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Tips for Choosing a Djembe: Three Things to Look For In Finding The Right Drum

The djembe is a versatile drum whose popularity has spread throughout the world. Originally a West African instrument, djembes are now made and played throughout the world. More and more people, from beginners to professionals, are learning to play hand drums. Djembes are a great choice because of their great sound and versatility. Whether you play casually at drum circles or professionally on stage, there’s a djembe that’s right for you. Read on for tips on choosing a djembe that suits your needs.

When looking for a djembe, you’re likely to find such a wide variety that choosing the right one seems pretty confusing. Djembes differ in how they’re made, what they’re made from and where they’re made. If you’re comparing djembes, you may be asking yourself, “Where do I start?”.


The first and most important thing to consider in buying a djembe is the shell. This is the body of the drum, usually made of wood, though there are synthetic ones on the market. The head, rings, and rope can be replaced, but the shell is the permanent heart of your drum and the most important thing in determining a drum’s sound. If you’re a casual player, or if you’re looking for a beater drum that kids can wail on, you might consider a djembe with a synthetic shell and head. These drums are less expensive, durable, and are easy to keep tuned up. On the down side, they often lack the full, rich sound of a good wooden shell and are not considered “authentic” by some traditional players.

For most djembe players, you’ll want to look for a quality wood shell. The top djembe players in the world play djembes carved from one solid piece of wood. It’s very important to remember, however, that not all wood djembes are created equal. Be wary of cheap wooden djembes (often mass produced in Asia) or those made for decoration more than sound quality. Always inspect a shell closely, looking for cracks, especially on the inside. While some small cracks are normal, look for large or deep cracks or any large area that looks like it was patched or filled. These are potentially signs of trouble. Note whether the djembe is made of one piece of wood carved out or many pieced together. While some craftsmen are making good “composite” drums, the best djembes are made of one piece and carved in West Africa. Certain West African woods are considered superior due to their density (which enhances their sound quality). Always asked where and how a shell was made.

Other considerations in choosing a shell include size and shape. The shape of a djembe, particularly the inside of the bowl, do much to determine the drum’s overall sound. While you may think a bigger bowl or bigger drum mean a bigger sound, such is not always the case. Obviously, the best way to find out about a drum’s sound is to play it. A good djembe should have both overall sound quality and a distinction between slaps, tones, and bass (depending on your technique, of course). As far as size goes, make sure your djembe of choice has a large enough head to play comfortably. Also check the height especially if you play seated. A djembe that is unusually tall or short can be uncomfortable to play over time. Again, playing it will tell you a lot.

Next, inspect the head of the drum. The highest quality djembes will have heads of natural skin, most often goatskin. They can be tuned using the ropes along the drum’s sides and may change pitch slightly with changes in weather, humidity, etc. A natural skin that is thin or brittle will not last long and may be a sign of a low quality drum. Look for nicks or weak spots in the skin. Skins can be replaced, but if you’re buying a new drum it should have a high quality skin.

The third major thing to look at is the tuning system. While synthetic drums may have keys along the sides for tuning, nearly all drums with natural skins are tuned with ropes strung around the body of the drum. Inspect the ropes for quality and condition. Beware of rope that looks thin, weak, or too stretchy. If your rope is substandard, you will have problems keeping the drum tuned properly. Lastly, look at the metal rings at the top and bottom of the vertical ropes. They should fit tightly to the drum’s sides.

Whether you’re looking for a pro quality djembe or just one to beat on when the mood strikes, these tips will help you tell a shoddy, poor quality drum from one made with care. Since you’ll learn a lot about a djembe by seeing it in person, you should be wary of buying one over the internet. By inspecting a few key areas, you can ensure good overall quality and lasting durability. Playing a quick variety of tones, slaps, and basses will tell you a lot about the sound quality. Take some time to find a good sounding, top notch djembe that fits your needs and you’ll have a drum that will serve you well for years to come.

Copyright 2008, David Robertson

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