How to Tune a Snare Drum – Techniques to Get a Deep, Punchy, Fat Sound

We can usually identify our drumming idols by their signature snare drum sound. Think about Elvin Jones, Steve Jordan, Matt Cameron or Anton Fig. Each has their own distinctive sound.

How do they do it? Well, a lot of it has to do gear, I accept that. But just as much, if not more, is about their technique – and that technique extends to how they tune their gear which has a direct bearing on the sound they produce.

The challenge with the snare is there isn’t just one way to tune it – there are several – each with their own advantages and disadvantages.

In this guide, we’ve taken the two most prominent methods (one for beginners, the other for more experienced musicians) and walk you through the process to get a deep, punchy, fat snare sound.

Here’s what we cover:

The ‘All-Lugs-Low’ Method

All-Lugs-Low Method

What It Is

This is a popular tuning option among those looking for a really full, bassy snare sound. It consists of tuning every lug down equally, usually by half or three-quarters of a drum key turn.

How To Do It

  • First tune every lug lower than normal, by either ¼ or ¾ of a turn of the drum key
  • Tap the snare skin near each lug and make any necessary adjustments so that your overtones are in tune
  • Add the dampening of your choice to the snare skin. Try to keep this fairly evenly spread out and have a listen to the tone after you place each piece of material. This way you’ll get your chosen level of feedback coming through, without muting it too much

The most crucial part of this process is to ensure that each lug holds the same amount of tension. If they aren’t set evenly, you’re going to get some nasty pitch variance in your overtones.

To get this right, try hitting the drum skin next to each lug and listening to the pitch. If some areas sound lower or higher than others, you’ll need to adjust the lugs again until you’ve set them up equally.

Once you’ve got this right, the even distribution of tension through the skin is actually beneficial, as your heads are less likely to warp under uneven pressure. The only downside of this method is that you’ll need to add some extra dampening as the looser tension tends to favor overtones and sustain.

moongel
Small gel pads called ‘Moongel’ help to reduce the level of ringing and decay

So, to dampen your snare, try adding some folded tape along the rim of the skin, or securing some kitchen towel near the lugs. You can also purchase something called ‘moon-gel’. This comes as a small gel pad, which you can place next to each lug in order to reduce the level of ringing and decay.

Half-Lugs-Low Method

Half-Lugs-Low Method..

What It Is

This method is popular among intermediate and experienced musicians and is slightly more complicated, requiring the lugs to be set up at various degrees of tension. For this reason, this way of tuning isn’t the best choice for beginners, or for those using cheaper skins. Because the tension is so varied, cheaper heads are prone to damage under the uneven pull across the skin. However, if you’ve got strong, thick die-cast hoops and a tough drum head you’ll be fine playing a set with this tuning.

How To Do It

  • Firstly, using a drum key, tune the lugs between 10 and 2 o’clock to high tension.
  • Next, find the lugs that are within the 3 and 9 o’clock position and tune them to medium tension.
  • Now reach further down the drum, to the keys within the 5 and 7 o’clock area and twist them so that they are only ½ a turn from being completely loose.
  • Finally, locate the lug in the 6 o’clock position, closest to your drum seat and open up the key so that the skin is loose in that area.

If after completing these steps, you feel there is too much overtone production, add some dampening to the skin (see above). Try placing a couple of pads of moongel, tape or tissue paper next to the lugs that decay the longest, until you get the sound you prefer.

The main advantage is you don’t need as much if any extra dampening material to reduce the snare’s decay, as the drum keys are tuned so loosely. This works because the slack area of the drum skin produces less vibration after being hit, in comparison to a tighter head, so you get fewer overtones being produced.

Saying that you may still experience some clashing overtones if your drum keys aren’t matching up from a high to low tension. To get around this issue, simply tap the skin near each lug and adjust it slightly.

This method is more about overall tone than getting each lug to match up perfectly with one another, so don’t spend too much time on getting everything exact!

Ultimately, because you can alter your tuning quickly before playing a song, this method can be very convenient in a live setting.

Another great reason to try this method out is that it makes the top of your snare skin more responsive. This helps a lot if you want to add different accents to part of a song, or if you use a more intricate snare technique and need a touch of extra rebound.

As well as this, this tuning style can help your kit sound more in tune. This may seem odd seeing as there’s uneven tension across the snare skin however, the high-tension lugs between the 10 and 2 o’clock position actually gives some extra punch to your tone.

Of course, some snare drums won’t have their lugs positioned in the exact same way we’ve described. So, if you’re having trouble following our instructions, don’t worry, just try and make sure you set them so that they’re under high tension at the top and low tension at the bottom, symmetrically.

When setting your snare up to this style tuning, remember that the bottom lugs, with the least tension, should be the ones closest to you as you sit on the drum stool.

If you’re feeling adventurous, you can try adjusting the tension of the snare’s lugs between the 3 and 9 o’clock position or the 5 and 7 o’clock position to experiment with your sound. If you tune lower you’ll get some extra low end and less overtone production, so have a play about to discover your own unique tone.

Just remember to tune the snare back to one that spreads an even tension across the skin.

If not, storing your drum like this for long periods of time will possibly lead to the head warping. If you want to avoid harming your skin altogether, it’s probably best to opt for the other method.

 

Tips to Get a Fat Sound

The below tips can help you set the perfect drum tone and can be applied to both the tuning methods we’ve mentioned above.

Resonant Head Tension

If you want a really full, low snare tone, it’s best to use a high-tension resonant head. These skins provide a little extra response, which helps greatly when you use a lower tuning. If you don’t have the extra cash around to buy a new one, you can always try loosening the resonant head. Just make sure you don’t overdo it, as a very loose skin will mean the snare’s sound makes very little impact.

Check out our guide to the best snare drums if you’re looking to buy.

Wire Tension

If you want your snare to sound bright and snappy, try tightening the drum’s wires, this will also help to increase its responsiveness if you’re playing more technical stuff. With that in mind, if you want a longer decay, for a really epic sound, you can loosen them. Just make sure not to loosen the keys too much, as this can result in a nasty string buzz coming through the mix.

If you can’t seem to get around this issue, try loosening the four lugs supporting the resonant skin closest to the snare wires. Alternatively, you can change the tuning of your toms slightly so that they don’t match that of your snare. This is important because if you leave them set up this way, the tom will amplify the level of buzz coming from your snare.

Old Drumhead

If you have a spare snare skin lying around it may actually be more useful than you think. The reason for this is you can place it over your current head to fill out your tone. To be precise, you’d usually do this by cutting the old skin so that it’s slightly smaller than the other and then positioning it upside down across the drum.

Wallet

Of course, using a wallet to lower your snare’s tone is one of the easiest ways to fatten up your sound… that is, as long as it has plenty of change inside! Remember, the heavier the wallet, the fuller the tone will be, so perhaps take a little out of your money jar to add some extra weight.

The major issue here is that wallets tend to bounce around on the drum skin when you hit it, and can end up getting in the way of your sticks. Fortunately, there are manufactured wallets that are designed for the job.

wallet on snare drum
The made-for-purpose drum wallet

These things weigh about as much as a standard wallet filled with money and attach to the snare’s tuning rods via Velcro ties. The great thing about this product is that you can take it on or off really quickly, so can switch your preferences during a set.

Snareweight

A product known as a ‘snareweight’ is a really cool little device, designed to control the snare’s overtones and beef up your sound. In particular, they cut out high-frequency pitches by resting against the drum skin and bouncing slightly with every hit.

The bounce means the device lets some of the snare’s tone ring out, but cuts off severe overtones and adds some low end when it lands against the skin. Some snareweights come as a sort of adjustable leather strip that can be adjusted using a magnetic holder. Whereas others are metal strips that lie across the drum skin.

Paper

This is another really fast and easy way to fatten your snare tone. All you need to do is place a sheet of paper across your drum skin. Just remember that using paper will completely deaden your overtones and sustain, so the hit will be very punchy sounding.

As well as this, the paper also creates a livelier snap when struck, in comparison to the other fattening methods we mentioned above. The downside here is that it may move about slightly if you don’t stick it down with a little tape, and that the sound the paper produces is very specific, so may not be to every drummer’s tastes.

Fabric Between Head and Shell

This method of filling out your snare tone takes a little longer to set up than everything we’ve mentioned so far, but can provide quite a cool effect. To get started, first take off your batter skin. Next, take either a thin or thick-ish piece of fabric and place it where you would the batter head.

Now, stretch the material so it’s tight with no creases and attach the drum skin in place over it and play as normal. Just bear in mind, that the thicker the material the more dampening you’ll get and the fatter the tone will be.

On the other hand, thinner material will allow some overtones to remain and gives out a brighter snare sound. The cool thing about using fabric is that it also works with the toms and bass drum if you want them to sound punchy too.

Ged Richardson

Ged is Founder and Editor-in-chief at Zing Instruments. He's a guitarist for London based gypsy jazz band 'Django Mango' and a lover of all things music. When he's not ripping up and down the fretboard, he's tinkering with his '79 Campervan.