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Different types of tuning methods and drum keys.


I was originally going to do an article just on the history of the drum key but thought it was important to discuss the other methods used to tune drums that were invented to replace the drum key and standard methods of changing drum heads. This basic history will begin in the early 1800's and marching snare drums. These drums did not need a drum key and most early drums from most civilizations used rope to tighten the heads. This is still common in drum making for many types of ethnic drums, bongos and hand drums.

Rope Tension Drums
Leather "Ear Hooks"


Snare drums were tuned with rope and ear hooks. These drums were called rope tension drums. A rope was strung through the top and bottom hoops and leather "Ear Hooks" were placed at different equal points around the shell.

A drummer could simply push the leather ear hooks up or down and that would increase or decrease the tension of both the top and bottom heads. These drums originally had calf heads and as drummers would march in different weather conditions, they could easily change the tension of the head to compensate for the affect of weather conditions on the sound of the drum.

Here is a very unique way to tune a drum! It was in the 1911 Excelsior Drum Catalog. This was a pneumatic drum that when inflated changed the tension of the heads.

Pneumatic Drum Tuning

1911 Catalog Photo of a Drum Key from the same catalog.


Later in the development of the design of drums, thumb rod (screw) tuning rods were common among manufacturers. These were tension rods that had flat wing nuts at the end and a convenient way to loosen and tighten the heads without using a drum key. The patent below from A. M. Hoskins shows a different version of the single thumbscrew system with the "Differential Adjusting Rod" from 1913.

Patent for thumb screw tension system

The unique aspect of the Hoskins system is that there are two thumbscrews on the bottom hoop each working independently of each other for the top and bottom head

Here is a catalog page from the 1922 Ludwig catalog that gives you a breakdown of the different types of Thumb Rods available at that time.

Ludwig Thumb Rods 1922

Here is another advancement in tuning that veered away from the standard tuning methods of the time. The Gladstone tuning system from 1937 was called "3-Way Tuning" and lets the drummer tune each head individually or both heads simultaneously with one unique drum key.

Billy Gladstone 3-Way Tuning System


Since the early 1900's there have been tension rods with different head sizes and lengths. Early banjo makers used similar tension rods and keys for tuning banjos. Exactly which came first, a banjo key or a drum key would require more research and not part of this article. I did look through many of the online patents in Google patents for drums and banjos to see if there was a drum key pictured and I found nothing. I did however notice that a key was mentioned as the way to turn the tension rods on a variety of patents.

The below patent from 1899 shows a tuning system that requires a wrench to tighten the center nut that changes the tension on both the top and bottom head equally.

1899 Drum Tuning Wrench

There were other tuning systems that were attempted that were not accepted by drummers. The Leedy Knob Tension Drums is one of those systems which was a big marketing deal for Leedy as a new way to tune drums without a drum key. It just did not work and poor sales forced the new system out of the catalogs and any future production.

Leedy Knob Tension Drums


Another tuning method for drums which really dates back to the 1800's and more recently popularized by Remo in the 70's is the spinning of a drum to tune it. This method was used on early timpani. There is no patent for the Roto Tom, but here is some history on one of our other Drum Experts sites.

Remo Roto Toms

Another product of the 70's was the Arbiter Autotune. This drum had a special wrench to tune the heads. There were no tension rods or lugs needed. The principle mentioned in the advertisement is the heads would be screwed for tension like a jar with a lid.

Arbiter Autotune Tuning System

Here is another system that looks very much like the Arbiter drums.

Davoli Tuning System

In the 1980's Remo came up with the PTS - "Pre Tuned System" of drum heads. The PTS system was a metal drum hoop with a pre-tensioned drum head. To replace a drum head, the drummer had to just unclip the hoop and put a new PTS head on. There was no tuning required!

Remo PTS

Here are some current tuning methods that do not require a drum key to tune a drum. The Di Berardino Drums use a single cable that tightens the entore head at one time.

The DTS one touch system works with any drum with standard lugs. The system puts pressure between the lugs and the hoop, so all you do is tighten one screw and the entire head tension adjusts evenly.

New Tuning Systems

Now that we have information about some of the unique tuning systems available, yes there are more not mentioned, I want to move on to the most common way of tuning a drum. And that is the good old drum key!

As I was doing research on the topic, I began to realize that there are no patents that I can find for a drum key as we know it today. Besides the Gladstone Key, Ludwig Sta-Set and new keys, I could not find any photo evidence, just a mention of a drum key or tuning key in patents. This will remain a mystery to me and something that will eventually be discovered or emailed to me from a reader of this article. So, who invented the first drum key? I'm still under the belief that it was either taken from another instrument and used on a drum where it gradually worked its way into the drum community and drum manufacturing.

This is the shape we recognize as a drum key. This design has changed since the early 1900's but the general principle has stayed the same. A wing nut style top section with a built in socket on the other end.

Standard Drum Keys


There have been some improvements to the functionality of the standard drum key. Here are two keys that take the standard drum key to a new level. The Spin Drum Key and the Drill Bit Drum Key.

Spin Drum Key
Drill Bit Drum Key

Both of these keys make the removal of a drum head quicker. Most of the advancement in early "Technology" were all under the premise of a quicker and easier way to take off a drum head and tune a drum without using a drum key.

I would say in the last 10 years, more unique advancements in the design and functionality of the drum key have come to the market. There are keys with lights, magnetic drum keys, flip drum keys, clip drum keys, high tension drum keys and torque drum keys.

This is the Evans Drum Key with LED Light. There are times when you have to change a head in the dark or poor lighting conditions on stage, in a pit or club setting. So the LED would come in handy. The other key is a key that folds up straight and is more compact. Each of these keys has a detachable chain and hook so they are easy to take off a key ring or a belt loop, I can't tell you how many times I used a standard key on a set of house keys and they just spin and hit the drum or jingle when tuning a drum in a hurry.

Evans Drum Key with LED Light
Evans Key that flips shut

These two keys handle special functions. The Evans Magnetic Drum Key is a strong magnet, so when you are taking a lug off the drum, you do not need to hold it or grab it to take it off the hoop. Just lift the key and the tension rod and washer go with it. The other key is the Evans Wing Nut Key. These are meant to replace the wing nuts on your cymbal stands so you always have a drum key handy as long as you have your cymbal stands!

Evans Magnetic Drum Key
Evans Cymbal Wing Nut Key

Here are two keys that make the drum key a handy device not to be left in a pocket or clipped to a stick bag. The Tweek key clips on to any 1" tube from a cymbal stand, hi hat or snare stand and the Ahead Klip-It key clips to a drum lug and is designed not touch the shell or allow any metal to rub or hit together.

Tweek Clip Drum Key
Ahead Klip-It Drum Key

These two keys have special gearing inside the key. The Firefly Key lets you tighten the key without winding your wrist or having to turn the key, then lift your hand and turn the key. It has a built in ratchet, very similar to a ratchet for a socket set that lets you tighten, then pull the ratchet back without any tension or sound. The Robo Key has an advanced system that multiplies the turning of the key with special internal gears.

FireFly Ratchet Drum Key
Robo Key Ratchet Drum Key

These two keys both work like a mechanics torque wrench. When a bolt on a motor needs to be tightened to a specific torque you set the wrench and then when it reaches the desired tension it clicks. These two keys work on that exact principle and once you set the key to the tension you like, you just turn it until it clicks on each lug.

Rhythm Tech Torque Key
Evans Torque Key

Tuning for marching and pipe drums require an excessive amount of high tension. These two keys provide the extra power to tighten them. We have 3 or 4 other high tension style keys in our drum store.

Cannon High Torque Ratchet
GrooveTech High Torque Wrench

Even though there have been some very unique tuning systems since the time of early drumming the main tuning system has been the drum key. The main reason is the ability to use different hoops, the cost of making them and the history of the drum. The other unique systems are dependent on the drum and also more expensive to manufacture.

In the end, learning how to tune a drum using a drum key takes practice and patience, but once you get your system down, it becomes second nature to many drummers.

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