Tuning a Pipe Band Drum – the Complete Guide.


Tuning a pipe band snare drum is straightforward, provided you know the basics and use your ear.

Firstly, make sure you know what type of sound you are searching for. If you don’t know, either stop before you start, or get to a pipe band contest and have a listen to see what you like. Nowadays, tone plays a pretty vital role in the overall performance, and in the end – the result.

Let’s start at ground zero.

When you receive your pipe band snare drum you should dismantle it. Yep, you read it correctly. Dismantle it. Why, you’re asking? Well, you cannot guarantee that the manufacture has correctly lubricated the drum.  Therefore, if you just start to tighten the bolts, it will be metal on metal. Not ideal, and will also result in possible corrosion or jamming.  You really want the drum to last you as long as possible.

1. Lower the height of the snare mechanism. Take the top suspension ring off using a tuning key.  Remove the head. Take a cloth and wipe around the bearing edge (the rim of the wooden shell).  Ensure there are no loose particles inside the shell. Take some lubrication (vaseline will suffice) and place it around the bearing edge where the head will sit.  Also, generously lubricate all of the holes where the bolt will insert.

2. Lubricate in between each washer using an industrial oil.  Again, this will prevent warping and friction. This is a pretty messy part of the set-up – but don’t skip it out!

3. Place the head back on the bearing edge (ensuring you have removed any stickers from the head) and then place the top hoop over it and set the bolts in. Using the tuning key, start slowly tightening the bolts so that they just initially “catch”.  Then you will want to work clockwise from bolt to bolt and gradually bring the head down. i.e. increasing the tension.

4. Introduce the Jim Kilpatrick Tuning block. This little beauty is a saviour. It helps you to ensure that you are evenly bring the head down, and is WAY better than using a vernier caliper. Start at the largest portion of the block, and work your way down. I would say go at least half way or two thirds of the way on the block to start with. This will give you something half reasonable to play on (but still pretty tubby/flat). I have gone further, and tend to do so more often than not.  Once you have got to a point where you are happy, only tighten the top head sing 1/8 turns clockwise.  This doesn’t need to be done at every practice. Try to think of when you want the drum to be “at its best” – and work your way slowly towards that.

There you go, that’s stage 1 completed! Easy.


We have already talked about dismantling the drum as soon as you buy it and preparing the top head and hoop for playing.  The next thing we need to look at, is the bottom head and mechanism.

1. Remove the bottom snare wire, carefully. Use your key (or tool) to remove the snare, just loosening it off enough to wiggle it free. Then remove your bottom snare head exactly the same way as the top head, by loosening the tension bolts.  Remove the bottom hoop followed by the head.

2. Take a cloth and wipe any residue or dust from the bottom bearing edge.  Remove any other debris in the shell or cavity. Take the vaseline and place a generous amount around the bottom bearing edge of the shell.

3. Lubricate all of the bolt holes with vaseline.  You will be thankful you’ve done this months down the line. Place the head on the bearing edge, and set the bottom hoop on.

4.  Screw the hoop down evenly as per the top head.

5. Introduce the Drum Dial. This is another little gem in the process of drum tuning. Most drummers use it for tuning bass and tenor drums, but there is huge value in using it for your bottom head. It helps you ensure you maintain an even bottom head tension. This will also help ensure you have your whole corps of drums set up as close to each other in tension (and hopefully pitch) as possible.  The drum dial indicates a reading when you set it on the head. You want to ensure you set the dial in the correct position on the head – in line with a tension bolt. Also, you will notice reduced readings where the snare sits – this is due to a groove in the shell (this is the case for most drums). As for a number – well this depends on your desired tension.

6.  Take the head down until the point where the shell is sitting above the hoop. This will give you a great starting point. Also, you will notice the head creaking and making noises as you tighten it. Listen to those noises. Don’t push it too hard, too quick. Take your time if it isn’t liking the tension you’re applying, and consider stopping for a day!

7.  Set the snare back on (the correct way up, and YES, I have made this mistake!!) and tighten it until it sits snug.

There you have it – the bottom head of your pipe band drum is now ready to go.


Let’s continue on with the pipe band drum tuning series. We are getting down to the nitty gritty of tuning your pipe band snare drum (scottish snare drum, side drum, marching drum or whatever else you wish to call it!).

In the last two posts, we looked at setting your drum up correctly from the point at which it arrives with you from the factory.  The key reason for doing this : you simply don’t know exactly how much lubrication has been applied at the factory.  By taking the time to do this, you will increase the life-span of the drum and burn through less consumables such has heads, bolts and snares.

Now we are going to look at setting the top snare – something that is totally down to personal preference.  No matter how you like the sound of the snare response – you need to apply the same principles or formulae to get the end result.

1. Get your top head tension to a point where you are happy with the pitch.  In the middle of winter, this might be quite dull compared to where you will have it during the summer pipe band season.  Remembering to use your Jim Kilpatrick tuning block (or old school calipers if that tickles your pickle). Once you have got to a point where you are happy, only tighten the top head sing 1/8 turns clockwise when required.  This doesn’t need to be done at every practice. Try to think of when you want the drum to be “at its best” – and work your way slowly towards that.

2. Figure out how to lower and heighten the snare mechanism.  Nowadays, drums come with “dummy proof” signs on them to show you which bolts are for tension versus height.  Lower the height down (of the) the snare mechanism – as you are doing this, confidently tap the drum in the centre of the head. You will hear the snare mechanism pull away from the head to leave you with a dull and snare-less sound.  IMG_5137Slowly, bring the height back up. You will soon hear the snare wires re-engage with the head. This is where you really want to take it slowly. The slightest turn of the height can push the snares so far into the head that you get a “choked” sound – where the snare wires don’t vibrate at all. You want to find a happy medium here – try playing with it. Don’t be afraid to lower and heighten the snare mechanism a number of times until you are comfortable with what you are doing.

3. If you aren’t getting the sound you want, then take a look at altering the tension.  By altering the tension, you are simply stretching the snare wires or loosening them.  By stretching them you will get less vibrations, and therefore less “snare sound”. By loosening them you will get a looser snare sound, or “snarey”  sound as some people refer to.  This again, is about finding the right balance. If you go too loose, you face the possibility of the snare wire falling off whilst you are playing it (and Yes, this has happened to me!). If you go too tight, you risk the chance of a choked and boxy sound.  Set the tension, alter the height, and continue to do so until you are happy.

4.  Where is the best place to get the true sound of the drum? Well, the best place is to stand where the listener stands. This will be different from the solo platform to the band platform. For the solo drummer, you need to focus more so on the top head and what the drum sounds like from the front. For a pipe band performance, you need to focus on the sound from behind. We will take a look at the bottom head in our next instalment. But here’s something to think about – if you hear a slight rattle from off the top head when you are standing over it – walk around behind. The chances are you probably wont hear it.  But if you tighten the snare and the rattle off the top disappears, chances are it may sound choked from behind. Use your ears!

5. Once you are happy with your snare setting, you wont have to adjust it every practice like the bagpipers or mid-section drummers.

6.  Make sure you look after the drum and store it in a sturdy case.  Flimsy cases are going to allow the drum to be battered and bruised – and probably damaged. If you are serious about getting the best case in the World  – you have GOT to check out the HardCase case. They are absolute life savers, and come with wheels and extendable handles. A pipe band drummers dream!


Well drummers, we have finally come to the end of the Pipe Band drum tuning series. All we have to do now is look at the bottom snare setting and head adjustment.

So many people underestimate the importance of the bottom head and bottom snare wire.  The largest amount of focus is on the top head. From experience, and asking lots of questions (I was one of those annoying kids who constantly prodded for answers), many drummers think that the top head is where all of the brightness and pitch comes from.  Ok, so they aren’t totally wrong, but certainly aren’t totally right either.  I can see why they think the top head is important in terms of pitch as it’s made out of Kevlar.  They can stretch this Kevlar super tight, and get a “higher pitch”.  However, it is SUPER important to understand the the tonal quality and pitch of the drum is a result of both heads, snares and the shell being in tune with each other.  When things aren’t balanced, we get that dreaded “overtone” – or weird melodic tone that rings from the drum when you strike it.

Here’s something for you to try.

Strike the top head and listen to the overall tone and pitch of the drum.

Now loosen the bottom snare wire off until it’s drooping down.

Strike the drum again and listen to the overall tone and pitch of the drum.

Now tighten the snare again, and repeat.

What did you notice?

Well, hopefully, you would have noticed how dull and boxy the drum sounded when the bottom snare was too loose.  This is probably the one thing I check on my drum the most. It is quite easy to knock or bang the bottom snare wire – even just by taking it in and out of it’s case. It’s just such a simple fix, but one that many forget to check!

Ok, let’s get that bottom head and snare sorted once and for all :

1) Take the bottom snare off. Get the DrumDial out and ensure your head is where you want it to be on the dial. If you are setting up a whole corps of drums, line them up (upside down) and pitch them evenly. Use your ears!!! Or if you are tone deaf, get someone in your band who isn’t (a piper could come in handy for once!!).  You should really be tightening the bottom head often, especially during the competition season.  Only turn each bolt 1/8 of a turn clockwise each time. There is no need to do more than this in one sitting.

2) Set the snare back on and ensure it is sitting evenly across the head. You don’t want one end being lop-sided.

3) You are able to adjust the height of the snare mechanism. This is something that many drummers overlook.  Use the height adjustment to ensure the snare is sitting snug on the head. You don’t want it to be sitting too far away from the head. Remember as you tighten the drum head, you will need to adjust this. Make sure you set the drum on a table or on the side so that you can get eye level with the snare. Using your finger, tap the snare near the edge of the drum to ensure it isn’t sitting to far from the head.

3) Gently strike the bottom head and start tightening the snare. You need to use your ears again!! You will hear the overall pitch of the drum increase as you tighten the snare.

4) Keep tightening and listening. There will be a point where that bright pitch turns into an overtone.  This will sound strange and unpleasant. And you don’t want this.  Loosen off the snare and gradually take it back up to tension. You want to reach that point right before you have choked it!

Okley, Dokley. You’re ready! Yup – we have successfully set your drum up to be played.  Well done.

You should adjust your drum as often as you need. Don’t assume it will sit perfectly for a year without being maintained. Also, you should consider changing heads and snare wires once every 12-18 months, as well as re-lubricating all of the areas we covered in the previous posts.  Another thing to consider is your pipe band stick pitch.  If you have old sticks that are low in pitch, this will clearly affect the sound of your drum. Combat this by getting a fresh pair at the start of each contest season – and keep them dry!!

Thank you for your input, and support. I hope these posts are of some help to you.

If you haven’t already, please pop your email into the subscribe button on the top right and continue to get updates from me. Also, please check out my website www.come2dum.com for all of your pipe band drumming requirements and educational resources.

Happy Drumming!


2 thoughts on “Tuning a Pipe Band Drum – the Complete Guide.

  1. I wanted to thank you for this tutorial. I am a member of a local band (Wilmington Police Pipe and Drum Band, Wilmington, NC, USA) and, with no true drum instructor, we pretty much learn as we go along. I will be sure to share this with our drum major. I’m sure we can put this information to very good use! John Schneider

    “We sleep safe in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would do us harm” George Orwell


  2. I am a local drummer in a cover band. We play tons of different genres of music. I just wanted to tell you thanks for this comprehensive article. I’ve really learned many things. And I hope you could come visit my little blog. I know it’s not much. .thank you again

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