Tuning tom toms often baffles many drummers. It could be because, for the most part, drummers do not tune them to specific notes. There are, of course, some exceptions – like the amazing Terry Bozzio, who tunes the 31 toms on his huge kit both chromatically and diatonically. The other aspect that can make tuning toms a bit more complex than tuning a snare drum or bass drum is that toms produce a lot more overtones. These additional overtones can occasionally make it challenging to hear the true pitch of the drum.
So then how are we supposed to tune our toms if we are not tuning them to specific notes and we have to deal with the complexity of their overtones? I’d like to present some basic tuning tips that can assist any drummer attain the desired tone and sound from their toms.
Don’t Tune Your Toms While They Are Set Up
Most drummers understand the basic rule of tuning – tap along the perimeter of the drum near each tension rod, choose a pitch, and tune each tension rod to achieve the same pitch all the way around. The mistake most drummers make, however, is that they attempt to tune the toms while they are set up. The problem with this method is that you are hearing both heads resonating fully as you tap, and cannot accurately hear the specific pitch that you are trying to achieve.
The first step that I always suggest when tuning your toms is to take them off of their stands or mounts and place them on a soft surface (like a drum throne), one at a time. This goes for floor toms as well. When you do this, you are now only hearing one head at a time, which makes it much simpler to determine the true pitch of your toms/drum.
Relationship Between the Heads
Unless you are using a single headed concert tom, your toms consist of two heads. The relationship between the two heads plays a critical role in their sound. Generally, the bottom or resonant head should be tuned a little higher than the batter side or the head that you strike. The batter head gives you the desired pitch and the bottom head enables the drum to maintain that pitch. If the resonant head is tuned too low, you may get a funny pitch bend that descends. Alternately, if the bottom head is tuned too high you’ll get the opposite effect with a pitch bending upward.
When assessing the relationship between the heads, I like to position the drum on its side on a soft surface (like a drum throne) to preserve the finish. Then, I mute one head with one hand while striking the opposite head with my other hand. By muting one head while tapping the other, I can clearly hear the pitch of each head since I’m only focusing on one head at a time. If I find that the relationship between the two heads is off, but I know that the drum is in tune in terms of equal tension on all of the rods, I can quickly raise or lower the pitch of both heads by systematically turning each tension rod an equal number of turns either clockwise or counterclockwise.
I hope these basic guidelines help you tune your toms more consistently and efficiently. Just remember to be patient and take your time. Your tuning skills will get better over time to the point where it becomes second nature.
Victor Salazar is with Vic’s Drum Shop, an internationally renowned drum and percussion retailer in Chicago, IL. The vast knowledge of drum gear that he’s accumulated over his 40 year career has made Vic a valuable resource. Vic’s Drum Shop is a top shopping destination for beginning drummers,drumming hobbyists, professional drummers, and many of the world’s premier drum superstars.