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The Hand Drum

Rope-tuned, African djembe drum.

What is a hand drum?

The drum is a percussive musical instrument that is comprised of one or more membranes stretched over a hollow body. Sound is produced by striking the membrane, commonly called the head or skin. Hand drums are a very special type of drum.

Hand drums are distinguished from other membranophones by their striker: the hand. Other membranophones produce sound when struck by an object foreign to the drummer. Sticks, hammers, mallets and numerous other beaters are commonly used on other drums to create the infectious rhythms we all love so well. But membranophones such as djembes, tablas, doumbeks, ashikos, dholaks and most frame drums such as riqs, pandeiros and dofs are played with the hands.

Hand Drum Construction

Traditionally, the body of a hand drum is made of wood, gourd shell or other material common to the local environment, and the drum skin tends to come from creatures that are part of the regular diet (goats, deer, fish).

Some hand drums, such as the African dunun (djun djun) and South Asian dholak, will have a two heads. The second head on a drum can serve as a "resonance head" on the underside that is usually tuned to a lower pitch than the top drum head. Most types of hand drums, however, make do with a single head.

Of course, there are exceptions. Drums such as the Indian ghatam and African log drum have no membrane at all. Percussion instruments such as these are technically classified as idiophones (translation: self sounding) because they produce sound by way of their own vibrations, without the need for membranes, strings or reeds.

Pandeiro player.

Probably the most basic hand drum is the frame drum, a shallow, cylindrical hollow shell with a membrane attached to an open end. It is distinguished from other hand drums by its shallow body, a body whose diameter is greater than its depth. To Westerners, the most recognizable frame drum is the tambourine, but there are countless other versions of this instrument throughout the world, not the least of which is the Brazilian pandeiro.

And then there's more exotic breeds like water drums and ocean drums. Ocean drums are two-headed frame drums that contain beads (usually metal). Sound is produced by the beads rolling on the inside surface of the bottom skin. Water drums come in different versions, but they always contain water.

Today, modern materials are often used to make traditional drums. These materials have advantages as well as disadvantages. A spun-aluminum doumbek with a mylar head, for example, will hold its tune under any conditions and will be much stronger and more durable than a clay doumbek with a fish skin head, but it will never sound the same.

Hand Drum History

Hand drums are the most ancient and pervasive musical instruments in the world. Their basic design has remained intact for thousands of years, yet their function has evolved to serve virtually every aspect of human endeavor: hand drums are not just musical instruments.

Drums have been used for attracting attention, making signals and creating an atmosphere (this is especially true in religious rites and ceremonies, where they may be the medium by which a desired state of consciousness is achieved). In addition, hand drums have marked the movements of priests, persons undergoing sacred initiations or cattle and other animals that need to be watched or identified, and they have been a means of communication.

Drums are also made for symbolic and representational purposes. The Etwie friction drum produces a sound like the snarl of a leopard. Because of this, it's said to speak in praise of the Akan king. The aburukuwa, another royal drum, imitates the cry of the bird it was named after. The karyenda, yet another royal drum, served as the emblem for the Burundi and their kings. This sacred hand drum was featured on the national flag and coat of arms of the African Kingdom of Burundi.

To many cultures, drums are not objects but living entities, and they are not struck so as to make noise but played so as to coax out the voice. It is no exaggeration whatsoever to say that, to many cultures, drums are sacred.

Chimpanzee using the human body as a hand drum.

It's interesting to note that hand drumming is not unique to humans; the animal kingdom has its share of percussionists. Macaques, gorillas and chimpanzees are known to drum, as are certain rodents, such as kangaroo rats.

The human body as a hand drum.

It's certainly arguable that, other than the human voice, the hand drum is probably the original musical instrument and that the human body is the original hand drum. What could be more natural than to mimic the sound of our hearts beating within us or the rhythms of our our breath.

Is there a more natural way to reproduce these sounds and rhythms than to beat them with our hands?

We have always had hands, and there have always been objects around that produce sound when struck by them. This is true for all people throughout the ages and throughout the globe. The diversity of people and the variety of materials around them is reflected in the incredible array of hand drums found around the world. These instruments, in turn, are a wonderful reflection of the cultures from which they emerged.

Goat herders play drums with goat skin heads. Fishermen play drums with fish skin heads. Spiritually attuned cultures play their drums for prayer and adoration. Militant cultures beat the drums of war.

As we have evolved, so have our hand drums.

Tour Of World Hand Drums

We invite you to click on the links below to join us as we tour the world in search of some of the most remarkable instruments of percussion imaginable. Let's explore some of the different types of hand drums.

African Hand Drums

Middle Eastern Hand Drums

Indian Hand Drums