A tribute to and scrapbook of Joe Amato, world-class drummer and respected teacher header image 2

How to Sound Like Ringo On Sargent Pepper..Or Not.

May 1st, 2008 by Pierce · No Comments

I bucked bales and peeled cascara bark all summer to save enough money to buy my first kit. It was a used red sparkle rather generic imported 3 piece number and Denny Thiel let me have it for $100. The bass drum was about half full of shredded newspaper and sounded great! Denny said “Yeah it sounds good, Jim Mattila tuned it”



There isn’t a lot of leeway when you tune most instruments. It’s either in tune or it ain’t. Oh I know some bluegrass pickers will tune the bass strings on their guitar a cent or two flat to compensate for the tension required to fret a blazing wild wood riff. Conversely the high strings are tuned couple cents sharp, cause man it’s better to C sharp than to B flat. Likewise piano tuning requires subtle tempering to give a shot of shimmer to its voice. Is there anything more subjective than tuning a set of drums? How to achieve that particular sound you desire? Should you go for maple or birch shells? How many plys? How many lugs? Do you start with the snare and work down? Start with the bass and work up? Should the bottom heads be tighter than the top or vise versa. Tune the top head before the bottoms or the reverse? Maybe throw the bottom heads away or cut holes in them a couple inches from the rim? Should all the lugs be torqued identically? Should you buy a tension meter? A torque wrench? An electronic tuner to identify the note? Should you back off a couple side lugs 3/8 s of a turn for a funkier sound? What kind of head should you use? Ambassador? Diplomat? Emperor? Black dot, Silver dot? Hydraulic? Pinstripe? Clear? Coated? Synthetic calfskin? Real calfskin? Flavor of the month? Do you deaden the head with: The interior muffler? Weather stripping from the hardware store? Dead Ringers? I’ve seen and used all manner of methods of muffling. Lay your wallet on the floor tom? Not recommended in some clubs these days. Ever uses a strip of tee shirt under the head.? Duct tape? (Gawd I hate that) A pillow in the bass drum? What about the Aquarian I or II bass drum system? Tone rings? I have come to believe that a whole lot of money has been made selling products of rather dubious merit to those in search of that certain sound. Every set and every drummer is different. Great sounding drums are more fun to play, so how do you get a good sound out of your tubs?

I realize the whole process is made all the more complex by the number of pieces in the set. I recall a used Tama Imperial Star set with seven toms that came into the shop. I set it up and it sounded really good, but some of the heads were showing some wear and there were a mish-mash of brands represented. Long story short, I bought new heads but could never get the set to sound as good as when it came in. Damn that was frustrating. I have a lot better luck tuning 3 or 4 piece kits.

Nowadays I usually go with some sort of dead ringer on the bass and tone rings by Evans or Remo on the toms (forgoing the internal mufflers) and tune using “forth” as the interval between drums. The easy way to remember a forth is to sing the melody ” here comes the bride” the interval between “here” and “comes” is a forth. If I need to buy heads I’ll go for Remo Ambassadors. In addition I check all the shells for a smooth even surface on the edges and rims for warps. I tune the top heads first then the bottoms usually a little tighter than the tops. Those tone rings can cover up a multitude of sins and are the best thing to come along in ages at least for pop rock and country drumming. A jazz or funk set could be a different kettle of fish.

There are numerous websites on the topic of drum tuning, . I must confess that the tuning of drums other than the snare was something I never asked Joe about. He liked a pretty tight head on the snare so as to get a good bounce for double stroke work. The other thing about a snug snare head is that it keeps you honest. A loose head gives each stroke more sustain and can cover up “a dirty spark plug” in your double stroke roll. Another reason we probably didn’t discuss tuning so much was his set there in the basement studio had real skin heads on the toms. In fact the floor tom if I remember properly had a totally old school head that was tacked on They had a good sound, especially when he played them.

Click here.

The above is a web link for a blog post by Kathy Henning. Ostensibly about writing, it uses a really cool analogy incorporating the timely, dynamic and pitch sensitive Mark Goodenberger and some calfskin clad kettledrums. Here is a Mark quote from the piece:

“One of the challenges of playing percussion instruments in the classical music genre,” Mark continued, “is that you spend a great deal of time counting rests, play a few big notes, and then wait for the next entrance. It may seem easier than playing all the time, but I find it much more difficult to stay involved. I have a lot of mental games I play, and what I do most is sing along in my mind (or sometimes under my breath in the loud sections) with the parts I don’t play.

“The drums I was performing on are replicas of an 1803 kettledrum. Because we were playing a period performance, we tried to use the same kinds of instruments the original players in Bach’s time would have used. For me, that means playing on calfskin heads.

“Calfskin is very sensitive to weather and humidity fluctuations. If it begins to rain outside, the heads loosen and the pitch drops. If the rain stops, or the temperature in the room rises from body heat, the heads tighten and the pitch rises. Someone could even open a door at the back of the hall, and the draft would affect the heads. This goes for the other instruments as well, though it affects them differently. Because of this, I have to constantly adjust the heads to stay in tune. That is why I’m always working the tension posts. I put my ear next to the head so I can hear my pitch when I softly tap the skin. I also sing softly into the head, listening for the sympathetic vibration.”

After reading her post I emailed Mark and asking if Joe Amato and he had talked much about the art of playing on calfskin. Here’s what he said.

Joe didn’t say too much to me about timpani skins, though I expect that he helped me when we put them on the High School’s drums. Lee Stromquist always wanted us to
play on calf, because I think that the drums had been donated by Joe and he wanted to honor him. I had to relearn it when I put them on in more recent years.

From what I’ve read many prefer the sound of calfskin and the Viennese Ochestra will only use goatskin. Below are a couple websites that I thought looked fairly helpful in regards to tuning a kit.

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