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How to Change Your Drum Heads & Get Them in Tune

Drummers are an opinionated bunch. No one will ever really agree on how exactly a drum is supposed to sound, and particularly enlightened percussionists will acknowledge that the “best” sound is the one that fits the music that surrounds it.

Since a topic like this is subjective, and how you tune depends on the tone you want, the best way to approach the subject is to cover the basics: seating your drum head, clearing your drum head, and making sure you’re set up to get the sound you want!

Seating your drum head

  1. Start by unscrewing your tension rods and removing your counterhoop (top or bottom head, it is usually the same process for both). To prevent any possible damage, loosen all of the tension rods evenly.
  2. Put the new head on the drum, put the counterhoop back on, and hand-tighten the tension rods until you start to feel resistance. This allows you to make sure the head’s positioned evenly on all sides.
  3. Put your finger in the middle of the drum head and apply a little pressure. You’ll start to see wrinkles and waves in the head.
  4. Grab your drum key and start to tighten the tension rod near the most, or largest, wrinkles and waves.
  5. Turn until you see those significantly flatten out.
  6. Steps 3-5 Demonstrated

  7. Afterward, tighten the tension rod on the exact opposite side of the one you started with until those wrinkles also flatten out. This makes sure you start with a nearly-even tension across the drum so one side of the head doesn’t get pulled more tightly than the other (which can cause damage to the drum, the head, and the counterhoop).
  8. Move to the tension rod adjacent to either of the rods you just tightened and repeat the process. You can alternate in pairs of tension rods across the drum head (“star” pattern) or move in a circle (“circular” pattern), as long as you are maintaining close to the same tension across the entire head.
  9. "Circular" Pattern

    "Star" Pattern

  10. Finally, push your finger down again and tighten any tension rods that still have wrinkles near them until the head is flat and smooth.
  11. Once you can push your finger onto the head and no wrinkles appear, the head is tuned to what is called the lowest fundamental note. This means it’s the lowest your head can be tuned without causing any buzzing or strange sounds. Start by getting both of your drum’s heads to this lowest fundamental note!

Clearing & Tuning Your Drum Head

  • At this point, you’ll want to “clear” your drum heads. A head is considered “cleared” when the pitch of the head is identical at every tension rod. This allows the head to speak with one clear tone, and for the two separate pitches of the top and bottom heads to interact with each other in the desired way. There are a few ways to do this:
    • Tuning by ear is the most reliable, but also most difficult, method. One popular way to do this is to set your finger in the middle of the drum head just gently enough to muffle it slightly. Then, with a drum key, or your finger, or a stick, or anything else, tap the head about an inch from each tension rod, one at a time. Listen for which tension rods are higher and lower in pitch. If they are lower, they need to be tightened. If they are higher, they need to be loosened! Follow this process until the head sounds the same no matter which tension rod you’re hitting.
    • An alternative is clearing with a DrumDial, which is a useful little gadget that you can set next to any tension rod (with a built-in rim guide for automatic measuring) and it will tell you exactly what the tension is on the head! Get this to be the same all over the head and voila, it’s probably cleared (barring drum head imperfections, warped shells and hoops, etc.).
    • Another great tool is the TuneBot, which works similarly to the Drum Dial, except it attaches to the counterhoop and measures the pitch of each tension rod instead of measuring tension.
  • Finally, you can tune the overall pitch of the drum to where you think it sounds good. Each combination of pitches between the top and bottom drum head will create a different characteristic, so experiment until you’re happy with the general sound.

Clearing Your Head By Ear

Some Extra Tips

  • If you’re using a coated drum head, sometimes it’s hard to see the wrinkles in the head. Just run your hand over the head to feel for them if you can’t spot them!
  • Generally speaking, you don’t need to replace your bottom drum head as frequently. One bottom head for every three top heads is a good rule of thumb, but there’s no best way to do it. You should replace your heads when your drum doesn’t sound how you want!

Hopefully this guide has helped you pick up some tricks about how to change, seat, and clear your drum heads. Getting specific sounds from your drum is a whole other subject to tackle, but this foundation will make sure that your drums are at least well-taken care of and you will know how to get your heads to be in-tune with themselves!

If you have a different way of doing things, or if you have any questions or comments, drop me a line in the comments. I’d love to chat more about this!

Guyton is one of our Percussion Experts, helping folks out when they need to make an order or have a question about drums. He plays gigs all over town with numerous bands, and has a particular passion for vintage drum sets.

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