While sticks do the job for most drummers, there are those out there who want to get even closer to the action. Hand drums let you use your hands and fingers as the beaters on the drum. This can give you more control, better speed, or just a more connected, primal feeling when you play.
Hand drums are probably the first drums humans used and are still the most popular in many areas. Cultures around the world developed special hand drums that became essential to the character of their folk music traditions.
That’s why I decided to take a look at what you need to know about hand drums so that you can appreciate them more and even choose one to bang on all day.
Different Types of Hand Drums
There’s almost an unlimited variety of hand drums out there. But because of the way drums work, with a solid top or a head stretched over a container, their designs fall into a limited number of categories. So, let’s first look at these and their general attributes before we look at specific drums.
Solid Top Drums
As the name suggests, these are hand drums that use solid tops as the batter surfaces rather than using skins. They can include things like gourds, ceramic drums, metal drums, and most especially box drums like the Cajon.
These drums usually have very little reverberation because of the stiffness of their batter surfaces. So, while they can be loud and attacking, their sound dies off very quickly.
A relative newcomer on the drum scene, handpans have developed from the steel drums of Trinidad. These are drums made of steel bowls with tuned tone fields that are struck with the hands. Although they’re solid-topped, handpans as tuned drums deserve a category of their own.
Frame drums are built by stretching a skin over a thin, usually cylindrical frame. These frames are often made out of bent wood but could be metal or synthetic.
This category includes any drum that is in the shape of a (usually round) cylinder. So, this can include the snares and toms of modern drum sets if they were played by hand. They can be closed on one end or have two heads. The dohol from Iran and Turkey is a cylinder drum.
Barrel drums are much like cylinder drums, except they flare in the middle to create a characteristic barrel shape. This shape allows for more interior deflections and can create a bigger, booming tone than a straight cylinder. The open-ended congas are the best-known barrel drums around. The Indian tabla is also roughly barrel-shaped.
A tapering cone shape is another way to increase the interior reverb of a drum. Cone-shaped drums of all lengths and sizes are found around the world, such as the Thai “glong yao” (long drum) and the short cone bongos.
Think of the shape of a goblet or a wine glass. Just like those glasses, a goblet drum has a big round bowl at the top and a narrow end at the bottom.
The bowl in this kind of drum reflects the low tones very well. So, even small goblet drums can produce big, booming sounds. The Egyptian darbuka and the well-known West African djembe are goblet drums.
An hourglass has a bowl at each end and a taper in the middle. Well, so does an hourglass drum. While other shapes may be closed or open at one end, hourglass drums are designed to have a head across each end.
Hand Drum Construction
Humans have been making drums just about as long as we’ve been, well, making anything. And, of course, people in the past used what was around them in the natural world.
In these days of synthetics and engineered materials, a lot of manufacturers are taking advantage of the different characteristics of synthetic materials to create new possibilities.
Natural materials aren’t as durable as many synthetics over the long run. They can also degrade or simply go out of tune in wet or even just humid weather.
On the other hand, synthetics can be a lot tougher and weather-resistant. But only if these synthetic materials are of high quality. Many cheap plastics are used to make inferior hand drums that are more like toys than true musical instruments.
In the past, drum bodies could be made from metal or ceramic, but for most people, the material of choice was wood. Wood is easy to work with and can produce rich, warm tones that we’ve come to associate with all sorts of hand drums.
But, wood swells when it gets wet. This can cause the shell of a drum to expand, which loosens the skin and sends the drum out of tune. Wood has to be protected from weather and mold, too.
Synthetics like plastic and fiberglass have replaced wood in a lot of modern drum bodies. These materials can be produced and worked more cheaply than wood and are also more durable. In contrast to wood’s warmth, synthetic shells have tons of attack and brightness and less low end.
Most hand drums in history were topped off with animal skins. Thicker skins of cattle and deer were used on larger, deeper drums. Thinner and more supple skins like goat were the best choice for smaller hand drums.
Natural skins do have their limitations. When they get dry, they can seriously contract, detuning and even splitting drums. In humid conditions, skins get loose and can sound awful. They also need to be protected and maintained.
Synthetic heads have a lot of pluses…
They don’t care about the weather, are more durable, and can handle more abuse. Synthetic heads also ring out with more overtones and more brightness than animal skins.
In the end, it’s a personal preference. To choose between natural and synthetic materials, you have to consider sound, durability, and even cost.
Hand Drums from Around the World
People everywhere came up with things to bang rhythms on since the dawn of time. Many of these different drums have become extinct or been replaced by something slightly better.
Next, I’m going to describe a few of the most common hand drums that are still widely used in music and that can you can get your hands on relatively easily. That way, you will know what you need to know about hand drums in every imaginable detail.
As I mentioned earlier, the Bodhran is a frame drum that comes originally from Ireland and is used to accompany jigs and reels. Think of it as a sort of tambourine without the jangles. Traditional bodhrans like this one were made from bent wood frames and goat skin.
However, synthetic bodhrans like this one from Remo can be an inexpensive option. You use your hand or a wooden beater to play on one side while your other hand can adjust the tuning and muffling of the drum from the back.
Banging on the bongo drum can be one of the grooviest ways to keep a rhythm. These Afro-Cuban conical drums are normally played in a pair, with a larger macho and a smaller hembra.
They’re tuned high and cut through the salsa, Latin rock, and Afro-Cuban jazz they are most commonly found in. You can find all-synthetic bongs like these Meinls and also traditionally made natural ones.
Congas are the bongos’ big brothers. These barrel drums are normally held up on a stand in a set of two or three drums. Although, they can also be played sitting down or even carried. A smaller conga is called a quinto, a medium one is a tres dos, and the big mamma-jamma is the tumba.
Once again, these are Afro-Cuban drums that are played in all sorts of Caribbean and American music. Wooden congas with animal skin heads are still the standard around the world, although some makers are now offering synthetics like this LP fiberglass conga.
The goblet-shaped West-African djembe is one of the most popular hand drums in the world these days. This is largely due to cheap production and also the great sound you can get from one of these drums. The center note gives a very deep bass tone, while a slap towards the rim can be loud, bright, and high-pitched.
Traditional djembes are created from a single piece of hardwood and a goatskin head like this beautiful hand-carved Meinl drum. However, synthetics like this Remo drum are making inroads, mostly for their incredible durability.
In the past decade, the Peruvian Cajon has spread across the world, becoming a staple of coffeehouses and open mic stages everywhere. This box drum is very adaptable thanks to a secret – it has a snare behind the wooden faceplate.
The player sits on the box and plays it between the legs. A low-central strike gives a nice deep bass tone, while a strike closer to the edge gives a very high-attack “thwack” sound as the snare comes into play. This lets the Cajon fit into any music with a backbeat which, let’s face it, is almost everything these days.
If you want to try your hand at something really tricky, you could check out the tabla. This set of traditional Indian hand drums can create some of the coolest beats around.
The smaller dayan is played at lightning speed, while the larger baya can be instantly tuned with pressure from the palm to create a sort of speaking voice. It can take years to learn the tabla, but it’s probably worth it!
Pursuing A Passion for Percussion?
Then check out our in-depth reviews of the Best Bongos, the Best Congas, the Best Hang Drums, the Best Cajon Drums, the Best Drumsticks, the Best Portable Drum Kits, the Best Snare Drums, and the Best Electronic Drum Sets you can buy in 2023.
Also, have a look at our handy articles on Tips to Teach Yourself Drums, How to Hold Drumsticks, Native American Drums, Different Types of Drums, and What You Need To Know When Buying Cymbals for more useful information.
What You Need to Know About Hand Drums – Final Thoughts
Hand drums are some of humankind’s oldest instruments. They come in all shapes and sizes and can be made from traditional materials and now modern synthetics. Hand drums have always been used to create the rhythms of life and tradition in communities around the world.
Now that you have a firm background in hand drums, it might just be the right time to get your paws on one. Think about the type of music you’re interested in playing and look to a hand drum that will help you best express it while having a whole lot of fun.
Until next time, may the beat go on.