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Concert Percussion Tuning Know-How

Master these tips on how to tune concert snare drums, bass drums and toms.

When your music program invests in quality percussion equipment, it’s vital to make sure that your drums sound their best. If the instruments sound great, your students will have a better chance of sounding great, too!

Like string instruments, drums can go out of tune with use and time. Here are some suggestions on how to properly tune your concert percussion. While drums with modern plastic will hold their pitch for a long time, it’s a good idea to tune your concert percussion instruments at the beginning of the school year and recheck them at least halfway through the year (more for an instrument like the snare drum that may get used much more).

When tuning any drum, the following must be considered:

  • Quality/condition of instrument & heads
  • Type of heads used
  • Clearing the heads first
  • The tightening order/tuning process

Having heads in good condition will help tremendously. Like woodwind reeds, a drumhead’s response will change with use. A head’s sound and response may be affected when the coating is wearing off and it shows many dents when completely loosened.

worn drumhead that needs to be replaced
This drumhead is ready to be replaced!

Tuning Concert Snare Drums

Head selection can vary greatly, but for concert snare drums, a coated head will generally provide a clearer articulation and a good amount of resonance. Some good heads for a concert snare drum include the batter side Remo Ambassador Coated, or the Evans Genera or Genera Dry. The Genera Dry has an additional bit of vented film that reduces overtones and ring. For the snare side, the Remo Ambassador Clear or Hazy, or the Evans 300 Snare Side are good choices.

While tuning for concert snare drum can vary depending on the literature and environment, the most important concepts are a crisp articulation and even response. Start tuning with the batter head. For an existing head, loosen each tension rod (following the sequence below) one turn at a time until the top of the tension rod just touches the collar of the rim. Then give each tension rod one full turn, then go around one more time and do one full turn.

Turn snares off and tighten following a crisscross pattern. Press down in the center of the head and if wrinkles appear, slowly tighten at the tension rod closest to each wrinkle until the wrinkle disappears. At this point, check that the head is “cleared,” which means that the pitch is consistent all the way around the head. With the snares off, lightly tap the head at each tension rod to make sure the pitch is the same at each spot, adjusting up to the highest sound as needed to match pitch all around the drum. Continue tightening until you reach an approximate pitch of an A for a 5½-inch depth drum or Bb for a 6½-inch drum.

Follow the pattern shown below for a 10- or 8-lug drum. A 6-lug drum is the same as an 8-lug —go across and to the next lug over without skipping one.

head tuning sequence for 10-lug drum
Sequence to tighten a 10-lug drum.
head tuning sequence for 8-lug drum
Sequence to tighten an 8-lug drum.

Follow the same procedure to tighten the snare side head, ending up about a half step higher for a crisper response, or match the batter head pitch for increased resonance.

Now, turn on the snares. Adjust so the response of a soft tap in the center of the batter head is about the same as a loud tap. You want a short, but not choked, response. If you hear extra buzzing after the attack, there may be a loose snare strand. Check visually and clip any loose strands close with a wire cutter or replace a severely bent snare strip.

If the snares do not tighten enough, you may need to adjust the tension of the strap or string connecting them to the throw-off switch. Check that the ends of the snare strand are the same distance from the shell of the drum and adjust, starting with the end that is farther from the shell edge. Start by loosening the tension on the throw-off switch and loosen the adjustment knob at least halfway. Using a drum key (some brands require a screwdriver), loosen the plate that secures the snare strap or strings, then pull the strings or strap until the snare strand is closer to that side of the shell.

adjusting snares on snare drum
Loosen snare strap plate to tighten the strap.

Retighten the securing plate and turn the throw-off switch on. Then use the knob to adjust the snare tension for the best response.

You might hear a bit of resonance or “ring” at this point, and external dampening can be used to reduce this if desired. There are gel-type products (such as Moongel) that may be temporarily placed near the edge of the head to dampen the sound. In general, the farther the dampening gel is placed from the rim, the greater the dampening effect. Do not place dampening gel close to the center of the drum because this will change the tone and pitch dramatically.

An inexpensive alternative is to attach a binder clip to the rim to secure a folded handkerchief or piece of soft cloth. This method allows you to vary the amount of cloth on the drumhead to alter dampening.

gel patch to dampen drum
Gel patch placed near edge of drum.
use handkerchief to dampen drum
Use a handkerchief and a binder clip to dampen drum.

Tuning Concert Bass Drums

The most important elements in getting a great sound from your concert bass drum are 1) heads in good condition and 2) clearing the heads.

Often, the stock heads that the drum comes with are thinner than replacement heads and will wear out much faster. Some good heads to use on your concert bass drum include Remo Emperor Renaissance on the batter side and a Ambassador Renaissance on the resonant side. The Ambassador Fiberskyn heads also produce warm low tones as well.

Starting with the batter side, loosen the head completely, then follow a crisscross tightening sequence to get the head just beyond wrinkling, and then check that the head is cleared. Tune from this lowest tension until the head plays a definite pitch and doesn’t sound papery when struck at the center. This pitch will vary depending on the size of the drum, but it’s often much lower than you’d expect.

Note: When checking pitch, make sure to strike just slightly off center and not near the edge of the head.

Next, follow the same steps to tune the resonant side to a pitch that is a minor third higher. The drum should have a very deep tone and be resonant. You can experiment with changing the amount of natural resonance by raising the resonant head pitch more if desired. It has been my experience that many school concert bass drums are tuned too high.

Dampening the concert bass drum is a performer task, not something that is usually accomplished by placing external muffling permanently on the head. Dampening will stop or reduce resonance but should not change the pitch or tone of the drum when struck. There are multiple ways to dampen the bass drum, and they vary depending on use.

use left hand to dampen bass drum
The most common method is to place the left hand about a third of the distance to the center of the drum, touching the fingertips after a note is played. For general use, the drum should not be dampened when striking, but after striking to reduce resonance and produce a shorter tone.


use knee to dampen bass drum
If additional dampening is needed, place the right foot on a short stool or chair, and use the knee to dampen the head along with the left hand.


use left and right hands to dampen bass drum
To get the shortest sound, dampen both heads after striking. This is accomplished by touching the fingertips of the left hand to the resonant head (about a third of the way toward the center) while using the right knee and extended fingertips of the right hand holding the mallet to dampen the batter head.

Tuning Concert Toms

Concert toms come in a variety of sizes and are usually in high and low pairs, with 13” and 14” used most often in school settings. While concert toms are usually dry sounding single-headed drums, there are some band directors who prefer double-headed toms for more resonance. The mounted toms from a drum set can also make a good substitute when placed on stands of appropriate height.

concert toms

When tuning your concert toms, start with quality heads and clear them so the tension is even all around the head. While the tuning will vary depending on the tone required for a specific composition, a good place to start is by tuning your drums a third apart. As a general reference you can start with these pitches for these drum sizes:

10” – E

12” – C

13” – G#

14” – E

15” – C

16” – G#

Some pieces may require a larger interval between drums for the desired effect. An interval of perfect fourth or fifth between two drums is common. As with other drums, the heads on toms must be in good condition and cleared for the best tone. Clear, non-coated heads generally work best for concert toms, and some recommended heads include the Remo Ambassador Renaissance, Ambassador Clear and Pinstripe Clear.

Concert toms are generally used without dampening, however if a shorter sound is required, the same methods mentioned earlier for snare drums can be applied.

Final Thoughts on Tuning

After you’ve tuned a drum, listen to it from where the audience might hear it.

Oftentimes, the snare drum that was high, short and crisp when you’re standing right above it might sound lower and looser out in the hall. You may also find that the resonance or ring you heard right above the drum is nonexistent in the hall. If you’re in a very resonant hall, additional dampening may be used (a plastic dampening ring may be helpful in an extremely resonant hall, such as a gymnasium).

The bass drum that seemed a bit rumbly up close may sound full and resonant from farther away, or perhaps not as resonant as it sounded when up close. Toms that seemed high enough might get lost in the ensemble’s resonance out in the hall, requiring perhaps a slightly higher pitch.

Remember, the most important sound is what the audience hears. If your drums sound great, then your students can sound even better!

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