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What Kind of Drum Key Do I Need?

Your Guide to Choosing The Right Tool

October 9th, 2019 by Alex Howley

Drum keys: a ubiquitous reality amongst drummers from all walks of life. If you play drums, it’s all but guaranteed that you’ll need to own one of these.

Or, realistically, you’ll probably end up owning a few. Are you a marching drummer? A drumline instructor? A drum set player? Latin drummer? Timpanist? You’ll need a different tool for each job, and that’s assuming you never lose track of one (hey, drum tech from senior year, if you’re reading this, you still owe me a drum key).

Alright, first of all, what is a drum key?

A drum key is a tool with a square-shaped cutout designed to help you tighten and loosen the tension rods of a drum, applying more or less tension to the counter hoop, therefore tightening or loosening the drum head.

"Why don't you explain this to me like I am an eight-year old?"

A drum key is a tool you need to be able to tune and change your drum heads.

"Mhm, okay. Why don't you explain this to me like I'm five?"

A drum key is a weird screwdriver that makes your drums boom better.

Okay. So what do I have to choose from?

Glad you asked! Let’s take a look at all the different kinds of drum keys.

Standard Drum Key

Standard drum keys are Ol’ Reliable - the original tool that has served drummers well for decades. They’re typically pretty small, often small enough to fit on a keychain, so they’re always there for you when you need them, stable friends in your times of need. In my opinion, every drummer should own one of these. You’ll be glad you have one (and sad when you inevitably misplace like fifteen).

Advanced Drum Key

A lot of manufacturers have innovated on the classic drum key formula over the years, resulting in some pretty cool features that make life a lot easier over time. Quick-release keys can snap on and off your keychain or cymbal stands and be ready to use any moment; Hi-Torque keys limit the effort that tuning normally requires you to expend; magnetic drum keys will stay stuck on your tension rods at all times, allowing instant access. Advanced drum keys take the traditional formula and spice it up for a specific purpose.

High Tension Drum Key

The story goes like this: once upon a time, a drumline instructor was trying to tune the snare drums. They wanted more tension - they pushed and pushed, pushed their standard drum key to its limit, but still, it wasn’t enough. They went home with bruised hands and a snare line that was still tuned too low. Percussion manufacturers heard their cries and created high tension drum keys (sometimes called "T-Keys"). These oversized keys aren’t going to travel with you on your keychain, but they are an absolute must if you want to tune marching drums, and they’ll tune a regular-tension drum (like a drum set tom or a concert snare drum) with ease, too. The extra-wide handle gives you significantly more torque, which makes it way easier to tighten or loosen tension rods, even when they’re cranked to 11.

Drill Bit & Socket Drum Key

Sometimes, it isn’t about how hard it is to tune an individual tension rod, but how long it takes to tune all of them. That’s where these nifty little adapters come into play - just pop a drill bit into your battery-powered drill, and suddenly you can remove a whole drumline’s worth of heads in just a few minutes (be gentle and work your way around the head patiently, though, or you may warp the drum’s shell/hoop)! A drill-powered head change can be a huge boon your efficiency. A socket drum key can fit on any socket wrench, too, for a little extra leverage when you need it.

Wrench Drum Key

This one doesn’t pack any surprises - wrench drum keys are just drum keys that you turn like a wrench. This gives you tons of leverage, which can be good for high-tension applications, but is especially useful for tightening and loosening locking bolts on drum hardware, racks, and marching hardware like drum carriers.

Ratchet Drum Key

Ratchet drum keys are made to make your life easier. You turn the ratchet, the tension rod turns, and then the magic happens: you turn back, but the tension rod stays! Abracadabra. Having a ratchet key can make tuning, head changes, tightening and loosening hardware, and just about everything else that uses the square-shaped peg a total breeze. It’s fast, you have leverage, and you still maintain precise control when you need it.

Crank Action Drum Key

This kind of drum key is built for speed. The crank action lets you turn a tension rod in either direction, but here’s the catch: you can do it really, really fast. Honestly, it’s pretty fun, too. This serves a similar purpose to a drill, and is obviously slower than a drill, but the big advantage here is that you can use it right up to the point that the drum is tuned, since you still have precise control over the exact rotation of each rod. This is unlike a drill, which is faster when you have a ton of tension rods to set or remove, but doesn’t give you the control you need to be precise.

Multi-Tool

So, funny thing. It turns out, if you can believe it, that a drum key is not the only tool a drummer will ever need. It’s extremely important, but what about when you need to adjust your bass drum pedal? Or the screws that hold together a marching carrier? Or the attachments on the inside of your drums that hold the lug casings in place? Although it can seem like just about everything is held together by wing nuts and our favorite 4-sided bolts, there are plenty of other components that go into making a drum a drum, or a drum set a drum set. That’s where a multi-tool comes in. They come in all sorts of configurations, but they all come with a drum key built right in, so you can carry just this one tool and feel safe at any performance.

Bass Drum Pedal Key

Bass drum pedal keys are basically multi-tools designed specifically to help you adjust your bass drum pedal. They are often multi-sided, instead of being Swiss Army style, and they are made at an angle that is designed to make it easy for a drummer sitting on their throne to be able to reach and adjust their pedal settings. All that said, they still work perfectly fine as a standard drum key as well.

World Drum Key

"But what should I do if my drum key doesn’t fit?" Don’t panic! Take a deep breath and inventory what kind of drum you’re trying to tune. Many Latin & world percussion instruments don’t use the "standard" tension rod design to stay in tune (rope-tuned drums don’t use a drum key at all!), which means a standard drum key design won’t work. Many congas and bongos work this way. If you are looking for a drum key that will be able to tune your specific type of drum, and whatever lug design it uses, this is where you’ll want to look.

Timpani Key

Timpani use a different style of tension rods, which means you need a different kind of key! Timpani keys typically look a lot like standard keys, if maybe a little bigger, and let you clear your timpani heads. A standard drum key will very rarely work for timpani, so you’ll need one of these for any head change or head-clearing activities in which you’d like to partake.

I think I’m starting to get it... but there is still a ton to choose from!

I understand this feeling completely. If you don’t know what kind of drum key you might need, there are some safe bets - a standard, house-style drum key belongs on every drummer’s keychain, for example. Or you can pick up a multi-tool for a little extra security. At the end of the day, you’ll acquire these as the need arises - but now you are armed with knowledge! And knowing the tools that are out there really is half the battle.

All of that being said, if you have any more questions, or you think we left something out, be sure to let us know with a comment. And if you have a favorite drum key or tool that you think every drummer should know about it, help spread your knowledge and improve the drumming community!

Alex started working here in 2015. He's a drummer, a producer, a Boston Crusaders alumnus, and a writer. These days, he makes all kinds of different music as a percussionist and an audio engineer.



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