In order to reach your full potential
on playing the timpani, the instrument must be in good
working condition, with heads that are in tune. This
article will briefly describe the process for changing
a timpani head and tuning (clearing) it so that it
produces a pure characteristic sound.
WHEN SHOULD I REPLACE THE TIMPANI
In a normal school environment, a timpani head that
is well maintained may last for 4 or more years before
needing to be replaced. However, if the heads accumulate
dust and grime from outside use, or are not stored
properly (with timpani covers), heads may need to be
replaced on a yearly basis. Dents, scratches and other
damage to the heads will definitely affect the drum's
ability to sustain a pure tone, in which case they
will need to be replaced as soon as possible.
WHAT SIZE TIMPANI HEADS SHOULD
Don't make the mistake of just ordering a standard
set of timpani heads without first checking to see
which type of timpani you own. Although most claim
to be standard sizes (32", 29", 26",
23"), there are many cases where this isn't the
size of head you'll need.
Begin by measuring the size of the bowl
from one side to the opposite. In some cases (with
especially very old models or with Dresden type timpani),
the bowl will actually be smaller than the stated size.
Next, check to see if the collar is “standard”
size (next to the shell, as a drum rim) or “extended” (where
there is 2" of head that extends beyond the bowl).
If it is standard, order a head the size of your bowl
measurement – if it’s extended, add 2" to
the bowl size (therefore, a 32” extended collar
timpani will require a 34” timpani head).
When in doubt, remove the heads that
are currently on the drum and measure them, or contact
the instrument manufacturer of the drums with the model
number to obtain the correct head size.
TAKING OFF THE OLD HEAD
IMPORTANT! You must keep your foot on the pedal in
the lowest position as you begin to unscrew the tension
rods (a student with nothing better to do would come
in handy here). The spring on the pedal will cause
it to jump to the highest position as you loosen
the tension on the head and possibly cause damage.
It's best to unscrew the tension rods
in the same manner that you do when putting a new head
on the drum – one full turn on each rod, in opposites.
Fully loosening one rod at a time places stress on
the collar and could cause it to warp (it's not likely,
but why take the chance?). After all the tension rods
are detached from the receivers, you can slowly allow
the pedal to return to the highest position and take
your foot off. Remove the collar and old head.
CLEANING AND GENERAL MAINTENANCE
This is the perfect time to perform general maintenance
to ensure that the instrument is in proper working
condition! Even if you're not replacing the heads,
most of these suggestions should be performed on
a yearly basis.
Check the counter hoop to see if
it is flat and round. A bent or warped counter
hoop is the number one cause for timpani not sounding
true, not matter how much effort is put into tuning.
Clean the instrument thoroughly
inside and out with a damp cloth (yes, even the dust
and spider webs on the base that have accumulated for
years and years)! Tension rods and receivers should
be wiped free of dust, debris and accumulated grease.
Use a small bowl of water mixed with dishwashing liquid
and Qtip where necessary.
Dents in the bowl can be removed with
a rubber hammer, though if the bowl integrity has been
compromised, it'll only be a cosmetic fix. Use small
strokes around the edge of the dent and work towards
Clean the bearing edge (lip) of the
bowl. If you have older drums that have years
of accumulated grease, you can lightly polish the
bearing edge with #0000 steel wool or fine sandpaper
using small circular strokes (don't sand or scrape
horizontally). In most cases, simply wiping with
a slightly damp cloth is sufficient. You may wish
to apply a dry teflon spray which will lubricate
the bearing edge (eliminating the annoying "creaking" sound
when changing pitches). Just a light coating is necessary
- don't over spray! Allow to fully dry before putting
the new head on. Cork grease is a somewhat acceptable
substitute if applied in a very, very light
coating (a thick layer will cause the head to loose
MOUNTING THE HEAD
Put the new head in the counter hoop and place both
on the bowl. Check that the head makes contact fully
inside the hoop and that there are no wrinkles or
waves in the head (indicating a possible warped hoop
or head). You may wish to line up the logo, if it
exists, at this time (across from the pedal) – or
the “spine” (as in the case of Remo heads)
across the middle of the head (left to right). Apply
a light lubrication to the bottom of each tension
rod with cork grease, then thread it into its receiver
until the top of the rod makes contact with the counter
hoop. At this point, check that the head and
collar are centered on the bowl with an even amount
of space around the rim (very important).
Depress the pedal to the lowest position
(hopefully, your student helper didn't leave...) and
thread the rods until each is “finger tight” with
the counter hoop. Don’t over tighten - just get
each one with the same degree of light tension all
the way around the drum. At this point, the head should
be properly seated on the bowl with no wrinkles or
With your timpani tuning key (not pliers
or crescent wrench), give each rod one half turn in
a crisscross pattern (5 o'clock, 11 o'clock, 7 o'clock,
2 o'clock, etc), moving around the drum fully until
there is a recognizable pitch. Press the pedal to the
mid-point and play a soft stroke in the proper beating
area (use a hard mallet for easiest pitch recognition).
Listen for a pure tone and sustain. If the sustain
is uneven (the pitch has waves in it) or does not have
a decent resonance (length of sustain), it may be necessary
to once again check the evenness of rod tension around
the drum and adjust accordingly. Measuring the rods
or using a tension measuring device such as a “DrumDial” might
help, but these methods don't work 100% of the time.
At this point, if you can't get the drum
to sound a decent sustainable pitch, it's best to start
over rather than kill yourself trying to fix the problem.
If a warped head or rim (or bowl) is causing the problem
then you can do your best, but it'll never sound great.
Lower the pedal to the bottom position
and continue to tune the drum up until it has reached
the lowest note in the pitch range (* this is what
I prefer. Others prefer to raise the pedal to the highest
position and tune up until the drum has reached it's
highest note in the drum's pitch range).
GENERAL PITCH RANGES
(These are my personal preferences for most common
drums. Refer to your instrument's manufacturer for
32” – D to A
29” – F to C
26” – A to E
23” – D to A
FINE TUNING, OR “CLEARING
To get the best possible sound from your timpani, you
must spend a good amount of time getting the head to
sustain the same pitch at each tension rod. This is
a difficult procedure that requires a great ear, concentration
and quiet environment! It might be helpful to place
a small mute in the center of the drum and to tune
in the mid to upper range of the instrument. (And
if you have the ability to put the timpani on a platform
or chairs to bring the playing area up to ear level,
it can save you from a backache)!
Start by striking the drum softly in
the proper area with your ear close to the drum head
(play at a mid point between two rods, not directly
on top of a rod). Listen carefully to the fundamental
pitch (not the overtones) and hum the pitch to yourself.
Next, strike the drum at a forte level and listen to
the sustaining pitch. If the loud stroke sounds flat
(lower) relative to the soft strokes, one or more of
the tension rods directly across from your beating
area is flat. If the loud stroke sounds sharp
(higher) than the soft strokes, it's the opposite.
If this is the case, you'll need to find the offending
tension rod (ACROSS FROM THE BEATING AREA) and make
the adjustment with a quarter turn.
Strike the drum softly 2-3 times, listening
for the fundamental pitch – then forte. If the
forte stroke sounds the same pitch, then this area
of the head is clear. Move over to the next “channel” and
compare to the first. Repeat the process until the
drum is clear and sustains a true pitch from soft strokes
Try not to spend more than 10 minutes
fine tuning any timpani without a significant break.
Ears are easily fatigued and after a point, you'll
start second guessing yourself and possibly do more
harm than good.
Generally, if the drum is in the correct pitch range,
the pedal should work throughout the full range of
the instrument – but occasionally you’ll
need to adjust the tension on the pedal (these
instruction details standard Ludwig timpani models,
which are common in school music programs and notorious
for being out of adjustment. If you have other instruments,
consult the manufacturer for specific instructions
for pedal adjustment).
Start with the pedal fully depressed
into the highest position and remove your foot. If
the pedal moves back (down), apply more spring tension
by dialing the tension knob clockwise (checking every
couple of turns until the pedal remains in the top
position). If the pedal remains steady in the upper
position, but won't stay in the lowest position, the
spring is too tight. Return to the upper range position
and gradually DECREASE the spring tension by dialing
the knob counter clockwise.
It's important here to note that there
is a finite amount of thread space on the rod which
secures the pedal spring. Over-dialing the knob can
damage your spring (if too much tension is applied),
or separate the rod from the pedal altogether. TURN
THE KNOB IN SMALL INCREMENTS UNTIL THE DESIRED TENSION
IS ACHIEVED! You'll definitely know if you've
turned it too much... that loud gunshot you'll hear
means that the drum needs to go to the shop to get
In many cases, you'll have to adjust
the pedal where the spring tension works in “most” of
the pitch range. At this point, you can adjust the
pressure pads using a drum key. This is the mechanism
under the base of the timpani that squeezes two small “brake
pads” against the pedal rod – which is
accessed through the small hole in the side of the
base under the pedal. Apply just enough tension on
these pads to allow the pedal to retain it's position
through the full range of the instrument – but
not so much that the pedal doesn't move freely.
If this adjustment mechanism doesn't
secure the pedal, carefully turn the drum on its side
to inspect it. 9 times out of 10, one (or both) of
the brake pads are missing! You should replace them
by ordering a new part from the manufacturer. In a
pinch, you can find a rubber-like substitute at a hardware
store and cut it to size.
To get the best possible sound from your timpani, it’s
necessary to fine tune your drums frequently. I've
never found tuning gauges or devices to be reliable
substitutes for a good ear – and the only way
to develop the ear is by frequent practice!
Don’t simply accept bad sounding,
out-of-tune drums which cannot obtain a true pitch.
Only if you properly maintain your instruments and
tune them frequently can you (or your student) be successful
at becoming a true musician on the timpani!