (bottom) combination.

The Tuning Process

As mentioned before, make sure that your bearing edges and hoops are thoroughly cleaned, the tension rods oiled, and then that the tuning screws are tightened "finger-tight".

I always start with the smallest drum and the bottom head.  Before tuning press the centres of each head with the heel of your hand.  This helps seat the head around the bearing edge, a bit of pre-stretching if you like!  Again tighten the head using opposites screws but go easy. You are looking for all the ripples in the head to have gone and for the head to have a slight ring when struck.  Now do the same with the top head, soon you will find that the bottom head will lose its ring, so go back to the bottom and turn each screw a little tweak until the head comes back to life.  Now back to the top head and again use little tweaks to bring the head back in.  There will come a point when the bottom head stays in, from this moment on leave it alone and just work with the top head.  The end result if you have tunes a ten-inch drum should be a good tone, neither too tight nor too loose, with a slight pitch bend when struck loudly.  Once this has been achieved fine-tuning can then take place in the same way as described with the snare drum above.  I don't necessarily look for specific notes or intervals from my toms, more letting the depth of the drum do the pitching.

There is one main difference when tuning different combinations of heads.  When using Clear Ambassadors top and bottom or Ambassador Rough Coats top and bottom the best sound is to get both heads to the same pitch.  Be patient now, it does take some time and experimentation.  Don't give your drums flying lessons.

The Bass Drum

Until recently the only bass drum head I've ever used was a pinstripe.  The front head normally carries the manufacturers logo and is normally of the Remo Ambassador weight.  I use this combination with a hole cut in the front head (between 10 and 14 inches in diameter) for a microphone and a Remo muffler on the playing side, no pillows or any other kind of dampening, yuck!  I say recently because I am now using Premier Matchplay heads which certainly give some poke without any sort of dampening inside the drum. 

The tuning method used is basically exactly the same as for the toms.  I think a big mistake is to turn the screws in big turns.  Take it easy and tighten up gradually because you might miss it!  Get a good ring of the front head with a nice deep tone and then work with the batter head.  If it is too ringy then use a Remo muffler or similar form of dampening.  Try to get a slappy sound, but remember that the type of beater that you use also affects the sound so again make sure that you experiment.  Don't give up and say, 'Oh that's good enough', because you might just by accident find your sound.


No, don't be silly, I'm not going to tell you how to tune your cymbals but I would like to offer some advice on cleaning them.  The one thing that you have to accept is that you will not get your cymbals back to that 'new shop finish', well you will but you will ruin them in the process.  When you play a cymbal you are grinding in dust, smoke, sweat and any other rubbish that you can think of.  Brass is a material that does discolour; this is caused mainly by handling with sweaty hands.  Have certain spots on your cymbals turned green?

When cleaning, don't use Brasso or any other such abrasive material.  I might get into trouble here but I do feel that some of the commercial cymbal cleaners that you can buy are abrasive and I don't like them.  The following really does work:  Halfords sell an upholstery cleaner called Groom.  This is a vinegar-based foam and is completely non-abrasive.  Spray it on and watch the dirt float off for a few minutes, rinse under a warm tap and go over stubborn spots with a nail brush applying more Groom if necessary, then dry the cymbal off with a kitchen cloth.  Finally, polish the cymbal with a very good anti-static polish, like Pledge anti-static or Mr Sheen.

Keep On The Lookout

I am also always looking out for something that might stop working at the wrong time because you can bet your bottom dollar that if something goes wrong it will be right in the middle of a gig when all the drum shops are closed!  Keep checking springs and chains on pedals and any small nuts you can obviously see and so on.  One final tip, I always keep a spare stick bag full of sticks and brushes in the car because it's sods law that one day you will have all the drums at the gig but no sticks!!

Good luck with your tuning, but more importantly good luck with your drumming.  Get out there and play.  No matter what level you are at you do have something to say.  You wouldn't buy a Ferrari and leave it in the garage!