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 awe-inspiring Terry Bozzio, who tunes the thirty-one toms on his huge kit both chromatically and diatonically. The other aspect that can make tuning toms a bit more complicated than tuning a snare drum or bass drum is that toms produce a lot more overtones. These additional overtones can occasionally make it difficult 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 would like to present some basic tuning guidelines that can help 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, select a pitch, and tune each tension rod to achieve the same pitch all the way around. The mistake a lot of 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 can't accurately hear the specific pitch that you are trying to attain.
The first step that I always suggest when tuning your toms is to remove them from their stands or mounts and put them on a soft surface (like a drum throne), one at a time. This applies to floor toms as well. When you do this, you are now only listening to one head at a time, which makes it much simpler to discern the true pitch of your drum/toms.
Relationship Between the Heads
Unless you're using a single headed concert tom, your toms consist of two heads. The relationship between the two heads plays a significant role in their sound. In general, 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 resonant head helps the drum to hold that pitch. If the bottom head is tuned too low, you may get a funny pitch bend that descends. Alternately, if the resonant head is tuned too high you'll get the opposite effect with a pitch bending upward.
When evaluating the relationship between the heads, I like to put the drum on its side on a soft surface (like a drum throne) to protect 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 determine 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 take your time and be patient. Your tuning skills will get better over time to the point where it becomes second nature.
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