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HOW TO: Change Marching Snare Heads

We’re in the middle of the marching season and it’s time for a head change. Whether the drumheads are worn out, lost their ability to tune, or have water damage from that torrential downpour at the last football game, drumheads need to be changed at least a couple times a season. If you are a band director trying to make your drummers survive on one head a season, you need to rethink this strategy – you wouldn’t expect a clarinet to use one reed throughout the season would you?

So today, we are going to cover how to properly remove the old drumheads, clean the drum, perform some minor maintenance, and install a new batter (top) and resonant (bottom) head. Let’s get started!

Tools and Supplies:
1. One or two high tension drum keys
2. New drumheads (Two per drum)
3. Tube of lithium grease
4. A microfiber cleaning cloth
5. Tack cloth
6. Screwdriver

Step 1 – Removing the Old Heads

Take the drum and place it on a stand or a flat work surface. Starting with the top head, take the two drum keys and place them on the tension rods directly across from each other in the 12 o’clock and 6 o’clock positions. Slowly turn the keys simultaneously in a counter clockwise direction no more than half a turn. Then move on to the next two tension rods moving around the drum in a clockwise direction making identical half turns on each one. Continue this process until you arrive back at your original starting point. On the second time around you should be able to loosen the tension rods another half turn, and by the third time around the drum you can loosen them all the way until the tension rods are free from the lugs. Once the top rim is completely loose, remove the rim and the head and place them to the side.

Now flip over the drum so we are looking at the bottom head. Loosen the snare strainer and remove the snare gut assembly from the drum and set it in a safe place off to the side. We won’t need it until the very end of the process. Now follow the same removal process for the bottom head.

Step 2 – Cleaning the Inside of the Drum

Once the heads are removed, you can check out the state of the inside of the drum. Typically during a marching season, the drums get dirty from things such as: black carbon from car exhausts (parades), dirt from practice fields, and those nasty black turf beads from artificial turf fields.

To remove the dust from the inside of the shell, I would recommend a tack cloth or a dry cloth (though that won’t be as effective). Lightly wipe the inside of the shell to remove any dust. Once that is complete you need to clean the bearing edges to make sure they are clear of foreign elements. If the bearing edge is not clean, you run the risk of breaking a head before it’s normal life span is up.

Step 3 – Cleaning the Outside of the Drum

Take this opportunity to clean all the hard to reach areas of the drum while the drum shell is exposed. Use a quality microfiber cleaning cloth used by car detailers to guarantee you will not scratch the finish of the drum. Depending on the finish of your drums, I would recommend staying away from chemicals and stick to a quality dry cloth. Test a small area of the drum to make sure it does not scratch the finish.

As you can see in the photo, we chose to strip down the drum so we could really give it a proper cleaning.

Step 4 – Installing the New Bottom Head

I like to start with the bottom head first since it seems to take a little more time to bring up to pitch. Usually starting on the bottom first results in the bottom and top heads getting to pitch at about the same time. We are putting on an Evans MX5 on the bottom of this drum, but you can use any resonant head you prefer. For durability’s sake, I would suggest either the MX5 or a Remo Falam series bottom head. If you prefer the sound of a clear mylar drumhead (which does sound great), you will have to take greater care of the head as they tend to break easier. With a clear mylar drumhead, you will end up having to tune it every few days, but some people are willing to invest the time for the sound they get – the choice is up to you.

I like to line up the head logo towards the front of all of the drums so it is consistent and looks good if the snare drum is ever pulled up. Make sure the head is seated properly on the shell before putting the rim back on. At this point I apply lithium grease to each tension rod and make sure I have it on at least 1/3 of the threads (a little goes a long way).

Why lithium grease? It does the job, is resistant to heat well above what the sun can dish out, and does not break down over time like some other materials. You can find it at hardware stores or automotive stores and one tube will last you a few years.

Once the rods are dressed with lithium grease, set the rim on the drumhead while lining up the tension rods to the lugs. Go around the drum and make sure all the tension rods are started into the lugs and then using the drum key turn each rod clockwise until it almost touches the rim. Once they are all even, you are ready to start tightening the bottom head.

Multiple schools of thought on tightening drums: clockwise motion, straight across, or follow the pattern like the one sometimes seen on the Evans box. I prefer to follow a hybrid approach: I go around in a clockwise motion while using two keys at the same time on opposite sides of the drum and making quarter turns. So therefore I start at position 12 and 6, then go to 1 and 7, 2 and 8, and so on all the way around the drum.

The biggest key to not blowing a head is consistent tension on each tension rod and that requires consistent drum key turns. By using a methodical approach to tightening the drum, and taking breaks every few rotations to make sure the pitch at each tension rod is the same, you decrease your chances of pulling the head.

Continue tightening the head until you start to see the head clear the snare bed. The snare bed is right by the snare strainer and the head needs to be above the rim to allow the snare guts to touch the head. Click the picture above to see an example of a head that has cleared the snare bed.

Step 5 – Installing the New Top Head

Just like the bottom head, clean the top bearing edge of any debris, lubricate each tension rod, and carefully put the rim back in place. I prefer to set the logo on the head close to the player at the 6 o’clock position (see the picture to the right). I find placing the logo at the 12 o’clock position can sometimes 1. cause problems for certain players that can’t help but read the logo while they are playing and 2. playing on the edge causes the logo to flake and get all over the beads. Again a personal preference, figure out what you prefer.

Almost the exact same approach can be taken to tightening the head as we did on the bottom head, but since it is thicker it can handle a greater turn on the drum key. I usually start with half turns until it starts to become difficult to turn and then I back down to quarter turns. Again, take a break every two or three rotations to make sure you are applying even tension across the head.

Step 6 – Tuning the Drum

Let’s talk about snare drum tuning. If you’ve brought the drum tension up evenly, you are ahead of the game. Some people go for a certain pitch on the top head, but I would stop tightening when you find a comfortable playing feel on the top head. As for pitch on the bottom, I would match the pitch of the top head or go a step or two higher. Use a tuner to find the desired pitches, just don’t leave the two heads a half step apart.

The final piece of the tuning puzzle is to tune the snare guts. Put the snare guts back on the snare drum and tighten the tension knob about halfway. Leave the strainer down and slide a pencil underneath the guts on the stationary side to provide a little tension. From there use your finger and pluck each strand like a guitar. Using the screwdriver, slightly tighten the appropriate screw until a desirable pitch is heard. Continue on to each strand trying to match the pitch of the original strand. Once this is complete, make sure the height adjustment for each side of the strainer allows the snare guts to lay on the head, but not so tight that they choke the resonance of the bottom head.

If you have multiple drums to take care of, make sure you match the pitches from drum to drum to provide a focused sound from your snareline.

The final product tuned and ready to go.