Tuning a snare drum right is a bit of an art. However, while it’s true that tuning drums in general is not as intuitive as tuning a guitar (where you brainlessly use a tuner and turn the string up to pitch) tuning a snare drum to sound halfway decent is generally easier than tuning a tom or a bass drum. Since most snare drums sound good really tight, simply tuning up tight is a good way to start. Yes, there are tons of variables, and tons of different snares – therefore tons of different optimum tuning ranges depending on the drum. But, don’t let the drum-critic-police fool you… If in doubt, go tighter.
Let’s break it down a little further with a little checklist:
- Tune in a criss-cross pattern: Meaning, select a tuning rod to start and give it half a turn, then do the same with the one that’s right across. Go back to the tuning rod you started at and select the next rod clockwise. Repeat the process all around the drum. When fine tuning, quarter-turns and even eight-turns are best. Just try and keep the tension on the rods more or less balanced. A snare drum with standard punched steel hoops is a little forgiving in this aspect, but die cast hoops on the other hand like to be perfectly balanced.
- Balance the heads: By this I mean you should tune the batter or resonant head somewhat tight, but not fully. Then, go and work on the opposite head and do the same before returning to the original head to tighten it fully. I like to do this in order to apply tension to both sides of the drum more or less at once. Common sense tells me that applying ALL the pressure to only one side of the drum before applying pressure to the other side is not a good idea. This doesn’t matter on rack and floor toms that use minimal tension, but it’s a factor to consider with snare drums which are usually tuned much tighter. Additionally, snare drums often have lugs that stretch across the shell from one head to the other. These are often called high-tension lugs that are designed to counteract each other’s tension. These lugs help keep the tension along the drums outer hardware rather than relying solely on the the bolts that attach the lugs to the snare’s drum shell. These type of lugs make it even more obvious that you should balance the tension from one head to the other.
- Use decent heads: If your snare drum has crappy cheap heads or heads that are worn out, please replace them. There are good heads out there that cost about $12-$14 dollars. Think, Aquarian Texture Coated Studio-X Z100. There no excuse. Even if you’re broke you can gather a couple of dollar and get some decent heads. Don’t expect your snare drum to sound right otherwise.
Other snare drum tuning tips
To learn to tune you have to learn to listen. Try and find the snare drum’s voice where you hear it “sing.” Now, don’t get caught up in the “perfect tuning” sweet spot. Many snare drums these days have a pretty wide tuning range. This means that as long as you are somewhat within that range, it’s all just a matter of opinion after that. I like to tune my resonant head tighter than my batter head on some drums. Sometimes, what I’ll do is tune the resonant head really tight, then make it even tighter (I’ve yet to break one while tuning). Then, I’ll tune up the batter head to the feel I’m looking for. Sometimes, mid-show I’ll get bored with the sound of the snare and instead of changing it out I’ll just tune the batter head tighter.
…tuning a snare drum to sound halfway decent is generally easier than tuning a tom or a bass drum.
Not all drummers like the snare heads incredibly tight. Drummers like Mana’s Alex Gonzalez like the super crisp and poppy sound of really tight heads and snare wires, while some drummers like Foo Fighters’ Taylor Hawkins prefer a more jazzy and open-sounding snare drum with slightly less head tension. (Ironically, for jazz you’d tune the toms tighter than you would for rock).
Finally, don’t rely on Moongel, gaffer or duck tape for your tuning. Try and get the best sound possible with just the heads and tuning rods alone. When you get a satisfactory sound, then you can fine tune overtones and what not by using Moongel (I don’t use ducktape – it looks like crap on drums). Don’t be afraid to experiment, play with your tuning at least a couple times a week. You will eventually find that you develop “tuning ears” and can hear when something sounds good or not.