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My Favorite Timpani Gauge

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Ever wonder what the pros use when the time comes to buy gauges? I’ve seen lots of options, but the Ludwig Standard remains My Favorite Timpani Gauge!

The Ludwig Standard Timpani Gauge is a pressure activated gauge, which means the lever is moved by the motion of the rim above it. In other words, moving the pedal moves the tension rods, which moves the the rim (hoop), which moves the gauge and the head; changing head tension and of course, pitch.

Here’s what the gauge looks like:

This 28″ Ludwig Universal Regular Collar Timpano is getting the gauge:

The first step was to gather the materials and tools that I’d need: gauge and parts, timpani key, adjustable wrench, and my multi tool for a screwdriver.  I usually carry all of this in my stick bag.

To attach the gauge, it’s necessary to remove the head.

When removing a timpani head, two main things need to be taken into consideration; the head tension, as well as the pedal tension. To take care of these things, you must remove the head by loosening tension rods in a criss-cross pattern, making sure to do it evenly, perhaps a quarter turn each time around. Before loosening any of the rods, though, you must make sure your pedal is not going to jump and throw your spring out of adjustment. If you have timpani with clutches, make sure the pedal is at the lowest tension position, and that it is locked. If you have balanced action pedals, like me, block the pedal from moving like so:

Do that before moving any tension rods. Notice the “block” is actually an old, cracked woodblock! Everything has a use!

On older model Ludwig drums, gauge mounts were pre-drilled, with screws provided. This means that I didn’t have to drill through the bowl, and that I didn’t need the provided backer with the gauge. Once the head was removed, was to unscrew the bolts on the drum, and insert the bolt through a washer, then the gauge, then the bowl, and then a lock washer and a nut. Pretty simple.


Check out the Gerber multi tool.  If you don’t have something similar, this is an excellent resource for all freelancers. You never know when you’ll have to fix the instruments you’re performing on!

Notice how the square nuts lock against the inner rim, which means that you can adjust the position of the gauge without removing the head.

This is handy, since the gauge operates off of the pressure/positiion of the hoop. Here’s how that looks with the head re-mounted.

Many timpani purists may ask why I even installed a gauge.

Frankly, these are portable drums which must be de-tuned to be portable. I have these drums for a set of general timpani. Mostly they are used for musicals, pageants, or band literature. They are not used for solo performance, or high art music. On those gigs, I generally have access to better drums!

Especially in shows, quick tuning is an issue. Are gauges ever exactly on the pitch? No. But when your tuning time might be as little as 1-2 counts @ 160 bpm, a close approximation for the first note, with fine tuning for the next few has to be good enough. Also, realize that as long as your drums are balanced, maintained and setup correctly, proper use of the gauges can easily get you within 10 cents (or less) of pitch. Considering the inherent variances in pitch of whatever ensemble you may be performing with, 10 cents to being in tune is pretty good. Again, realize fine tuning is always done after the quick change. With these drums, I once  performed the Hallelujah Chorus with an organ that read at A=438!

Why don’t I use “better” timpani, and “better” gauges?

First, the Ludwig Universals are what I am able to acquire. I’d love to have the funds to buy a full set of Majestic Prophonic Timpani…but I don’t have that kind of cash.

Second, these gauges are my absolute favorite. Sure, other gauges are easier to be more accurate with, and there are other gauges that are almost as simple. However, the simplicity, the durability, and yes, the accuracy, of the Ludwig Standard Timpani Gauge is everything I need.

When installed, these gauges become an integral part of your drums–no extra rods, cables, and no additional complications to transportation. With many other gauges, this is simply not the case. Most other gauges work off of the pedal, and add all kinds of extraneous parts–cables, rods, protrusions, etc. The simplicity of the Ludwig Standard Timpani Gauge is great in my book.

2 thoughts on “My Favorite Timpani Gauge

  1. Dear Mr McCafferty,

    I have a pair of Leedy timpani (USA PAT MAR 17, 1942 – if that’s any help in identifying them). They employ the clutch mechanism (like Premier’s) rather than the balanced spring mechanism. But the main point is that they are 25″ & 28″ in diameter, not the International diameters.
    I would like to fit tuning gauges of the type you describe here, but I don’t know whether they would work properly with timpani of these dimensions. Furthermore, they don’t seem to be available here in the UK, and I’ve no idea what they cost.
    Any information and/or guidance would be much appreciated.

    Yours sincerely

    Andrew Fraser
    Scotland, UK (currently – “independence” looms … )

  2. Andrew,

    To be honest, I’m not sure, never having worked on a set of Leedy drums. However, I would think they would, as they are fairly flexible. The trickiest part would be aligning the pressure point with the hoop. If they are regular collar drums (no space beyond the head hoop between the bearing edge and the hoop), then it should be fairly simple, and would be exactly the process shown in my article about it. Whether or not the guide supplied by Ludwig, as to where to drill the mounting holes, would work or not, would need to be determined–I would mock it up several times before putting any holes in your instruments!

    The bowl sizes should be no problem–the drums in my article were 25″ and 28″ in diameter, and I have mounted these on standard and non-standard bowls, extended collar, and non-extended collar, with no issue. The only thing to keep in mind is that with an extended collar drum, you must put a spacer between the gauge and the bowl.

    As far as how to get them…if there is a local store that is a Ludwig/Musser dealer, that may be the best bet. You could also call Steve Weiss Music, which is a warehouse retailer in the US, but may be able to work out international shipping. The last time I bought one of these, the US price was right around $200 each for a new gauge, though that was a few years ago. Let me know if that helps, and if I can do anything else for you! I’d love to see a couple of pics of your drums!

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