Hand drums, in all their variety, keep gaining popularity nowadays. Their sound is distinct, they are easy to carry and play, and almost everyone is unique. Have you ever thought about mastering a hand played drum? If so, here are the basics of choosing one and learning to play it.

Types of Hand Drums

Types of hand drums are diverse. The only thing they have in common is the fact that it can be played with bare hands, not using sticks, mallets, or other accessories. Given how simple the idea is, no wonder many nations of the world have developed their own types of hand drums. To name but a few, there are:

  1. Bodhrán. Did you expect us to start anywhere else? This Celtic hand drum is probably the most interesting for those interested in Celtic music. These are large drums that are still lightweight and easy to hold and carry. The first modern bodhráinwere spotted in the mid-19th century, though some researchers date it way earlier. 
  2. Djembe. These West African drums are goblet-shaped and probably the best known when it comes to “ethnic” drums. Varying in size, they can be big enough to sit on while playing, resembling a chair. A djembe is capable of producing diverse sounds, from low bass kicks to sharp snaps.
  3. Bongo. Originated in West India, these drums come in pairs — sometimes they are almost identical and sometimes very different in size or tones. The sound of bongo is what you call “Latin”, adding percussive elements to the soundscape of a band. Bongos can be played alone, though, especially when combined with vocals. The body is usually made of wood, and the head is of calfskin.
  4. Congas. They are similar to bongos, also made of calfskin and wood. Congas are often much bigger than bongos, though, and make lower sounds. So, combinations of bongos and congas are a popular sort of a drum kit in Latin music. Each type, though, can be played independently.
  5. Tabla (sometimes known as darbuka). This hand drum has come from India and is still wildly popular there. It’s a combination of a bigger metal drum and a smaller wooden one. This pair is capable of creating a high wall of sound on its own. There are two types of darbuka: Turkish and Egyptian, with differently polished edges, which implies different techniques.
  6. Cajon. It’s hard to confuse this box-shaped drum with anything else. It can be played while sitting on it, as the player uses its front and its sides to make different sounds. Cajon is probably one of the most versatile hand drums.

This list is not definitive. You can find other hand drums you may also like. But when it comes to choosing, you need to answer some questions to yourself.

  • What music do you prefer? It may depend on the region you like the most, or your views, your origins, and so on. Most of them are equally easy to play, though some (like cajon or bigger versions of darbuka) may require a different approach.
  • Where do you want to play them? There is little to no difference for playing at home. But if you plan to attend drum circles or other parties, you better prefer portable ones. On the other hand, if you join a serious band and play at gigs, the size does not matter anymore. The sound does.
  • What’s your favorite position? It implies your weight as well (sorry, but that’s the way it is). Drums to sit on (like cajons) may be a poor choice for overweight persons. On the other hand, with a pair of small bongos on their lap, someone large may look ridiculous. If you are too small, a big drum may be harder to carry and handle. If you really like it, though, you should not care.

How to Hold the Drum

It depends on the type of drum you use. Smaller ones may be placed on your lap. Bigger djembes or darbukas are better placed between your legs, with the head up, so you can easily reach it with your hands. As for a cajon, it’s okay to sit on it (they are durable and sturdy enough for that), so you can reach its sides as well as its front head. Still, you can position it in front of you and have the same effect. With a bodhrán, you hold it with one hand perpendicular to your body, so your other hand (the playing one) can easily reach it, no matter if you’re sitting or standing.

In short, there is no versatile recipe. Each type of drum has its placing tradition, which can vary, depending on the drum size. In addition, you can as well develop your own style. But don’t hurry with it until you have mastered (or at least tried) the most popular existing styles. Along with making great sounds, they have proven to cause less harm to the players’ hands.

Finger Techniques

The basics of playing may be understood intuitively. Still, there are some things you need to know before you start. Let’s start with a djembe, though the principles apply to any hand drum:

  • to make a softer sound, use a relaxed flat hand. The closer to the center of the head you hit, the softer is the beat;
  • to make a harsher sound, use strained fingertips and hit closer to the edge;
  • to make the sound resonate and last, raise your hand immediately after you hit the drum;
  • to mute the sound immediately after, leave your hand on the drum for a moment.

The effects may differ depending on the drums. You have probably noticed that when you play the bodhrán, a hand moving up produces a higher sound than the same palm moving down the head. 

Combine using various parts of your hand: the full palm, fingertips (together or separately), the heel of the palm, and so on, in various combinations. Watch videos: they show you how gestures and moves result in sounds.

Fingers or Sticks?

It may seem a strange question, as we’re talking hand drums — so what’s there to add? But don’t rush. Mallets, sticks, or other implements may diversify your manner of playing, enriching it with softer or harder sounds. If you play for long, switching to these can spare your hands from getting tired or damaged. The best way to choose is to hear the way it sounds and looks with various accessories.

Hand drums are extremely popular. No matter if you choose a Celtic hand drum or something hot and exotic, there are lots of manuals and great examples from masters. All you have to do is follow it carefully and then find your style.