How to Tune Timbales

By Kochava R. Greene
A typical set of timbales and cowbells.

Timbales, Cuban drums used in Latin dance music, usually come in sets of two: a large drum and small drum. The small drum is called the Macho ("male"), and the larger is the Hembra ("female"). Timbales are most frequently tuned to be a perfect fourth apart (the distance between the first and second notes in "Here Comes the Bride"), but they can also be tuned a perfect fifth apart (the distance between the first and second notes in"Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star"). In this article, you'll learn how to tune your Macho to the F above middle C and your Hembra to the C above middle C, a perfect fourth. It's equally important that the drums be in tune with themselves as with each other. Drumming circle expert Jim Greiner prefers to start with tuning the Hembra, but you can start with either drum.

Place the drum head on the drum and put the rim on top, lining up the lugs and nuts on the drum. Put the lugs on the nuts and tighten them so that they are just hand-tight; don't use the tuning wrench yet.

A drum key

Use the tuning wrench to tighten each lug a half-turn. Choose one lug to start and then tune the lug across the drum from it and repeat, turning each lug an equal amount until they have all been turned a full circle.

Play the note you are tuning to on the piano, keyboard or pitch pipe. If you are using a tuning fork, strike it and listen to its tone, and then sing the pitch of the drum relative to the tuning fork's A. That is, if you are tuning your Macho to an F, listen to the tuning fork's A and sing a minor sixth higher for the F.

Once the head is tightened fairly tight and you have the pitch you need in your ear, begin by tapping the drum in the center. If it is above the desired target pitch, loosen each lug very slightly until it sounds the pitch you want. If it is below the pitch you want, tighten the lugs by crossing the drum from one lug to another as described in Step 2 until the drum sounds the proper pitch.

Tune each lug so that the drum is in tune with itself. Tap the drum around its edges at each lug. You should hear the same pitch at each lug point. If one lug sounds higher than the rest, loosen it until it matches the rest. If one sounds lower than the rest, tighten it until it matches.

Loosen the heads when you're done practicing or playing to give them a longer life. Loosen each lug a half-turn, going around the drum in a circle. Repeat this so that each lug is a full turn loose when you are finished.