How to tune drums for rock

Some helpful tips on setting up your drums for rock music.

by | Oct 26, 2018

Want to know how to tune drums for rock music? This article will cover every aspect of getting those drums just right and in tune for rock!

The genre of rock has transitioned between many, many different forms spanning the original classic sounds of the 60s to the heavy modern styles we’re more used to hearing today. You can’t begin to list off inspirational examples of rock bands as there are just too many!

A bit about rock drums

Heavy styles demand heavy instruments. Rock drums have to be hard hitting, penetrating, present in the mix and BIG.

Of course, this is just a rule of thumb but take some of the most influential rock drummers of all time: Keith Moon, John Bonham, Tommy Lee, Dave Grohl, Neil Peart and Lars Ulrich. They’re all champions of that big rock / metal tone, a tone which can compete with loud amps regardless of whether you’re blasting it out in a pub or small venue or on stage in front of thousands.

How to tune Resonant Heads

Before we get onto tuning the top heads, which do provide the majority of the drum’s tone, let’s discuss resonant heads.
Resonant heads are often thinner clear 1-ply heads. Some drummers do use coated heads. Benny Greb, who isn’t necessarily a rock drummer but rather an influential funk drummer, uses coated Ambassador heads on both the bottom and top of the drum, tuned to identical pitches. Don’t be scared of experimenting with resonant heads, even if the gold standards are simple 300mil clear heads.

Recommended Heads:

Resonant heads are all pretty much built to the same spec – they’re usually relatively thin single ply heads. For rock, skip the thinner 200mil heads and go with heads of a conventional 300mil thickness.

Step 1: Seat the head and finger tighten the bolts. Finger tightening is a vague process so just experiment until you think the bolts are gripping onto the hoop fairly evenly across the drum. There’s no right or wrong way of finger tightening bolts and so long as there’s no massive inaccuracies you won’t have trouble equalising the tensions later on.

Step 2: Tighten criss-cross until the head has some tone. This will be obvious – the drum will start to hum like an actual drum rather than slap like a wet sheet of paper. At this stage, you’ll want to equalise the pitch at each bolt by tuning up slightly, not down. For rock drums, the lowest pitches you can achieve with decent head tension are best but if in doubt, tune the bottom head up a fraction until you get a nice ringy tone.

Step 3: Resonant heads are supposed to sound gongy and resonant in order to give the whole drum some depth and volume. However, dampening the bottom head can help control very resonant drums – don’t think about this before putting on and tuning your top head, though.

TIP: Whilst most guides suggest you tune up on the bottom head compared to the top head, some classic rock drum tones characterised by John Bonham’s style are created through very, very loose bottom heads.

How do you tune a snare drum?

Snare drums are probably the most important element of a kit and they’re also the hardest to tune. Tuning snare drums isn’t just about tone, but sensitivity too. Sensitive snares that react the way you want improve your playing and can take some of the strain out of your wrist.

The best snare heads for rock are either thicker two-ply models or heads with centre dots. These provide greater durability, hopefully ensuring that your snare drum head at least survives for a set or two!

Recommended Heads:

There’s no real rule of thumb for picking a snare head for rock. Some players prefer single ply to help bring out the character of the drum, say if you have a barking metal snare and want that to project in all its glory. Generally, two-ply heads are more durable and reduce overtones to create a more transient crack.

Step 1: Firstly, after placing the head on the rim, you want to ensure that each tuning bolt is finger tight. This can be tricky but it’s important to start off correctly, so experiment until you think the bolts are just gripping on the hoop.

Step 2: Next, tighten each bolt two turns by criss-crossing the drum. Tap at each tuning bolt and listen to the pitch, they’ll likely be pretty low and vastly different. Try and even out the most obvious pitch differences. Picking one bolt and tuning the others to that pitch can be a good approach but bear in mind that the pitch at that bolt will change as you tighten the other bolts.

Step 3: Give the drum a whack with a stick. It’ll still most likely sound dead at this stage so tighten each tuning bolt until the drum actually has some tone. Tighten methodically until the drum is up to pitch and then begin to equalise the pitches at each bolt. Look for a tone that is fat, low and deep. Add dampening like Moongel to taste.

TIP: Many overlook the seating of the snares when tuning their drum. The position of the snares can give or take sensitivity from the drum. For greater sensitivity and ring, seat the snares lower so they sit straighter or more horizontally across the resonant head. You might have to release some of the grip tape to drop the snares lower. Tighten the slack with the snare adjustment bolt. For less ring, seat the snares higher up so the snare grips are pulling at a steeper angle.

Above: Shallowed angle snare for greater sensitivity
Above: Steeply seated snare for less ring
TIP: Though most drum tuning guides suggest you equalise each bolt’s pitch, sometimes slackening the bolt closest to your stick can heighten snare drum sensitivity. Don’t be obsessed with achieving perfect pitch across every tuning bolt. This is often impossible to achieve and uneven pitches can produce great snare tones.

How to tune a bass drum

Next up we have the bass drum. Most rock bass drums will be 22” or bigger. Anything up to 28” is common but bigger than that is pretty unlikely!

The general idea with the bass drum is to go as low as possible without taking the tone out of the drum. Higher pitches are applicable to some styles too, if you want a clickier tone.

Recommended Heads:

Don’t even consider a single ply bass drum head for rock. They’re breakable, resonant and come with heaps of overtones which make them more ideally suited to softer play styles. Any durable two-ply head does the trick for kick drums but consider Evans Hydraulic or the Emad, which comes with a built-in muffle. Also, beater slam pads like Remo’s Falam Slam can increase durability and projection. Remo Emperor, Remo Powerstroke, Evans Hydraulic, Evans Emad

Step 1: There’s no point in finger tightening the bass drum. Some lugs like on this Mapex Saturn kit below won’t even allow for finger tightening. Gradually tighten each bolt until you can feel the lugs grip the head. At this point, the bass drum will still have no tone, it’ll sound like a piece of cardboard.

Step 2: Tighten each bolt one to two turns until the head has some tone. You’ll notice a point where the drum goes from a dry thud to a more resonant bang or cannon-like sound.

Step 3: Stick dampening in the drum now and test it. Look for a tone which is low but defined and warm. Now, you can go about fine tuning each bolt to achieve roughly similar pitches. Don’t be afraid if you see crinkles in your bass drum head when the beater is fully depressed against it but do bear in mind that the head will stretch and you’ll have to gradually re-tighten bolts to prevent too much sagging.

How to tune rack toms and floor tom

Rack toms are tricky to get spot on. They have to have a full tone in their own right whilst also pitching in with the other rack toms to form a consistent set. There’s nothing worse than sequential rack toms that sound dramatically different to each other.

Tuning rack toms for rock is usually about achieving a low but full sound. Too low and your head will be too slack to produce any oomph but go too high and it’ll lose its bottom end. Generally, rack tom heads for rock are clear as these produce greater impact and punch. Coated heads will provide a warmer more classic rock tone.

Recommended Heads:

Two ply heads allow you to tune lower to create a fatter, warmer and louder tone. Remo Emperor, Pinstripe and Evans G2 are some of the go-to’s. Evans Hydraulic is a two-ply head with a thin film of oil trapped between the heads to decrease overtones even further.

Remo Emperor Clear, Evans G2 Clear, Remo Powerstroke, Evans Hydraulic, Remo Pinstripe, Evans Centre Dot.

Step 1: Seat the head and finger tighten the bolts until you feel they’re gripping the head evenly from each side. Like we’ve said before, this is a pretty vague process and you’ll have to use your intuition to sense when the bolts grip down on the hoop. Don’t worry too much about getting this spot on as you can equalise the pitches later.

Step 2: Give each bolt a half turn and assess once more that each bolt is gripping the head evenly. You’ll want to see the creases tighten out of the head’s surface by this stage. If you still have creases then don’t worry, just watch them when you increase the pitch of the drum in the next step.

Step 3: From now, you want to incrementally increase the tension by criss-crossing the drum. Go a fair bit up in pitch from where you actually want to pitch the drum. It’s easier to equalise the pitches at each bolt when the drum is higher in pitch.

Step 4: Once you’re quite high in pitch, try and drop the head down to a lower pitch. Equalise each bolt and strike the drum. When you drop down in pitch, always tighten the bolt slightly after loosening it to ensure that the bolts grip.

TIP: You’re less likely to need dampening on thicker two ply heads but it depends on your drums. Some drums (like birch) are naturally lively and these are more likely to need dampening to control overtones.

TIP: The relation between top and bottom heads is important but it does depend on the heads and the drums. Some heads are far easier to tune than others making the relationship between top and bottom less important. If you have thin shells and thin heads (not advised for rock) then the relative pitch of bottom and top heads may have a drastic impact on the overall tone of the drum.

Conclusion

Tuning drums is a tricky art but by starting off with the right heads, you go a long way towards achieving a warm, deep and heavy rock tone. Two-ply heads are the way forward for rock drummers and you really won’t find many players touting anything different.

An added benefit of two-ply heads is that they’re easier to tune, hold their pitch comparatively well to thinner heads and they’re obviously much more durable.

Dampening is your friend and whilst drummers in other genres might say things like ‘you’re just taking the tone out of the drum, man!’ for rock, it’ll help you achieve focus and definition. The only downside to dampening is that it can sometimes take volume out of the drum and at low pitches, the drum might already appear quiet. Fear not, though, low pitch drums still project volume better than you expect, especially when mic’d up.

Sam is an audio and music production graduate, he has worked in live audio, studio production, sound design and videography.

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