Thursday, April 29, 2010

Zen And The Art Of Drum Maintenance

One thing that is universal with all musicians is that we have to replace our gear as it wears out. Strings break, microphones crap out, instruments need to be kept up as parts wear. For me, it's replacing heads. Normally, heads don't wear out terribly fast for me. I've worn out a grand total of one bass drumhead in fifteen years of professional playing, and tom heads are replaced maybe every three to five years. Snare drum batter heads (the one you actually hit - the bottom head that you don't hit is called a 'resonant' or 'snare-side' head) are the most frequently replaced heads for me, and even then that's only about every eighteen to twenty-four months. But I was in need of replacing my heads as a whole, as the worn-out bass drumhead I'd previously mentioned had forced me to use the head I'd padded for use with my triggers as a stopgap replacement.

I'd prefer to order Remo heads. PowerStroke 3 snare (batter) and bass heads, and Pinstripe tom heads are my heads of choice. But being on a budget forced me to go with an inexpensive set of medium-weight single-ply Attack heads. Price was the sole reason for buying these heads - a five-piece 'fusion' set, so called for the sizes of the tom heads (ten, twelve, and fourteen-inch clear tom heads, in addition to standard snare and bass heads, compared to a 'standard' kit alignment of twelve, thirteen and sixteen-inch toms plus snare and bass) that cost less than a single Remo PowerStroke 3 bass head. But these are the heads I use for my triggers, and they're serviceable heads.

Installing and tuning a drumhead, for those of you not who don't know, is very much like putting a tire on a car. The lugs are tuned in a pattern that goes back and forth across the rim while slowly going around. Imagine a drum with six lugs, numbered from 1 to 6 in a clockwise pattern. First you tune lugs 1 and 4 a little bit, then moving to one of the lugs to either side of 4 and going to the lug opposite that, either 5 to 2 or 6 to 3. Continue the pattern until you reach the head tension desired. The reason you do this is to keep the rim from going out of true (warping). There are special tools you can use to reach specific levels, like torque keys. Then there are actual tension sensors that you place in the middle of the head that can measure head tension to tenths, even hundredths of a degree. But I just use a good old-fashioned drum key and my ears to do the job. Old patterns used since high-school and a good ear allow me to tune the drums to a major I - III - V chord from bottom to top (I - III - V - VIII if I use four toms, and if I use all five toms, my largest tom is tuned an octave below the V-tone tom).

But friends, the shit hit the fan a few hours ago, as I worked on my snare drum. All of a sudden, I noticed that one lug refused to loosen, and after a few attempts to knock it loose, the inner workings of the lug bracket broke. Within a few minutes I removed the remaining lugs and loosened the broken lug's twin on the resonant head enough to pull the old batter head out of place. I only said 'enough' because that bracket broke as well. I removed the remainder of the lugs from the resonant head, pulled out the resonant head very carefully so as not to damage it, and unscrewed the bracket from the drum shell. Then I found out why Musician's Friend had sold it to me at a discount - both lugs in the bracket were bent. There's no salvaging the bracket, it's history. The only way to salvage the rims would require bolt cutters to cut the lugs. And since the snare only cost me $25 in the first place, I figured, why bother trying to fix the damn thing? The cost of the replacing the bracket wouldn't be all that much - if I could find one. The real cost would be shipping the damn thing from god-only-knows where to Port Angeles. So goodbye to my feisty little piccolo snare.

Fortunately, I always have more than one snare around. Two of the three I own are with me here in Port Angeles, while the third is in my storage unit in Reno. My spare snare is a funky old Ludwig student snare that Joy found at a garage sale run by her then-boss's daughter, and her son had used, then grown bored with the drum. I'd actually converted the drum into a trigger-only snare, with its snare assembly disabled and the snares themselves removed. So I removed the padded trigger-head and the old tom head I used as a fake resonant head, and installed the new Attack batter head and the piccolo's old Remo resonant head. Then I found that the snare assembly was missing a screw - and a damned important one. So I actually cannibalized the same part from the piccolo snare (and it fit!), and installed the expensive snares Joy had bought for me years ago that I'd put on the piccolo. Then came the twist ending - having to recall what little experience I had in tying the snares to the assembly that keeps it taut and in place. The vast majority of snare drums made these days use either plastic or Kevlar straps to secure the snares to the assemblies on either side of the shell. I used one plastic strap from the piccolo to anchor the snares, then carefully tied the other side to the assembly that allows me to adjust the snare tension. And tying knots is not a skill I'm very well-versed at. But I got the job done, and the snare sounds reasonably good.

Now all my drums have fresh, virgin heads on them. I never was able to find a gig while I've been away from Nevada - a few leads, but each one led to more questions than answers, and that's not something I really want to deal with - so the heads will have plenty of time to seat themselves properly before I break them out in Carson City in a little less than two weeks. I'm looking forward to playing the Station, the Nugget in Sparks, and perhaps a jam night or two to make a little money hosting the drummers. That reminds me, I'd better drop Dean a line pretty quick......

Later, y'all.

UPDATE: Within a few hours of originally posting this, I received an email from an employee of Musician's Friend (who'd sold me the pic) asking if there was anything he could do to help remedy the situation. After I threw a few more details at him, he concurred that the pic was a lost cause, but offered a ferocious discount on a snare that oddly enough, I'd already had my eye on for a future upgrade. Pretty cool, eh?

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