How to Tune a Drum Head

Learning to tune a drum head is just as important as knowing your flams and paradiddles. And just like rudiments, tuning takes practice. If your first try doesn’t meet your expectations, don’t give up; it may take several attempts to find the right sound.

The cross tuning pattern used for tuning drums.

Learning the Cross Tuning Pattern

Knowing the correct order to tune lugs is essential for creating a good sound. It will also extend the life of your drum head. Instead of moving in a circle around the drum, the cross tuning pattern is used to equally distribute tension at all times.

Drums vary in number of lugs- beginning snare drums often have 8 lugs (pictured), but it is also common also find drums with a range of five to twelve lugs. The exact order isn’t as important as the concept. Tune lugs in pairs opposite each other, and distribute tension as evenly as possible.

 Step-by-Step Head Tuning

Note: If you’re tuning a snare drum, turn the snares off- they make it difficult to hear the pitch of the drum. When you’re tuning the snare side head, put a drum stick underneath the snares to raise them off the head. 

1. Begin by loosening the head completely; it’s easiest to start from scratch. Don’t release all the tension at once though. Repeating the cross tuning pattern, lower the tension bit by bit until the head is loose. Heads can be taken on and off many times if you make adjustments gradually.

2. Using your fingers, tighten the lugs so that the rim is firm against the drum head, but not yet adding tension.

3. Using a drum key, make half turns on the lugs in the cross tuning pattern around the drum.

4. Resist the temptation to tune by how much resistance you feel. The first half of the lugs you tighten will offer more resistance than the second half– and that’s okay. Always use the same degree of rotation.

5. After going around the drum 2 or 3 times with half turns, stop to play the drum. How does it sound? If the head sounds dead or you hear waves in the sound, that means that some lugs are exerting more pressure than others. No need to go back to step one, though.

6. With a stick, begin tapping 1” from each lug. Each lug should produce the same pitch. When some are higher and lower, that deadens the sound produced in the center.

7. Using small adjustments, begin matching each lug to the highest-pitched lug on the drum. If you have trouble determining the pitch, try humming along.

8. Once every lug matches pitch, your head should produce a pure sound, although it may still be loose overall. Slowly use quarter turns in the cross tuning pattern until it sounds and feels the way you want.

9. Double check the pitch at each lug and make adjustments if necessary.

Whew! That may seem like a lot, but as you become more comfortable with tuning these steps will become second nature. It’s not always necessary to start at Step 1 to tune your drum. If your drum is close to being in tune, matching the pitch between lugs with quarter turns should make your drum sound great.