Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Tuning A Lug Tunable Djembe, Marking It, & Head Replacement

Lug tuned djembes, doumbeks, ashikos, and congas. My favorite drum is a lug tuned LP Giovanni djembe with a goatskin head. Here's a few thoughts on tuning up a lug tunable hand drum, a little about replacing a drum head, and some different ways to put an identifying mark on your drum.

For the most part, lug tuned djembes are less expensive, and more readily available at music stores, and online, so they are becoming more popular, especially with those that are newer to drumming. With a synthetic head, once it’s tuned, it’s basically tuned for life. You can pretty much forget about it, once you have it sounding the way you like.

Goatskin drum heads are a completely different matter, lug tuned or roped. Going from the heat, into air conditioning can pop a drum head if it’s tuned a little too high. Very cold air has less moisture, and the drum heads get dryer and tighten up. I make it a habit to detune a half crank or two each lug after a gig. I go from outdoors to inside a lot. 5 years ago I discovered a broken head when I took it out of the bag for a gig. lol, not good, so I make it a point to take the time, even though I am too tired to do it…before it goes back into the djembe bag, I detune each lug a little after each use. ¾ of a full crank seems to work fine in most cases. The advantage with this kind of djembe, is you can quickly tune, or detune it in minutes, unlike with a rope tuned drum.

Having said that, to me, there is nothing that really compares to an authentic handcrafted djembe. The sound is unmatched, but they are also very expensive. Another problem is that there is a lot of “knock offs” being sold out there as “an authentic indigenous drum”, and many of them are not. You almost need to know someone reliable, or travel.

When I do have to unfortunately replace a drum head, at least I can do so quickly. I do it like the crisscross change a tire lug pattern: 12 0’clock – then 6. then 3 & 9. Equally all around, from one side to the other. After I slide the head back and forth to get it seated nicely, I hand tighten all the lugs equally first. Then it’s a few tuning wrench cranks at a time, in the back and forth pattern. I hold my finger on the one I just tightened, so I can go across the head and remember the one I just did, and my pattern. Back and forth, crisscross, equal cranks all around as best as I can. An important thing to do afterward is look across the flat plane edge of the drum head, and see if it looks nice and even around the rim. Sometimes I didn’t seat the drum head properly, or over tightened on one side, and it may be a tiny bit higher than the other, so I correct for that. (Do it over again! lol)

Another tip I learned was that when I do replace a goatskin djembe head, or a cow skin conga head, I take a little bit of powdered flour, rub some on my hands and lightly rub a very thin coat along the bearing edge, (top) of the drum body before I place the drum head back on it. I slide it around a little, and this allows it to “seat” better on the drum.

The most important thing for correctly tuning my djembe, is after I have it as even and tight as I want, I tap my finger on the drum head about an inch from each lug, and do so for each lug as I go around the drum in a circular pattern. That’s how I can tell if the drum is equally tuned near each lug. Or just a light flick of your fingernail near each lug. If any one sounds higher or lower in pitch, I correct it so that they all sound the same. This not only lengthens drum head life, but it sounds better. It reduces unwanted ringing, and unwanted off pitch sounding notes. Different sounding tones on different lugs can lead to a dissonant combination. This is more important with djembe heads, because they have thinner goatskin heads than cow skin conga heads. So the djembe head is much more sensitive to tension and evenness, both with goatskin and with some synthetic heads.

For those of you that have drum sets, you probably know most of this stuff already, so please bear with me for those that are new to tuning drums. Many of my suggestions are from others who taught me, band gigs in sleazy bars, and the rest from trial and error. These may not be the “best” way, or the only way to do things, I am a musician sharing information. If you have a few helpful tips to add, that would be much appreciated.

An easy way to quick tune my quinta and conga, or bongos, is to recall the song, “Here comes The Bride”. I tune them to sound like the notes in it. It makes it very simple to do, even in a dimly lit situation. (If it’s just my djembe I’m tuning, it’s to the “Bride” pitched note. Maybe just a tad higher.

Some lug tuned goatskin and synthetic drum heads can have ringing, or a ping like sound. Many joke about it, and call it the “twang”. Trying to dampen that overtone a little with synthetic heads is a real consideration for many of us. Especially at studio recording sessions. To reduce it, I hang a blue painter’s tape tail in the center underside of the head. (The blue tape doesn't leave a sticky residue like regular masking tape, or duct tape can do over time.) I use a long single piece - so it has about a 6 inch tail that is hanging down in the center, and stretching about 6 " in both directions across the drum head. ( ----V----) The V is to help illustrate, I close the V section to it is stuck together and hanging down in the middle. The tape I use is 1" wide blue painter’s tape.

I set the drum on the floor upside down on carpet, and try to place it in there with one arm, because that’s all that will fit. It can be tricky getting it in there, sometimes I have to try 3 or 4 times to get it in there nice and even and flat, so the 6 inch tail can be hanging down in the center. I’ve seen other ways to do this, using just a flat straight piece of tape across the underside of the head, a flat “X” pattern, a square, or a circle, or even a sqiggley. Experiment, because that’s part of the fun of drumming, and see what works best for your drum. However you get to it, hopefully it’s bye-bye ping.

One other thing about placing in the blue tape, on the underside of some drum heads is that it will not stick at first. With some newer heads, the bottom surface of the head can have a light coat of powder on it. The solution is to take several dry paper towels and gently wipe the powder off until it is clean enough so the tape would stick on any part of it. I guess the blue painter’s tape is designed like that so it is easy to come off. Another similar simple quick fix, or test idea is to try putting a few Post-It notes hanging under there.

I make it a habit to replace the tape every 4 months or so just to avoid any possibility of sticky tape residue on the underside of my drum head.

If you have to replace or remove the drum rim for any reason, be sure to put it back exactly the same way it came apart. Otherwise it may not fit quite properly when you put it back on, or a lug might get stripped. This is especially true with aluminum doumbeks, I make sure the head is seated properly, and tighten the lugs up again in a crisscross pattern, a little bit at a time. What I do to mark the spot is put a small piece of painter’s tape on the rim and just below it on the drum shell near a lug, so I can mark the spot.

Then I can put it back exactly as it came from the factory. When I remove the lugs, I line them up in a row the way they came off, so I can put them back exactly where they were. Cleaning and twisting them on an old towel, and oiling them is a good idea when you do this. There’s a special lug oil you can get at most drum shops.

Identifying and/or Marking Your Drum(s)

If you have just one prized djembe, or a kit of 50, marking them, or identifying them is a good idea, just in case. Early on, I used a permanent magic marker and would write my name inside the drum body. Later, I painted a bright line across the bottom, or mid-shell. Then when I had a whole bunch of drums, I went to some paper stickers I made on my PC. They left a glue residue, and looked sloppy after a year or so. But it was better than nothing. About 8 years ago I started to use those 4 x 5” vinyl bumper stickers you tend to see many bands use for promoting, publicity, etc. At many of the drum circles I facilitated or hosted, the public was welcome and some would bring their own drums, so things could get a little confusing as people would come and go, and at the end of the gig.

I needed to be able to identify my drums and percussion quickly and easily, sometimes at night in very dim light. I also wanted to deter them from walking away a little bit, that having unfortunately happened one time, but months later, the drum was anonymously returned to me. So I was glad it had that sticker, and/or my name written inside it. The stickers were inexpensive, easy to see, good for promotion, and they looked pretty cool.

If you get the 4” x 5" size stickers with black and white text only. They are about 10 – 50 cents each depending on how many you order. As a bonus you can also hand them out to clients, participants, add to your press pack, etc. But if you start adding logos, colors, or pics, the price goes up on them pretty quickly.

Most all of my kit is synthetic body drums like Remo, Toca, assorted aluminum doumbeks, etc. so slapping a sticker on the side of them was not really a big deal. For groups I prefer synthetic drums because they are easily washable, and can be sanitized. Add to that, they can take more of a beating than goatskin, they do better in humidity, and they cost less to buy. If I needed to remove one of my bumper stickers for some reason, (after a few years there would be a glue residue on there). A product like De-Solv-It takes it off easily. It’s made for removing wallpaper glue.

Obviously you don’t want to put a band sticker on a nice carved wood djembe, but for most of my drums it was fine, and I could easily see from a distance which ones belonged to me. With wood djembes a few ideas are to paint some sort of bright marking on them, or hang those price tags, or luggage tags with a string on them on the ring with a name written on it. Some even carve, or wood burn a name at the bottom of the shell. At least consider writing your name with a permanent marker inside the drum shell. If you have some aluminum, stainless, or nickel doumbeks, carving, or wood burning obviously won’t do, so a sticker or colorful marking of some sort might be the way to go.

About 10 years ago my drum circle facilitating kit was all wood shell djembes. After you schlep 50 drums in and out for an event, (even with some help) they were too heavy to keep track of, let alone haul around. As I mentioned, I prefer the sound and feel of goatskin heads on a wood drum shell, but after a while, it just wasn’t practical. But at least with some kind of bright looking, or obvious mark on them, they’re easier to identify as being yours, especially if you work in public places. As I mentioned, some people bring their own drums. It can get confusing without it.

If you go with that white vinyl band sticker idea, as far as your design is concerned, most of the sticker companies make it pretty easy to do. Most of them will let you design your sticker in a Word doc, you can use most common fonts and sizes, and you email it to them. Make your sticker short and sweet. For my text, I chose my website I made the .com very tiny, (and away at the lower right), so promotion wasn’t so blatantly obvious, and people are less likely to toss them. It’s kind of cool looking, and the .com was so tiny, people would still put them on car bumpers and so on. People would even ask for a sticker to take home all the time, so it was effective publicity for me in the community, and I could easily identify my drums on a budget.

I hope some of this helps you!

Shannon (Got a regular meeting drum circle, or looking for one? Please check out the website. Thanks)