How to Tune Marching Bass Drums

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Tuning the bass line in your drumline can create a lot of questions and cause a lot of confusion.  Do you tune your bass drums in fourths?  Do you tune your bass drums in fifths?  Should you not worry about intervals at all and just tune them to whatever pitch sounds good?  Do you tune your bass line the same way every year? This article answers all of those questions for you so that you can stop worrying about how to tune your bass line and start having fun with all of those crazy splits!


Bass Line Tuning is a Personal Preference

Tuning a marching bass line is an art in and of itself.  Some people like to stick with the same tuning scheme year in and year out, others like to change it every year.  If you have a preferred method and know exactly what you want your bass line to sound like - great!  But chances are, if you're reading this article, you're not too sure what you want or how to do it.

So, here is some great advice from a wise man by the name of Doug Bush.  Doug has been teaching and tuning marching bass drums for a number of years in the DCI activity and provides an excellent perspective on the major things you should be thinking about when tuning your bass line.  Here's the video:

The advice Doug gives in the video should provide you with a direction that you feel comfortable with when it comes to tuning your drums.  Let's quickly reflect on the key points to make sure that you can decide how you want to approach your bass drum tuning this season.


What is the Marching Band, Drum Corps, or Drumline Show?

The first thing you want to establish before tuning your bass line is the concept/theme of your show.  There's a wide variety of music in the world and the themes of shows can change dramatically from season to season.  Since you want your tunable percussion instruments to support the music appropriately, it's a good idea to tune the bass line to best fit the music every year.  That being said, what type of bass tones best represent your show? For example, if you're playing a show that revolves around Music from the 80s and you're playing a bunch of rock charts, you may want to consider tuning the bottom bass drum more like the kick drum on a drum set.  This texture in the bass line could help convey the musical ideas more clearly.  On the other hand, if you're doing a classical show, you may want to make the tuning of the drums much more tonal and find the best intervals to do that with.


Don't be Afraid to Experiment

If you want to change your bass drum tuning to better fit your show but you don't know how to do it, don't be afraid to experiement.  Feel free to break out of your comfort zone a little bit and try new things whether they be new heads, new mallets, new muffling techniques, new tuning schemes, etc. The more you do this the more you will learn about what you like and what you don't like.  This will help you refine your personal taste in bass drum tuning and improve your overall ability to know exactly what you want in each show.


One Method That Works Really Well

If you're looking for more specific solution to tuning your bass line, this method has been proven to work really well.  This system assumes your drumline has 5 basses but if you have a different number you can still apply the same concept.

  • Step 1) Tune the bottom bass to a pitch that sounds good within the context of the show
  • Step 2) Tune bass 4 a fifth above bass 5
  • Step 3) Tune bass 3 a fourth above bass 4
  • Step 4) Tune bass 2 to a show-related pitch that is distinctly higher than bass 3 (not interval specific)
  • Step 5)Tune bass 1 to a show-related pitch that is distinctly higher than bass 2 (not interval specific)

You'll notice that in this method, bass 1 and 2 are open to interpretation based on your show theme or venue setting.  The important thing to keep in mind when tuning bass 1 and bass 2 is that there is a distinct separation between the two drums.  This is important because if the two drums are too close in pitch, the runs and splits between them will be very hard to make out from the audience's perspective. Hopefully this overview is helpful in guiding you to your desired bass line sound.  For more information on tuning a marching bass drum line, be sure to check out these video lessons on how to muffle a marching bass drum and how to change a marching bass drum head.

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Pat McLaughlin

15 March 2013 in Education
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Pat McLaughlin

Pat McLaughlin is the founder of Drumline Chops.  He graduated from the University of North Texas with a degree in music education and is currently the percussion director at West Bloomfield High School.