How to Tutorial for Djembes Beginners

07/02/2020
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These days the djembe has gotten pretty damn popular.

In fact it’s one of the trendiest percussion instruments around.

Decades ago, if you played the djembe, you were either:

  • Some African virtuoso master who’d been playing everyday since birth, or…
  • Some hippie stoner in a drum circle who really can’t play at all.

Today though, the instrument has found a happy middle-ground with average musicians all around the world.

  • For drummers, it’s a versatile back-up instrument for occasions when you can’t bring your kit.
  • For home studio producers, it’s a great instrument to add some color to your recordings.
  • And for the rest of us, it’s just a really fun instrument to play.

However…

Despite its apparent simplicity…the djembe can be quite a confusing instrument to play when first getting started.

So for today’s post I’ll give you a crash course on exactly what this instrument does, and how it’s intended to be played.  And at the end I’ll even give you a few recommendations on some good starter djembes as well.

Ready to get started?  Then let’s begin.

 

First up…

A Brief History

The djembe is believed to have originated in Mali about 800 years ago.

Historically, the djembe was played by men forming ensembles, although it seems to now be adapted more as a solo rhythm instrument in western music.

Learning to play the djembe in Africa is actually a really big deal, almost a right of passage in a sense and used to be exclusively allowed to some castes only.

As most instruments, it usually requires private lessons to get started but luckily these days, we have Youtube.

As you’ll see in this post there are now lots of different types of djembes made by many different drum companies.

But the tones that you can get out of a particular djembe are really more dependent on the skill of the drummer than the actual drum itself.

 

Anatomy of the Djembe

The djembe is made up of 4 main parts:

  1. a wooden shell
  2. rawhide skin
  3. metal rings
  4. ropes

One of the biggest characteristics of the djembe is that it’s surprisingly loud…

And can produce surprisingly deep bass tones for its size.

Anyway, let’s see each of these parts with more details, starting with…

1. The Wooden Shell

The djembe has a body (or shell) carved of hardwood and the bass pitch is determined by the size and shape of the shell.

Djembe shells are carved from a single piece of wood. Hard and dense woods work best because they produce the loudest tone.

Traditionally, djembe shells are made from exotic woods found only in West Africa…

However, since supplies of those woods are extremely limited, in the rest of the world, the most common woods used to make djembes are:

  • African and regular mahogany
  • Barwood
  • African mesquite
  • Iroko
  • American ash

The interior should ideally be textured with scallops or shallow grooves, in a spiral pattern that influence the sound of the instrument — smooth interiors are usually avoided as they produce too much sustain.

Now, although the most common djembe diameter is 13/14″, there are other, less popular sizes:

  • 9″ – which is meant for kids
  • 10″ – which is often recommended for short adults
  • 12″ – which is the standard size recommended for under 6′ tall adults

Next up…

2. The Rawhide Skin

Traditionally, djembe skins are made from goat skin…

Or other commonly available animals in Africa such as:

  • antelope
  • cow
  • horse

As it turns out, the skin of poorly-fed animals from hot climates (such as those in Africa) make the best djembe skins because of their lower fat content.

Ironically, even though the male goats have a lower fat content, the females are preferred because they don’t smell as bad.

The process of preparing the skin begins by heating it over an open flame, causing it to dry out and shrink.

The hair can then either be shaved or removed chemically through liming.  However, common wisdom states that liming actually weakens the skin and ruins the tone.

When mounted, the area of skin over the goat’s spine (where it is thicker) is run through the center of the drum head for even tuning.  When played, each hand strikes either side of the spine.

One of the biggest factors in determining the sound and playability of a particular djembe is the thickness of the skin.

Thicker skins:

  • will produce a warmer sound
  • more overtones in the slaps
  • make it easier to play full tones…
  • …but harder to play sharp slaps
  • are harder on the hands

Thinner skins will produce:

  • A sharper sound with fewer overtones in the slaps
  • A louder sound overall

Factory-made djembes often use skins made from synthetic materials, such as FiberSkyn, which is essentially plastic that mimics the visuals of rawhide

Next up…

3. The Metal Rings

The djembe head is trapped, or tucked between two rings on top and secured on one additional ring at the bottom.

These are:

  • the top ring – known as “crown ring”
  • the bottom ring – known as “flesh ring”
  • the ring on the stem: the bottom ring

Up until the 1980’s, the rings were made out of cowhide.

They then got replaces by metal.

Next up…

4. The Ropes

Although up until the 1980s the most common mounting system was twisted strips of cowhide as rope…

Modern djembes now exclusively use synthetic rope, generally of kernmantleconstruction.

Kernmantle means the rope has a reinforced core made of various thinner fibers, protected by an outer sheath as you can see in the picture on the right.

The rope is usually 4–5 mm thick and low-stretch (static) rope is preferred.

As for the facts, most djembe ropes have a polyester core with a 16‑ or 32‑ plait mantle and around 5% stretch.

Very low-stretch (<1%) rope materials, such as Vectran and Spectra, are only rarely used due to their much higher cost.

Up next…

How the Djembe is Mounted

Now that we’ve covered the 4 different parts of the instrument…

Let’s move on to discussing how those parts are assembled into a complete instrument.

So there are two main ways to do it.

  • The traditional way
  • The modern way.  

Let’s start with the

Traditional Mounting

First, cowhide was used for the rope, AS WELL as for the rings.

One ring was sown around the skin, another ring was placed below the first one and loops held both rings and the skin together.

Another strip was used to apply tension between the top ring and the stem ring, and in order to increase the tension, the rope was woven into diamond shaped patterns, which is known as “Mali-weave”.

Some people even wedged wooden pegs between the shell and the lacing to increase the tension, but the fact is that this method never resulted in a very tight skin, because of the material not allowing for high tension…

Making the pitch of traditional djembes very low, compared to the one of modern djembes.

And so because of that, players would hold their djembe above a fire before playing, in order to tighten the skin. They’d also have to do that every 15 to 30mn.

Fortunately, the current mounting system has fixed this issue.

And so next up…

Modern Mounting

Back in the 70’s, synthetic rope replaced cowhide strips.

Because it allowed for better tightening, steel rings needed to be added to keep from tearing through the skin.

This system slowly replaced the old method, until it became the new standard in the early 90’s.

This is how it works:

Both the crown and bottom rings are joined by a rope that goes through loops on the top ring. By tightening this rope, you apply tension to the skin, which stretches over the bearing edges of the djembe.

Now, in the early 2000’s, somebody came up with a third ring. The idea was to add even more friction points so as to trap the skin and keep it from sliping between the rings while you apply tension.

The rings are often covered in colored cloth to prevent rust flaked, as well as for aesthetic reasons.

Next up, let’s take a look at what modern djembes look like…

Mechanically Tunable Djembes

It’s never an easy task to take an established design and revamp it completely…

And yet that’s exactly what the brand Remo did when they decided to make their own line of djembes.

Mostly famous for their drumheads, they decided to take a completely new approach to the djembe and focus on what is probably the biggest issue of its traditional design: TUNING.

And as you’ll see in the next part this is not exactly an easy endeavor.

To address this issue, Remo first re imagined the whole structure of the instrument by — almost — taking wood out of the equation, replacing it by fiberglassABS plastic or their proprietary Acousticon material.

They then created an upper part similar to what you can find on bongos or congasand which allows for easy tuning, as well as effortless head replacing.

And while the purists might be put off by such a different design…

The truth is that it is more convenient in many ways, and most players agree that their sound definitely holds its own when compared to traditional djembes.

Since their launch about a decade ago, they’ve been so successful that many other well-known percussion brands followed through and started making their own “easily tunable” djembes.

Check out the models I recommend:

Next up…

How and When to Tune a Djembe

While the previous models are easy to tune, traditional djembes require a bit of practice in order to tune them.

Most sources recommend you tune your djembe if the “slap” tone is not crisp and dry. If you can’t hear a difference between the slap and open tone, then your djembe probably needs some tuning up.

Next up…

Basic Playing Techniques

The djembe can produce a wide variety of sounds, making it a most versatile drum.

Djembe is loud: up to 105 dB, which is about the same volume as a jackhammer.

Basic djembe rhythms consist of 3 basic sounds:

  1. Bass (low pitch 65-80 Hz)
  2. Tone (med pitch 300-420 Hz)
  3. Slap (high pitch  700-1000 Hz)

As a beginner, you could spend months, even years just mastering these 3 sounds.

Super advanced players however, have up to 25 different sounds in their arsenal.

Up next…

7 Good Budget Djembes to Check Out

First there’s the percussion brands that make anything and everything.  Those include:

  • Meinl 
  • Remo
  • Toca

Usually these are budget to mid-priced djembes.p

Now that you’ve got plenty of great info on how djembe’s are built, and how they’re played…

The only thing left to do is choose a good one that suits your budget…

And start playing.

So up next, I’ll show you 6 of the top brands to check out, and several of the top models from each.

With these, you can really just pick one based off which you think looks coolest.  Providing it has good reviews of course.

I recommend these for kids, and anyone who just doesn’t want to spend a lot.

Premium Djembes

sageman-djembeThen there’s the brands that specialized in djembe manufacturing…

Unfortunately for us, the best djembes money can buy are probably hand-made in Africa.

And as far as I could find, there’s no reliable place to find those online.

But not to worry, because there are plenty of big name companies that make great ones as well.

For traditional style djembes, these are the 2 main companies:

The Africa Heartwood Project is a non-profit organization whose goal is to fight poverty by selling handcrafted instruments and other traditional objects built by local artisans.

When buying from them you are guaranteed to get a genuine and unique handcrafted piece, and you also help families to develop their business.

And if you’re looking for high-end mechanically tunable djembes, the biggest names in the industry have got you covered with the following models:

And Finally…

Now that we’ve reached the end of this post, hopefully you’ve found a djembe you’ll be happy with, and hopefully I’ve educated you enough to know exactly what this instrument is all about.

But before we wrap things up, I might as well leave you with one finally video on how to play a few basic rhtyhms.