Changing the heads on your timpani can seem like a daunting and expensive task to complete on top of everything else on your to-do list. This article is designed to aid you in the process of renewing your timpani sound by changing out your heads. You will notice almost immediately the diﬀerence in sound and contribution your timpanist will make to your ensemble when you change out those old heads!
Items you will need
- Timpani Tuning Key
- New Heads
- Hand Towel or Rag
- Wax or Teflon Spray
- Soft Timpani Mallet
- Block of Wood
- Measuring Tape or Ruler
- Lithium Grease
Knowing the right Sizes
In your typical four-drum timpani setup, the sizes are as follows from largest to smallest: 32’’, 29’’, 26’’, and 23’’, respectively. Unlike snare, tom, or bass heads, timpani heads will extend beyond the bearing edge of the bowl. Depending on the brand and model, you will need to purchase head sizes 2’’ to 3’’ larger than the bowl size. Extended collars are more common and have a visible gap between the bearing edge and the counterhoop. You can also check the Remo Timpani Head Size Chart. For this example, I have the Adams Professional Series Generation II. For the 23’’ drum, I have purchased a 25’’ inch head. The head exceeds the bowl’s bearing edge by 1 inch all round.
Removing the old head
The most important part of this step is setting your timpani pedal to the “toe up, heel down” position to bring the head to its lowest amount of tension. While the pedal is “up,” take your block of wood and place it in between the pedal and the base of the timpani. This is to ensure that the spring tension will not “snap” the pedal down when you remove your old head and damage your timpani.
Before you begin to remove the old head, mark the counterhoop and bowl with tape so that it can be placed back in the same spot once you put on your new head. Even when removing heads, it’s important to still do so in a “star” pattern to ensure tension is distributed evenly around the head.
Begin with one full turn counterclockwise on each lug and continue in a “star” pattern until you are able to remove all the lugs with your fingers. Be careful when removing and placing your counterhoop down, as there will most likely be some sort of grease still on the screws.
Inside the bowl
Now is a great time to inspect the inside of the bowl for any dust, bits, or damage. Take your rag and wipe the bearing edge. It’s important to wipe the bearing edge in a motion away from the bowl so that all dirt and dust will not fall into the bowl. You can also give the inside of the bowl a wipe. Just be careful not to touch the inside of the bowl with your fingers.
Next, take a moment to examine the bearing edge. You are checking for smoothness to ensure the head will glide up and down the bearing edge without any resistance. If you feel sharp divots or bumps on the bearing edge, you can remove them with steel wool. Once your bearing edge is smooth all around, take your wax and give a small coat all along the bearing edge. If you’d like, you can also give a generous amount of Teflon spray instead of wax. If this is your first time changing out your heads, chances are the bearing edge is not damaged. This is also a great time to wipe oﬀ the grease from your lugs with a rag or cloth.
Placing the new head
Now you can take your brand new timpani head and place it over the bowl. As stated before, for this particular model, the head will exceed the bearing edge by an inch. To make sure that the head is completely centered on the bowl, measure the four points across the drum (i.e., 12 o’clock, 3 o’clock, 6 o’clock, and 10 o’clock.)
Next, carefully place your counterhoop back on the drum being sure that your tape is aligned. Here is where you will put a small dab of lithium grease on your lugs to ensure they screw in smoothly.
At this point, the head might have shifted oﬀ center. Screw your lugs in only until they “catch” on the casing, and remeasure the outer diameter of the head. Be sure to check all four check points.
Screw the lugs in now, but only finger-tight. Be sure to continue in the “star” pattern or simultaneously directly across from one another. Once finger-tight, check and measure the diameter once more.
*Don’t forget your woodblock is to remain under the pedal.
Once the lugs are finger-tight and you’ve checked to make sure the head hangs over the bowl evenly, you can now tune the drum with your drum key. Begin by making a 1/2 turn on each lug in the “star” pattern. As you do this, be sure to check and finger tight any lugs that may have come loose due to the cross tension. Go around with another 1/2 turn on each lug and check again for any that need to be finger-tightened. At this point, if there are no lugs that are loose, it is safe to remove the block underneath the pedal. Carefully bring the pedal to the “down” position to about mid-range. Place a folded towel in the middle of the drum and now begin checking and tuning each lug like a normal drum. It is advised to use some sort of tuner to check each lug. Drum dials and/or the Tune Bot are highly recommended.
Use a soft timpani mallet in order to draw out the fundamental tone for each lug. This will help get a more accurate read. Check the pitch for each lug and tune either up or down to make sure each lug is tuned to the same pitch or frequency.
Once the head is in tune with itself, check to see if the drum is settled within its optimal range. Sizes and models will depend on the actual pitch range, but here is a standard example. Ideally, there should be room at the lowest and highest tension.
For example, the lowest pitch shouldn’t be where the pedal is completely up or the highest pitch when completely down. During this process, you can also set the gauges to help your students with tuning and tuning changes.
It doesn’t matter which drum you begin with. The process does take time to complete, but with practice can be done fairly quickly. It’s important to check and maintain your timpani in order to get long-lasting results. If within your budget, it is recommended to change out your timpani heads at least every other year. Every few years with middle school bands. Or course, it all depends on their use, care, and maintenance. When storing timpani, keep the timpani heads on with high tension so that the head rests tightly on the drum (i.e., pedal down). If the timpani heads are stored on the lowest tension, you run the risk of the head shifting oﬀ center if moved or bumped.
Rick Astorga received a bachelor of music degree from Texas State University and a Masters in Educational Leadership from the University of North Texas. He is the Associate Director of Bands and the Director of Percussion at Winston Churchill High School in San Antonio. He is a member of the Texas Music Educators Association, the Texas Band Masters Association, the Percussive Arts Society, the National Association for Music Education, and is an endorser and a member of the Education Team for Vic Firth, Zildjian Cymbals, and Remo Drumheads.
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