Practical Tips For Buying A Hand Drum

Practical tips for buying hand drums such as congas, djembes or doumbeks including what to ask yourself and what to look for in a drum.

It's time. You're ready. Maybe you've been borrowing from friends, borrowing from strangers, playing them at the store or wherever you see them, but now the time has come for you to get your own drum! Here's some tips on how to choose a drum, what questions to ask yourself and what to look for in a drum.

These are some general things for you to consider when choosing a drum:

1)Condition of the body

Check for cracks if the drum has a wood body. You'll often find cracks in the drums imported from Africa. The cracks are usually filled with glue and sawdust and rarely impact the sound. Cracks that extend to where the skin meets the wood, however, assure the drum a short life span. Basically, if the drum sounds good despite a disfigured body, then you're good to go.

2)Condition of the head

The head of the drum should be completely intact so check for holes and splits. Very importantly, check for dryness. A really dried out head is untunable, as the pressure of tuning will cause the head to crack or split. Check for warps and dips and make sure the head is even.


Your drum is an extension of yourself, so the choice you make is entirely personal. Do you like low earthy tones, or higher pitched sounds? Try out different types and sizes of drums. Try both natural skin heads and synthetic heads. Tap each drum and listen with

your entire body. Listen for wholeness in the sound. There are small variations of sound within each type of drum so, if for instance, you're looking at djembes, it's best to try several of them. Sometimes it's helpful to ask someone to play the drum for you so you can really hear it, but you still need to hold the drum and play a little yourself. There will be one that sings to you.

4)Your needs

What you need to look for in your potential drum mate is compatibility.

Do you need a mobile drum? Will you be carrying it a lot, maybe taking it to the park or a friend's house?

Think about what your typical playing situation is going to be. Consider a small, lightweight drum, such as a doumbek, if you will be transporting the drum often or walking with it to the park. I have a set of congas that are restricted from foot travel due to my small frame, but a lightweight talking drum often accompanies me on sunny neighborhood walks.

What types of music are you attracted to?

It really helps to listen to a lot of music that uses the type of drum you want to play. This helps you to get the feel for the rhythms and begin to really hear. Listen to a lot of West African music if you find the sound of djembe drumming inspiring. Doumbek players will get ideas and inspiration from listening to Middle Eastern music. Hand drums are being used in many types of music today so you are not limited to listening to traditional rhythms, but it is helpful to hear the instrument in its original cultural context and hey, you might discover something new or make a soul connection.

What feels good to you?

Is the playing position of the drum comfortable for you? Some drums are played between your legs, some on your lap, some strap onto your body, some can rest in a stand, you can play some sitting and others while standing. Find out what is comfortable for you.

Handmade or factory made?

You have a choice to make here, since both natural hand made and factory made synthetic drums are available. The two types feel different so try them out and see what resonates with you. Some people prefer wood drums with natural skin heads for their superior sound quality. What I like about a natural drum is that its sound changes with fluctuations in humidity and temperature so I get to know it better because I have to tune it so often. Also, I feel like my drums are living, breathing entities because they're constructed from wood and animal skin and that gives them a certain energy. Some players prefer synthetic drums because they require little or no tuning (natural heads need frequent tuning) and they're generally lighterweight. Remo makes some synthetic drums that have a good quality sound. Another consideration is that they are not sensitive to the weather and, while I don't recommend playing in the shower, they are reported to be waterproof. Combined with their lightness and low maintenance that makes them very popular drums.

What kind of drum do I get?

Walking into a well-stocked drum store is thrilling and may sometimes over stimulate the brain's drum center. So many drums to choose from, but remember, you're looking for only one. The most commonly used drums, the ones we'll now discuss, are djembes, doumbeks, and congas.


The djembe (pronounced gem-bay) is a wooden goblet shaped drum. Djembe traditions originate in Mali and Guinea, Africa, where they are used to guide a variety of events such as rites of passage into adulthood, marriage, planting and harvest. Each rhythm has a specific meaning and purpose. Djembe drumming in Guinea is not like pop music, it's not for passive listening, in fact, recorded djembe music won't be found there. Fortunately (or unfortunately, according to your viewpoint), the worldwide popularity of djembe drumming has expanded the drum's traditional context and recordings are now widely available.

You can find handmade African and non-African factory made djembes. African djembes are hand carved out of a single piece of wood. If you happen to be looking at African made djembes, inspect the body very carefully. Sometimes what you are looking at is actually a decorative piece that only looks like a drum. The shell will be much lighter and the overall construction might look less sturdy. I advise you to check for this if the drum is somewhere other than in a music store.


The doumbek is also a goblet shaped drum but smaller than a djembe. You'll hear the doumbek in Middle Eastern, Arabic and Turkish music. Doumbeks accompany belly dancing in their original cultural context. Arabic doumbeks are usually made from clay. Turkish doumbeks have metal bodies that are often ornately stamped and engraved. Both have goatskin heads but you can also find them with synthetic heads. A local music store carries a Turkish style doumbek that has a little tambourine attached underneath the head. The tambourine chimes along as the head is struck which is a nice accompaniment if you're playing alone.


Conga drums are barrel shaped wooden drums. They were brought to Cuba, where they are known as tumbadoras, from their West African homeland. They come in three sizes ¡V the largest is the tumba which has a low tone, next is the mid-sized conga, and the smallest is the quinto, usually used for soloing because of its high pitch. Congas are used in sacred ritual music but can be heard in all types of Latino music and in just about any genre of music common in the US. If you consider buying some congas, you can choose from a wide variety of models and prices. Again, both natural and synthetic are available. I would advise starting with a beginner model like the ones put out by CP (Cosmic Percussion). When you have outgrown them, you can always upgrade. Also, you don't have to buy two to start with if money is an obstacle, start with the middle-sized conga.

Understand that any drum you choose to play is an extension of yourself. Whether you play in a thunderdrum circle, organized groups, take classes, or enjoy your drum privately in your living room, the relationship between you and your drum is an intimate one. There must be compatibility, attraction and reflection for the relationship to bloom. Armed with this knowledge, go forth grasshopper, find your drum mate and the rhythm will come.

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