4BarsRest logo



news desk

articles & features


results archive


classified ads

your comments

go shopping




Timpani & Percussion - Part 4

Its use with the modern Brass Band –
by Dave Griffiths

Dave Griffiths continues his series of articles on the art of percussion playing, with the responsibilities of the Principal Percussionist.

See also: part 1 | part 2 | part 3

Continuing on from my previous article where focussed on playing techniques of various percussion instruments, I begin this article focussing on tuning drums . You might recall I mentioned in Article One a few helpful pointers in relation to tuning Timpani. In this article I look more closely to tuning non-pitched drums, such as snare drums (and reducing “buzzing” snares), tom toms and bass drums.

Following this information I have focussed on a number of recently asked questions, including details of quality percussion suppliers.

The Art of Tuning a Drum

While veteran percussionists and drummers may not find many new tips in this part of the article, newer players may find this article interesting. Most of the information contained within this guide is pretty much common knowledge in the drum world. Lots of drummers will argue certain points that they don't agree with. It's all a matter of taste and preference. No two drummers do the same thing exactly the same way.

This article is broken down into the basic areas of drum sound tweaking. Because of the vast amount of information that would be introduced by including studio drum tuning tips; I've decided to focus only on live drums as generally used as in a concert performance with a brass band.

There are a few charts included. I found this the easiest way to communicate certain types of information. If I mention a brand name, it's just to give an example and NOT an endorsement (unfortunately). Some names are clearly a product of my imagination.


Choosing the right head for you is as personal as choosing the right stick or what kind of underwear to buy! It depends on which drum it will be used on, what kind of music you play, environments the heads will be used in (small venues, concert halls), and on and on. Don't go out and buy a full set of Basher SheetMetal-Dot heads just because your favourite drummer Rimshot Rackett uses or endorses them! One thing to consider when choosing drum heads for use with a brass band is that unlike a drummer playing in a rock band, or a jazz quartet or Big Band, as a percussionist with a brass band you are required to play various different music styles and therefore your heads should be suitable for all-round general use.

The sound most desirable from a drum whilst used in brass band repertoire is a wide open sound. A “plain” medium or thin-coated head won't muffle the sound too much and will give your drums more life. By direct contrast, if you were working in a recording studio with a small band the situation might be a little different. A “studio” head, one that may be filled with oil, will make your soundman happy. A "plain" head may introduce strange overtones in the sound system that loves to feed back into your mics. But of course, a good soundman can work with a live, resonant drum and have it come out sounding like it should without worrying about feedback. But that's another story…


Kit bass drums don't demand much from a head other than durability. While each type of head will sound slightly different on a bass, it's unlikely that your listeners will notice your new fifty-pound Thunder Whack batter head. Dampening should be used sparingly however, for more information, revert back to my previous article where I discuss dampening in more detail.

Toms and snares ARE picky when it comes to heads. You snare may love a Silver Dot - your toms may hate them or visa versa. An average drummer may hit his/her snare eighty times to every hit on a tom, thus you might find a different type of head may be required on your snare drum than on the toms. For general use however, I have found that a Remo Coated Ambassador (or similar by Evans Heads) are a good choice for brass band playing on the snare drum. See my note below for my choice of supplier for all percussion heads, spare parts, covers and instruments.


Most drum kits these days have double-headed toms. Some drummers say to tune the bottom head slightly different from the top. This will deaden the drum's overall sound while, at the same time, broadening its tone. Two medics carrying a stretcher will do a much better job if both are moving at the same speed. Medics? Let me explain.

Let's say you have the bottom head tuned higher than the top head. You hit the drum, which causes the top head to push the air down, which in turn moves the bottom head downward. So, both heads are vibrating. But , on some of the oscillations, the top head is pushing the air down while the bottom head is pushing it up; hence, lessening the distance each head will travel. While this technique isn't wrong, it does have an effect on the sound. If you find your toms "way too ringy," by all means, try this technique.

Bass drums also sound different depending on the presence of a front head. Single-headed bass drums will be somewhat quicker, but with less low end. Seventy-five percent of the time, people dancing to a live rock band are subconsciously feeling the pulse of the bass drum. If your bass drum doesn't create a worthwhile vibration, the dancers won't have much fun. Oops, I'm drifting…

The only way to be a good tuner is to tune -- a lot! First off, you have to decide what kind of sound you are trying to achieve. If you want a gigantic, full-bodied, booming tom sound, but your largest tom is a 14" Roto-Tom, you won't get it. If you want an attention- getting big band sound, but you're using hydraulic heads on huge power toms, you won't get it.

I'll start this section by explaining how to tune a drum, step by step, from the ground up. First, an ugly illustration (I'm sorry) describing the order in which tension rods should be tightened or loosened:

Timp tuning diagram

The idea is to keep the tension as even as possible around the head, much like tightening the lug nuts when changing a wheel on a car.

  1. Before mounting the head, check the bearing edge for roughness or bumps. It should be smooth to the touch. Look across it from one side. It should be uniform in height.

  2. Lay the head on the shell, mount the rim, and screw each tension rod in finger-tight. With a drum key, tighten each rod one full turn (360 degrees).

  3. If you're using an old head OR a Calf Skin head, skip to step 4. Set your drum on the floor (on carpet to protect the bottom of the shell) and apply pressure on the head, pressing up and down slightly for a couple of minutes. You'll hear cracks and pops as you "seat" the head onto your bearing edge and as the resin used to hold the head into its bead cracks into shape. Slam the edge of your fist into the head about 20 times. This will pre-stretch the head so it won't go out of tune as quickly at first.

  4. Tighten each rod about another full turn. Most of the wrinkles should be gone at this point. If not, tighten each rod a quarter turn until the head is smooth. The head should now produce some sort of tone when struck.

  5. Tap the head at the edge beside each lug. If the pitch is slightly lower at one lug, tighten that rod until it matches the two points next to it. Repeat until the same pitch is heard all the way around the head. Getting the head IN TUNE now will make it easier to tune when you finally tighten it up to the desired pitch.

  6. Tighten each lug a quarter turn and check the overall pitch. Repeat until the desired pitch is found.

  7. One last time, tap around the edge and fix any inconsistencies in the tuning of the head.

  8. If you use double-headed drums, repeat with the bottom head.

Getting the bottom head of a tom to match the top head takes a little extra work. The easiest way to hear the pitch of each head at a time is to muffle one head while tapping softly on the other, then switch.

Snare drums are a bit different. Basically, the more tension you give the snare-side head, the better snare response you'll get. Tuning snare drums takes a lot of experimentation for each drummer.


For the most part, proper tuning techniques can eliminate the need for muffling. Before you plaster your heads with tape, towels, or Dead Ringers, try these tried-and-true techniques. Using loose, floppy heads with tons of muffling will leave you with an expensive set of cardboard boxes.

  • Detune one rod or two adjacent rods on the batter head about a quarter to a half turn. This has been known to be called "funky tuning." It became popular in the '70s when funk was thriving.
  • Increase or decrease the pitch of the bottom head. This is described above.
  • Change to a "studio" head (hydraulic). They produce fewer overtones and result in a warm, wet sound.

If these tips don't help your drum or you don't like the results, you probably need to muffle it somehow. Use muffling VERY sparingly. Remember, what sounds good to you while you're playing may sound bad at the other end of the room. To get rid of a slight high-pitched ring, use a small piece of tape. You may have to move the tape to different points on the head until you find the source of the ring.

To get rid of a really annoying ring or overtone:

  • Make a donut out of an old head. Don't waste money on commercial versions. Find an old head the same diameter as the head you need to muffle. Cut around the edge removing only the rim, but leaving the edge flat. Now cut a smaller circle out of the inside piece. The donut should be about 3/4" to 1" wide. Place it on top of the drum's head. If the donut flies off at inopportune moments, affix it to the head with SMALL pieces of tape stuck to the rim.

I do NOT recommend the following types of muffling for toms and snares:

  • Filling the drum with toilet paper.
  • Plastering the head with huge man made pads of cloth tied down with tape.
  • Using the internal mufflers on some drums. (Remove these to prevent weird noises and buzzes.)
  • Taping music onto a head!

While bass drums should be muffled, it can be overdone. Filling the drum half full is too much.

I have found that during my years of experience playing with brass bands that the nicest drum sounds most suitable for use with a brass band is that of sounds produced by drummers such as Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich and almost any big band drummer. Tuning methods for this style of sound is as instructed below:

With the snares off, the drum should sound like a medium-pitched timbale with lots of ring and overtones. With the snares on, the *slightest* tap of the stick should produce a crisp snare sound.

A "small marching bass" best describes a big band bass drum. The only muffling is usually a couple felt strips stretched across the inside of both heads.

They should sing! Overtones are welcome here.

Buzzing Snares on Snare Drum.

There are quite a few instances where the sympathetic resonance of the snare drum snares with other instruments (especially Brass instruments and other drums) are rather annoying. Also many drummers face the problem of sympathetic resonance caused by the nearby tom toms.

What can be done to diminish this problem?

The cause of the problem is the fact that the tuning of the snare drum shares some components (overtones that is) with other instruments. Most modern snare drums are rather sensitive to this problem and one step would be to alter the tuning of the snare drum as to avoid as many as possible common overtones. But this is only partly a solution, as the snare drum itself is very rich in overtones (independent of tuning) and removing one overtone (by retuning) is likely to introduce a new one!

A completely different approach (one that I have used many times) is to put some very thin piece of paper between the snare and the bottom head. You have to experiment a bit with thickness and placement, but it is possible to reduce the problem a lot.
Another solution would be to experiment with different heads. In the past (40 years ago) it was hardly a problem because the calfskin head (and its companion snare head) were rather insensitive to this problem. It is thinkable that the use of calfskin-like heads (e.g. Fiberskin 3) also reduces the effect.

Recently asked questions

Matched or Traditional Grip?

The Matched grip (both hands alike) is the most used grip worldwide seen. Almost all percussion playing cultures (e.g. Africa, India, China, Japan, Indonesia, and South America) use this grip because there is no need to do it in any other way. It is also the most natural way of playing and it has been in practice for thousands of years.

Enter the Traditional grip …

The Traditional grip came into use when the players started to carry their drum (with the help of some belt) on their body, usually their left leg. In this position it was very uncomfortable to use the old (matched) grip and players adjusted their grip to this new playing. This happened somewhere between 1300 and 1500 in Europe. This traditional grip became the standard grip in all military styles of playing and finally was adopted the grip of playing the snare drum. When these very players moved into the jazz scene (around 1880-1900) this grip was used for their (rudimental style) drum set playing.

During the years following this period the traditional grip was in use by almost all jazz drummers and also all blues and rock drummers used this grip. The turnaround (back to the matched grip) came with Ringo Starr who influenced so many drummers in the great Beatle era. Before that time a drummer was often measured by his grip: Trad was OK, Matched wasn't! But nowadays even in the drum corps style drumming the Matched grip is widely in use.

Both grips have their strong and weak points and both have their own advocates. For the normal Jazz drum set - Snare, 2 toms, 2 cymbals - the Traditional grip is all you need. All instruments are within reach of both hands, although playing time with the left hand (on the left cymbal or hihat) is a serious problem. But in normal playing practice that was almost never done either! When the drum sets in use grew bigger (getting more toms and cymbals) the need for more (and equal) span was obvious and for this reason the Matched grip was (and still is) the perfect solution.

In the field of classical percussion setup pieces and for many brass band pieces also, players who were trained in the Traditional grip often had to face the problem of performing all kind of pieces in awkward playing positions which could be easily avoided by using the Matched grip. Rapid stick changes, movements over many different instruments (2 bars vibes, 5 bars wood blocs, 1 bar marimba, another bar with marimba by left hand and triangle with right hand.... Do you get the idea?) are easier to perform when you can use the same grip for all instruments. For that reason the training of a classical percussion player should focus on the Matched grip.

Either grip is equally suited to play any rhythm but Traditional grip is sometimes the only way to perform good sounding brush patterns. On the other hand, there are many great drummers who have developed some new brush patterns that are very hard to play with Traditional grip.

And then, of course, there is the point of muscle efficiency. In May 1967 , Gene Pollart published an extensive article in which he compared both grips

The conclusion of Pollart:

"...The matched grip involves more coordination of the participating muscles, has more potential power at its disposal to help control the action of movement, and because of its simple movement and more potential power, it will produce more sustained endurance."

Of course there is some controversy to Mr Pollarts remarks. Everyone has his or her own view, of course, and here is mine.

Traditional grip was created because the drums that the field drummers used were tilted, due to the strap. They discovered no scientific evidence that proved the left hand should do something completely different from the right hand. They didn't pick it because they could play faster, or do cooler visuals, or to be different. They did it because the drums were at an angle, and the easiest way to hit the drum was to screw up your hand so you could strike it level.

Today, we are no longer the victims of faulty drum straps. With revolutionary technology, we have discovered a way to make our drums STRAIGHT (as displayed in many of today's American marching corps bands. You no longer need to turn your hand upside-down to play. I'm sure if the drummers of the 1500's were here, they would go right back to playing matched grip.

Some other food for thought:

If traditional grip is better, than why don't we use it with BOTH hands? It doesn't make sense to me that what is good for one hand is not good for the other. Since drums are LEVEL now (I'd like to emphasize that) we can use any grip we want. But it only makes sense that both hands should do the same thing, and I haven't seen an advocate of traditional grip yet that did it with both hands.

I've also heard that traditional grip is better because there are things you can do with it that you can't do with matched. I would agree with this - however, I would point out that you can hold your sticks any number of strange ways and do things you could never do with matched grip, or traditional either, for that matter.

To me, it is obvious that matched grip is the easiest way to learn and should be the standard everywhere. If you want to hold your sticks funny later, go right ahead. But learn to play the drum first.

Reasons why I believe matched grip is better than traditional grip:

  • More power (or volume) when you want it
  • Better finger control: With traditional grip, only the two fingers on top of the left stick (index and middle fingers) are controlling the downward motion of the stick. With matched grip (and thumb on top, not off to the side), all fingers are controlling the downward motion of the stick. For a demonstration of this, see the Dave Weckl video "Back to Basics".
  • Requires less patience to learn. Therefore, more encouraging and less frustrating for young drumming students.
  • Better angle for fuller-sounding rim shots
  • When you learn matched grip you're also learning the grip for marimba, glockenspiel, timpani, etc.
  • The hands can play more evenly and sound more even
  • Better balance on the drumset, because matched grip is symmetrical and traditional grip is asymmetrical
  • Easier to manoeuvre around large drumset
  • Easier to play left-hand ride on hi-hat or on cymbal on left side of drumset

Renaissance/Calfskin heads or plastic heads on Timpani?

Especially when used on Timpani, the Calfskin head has superior tone quality over (all types of) the plastic head. But its sensitivity to weather conditions makes it a poor candidate for player controllable performance quality. Therefore many players prefer the plastic head for most situations. These days' heads such as the Remo Renaissance offers a close option to calfskin without all the problems associated with calfskin however producing a quality of tone similar to using calfskin.

High Timpani drum left or right?

The way players place their timpani with the high timpani on the left or right side, varies per country. And even in one country not all players use the same placement. The problem is not restricted to timpani, but all instrument set-ups where instruments of varying pitch have to be placed next to each other, face the problem of how to place the instruments in such a way that playing becomes easier (or at least not more difficult).

The reasons for those different placements are obscure and nobody really knows the correct answer, because there is no correct answer to this question. Through the whole history one can see both possibilities used with equal chance. If we were forced to come up with an international accepted setup, then we should select the high drum right solution, because that's the way the piano and tuned bar instruments have their layout (But no right handed drummer, playing the drumset , in the world would agree with this setup!).

We have to make a choice then, and this choice is highly influenced by the country where you live and study, and the custom setup used in your country. Problems arise when people from different cultures play or study together, as is was case at the music college where I studied. We have students from all over the world that studied the instrument already in their home country and are now studying with us.

One thing should be clear: if someone uses a certain setup for the timpani (e.g. high on the left), then this setup should be used for all other multi-instrumental set-ups (e.g. 5 toms and 4 cymbals). This has simply to do with ease of playing and movement of hands. Sometimes players share instrument-groups in the same piece, and it would be very awkward to constantly have to think about which hand to use! This should be a natural decision (acquired by sufficient practice) that all players should have.

I must admit that by sufficient practice it is very well possible to learn to play on any setup, although the one that one has learned initially is more comfortable.

I have always have played Tympani with high drum(s) to the right, even a 5th "piccolo" timp was at my far right. I have not found, at least in the orchestral, brass band and show playing that I have done, any need to set up another way. I prefer it because of my mallet and piano training being based on Middle C (L side-low pitches, R side - high pitches. When called upon to cover many different parts at one time, it helps if all pitched instruments are based on the same direction from low to high.

Instruments, covers, sticks, repairs and all your percussion needs

There are many high street music shops that offer good offers on all types of instruments. However, for that extra special service when buying any of your percussion related needs, I have tended to use one main supplier.

JamPercussion is run by two highly experienced professional musicians (Graham Johns & Tony Lucas), who can offer expert advise, a quick efficient delivery service, excellent after purchase-care, and more importantly can obtain almost any percussion related requirement from all over the world.

Dave Griffiths

© 4BarsRest

back to top

Dave Griffiths

print a bandroom copy


 © copyright & disclaimer

Fax: 01495 791085 E-Mail: