• RobT

10. Tuning Drums for Different Styles and Genres

Updated: Oct 14, 2020

Taking a seat behind a fully-loaded drum kit brings a moment of joy, power, and excitement to all drummers, and even non-drummers too! Just watch someone’s face light up as you pass them the drumsticks and let them experience the thrill of sitting behind your kit for the very first time. Every drummer’s kit has been meticulously setup to enable the perfect performance for that one person – it’s an incredibly personal thing. Some drummers have more cymbals than drums, some want a super strong and comfy drum seat, some have two floor toms, some have two kick pedals, some have toms mounted on the kick drum, some have their toms mounted on a cymbal stand, the choices are endless! And even if two drummers have exactly the same kit and equipment, their setup will differ based on the way they play, the length of their arms, how high they like the seat, whether they want the dark thin crash on the left or right hand side. What’s more, with a single drum kit, physically setup to suit the owner’s needs, there are still thousands of choices on how the kit is played and how it is tuned for the type of performance. You might play jazz style drums in the morning and rock drums at night, or maybe you play in two bands and need two different drum kits to suit the style and genre of each one. Maybe you play a big eight piece drum kit in a classic rock band and a tiny two piece kit in a cocktail club covers outfit; it’s certainly a valuable skill to be able to play different styles and genres, not only to broaden your ability, but also to widen your opportunities for paid work as a drummer!

While it’s essential to develop and perfect your own drumming style, and be flexible to play different styles too, it’s just as important to be able to setup and tune your kit relevant to these specialisms or styles too. And, as we know, there are hundreds of different ways to tune and perfect the sound of a drum kit. But some approaches suit certain styles better than others, for example jazz drummers generally tend to tune a kit to higher frequencies than rock drummers. As we’ve mentioned a number of times already, the endless possibilities for personalising a drum kit and it’s sound is both a blessing and a curse, because your knowledge and experience needs to evolve every time you want to try something new – and drummers should really never stop learning or investigating new options and approaches.

So how do we break down all the options into an approach that drummers can use to experiment and understand, to find their own personal sound and setup for their own personal drum kit? A good approach is to consider that three physical things about the drum kit are very influential in relation to the style and genre of the music a drummer plays:

· The size of the individual drums in the drum kit

· The tuning of each drum in the drum kit

· The types of drumheads used

This might sound a bit simplistic, but a ‘rock’ drummer would generally play a ‘rock’ kit with ‘rock’ drumheads and with a ‘rock’ tuning. No surprise, but also, a ‘jazz’ drummer will play ‘jazz’ drums with ‘jazz’ drumheads and ‘jazz’ tunings. But what does this mean? These are just words that don’t really help anyone practically without some details added, and more interestingly, what happens if we use a JAZZ kit with ROCK drumheads and setup with a tuning somewhere in between? Hmm, that could be interesting… or maybe it would be a disaster!

What this type of thinking confirms for us is that what’s right for one person can be horribly wrong for someone else, and that’s ok, in fact, that’s one of the really beautiful things about drums. The best approach is to continuously develop your knowledge and understanding, and make a very personal, informed choice about how you want your kit to sound. It’s valuable to take advice and suggestions from other drummers, websites, online videos and blogs like this, but only YOU can decide what your drums should sound like, and if you are not sure, keep experimenting, learning and investigating – it really is an endless journey, but a fun and rewarding one!

If you have a good understanding about drum sizes, drumheads and drum tuning for different music styles and genres, and how they relate to each other, then you are well equipped to go on this journey. So let’s look at each in a bit more detail with respect to styles and genres…

Drum sizes for different music genres:

The drum sizes chosen for a particular style relate back to the drumhead equation we saw in the previous tutorial on drumheads. This theory told us that if two different sized drumheads are made from exactly the same material and are tuned to exactly the same tension, then the one with a larger diameter will vibrate at a lower frequency. So if you want to have drums that are to give deep low frequencies and are tuned to be powerful and bass heavy, then it makes sense to have larger diameter drums. The opposite applies too, so if you want to play drums that sound bright and tuned high, then it makes sense to have smaller diameter drums in your kit. You can have some fun with this theory though, experimenting with your own style and preference – there’s no reason why you can’t have large drums tuned high, or small drums tuned low for example. A great example of this is John Bonham of Led Zeppelin, who was known to have a strong influence of the jazz world, but also wanted to contribute powerful and identifiable drums to a song. Bonham’s approach to drum sound was therefore to use large diameter drums (often a 26” kick, 18” and 16” floor toms and a big 14” rack tom), yet with drumheads tuned to a fairly high tension, giving a relatively high fundamental pitch and a clearly defined sound to each drum.

Over the years, different drum manufacturers have seen what sort of kit sizes drummers tend to like for different styles of music. Of course there are drummers who like to have just two toms and drummers who want up to eight or more toms, so the number of drums in your kit does influence the choice of sizes to go for. For example, if using two rack toms, you might choose a 12” and a 14”, whereas if you use just one rack tom, you may chose a 13” diameter drum. The choice of drum sizes also relates very directly to the range of tuning that you want over the whole kit, some drummers like all their drums to occupy a low range on the kit, others like to occupy a high pitch range, whereas others like to cover a very wide range with some drums giving very low pitch sounds, and other drums giving very high pitch sounds, so the pitch intervals between the drums becomes a consideration too.

Here’s a table of different drum kits that are on the market, showing the range of sizes which kits are sold in. In many cases the manufacturers cater for many different sizes in each kit, so its very possible to create bespoke and hybrid configurations. (Note those in blue are generally marketed as ‘rock’ drum kits, whereas those in green are generally marketed as ‘jazz’ drum kits).

A quick note about the depth of a cylindrical drum; we’ve seen that the tuning frequency is related to the diameter of the drum, but what is the influence of the depth of the drum? Well, this really has no influence on the pitch of the drum, you can tune a deep 16 inch floor tom to exactly the same frequencies as a more shallow 16 inch floor tom. Of course, they sound subtly different, this is because the depth of the drum affects the strength of the relationship between the batter and resonant drumheads – it’s no surprise that the further away the resonant drumhead is from the batter, the weaker the coupling between the two is. As a result, deeper drums generate less overtones from the resonant drumhead, and therefore sound to be a bit darker and more weighted towards the fundamental pitch of the drum, which can be great for rock drumming. The overbearing principle is that the depth of the drum only affects the timbre of the sound (remember that, ‘timbre’, from our previous tutorial on drum shell vibration?), in the same way that the shell material does too, so - whilst it’s an important factor for the overall sound of the drum - it’s not actually an important measurement with respect to tuning the pitch of the drum.

Drum tuning for different genres:

Before deciding exactly what size drums and what types of drumheads you will prefer to use, it’s valuable to think of the type of drum tuning you are aiming for with your kit. If you know what sound and tuning you are aiming for, then you can make good choices when buying a drum kit or when buying new drumheads in order to achieve that sound. Of course, if you already have a drum kit (and hence cannot change the size of your drums!) and/or are not in a position to buy a full set of new drumheads, then it’s also valuable to know exactly how to get the best out of your kit and what options are available with your current setup.

You’ll know already that drums are often regarded as ‘unpitched’ or ‘non-musical’ by many people, which is an argument that doesn’t really hold much credibility any more, given the most recent research and understanding. It’s often mentioned because people find the sound of drums hard to understand, because they don’t have perfect harmonics like, for example a piano, guitar or trumpet have. But that doesn’t mean drums are un-musical or without pitch. We’ve already seen that the theories associated with drumhead design and vibration profiles very much lends itself to fundamental pitch and tuning, despite the fact that drums have predominantly in-harmonic overtones – but this doesn’t mean they cannot be discussed in a musical context. Quite the opposite in fact, it’s both essential and empowering to consider the musical pitch of drums when tuning and setting up a drum kit. It’s very easy to identify the fundamental pitch of a drum by measuring it’s centre frequency with a tool like iDrumTune, or by listening and comparing it to notes played on a piano, which is also a good approach for considering the pitches of each drum in a drum kit.

We can identify exactly where each drum’s fundamental pitch lies in relation to a piano keyboard, and this helps visualise the potential range of drum tuning and the intervals between drums. For example, depending a little on what drumheads are used, a 16 inch floor tom can easily be tuned between around D2 (73.4 Hz) and G2 (98 Hz), and a 14 inch floor tom can be tuned similarly but shifted up a note or two, so from E2 (82.4 Hz) to A2 (110 Hz), as shown in the diagram below:

We can see there is a considerable overlap here, so again this allows flexibility for the drummer to choose whether they want a large diameter drum tuned tight or a smaller diameter drum tuned looser if they are aiming for tuning to the notes E2, F2 or G2, which overlap in the possible ranges for the 16” and 14” drums.

This overlap of tuning ranges applies similarly for many drums, for example, many kits are supplied with three rack toms of 12”, 10” and 8” diameter. The feasible range of tuning for these drums is shown similarly in the diagram below:

Interestingly, from the diagram above, if you want to tune two toms to fundamental pitch of A2 and E3, you could feasibly do this with two identical 10" drums that are tuned differently, or you could achieve the same result with one 12" and one 8" tom, or other combinations.

Now, we generally say that rock and metal drummers tend to tune to lower frequencies, and jazz and funk drummers tend to tune to higher frequencies, with pop and fusion drummers tuning somewhere in between. Obviously this is a big generalisation, but is a very good starting point to consider when experimenting with your own drum tuning preferences.

With this in mind, it’s possible to make some suggestions for drummers who would like to aim for a particular sound in their tuning, or learn about the range of sounds that can be achieved with their own kit and setup. So, in the next few diagrams, we show some example low, medium and high tunings for a standard 3, 4 and 5 piece setup (not counting the snare drum!).

High and Low Tunings for a Drum Kit with Kick, Floor and Rack Tom

High and Low Tunings for a Drum Kit with Kick, Floor Tom and Two Rack Toms

High and Low Tunings for a Drum Kit with Kick, Two Floor Toms and Two Rack Toms

The snare drum is an interesting case, because there are many adopted tuning ranges for the snare regardless of the style or genre being played. It appears that drummers playing rock and jazz (and all other genres) are equally likely to prefer a low or high tuning for the snare. Tuning the snare low gives a warm powerful sound, and tuning the snare high gives a sharp, cutting snare sound, and the low and high snare tunings are equally valid for all genres. The only difference being that many jazz drummers prefer a 13 inch diameter snare (instead of a more common 14 inch snare) which allows you to tune to a slightly higher frequency and to get just a little higher overtone to the sound. So regardless of what genre you play, it’s worth experimenting with low and high tunings on the snare to find your preferred pitch, and maybe you'll adjust this for different songs too. You’ll find that with most common drumheads, you can explore the following fundamental pitch range for a snare drum:

  • 14 inch snares: 164.8 Hz (E3) – 220.0 Hz (A3)

  • 13 inch snares: 174.6 Hz (D3) – 233.1 Hz (A3#)

* A quick word of warning: some snare heads are heavily coated and damped, which means (referring back again to the drumhead equation) they are unable to tune as high as lighter uncoated or single-ply drumheads, so be careful when tuning a snare to its upper limit, you may find that the drumhead cannot quite get to the highest frequency mentioned above before it breaks – so take good care and if the drumhead feels like it cannot go any tighter, then don’t try to push it beyond its limit!

Drumheads for different genres:

The drumheads you choose equally affect the drum sound with relevance to the style of music you are playing. As discussed in the previous blog on drumheads, jazz drummers tend to like hearing the natural overtones ring out, whereas rock and metal drummers tend to prefer a tighter sound with more fundamental and damped overtones – and hence they often use drumheads with overtone control features to achieve the sound they desire. The influence that the drumhead type has on the actual fundamental pitch of the drum is more related to the thickness and density of the drumhead. We saw previously that thicker and heavier drumheads (i.e. doubly-ply or coated drumheads) cause the drum to vibrate at a lower frequency than equivalent clear or single-ply heads, so if you are aiming to tune at the bottom of the range for your drum size, then a coated or 2-ply (or coated 2-ply!) drumhead will allow you to achieve that without the drumhead becoming too slack to vibrate properly. Equally the opposite is true; if you want to tune to the top end of the range for your drum sizes, then a clear and more lightweight drumhead will allow you to do this without risk of the drumhead breaking as you tune it up towards your target. With this in mind, drumhead manufacturers tend to advise what types of drumheads suit which types of music, but of course, as we discussed earlier, you are more than welcome to break all the rules in search of your own drum sound and tuning.

Equally, the drumhead type can help differentiate a little more between sub-genres. For example, we’ve seen that metal and rock drummers tend to use quite similar drum kit sizes and quite similar low tuning approaches. But the drumhead choice can make the subtle difference that turns a rock setup into a metal setup. For example, a thick coated drumhead sounds great for rock and metal, but the coating gives a much sharper and crisp attack to the sound, which suits metal drumming pretty well. A rock drummer may therefore use the same kit and similar tuning for their kit, but instead using a clear 2-ply overtone controlled drumhead to get the deep powerful sound, but with a slightly softer attack to the sound than a metal drummer might prefer.

So, despite all the permutations and options, the general rule of thumb is a good starting point for your own experimentation, so here's a list of the different drumhead types and the suggested genres which you might use them for:

That’s pretty much everything you need to know to put together the perfect kit, setup and tuning for the style and sound you are looking for. Of course everything related to the drum sizes, the drumhead choice and the tuning range all interacts with each other, so every choice narrows down the set of future choices you might make. It’s a fun journey and one that’s worth going on, because as soon as you experience how all these things relate in reality, on your own kit and heard with your own ears, you are well on the way to being a master of drum sound!

By Professor Rob Toulson - Professor of Musical Acoustics and Inventor of iDrumTune Pro.

iDrumTune Pro is available in the Apple and Google Play App Stores for iOS and Android.

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