[Tuning a Drum Set by Waywood Music]

Tuning Drums with Synthetic Heads


[Ginga pandiero synthetic head]There are many different types of drums which use synthetic heads including congas, bongos, hand drums and drums of ethnic origin. For example, this Brasilian pandiero with a plastic head uses bolt tuning.

Tuning of drum heads can be broken down into three basic methods:

Tension rods
Rope or thong tensioning
No tuning mechanism

I will address these individually in more detail, concentrating on the principles rather than the specifics.


Tuning by Tension Rods

Many drums with synthetic heads use the same tuning method as found on a standard drum kit, that is, tension rods. A rim sits on the head and tension is applied by tightening a series of nuts or bolts which pass through the rim and into nut boxes attached to the drum shell. These pull the rim down, tightening the head (see images below).


[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)


Tensioning is performed using the 'opposites' method detailed below.

a. Ensure that all nuts or bolts are finger tight.

b. Choose one tension rod, and remembering this, start tightening by about one-quarter of a turn.

c. Next, move to the tension rod DIRECTLY OPPOSITE across the head of the drum and tighten that by the same amount.

[Diagram of tuning drum using 'opposites' method]

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

d. Move back across the head to the next tension bolt around from the one you started with, and tighten as before.

e. Continue to move around the whole drum using this 'opposites method' until you get back to where you started.

f. Repeat this process until you begin to hear the drum head tightening, producing a tone or note when you tap it with your finger.

g. 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 provide slight damping. As the drum head gets tighter, so the amount you will turn each tension rod will get less. REMEMBER to aim for CONSTANT tension across the whole drum. This is more easily achieved using synthetic heads.

You can then 'fine tune' the head where necessary to get a consistent tone.

Adjustments to tuning can be made with the trusty drum key (or spanner where nuts are used to tension the head, such as on hand drums).

De-tune the heads in the same GRADUAL manner.

PLEASE NOTE: Drums such as congas use much thicker synthetic heads which can exert very large forces on the rims of the drum. These latter heads should be tensioned SEQUENTIALLY around the drum and NOT by the 'opposites' method used in drum tensioning as for natural skin (see Tuning by Tension Rods on the 'Tuning Drums with Natural Skin Heads' page).

Tuning your drums can be confusing and it definitely is an art, with a great sense of 'trial and error'.  However, I prefer to see what's happening rather than just reading about it and the advent of visual media such as DVDs really brings things to life: you can see what they're doing and replay it repeatedly.  Two really excellent DVDs that I can personally recommend on the subject are Russ Miller - Drum Set Crash Course Tuning Edition [DVD] and Mike Michalkow's Drum Tuning System.  Both are very detailed, very meticulous and make great reference material.


Tuning by Ropes or Thongs

[Kambala 8-inch djun djun]Although the drum shown has natural cow-hide heads, the same principles apply to rope-tuned drums with synthetic heads.

Tension and de-tune the head gradually and evenly around the skin. Aim for an even tension across the whole head. Some of the rope tuning techniques, such as Mali weave, are quite specialised.  However, there are good books and web pages which demonstrate these techniques and once you've learnt them they can be applied to tuning both natural and synthetic drum heads.


Drums with No Mechanical Means of Tuning

For these drums, you will have very little control over their pitch or tuning. Unlike natural skin heads, the synthetic heads are not affected by temperature or humidity and are manufactured with a higher degree of consistency in skin thickness. Essentially, the only method of tensioning the skins is by using pressure from your fingers or thumb as you play.


There is a free pdf download available here which provides a 'drum tuning map' for drums with different numbers of lugs.  please note that this method ONLY works for drums with thin heads and should NOT be used on congas or drums with thick hide heads as it could potentially distort the shell during tuning (see Tuning by Tension Rods on the 'Tuning Drums with Natural Skin Heads' page).

REMEMBER: Different people have different preferences for tuning and the sequence of tensioning the tension rods.  However, the overall aim is to achieve even tuning across the whole drum head.


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