Learning how to tune a bass drum is not too difficult, it involves some patience and experimentation whilst finding your perfect sound.
To achieve a killer bass drum sound it helps if you already have a great drum; and more importantly a quality bass drum head from Remo, Evans or Aquarian.
You will also need a soft item to place inside the bass drum – which will absorb some of the resonance and dampen the sound. Pillows, cushions, towels and blankets are all popular choices.
There is no right or wrong answer when it comes to bass drum tuning. It all depends entirely on your personal taste and the style of music you want to play. If you are playing jazz music then the kick drum sound you want will be different from that of a metal drummer.
In this guide I will show you how to tune a bass drum as well as offering you my top tips on achieving a killer bass drum sound.
The Batter and Resonant Drum Heads
Before we get right into bass drum tuning, let’s take a quick look at the batter and resonant bass drum heads, as this is a topic that is sometimes overlooked.
The batter head (the drumhead you strike) is responsible largely for the sound produced. Drummers focus on tuning the batter head in order to achieve a desired sound. But the resonant head is also important to the overall sound.
Bass drum batter head choice is generally a 2-ply head for extra punch and low end. Popular bass drum batter heads also feature muffling within the drum head to reduce the sustain and deliver a solid kick sound. Popular examples include the Aquarian Superkick and Evans EMAD system.
The resonant head; as you might assume, resonates when the batter head is struck. It resonates in order to produce sustain and tone from the drum. Bass drum resonant heads tend to be single ply and they are tuned higher than batter heads.
Most bass drum batter heads feature a ‘port hole’ that allows air to escape when the bass drum is hit.
A port hole is also known as a bass drum hole and they feature around the 4 o’clock position on bass drums. Most drummers opt for having one because they offer:
- Greater attack
- Defined, punchier sounds
- Provides a suitable place for a bass drum microphone
- Less bass drum beater rebound
If you want a bass drum hole I would recommend only cutting a hole yourself if you have a specific bass drum hole cutter kit, or alternatively it’s much easier to buy an existing resonant bass drum head with a port hole pre-installed.
Before Learning How To Tune a Bass Drum
Think about what type of sound do you want to achieve before tuning a bass drum. Most drummers want to achieve a modern bass drum sound, which has a short sustain and a solid punch. This is the sound that works for pop, rock, gospel, funk, RnB, metal and many more styles.
If you want to achieve this sound from bass drum tuning, you need to tune the batter head to a low tension and use a bass drum head such as the Remo Powerstroke or Evans EMAD.
With kick drum tuning, muffling the drum with soft materials such as a pillow will reduce sustain and remove overtones, producing a powerful and fast attack. If you want this sound, have a pillow or blankets ready to place inside the drum!
When learning how to tune a bass drum, remember that you have the ability to increase or decrease the tension of the bass drum heads to your liking. You don’t need to get it right first time, and drum tuning always requires some degree of fine-tuning.
Before you start tuning a bass drum, fold up the bass drum spurs and place the bass drum flat on the opposite head you are tuning. So if you are tuning the batter head, you will need to place the bass drum resonant head flat on the floor.
Let’s start off learning how to tune a bass drum with the batter head first!
If you are replacing an old existing drum head on the drum, you will need to loosen all the tension rods with a drum key. Go around the drum in a clockwise motion and loosen each rod until they come out of the lug.
Once all the tuning rods are out of the lugs, you can remove the bass drum hoops and take off the old drum head.
Take this opportunity to use a soft cloth and wipe the bearing edges and hoop of the drum to remove any dust that might be there.
If you haven’t already done so, place a pillow or soft blanket inside the bass drum to provide a more focused and punchy kick drum sound.
Place the brand new drum head over the drum, followed by the hoop which will have the bass drum claws on them.
Begin tuning the bass drum by screwing the tension rods back into the lugs with your finger as opposed to a drum key.
Increase tension progressively in a clockwise motion using your finger until each tension rod is ‘finger tight’ in each lug. By this I mean use your thumb and index finger to screw in the rod until you reach a tension where you cannot tighten it any more.
Once each tension rod is finger tight into the corresponding lugs, it’s time to grab a drum key to begin the real bass drum tuning! Continue to work around the drum in a clockwise motion but very conservatively. Once the drum head is finger tight, it’s already close to delivering a great sound!
Work around each lug of the drum with half-turns of a drum key on each lug. Ensure you are carefully turning the drum key the same amount on each lug for consistent tuning. You only need to do this several times.
At this point I find my bass drum is perfectly tuned to how I like. The wrinkles on the drum head have disappeared, and the tension rods are only just tight enough to prevent the bass drum claws from rattling.
I like my bass drum batter head to be tuned low to deliver a clear and defined punch, which sounds great both on stage and in the studio.
Once you have achieved your desired tension and the wrinkles in the drum have disappeared, it’s time to fine-tune each lug so that they are consistently in tune with one another.
Tap gently around the drumhead near each lug (around 2 inches in from the edge) and listen for the pitches to make sure they are even with each other. Try to avoid decreasing tension – I like to gently increase tension to match the lugs with one another.
Now we have tuned the bass drum batter head, we need to tune the resonant head. Repeat steps 1-3, and aim to tune the resonant head higher than you have for the batter head.
Once you have removed the wrinkles of the resonant head you will also then need to fine-tune each lug to make sure they sound even.
When tuning the resonant head, you will notice that tuning it higher will raise the pitch and might result in more overtones, and there will be less ‘slap’ but more of a tone.
Final Thoughts on Bass Drum Tuning
There is no categorically perfect way how to tune a bass drum. It’s entirely subjective and the ideal kick drum sound differs between each drummer.
I hope this guide on how to tune a bass drum helps you find the ballpark where you can achieve a killer bass drum sound, but I would hope that you can experiment and try out different tunings as well as different drum heads to find your perfect sound.
I have used all the different types of bass drum heads on the market, and the favoured choice all depends on the individual. My personal favourite is the Evans EMAD, because it delivers a focused low-end and punch thanks to the dampening system around the perimeter of the head.
But for many other drummers, a single-ply head such as the classic Remo Ambassador is their go-to choice. Sound is subjective. There is no better or worse choice.
It’s also worth noting that your choice of bass drum beater will also affect the bass drum sound. Softer felt beaters will provide a warmer and smoother sound, whilst plastic or wood beaters will produce a ‘clicky’ and brighter ‘smack’ sound from the impact.
Now you know how to tune a bass drum, have fun exploring different tunings and drum heads to find new sounds!