[Get the best from drums with natural skin heads from Waywood Music]

Tuning Drums with Natural Skin Heads


[Moroccon Bendir]There are many different types of drums which use natural skin heads, including congas, bongos, hand drums, and other drums of ethnic origin. Some of these have very specific tuning methods which are outside the scope of this page.

Some useful references and links for this can be found on the Music Press & Publications Page if you wish to find out more.

There are basically three methods for tuning for drums with natural skin heads.

Tension rods
Rope or thong tensioning
No mechanical tuning mechanism present

These will be addressed individually in more detail, concentrating on the principles rather than the specifics.


Tuning by Tension Rods

This is very similar to the tuning mechanism found on conventional drums.

A rim sits on the head and tension is applied by tightening a series of nuts or bolts which are attached to the drum shell. These pull the rim down and tighten the head (click on images below to see diagrams more clearly).


[Diagram of drum tensioning mechanism]

Drum Tensioning Mechanism
(click on image to enlarge)


[Diagram of conga/bongo drum tensioning mechanism]

Conga/Bongo Tensioning Mechanism
(click on image to enlarge)


Drums such as congas have much thicker heads. CONSEQUENTLY, they can exert very large forces on the rims of the drum. The heads should be tensioned SEQUENTIALLY around the drum ('around the clock'). See image below. DO NOT use the 'opposites' method (used for tuning drum kits, which have much thinner, synthetic heads). The following principles should be applied to all drums with natural skin heads:

a. Ensure that all nuts are finger tight.

[Tuning drum by 'around the clock' method]

Tuning Using the 'Around the Clock' Method
(click on image to enlarge)

b. Choose one tension rod, and remembering this, start tightening the nut on each tension rod in order around the rim by one-quarter of a turn until you get back to where you started.

c. Repeat this process until you begin to hear the drum head tightening, and a tone coming from the head when you tap it with your finger. Don't worry about audible cracks and bangs which may occur whilst tuning. This is the sound of skin giving and pulling over the rim, and will be more prevalent in new heads.

d. Every so often, strike the centre of the drum with the ball of your hand to pull the head over the rim all around the drum. If you are tuning drums with thin heads such as bongos, hand drums or darabukas, avoid striking the skin in the middle. You are likely to split the skin. Some warm-up or practice playing will also help to settle the head in.

e. Continue until the drum is close to the tone you want, then gently tap about one inch (2.5cm) inside the rim all around the drum whilst placing a finger on the middle of the head to afford slight damping.

f. You can then 'fine tune' the head at different places to get a consistent tone.


Adjustments to tuning can be made with a spanner or drum key.

De-tune the heads in the same GRADUAL manner.

ALWAYS de-tune after playing to prolong the life of the heads.

Some examples of tension rod tuning on percussion are shown below. Note that in the first two diagrams, the bodhrán skin is actually tensioned by the tension bolts pushing the internal rim onto the drum head from inside (achieving the same end result).


[Bodhran general view of drum]

Close-Up of Bodhrán Interior
(click on image to enlarge)


[Bodhran - close-up of rod tuning mechanism]

Close-Up of Bodhrán Internal Rod Tuning Mechanism
(click on image to enlarge)


[Close-up of darabuka tension rod tuning mechanism]

Close-up of Turkish darabuka tension rod tuning mechanism
(click on image to enlarge)


[Close-up of hand drum rod tuning mechanism]

Close-up of hand drum rod tuning mechanism
(click on image to enlarge)


[Brazilian pandiero]

Brazilian pandiero with rod tuning mechanism
(click on image to enlarge)


REMEMBER: Because the skin is NOT exactly the same across its surface, there will a natural variation in tone which you may only be able to even out by applying big differences in tension at specific tension rods. THIS SHOULD BE AVOIDED AT ALL COST to avoid the risk of distorting the shell (especially on cheaper congas) or stripping the thread on the tension bolt.


HELPFUL HINT: To get the BEST sound from natural skin heads, ensure that they are warm. This can be achieved by leaving them in a warm place, rubbing them with your hands or using a heat source e.g., small electric blanket, hairdryer or stage lighting. However, keep a CLOSE WATCH on skin tension as it may get TOO TIGHT and 'EXPLODE'.


Click on the following links to access information on tuning drums with natural skin drum heads using:

Rope or thong tensioning
No mechanical tuning mechanism present


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