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Drum Setup & Tips for Beginning and Intermediate Players

June 26, 2012; Caleb Knott

Tuning the Top Head
Once you have placed the head (also called a "skin") on the top of the drum shell, position it and put the chrome hoop on top. Next put the rods (screws) in line with the lugs and hand tighten them. Once this is done, put some pressure in the center and keep your eye on the wrinkles. Tighten each tuning rod in a star pattern until the wrinkles flatten and disappear. Search the Internet for a "drum tuning star pattern" appropriate for the number of lugs you have. I also recommend you use a Sharpie marker to number points on the head in the correct order.

Tuning the Bottom Head
Repeat the procedure as done in the tuning of the top head, up through the hand-tightening step. But do not put pressure in the center of the bottom head because it is too thin, and it could warp or break. Use the star pattern after hand-tightening to get the head to pitch.

Fine Tuning
In order to achieve a clear note and good tone, the top head and bottom head of the drum should vibrate at the same frequency. Tama makes a Tension Watch that measures the head tension at each lug so the tension is more precise and distributed, but I just use my ear to tune.) Mute one head by placing it on a carpet or something soft and tune the head on the opposite end using the star pattern. Next, flip the drum and do the same thing for the other head. It will likely be necessary to flip the drum several times, adjusting the tension rods until the top and bottom heads match in tone. The top and bottom head notes should ring closer to the same note as you adjust the tension rods. This process should produce a nice note and tone.

Attaching the Snares
On each snare drum, there are wires running across the bottom head connecting to a throw-off device, called the strainer, and the butt end (no laughing) on the opposite side. Some strainers hold the strap or wires in place with small tuner screws, similar to tension rods, and some with just screws. For the sake of simplicity, I'll assume you have the tuner screws.

First, flip the lever off on the strainer. Loosen the tuner screws on the butt side with your tuning key and place the wires or strap in the plate of the butt side and tighten. Make sure you place the snares closer to the butt side because the snares will stretch. Once tightened on the butt end, put the strap or wires in the strainer side clip and tighten. Turn the knob on the strainer to preference, or if you're not sure, just turn it as tight as you can with your fingers.

Adjustment For Snare Sound
If the snares are not sensitive enough, try tightening the bottom head of your snare, making sure the two tension rods next to the end of the snares (four in total) are tight enough. If you are getting too much snare buzz, try loosening the head. Except for general even tension, the bottom head tuning is not as important on the snare.

Bass Drum Setup & Tuning
With the shell of the bass drum in place, place the batter head (the head the pedal makes contact with) on the shell. Position the wooden hoop over the top. Then hook the clasps and tension rods over the hoop and hand-tighten them. Next, you can either repeat the process from the other drums, or you can just barely tighten the tension rods. The tension of the head is usually a matter of preference. Using a star pattern to smooth out the wrinkles can give you a higher tuned sound, whereas just getting them all slightly tight gives a looser sound.

Bass Drum Resonant Head
Now is the time to put some muffling in your bass drum, if you prefer. Metal drummers tend to use quite a bit of muffling, and jazz drummers tend to leave it more open. Place the muffling pad, pillow, or cloth piece of your choice up against the bottom of the batter head, inside the drum. Once the muffling has been positioned, place the head on, then the hoop, and tighten to your liking.



OTHER TIPS FOR DRUMMERS

Stick Grip
When gripping your stick, try to hold it loosely. Tension between the thumb and index finger can cause carpal tunnel syndrome, a build-up of scar tissue that can cause pain and numbness in the hands.

Need a Hole In Your Head?
Some people (including myself) prefer having a hole in the bass drum head to allow air to escape, to enable easy moving of the muffling, or to insert a microphone for recording. Take a circular template (perhaps made of cardboard) about four inches in diameter and carefully use a razor blade or soldering iron to cut around the template. If you use a microphone inside your drum, I recommend using some kind of protective insert around the porthole so the wire from the microphone doesn't tear the head.

Flatstick vs. Cockpit Style
When mounting your toms, you can mount them one of two ways. Flatstick means the toms are positioned fairly flat. The benefits of flatstick over cockpit style are:

  1. You are less likely to put dents in the head
  2. Your heads will most likely last longer
  3. The tone of the drum will be fuller much, like a rim shot on a snare
The benefits of cockpit are:
  1. If you have a tall bass drum, it is hard to get the toms low enough to play over the kit with a flatstick style
  2. You've probably seen ‘80s drummers using this style (such as Lars Ulrich from Metallica), so you might think it looks cool
If the bass drum is too tall and you wish to play flatstick, get a clamp to hold your tom(s) that will mount off of a cymbal stand and that should help you get them lower.

Stick Size
When starting out playing rock, metal, or any heavy hitting music, I recommend using heavier sticks such as 5a and 5b, because they last longer. If you're starting out playing jazz, soft rock or some sort of quiet fast-paced music, a lighter stick might be in order.

Cymbals
Once again this is mainly a difference in heavier and lighter music. Rock and metal drummers usually use heavier cymbals because they can play harder without them breaking, and the harder you hit, the louder you are. Jazz players tend to use thinner, lighter cymbals because they usually don't hit very hard and need a quieter sound.

Heads
If you like ‘80s metal and rock, you might want to consider using a snare head with some built in muffling, and tune it low. You can also buy a plastic ring that goes on the perimeter of the head for muffling. In a similar way, if you want a rock sound for your toms, but don't want too many overtones and want a clearer sound, a head with some sort of muffling or extra thickness might be in order. When playing in smaller clubs or rooms, using extra muffling can be a good idea so that the other band members don't have to turn their volume up too much. If you want to use brushes for jazz, use powder-coated heads, like snare heads, on the toms so the brushes have some friction and make more noise.

I hope this helps you with your drum setup. Thanks for reading, and play hard.

Caleb Knott has played guitar for eight years, drums for seven, bass for six years, and the mandolin for two. He plays most styles of music other than country, rap, and opera, though he primarily plays metal, rock, and blues. You can hear some of his music on his YouTube channel: YouTube.com/Caltamadrummer

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