Shopping for a djembe drum can seem a bit overwhelming especially if you're new to the market or not sure what questions to ask. As a hand drum store owner and percussion enthusiast I'm frequently asked questions from customers regarding the best djembe to purchase for beginner players. Let's face it; there are many djembe drums in the marketplace all vying for your attention. However, the unique differences in each djembe can make a big difference in playability, sound, and overall enjoyment.
After reading the information below, you'll be able to make a clear and confident decision in selecting the best djembe drum for beginners.
A djembe drum is goblet shaped, played with the fingers and palms, often in pairs, but sometimes in other combinations, or just singly. They are available in a range of sizes; the smallest can be just 9 inches across and are worn from a shoulder strap, while the largest are up to 15-16 inches across, from rim to rim. Heights typically range from 16" to 26" inches. The size of drum obviously affects the sound and pitch of the instrument, with the largest drums being used to play the lead, while the smaller djembe drums filling out various frequencies and tones.
Most beginner players should start out on a djembe that's sized correctly and practice sitting down. Select a chair with no arms when playing and tilt the base of the drum so it's partly resting on the floor. An average sized adult, in this situation, would typically want a djembe drum that has a 12" head and about 24" in height.
Djembe Drum Materials
Most djembe drums are made overseas (Africa, Indonesia, Thailand) and imported into this country. The close proximity to the raw materials and skilled labor necessary to manufacture djembes make them an ideal location. Traditional wooden shell djembe drums are hand carved and thus are not aesthetically perfect. It's important not to concern yourself too much with slight flaws such as an uneven bowl, or a slightly wobbly base. Again, it's a result of them being hand carved. Although most djembe drums are made overseas there are unique differences that separate them.
One of the big differences between djembes is the type of material used. Traditional djembe drum shells are carved of a solid piece of wood such as mahogany. Wood djembes will have a warmer and fuller sound than djembes made of fiberglass or PVC. Fiberglass drum shells, are extremely durable and tend to more easily produce drum tones when played. This can make them ideal for beginner player whose playing technique is not quite developed - sort of allowing more room to play with tones without completely missing the mark. Many experienced players also report that fiberglass djembes produce a brighter sound and will seek them out when playing in an amplified ensemble where they need to cut through the mix. Most players will prefer the warmth and fuller sound of wood djembes combined with the tradition of the hand-carved craftsmanship that goes into each shell.
Another difference is the type of drumhead used. There are essentially two types of djembe drumheads. The first type is the more traditionally based animal skinhead. Typical animal skins include goatskin and cow skin. Djembe drums that use real animal skin also assist in producing a warmer and fuller tone. The second type of drumhead is a synthetic head that was created to produce the tones of skin-based heads. Synthetic heads will be a bit more durable, are in many cases are waterproof, and tend to produce brighter tones.
The third major difference is the type of tuning system employed. Traditional based djembe drums are tuned using a rope system. The idea is to tighten the drumhead, when it becomes flat, by pulling the rope tighter around the head. The process of tightening with ropes is called pulling a diamond because when one rope is pulled over another it creates a diamond or these triangle shapes. The other type of tuning system is a key-tuned system. A key-tuned system uses a metal rim and metal hooks that go around the djembe drumhead. This type of system more modern and decreases tuning time for beginners, requiring only a wrench to tighten each bolt.
When you're a beginner, it's hard to tell if your djembe is in tune. As your technique improves, so will your ear. Your ability to tune a djembe will improve as you gain more experience. The goal of tuning is to get the drumhead to a level of tension where slaps, open tones, and bass strokes all sound good. It's important to understand that a properly tuned djembe creates a skin that is very tight. A lot of tension in needed in order to pitch the drum up correctly. Aside from this, tuning is a matter of personal taste.
How Much Should I Spend?
If the djembe is for a beginner player you don't have to buy the best. There are plenty of very good djembe drums available that sound great and won't break the bank. However, the biggest mistake one could make when purchasing a new djembe is buying the most inexpensive one. Djembe drums are musical instruments and like all musical instruments are detailed pieces of art. They cost money to make. Better materials mean higher costs. And better materials and construction generally lead to instruments that not only sound better but also are easier to play. Also, you want to purchase a djembe that the player can grow into as their skills increase. The beginning djembe player will have an easier time learning when playing a well-made djembe. The drum will sound better and make for a more enjoyable time during the learning process.
If possible, the beginning djembe player should seek out some one-on-one training with an instructor. There's no substitute for having someone, in person, teach the new player the foundation of proper technique. Beginning djembe players just starting out need that extra reinforcement of when they are and aren't doing something properly. It helps to solidify the right way to play.
However, if there isn't a djembe instructor available locally to get that one-on-one training, check out the following instructional material to begin. Even if the djembe player has an instructor, the following instructional resources would be beneficial.
Djembe DVD, Instruction & Rhythms for All Levels , This djembe dvd is an extensive resource (with a running time of 1 hour and 45 minutes) that introduces the hand drummer to the powerful djembe rhythms of Africa plus djembe tuning instruction.
How To Play Djembe, West African Rhythms for Beginners (by: Alan Dworsky) - This 86 page playing guide comes with a CD.
Djembe Lessons Online - These online video lessons will help you exercise your playing chops.
How To Tune A Djembe - Free video demonstration on tuning a rope based djembe.