Drum keys on a table next to a pair of drumsticks

The Purpose of a Drum Key

Many beginning drummers wonder what a drum key is – and what it is used for.  A drum key is a wingnut-shaped object that is used to adjust drumhead tension.  It is also utilized on many memory locks, which allow the height and position of the stands to be retained when transporting the drumset.

Which Direction to Turn a Drum Key

The drum key can be turned in either a clockwise or counterclockwise direction.  Turning the key clockwise will tighten the drumhead, increasing both the tension of the drumhead and pitch of the drum.  Moving in a counterclockwise direction will decrease the tension and lower the pitch.  The key is utilized in the same manner to tighten and loosen memory locks.

Types of Drum Keys

There are a few styles of drum key available.  The various types are listed below.     

  • Traditional drum key – As previously mentioned, most drum keys have a wingnut-style shape to them.  This allows the key to be easily turned in either direction.  The thumb and first finger are used in a twisting motion to turn the key. The motion is similar to turning a key in a door lock, or adjusting the volume knob on a stereo.
  • Continuous-motion drum key (or speed key) – This drum key design allows the user to adjust the tension using a winding motion.  This allows for quicker drumhead changes.
  • Ratchet-style drum key – Similar to a mechanic’s ratchet, this type of key allows for adjusting tension in one direction at a time.  The ratchet is able to be turned to tighten the drum’s tension rods.  It is then swung back in the opposite direction without undoing the tension.  When the drummer wants to loosen the tension, a switch is flipped, reversing the action of the ratchet. 

While this type of key is effective for quick drumhead changes, the drummer must be careful to not overtighten standard (Mylar) heads. 

  • High-tension drum key – Contemporary marching snare drums utilize high-tension heads.  A standard drum key can be damaged if it used to tighten this type of drumhead.  If the key does survive, the drummer’s hand will likely be sore from the process.  A special type of high-tension drum key is recommended for marching band and drum corps-style applications.  These keys have oversized handles, allowing for more leverage when attaining a high-tension tuning.
  • Special tools- There are drum key-style adapters that can be placed on a drill to remove drumheads quickly.  Some drum keys have attachments that make adjusting the bass drum pedal easy.  There are also multi-tools that have built-in drum keys.

Do Drum Keys Fit all Drums?

Drum keys are not brand-specific.  Instead, they are universal fit.  They will work on snare drums, bass drums (that do not have the keyless lugs), toms, and memory locks. One drum company’s key might be a bit snug or loose on another brand’s drums – but it will still work.  The deep, squared-off design of the drum lug does not lend itself to being rounded off, as can be the case with six-sided bolts. 

There are other percussion instruments that use a different means of tensioning.  For example, conga drums are often tensioned using a 1/2” wrench.  Timpani are often cleared (fine-tuned) using a much larger key specifically designed for that instrument.  Some vintage drums, specifically from the brand Premier, have slots in the tension rods. This allows them to be tuned with a flathead screwdriver.

Drum Key Features

Manufacturers often add special features or attributes to their drum keys.  Obviously, the key’s primary function is to tension the drums.  The extra features simply add to the user’s experience.  Some of these features include the following:

  • Center hole – This allows it to be attached to a keychain.
  • Magnetized metal – This keeps it in place and avoids losing the key.
  • Threaded top – This type can be turned around and screwed onto a cymbal stand (in place of the stand’s wingnut.  Drummers will always know where their drum key is.
  • Designer look – There are many fancy drum keys out there. Some are solid bronze or gold plated.  Others have exquisitely designed handles.  Drummers can have no-frills keys or start a drum key collection!

Here is an informative video about drum keys by Ryan Alexander Bloom.

The Drum Key Explained – How to Choose a Great Key

Similar Posts