Dieter Dyk - ‘With pedal tuned instruments you have more time to put your attention to the musical flow, instead of being busy with the tuning proceedings!’

The final step (at least for now) in the evolution of the tuning mechanism of the timpani was the development of the pedal timpani, leaving the hands free to concentrate on playing the drums, and assigning the task of altering the pitch of the timpani to the feet. Some timpanists still feel however that hand tuning is still more accurate that using pedals (see below for a discussion of machine timpani).

The pedal timpani - or more accurately the ratchet pedal timpani – achieved its modern form in the last two decades of the 19th century, designed by the German Carl Pittrich, and his ratchet mechanism has remained basically the same. The following description of the instrument – known as the Dresden timpani - dates from the beginning of the 20th century : ‘The kettle rests upon a frame which is supported by eight connecting rods attached to the hoop over which the skin stretched. Underneath the kettle they are fastened to a round disc which in turn is attached to a lever and eccentric, …the foot pedal with counterweight enables the tension of the skin for each note on the desired drum (to be changed) by means of easy up-and-down motions of the foot.’[1]

Like many savvy inventors, Pittrich also guaranteed the success of his pedal design by making it adaptable to the existing machine timpani of his time. Therefore other important aspects of timpani design, especially kettle sizes and shapes, were not altered or lost, and the master screw of the old machine drums lived on as the fine tuning handle of the new pedal timpani.

The ratchet pedal is so named because of the nature of the mechanism which locks the pedal in place, a series of ratchet teeth, from which the timpanist disengages the pedal with a sideways movement of the foot, moves the pedal up or down to the desired position, and then locks the pedal back into place at a new point on the ratchet.

Dieter Dyk –‘ Directly [with ratchet pedals] you feel the skin working, it gives an orientation about the condition of the skin, by experience you know approximately quick where to go in a fast-blind tuning.’

The simple mechanical mechanism of the ratchet system creates a direct connection between the tension on the timpani head and the pressure in the pedal. In this way the experienced timpanist can “feel” what the pitch of the drum is, without playing the timpani or even checking the tuning gauge. The spacing of the ratchet teeth means however that the pedal can only be locked at certain points on the ratchet, creating problems with accurate intonation, as the desired note may lie between two teeth. For timpanists accustomed to this pedal system this is not a problem - they are adept at making minor adjustments with the fine tuning handle. Improvements have also been over the years and many new designs of ratchet pedal timpani incorporate more finely spaced teeth on the ratchet and so an increased accuracy in the tuning as compared to earlier ratchet mechanisms, such as those of the Gunter Ringer timpani, a German timpani craftsman whose instruments are highly sought after in many countries, and whose designs have been emulated by many succeeding generations of timpani makers. Constantly disengaging and re-engaging the ratchet pedal can be can be difficult, and noisy, during busy passages, but this can be avoided.

Louis Sauvetre – ‘I keep the pedal open when possible. Actually I feel more secure like this and it is very easy with the old Ringer pedal.’

The alternative to the ratchet pedal is the clutch pedal, and this mechanism is said to be “infinitely adjustable” as instead of mechanical teeth to lock the pedal, rubber clamps and stoppers regulate the movement of the pedal, and again hold it in position until the timpanist needs to alter the pitch. The proponents of the clutch pedal point out that it has none of the problems of the ratchet system i.e. the pedal can be locked in whatever position required, minimising (but not negating) fine tuning issues. However this system is not considered to have the same close connection between pedal and skin as does the ratchet mechanism.

Mostly the choice between clutch or ratchet pedal is made by personal preference, but it is also dependent on other choices that the timpanist makes, as each drum manufacturer fits their own preferred pedal to their timpani. The Ringer timpani and others in this style are made with ratchet pedals, while the Adams drums use the clutch mechanism. The Premier timpani also use a clutch pedal mechanism; the design is different – the pedal is situated in the middle of the timpani base, rather than to the side, meaning that the drums can be placed in any setup or combination desired, although this may put the tuning gauges in unusual positions – but the basic concept and operation is the same.

Beyond the choice of ratchet or clutch, there are two further choices : the Dresden or the Berlin pedal. The characteristics and mechanism of each is described in the boxes below. Here the choice really is up to the player as manufacturers offer both styles on their drums.


A short, foot sized pedal, which pivots from directly behind the heel, requiring only ankle movement to change pedal position. It was this style of pedal, albeit as a ratchet system rather than the pictured clutch mechanism on the left, that was developed by Carl Pittrich.


This type of system uses a longer pedal arm, pivoting from in front of the toe position. The photo at the right shows the Ringer style ratchet pedal, with locking arm and ratchet teeth. Because of the longer pedal arm and pivot point located at the back of the pedal, the mechanism is operated by a full movement of the leg, often bringing the players knees above the level of the rim of the drum.

The advantages or disadvantages of each system are minor, and timpanists will make their choice based on which ‘feels’ better to them, a preference developed over years of experience. The different physical motions required to operate each style of pedal means the physique of the timpanist will influence the choice, and with the Berlin pedal long legs can be a problem …

Nick Woud - ‘The pedal system has an effect on the playing position and more important on the position of the hand. For example, with the Berlin system the position will be more v-shaped , because of the knees interfering.’

For modern repertoire, i.e. pieces with lots of tuning changes – R. Strauss and Bartók being two of the early composers to write specifically for the pedal instruments – pedal timpani are essential for the many tuning changes, and especially glissandi contained within these works (although in some cities tradition still wins out, read on for machine timpani). Also as it is much more likely that it will be the orchestra’s pedal timpani that are setup with plastic heads, it will also be these drums that are used for outdoor concerts.

[1] Anon., “Die Pittrich’sen Pedal-Machinen-Pauken” Zeitschrif für Instrumentenbau, vol. 23 (1903) p. 636f, cited in Bowles


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