If you’re new to drumming and the thought of tuning your drums feels overwhelming, or if you’re an experienced player who has never managed to find that perfect floor tom tone, this guide will give you everything you need to bring your floor tom up to snuff.
We’ll give you the do’s and don’ts of tuning your floor tom and a better understanding of why we tune our drums in the first place.
Let’s dive in!
Why Do We Tune Drums?
Tuning our drums?
Aren’t drums percussive instruments?
Why would they need to be tuned?
It’s important to know that whether or not you are tuning your drums to a particular note, tuning your drums is the best way to get a good sound.
Most drum heads that you find on standard drum kits use mylar plastic.
For a second, imagine cutting a circular sheet of plastic, stretching it in random places, and hitting the center point. How would that sound? Not that good.
We tune our drums for multiple reasons, one of which is to get rid of unwanted overtones so we can complement the style of music we’re playing and achieve the overall tone that we hear in our favorite records.
Most drums use two drum heads on each end of the shell — a batter head (top) and a resonant head (bottom). The sound you get from your drum is a consequence of these two heads playing off one another. The vibrations won’t be harmonious if they aren’t in tune with each other.
It’s equally important to know that different drums have different pitches or frequencies that they resonate best with, so even if you find the “sweet spot” on your floor tom, for example, it may not be the same as the one you’d find on a different floor tom.
How Often Should I Tune My Floor Tom?
The answer to how often you should tune your floor tom starts with asking yourself a few questions:
- How often do you play your drums?
- Are your drums moving around frequently, or do they stay in one environment?
- Do you need that “perfect” sound?
If you’re practicing out in the garage or jamming with a few pals for fun, you should only need to tune your drums every 6-12 months. Yes, depending on how hard you play them and the climate you live in, they will likely go out of tune before then, though if they feel good and sound good to you, then feeling the need to tune might be a moot point.
On the other hand, if you play a lot of live gigs or you’re a recording drummer, then you want your dreams to sound as good as they can sound. Depending on how much time you invest in either of these activities, you might tune your drums once per week, once each day, or in between every song you play, which is very common in high-level studio situations.
Why Do Drums Go Out of Tune?
There are several reasons that drums can go out of tune.
For starters, if you live in a climate with drastic temperature changes, your shells will shrink or expand, which can loosen the tension rods.
Secondly, they can have the same effect if you play your drums excessively or constantly transport them to gigs and studios.
Overall, you must check your tuning routinely if you want your drums to sound as good as they possibly can.
Of course, if you see a ton of dents or pockmarks in your drum heads, it’s a surefire sign to replace them.
What Do I Need to Tune my Floor Tom?
First, you’ll need a drum Key. If you don’t have one, get one. Drum keys are inexpensive; you can pick one up at any local or online music shop. I recommend having several drum keys at your disposal. These days, I keep one attached to my keychain so that I can always tune my drums during a gig or while in the studio.
I recommend something other than drum tuning apps as a replacement for good listening skills or gear training, though many different apps can provide solid reference points, which can be helpful if your new tuning.
One of my absolute favorite apps is Drumtune PRO, which detects the current pitch of your drum and tells you where you need to go to get to the tuning you desire. You can even save your settings in the app, so you don’t need to tune from scratch each time.
If you are serious about getting the perfect tune, check out some drum tuning tools or aides.
One of the longest-running analog tools for drummers is the DrumDial, which is very similar to the more current TAMA Tension Watch. This little gadget helps you match your drum head’s tension, giving you a good jumping-off point for tuning. The Tune-Bot Studio is also a great option to consider.
You can learn more about some of our favorite drum tuners in our latest review guide.
Tuning Your Floor Tom
The great thing about toms is they don’t need a lot of tightening to hit the sweet spot.
To get started, loosen all your attention rods and go around the circle, finger-tightening each of them.
When I say finger-tighten, I mean just tight enough so that the tension rod touches the rim’s edge. Do this all the way around the rim. If you cannot turn the rods with your fingers because they’re too tight, you can use a drum key to ensure each one is coming into contact with the rim.
If you’re starting from scratch and replacing your floor tom head, you’ll want to make sure it is on the floor, so you can press down firmly on the drumhead’s center to give it a good stretch. It’s important to note that some of the tension rods might loosen as you stretch your head, so keep checking to make sure everything is ‘finger-tight.’
Continue making the necessary adjustments before moving on.
Tune To Your Smallest Tom
When I tune my floor tom, I start by adjusting my smallest tom to get them in tune with one another.
If you have a simple drum kit with two toms, you will start with your rack tom.
Begin by tightening the tension using a star pattern. Then, increase the tension by giving the rod closest to you a complete turn. Next, move to the rod across from that, do the same thing, and so on.
When it’s feeling tight, strike it in the center to see how it sounds. If it sounds flat, give each tension rod an additional quarter term, following the same star pattern.
The tone you are looking for is a decent initial attack or transient, followed by an even decay with a gradual taper. You’ve gone too far if you get an immediate ‘boing’ sound like a pitch bend.
It’s also vital that you match the pictures between the lugs. To do so, gently place your pointer finger in the center of the drumhead and use a drumstick to lightly tap around the drum, looking for areas that are out of tune. You can then loosen or tighten your attention rods accordingly.
You want to get a similar note or pitch for the resonant head. Sometimes I like to tune my resonant head slightly lower than my batter head, so it’ll be up to your discretion.
Move On to the Floor Tom
Once your rack tom is tuned, you can use the same steps to tune your floor tom.
When you compare your tom’s pitches to one another, note that it doesn’t have to be evenly spaced, such as a third or a fifth. The important thing is that they sound complementary to one another.
Tuning Your Floor Tom for Different Styles
Every genre or style of music has specific standards regarding how listeners expect drums to sound.
While you can certainly break the rules and do something completely unexpected, it’s often a good idea to tune according to your music style.
Let’s look at a few common styles of music and how you might choose to tune your floor tom if you’re playing them.
You’ll want to tune your floor tom lower than usual when playing rock music. Note that the lower you tune your floor tom, the less you’ll need to muffle it. Tuning your floor tom low gives you a nice boomy sound, which is equally great for slower metal or country music. I also recommend opting for 2-ply heads if you’re a heavy-hitting player.
Punchy toms are crucial in metal music, as they are the only way to get tight and articulate fills.
If you like to play fast, tune your toms higher to get a better attack.
A medium to high floor tom tuning is excellent for reggae music, as it allows you to play melodies using your toms. However, tuning them too low can interfere with the subby low end that you get from the bass.
One of the best ways to tune a floor tom for jazz music is in intervals of minor thirds or perfect fourths compared to the other toms. But, of course, you’ll also want a relatively high tuning, especially for a classic bebop sound. With that said, many modern jazz drummers tune lower, primarily if they use large drums.
One trick for getting a vintage jazz tom tone is tuning your resonant heads slightly higher than your batter heads.
Tuning is a very personal practice. What sounds good to another drummer might sound wrong to you, so take time to experiment with various tuning tools and techniques to get the right sound.
Eventually, your ears will be so locked into your tuning that you won’t need any tools or apps to help you get there.