What You Need To Know About…Hand Drums
by Fran Azzarto
It’s common for drumset players to be curious about hand drumming, and to eventually decide to buy their first set of bongos…or would congas be better…or perhaps a djembe?
Modern Drummer’s sister publication, Drum Business, recently ran an article hipping retailers to the current hand-drum trends, and much of what was covered in that piece would also be helpful to kit players looking to expand their skills. DB originally enlisted the help of Victor Filonovich at Toca Percussion, Glen Caruba at Pearl, Quincy Yu at Tycoon, Sue Kincade at Remo, and Chris Brewer at Meinl, and we’ll examine some of what these experts said in the original article and apply it to the needs of the novice player.
First, here’s a basic list of the primary hand drums of various regions and countries.
Africa: djembe (large goblet shape)
Brazil: pandeiro (frame drum with metal jingles, similar to a tambourine)
Cuba: conga (tall and narrow) and bongos (set of two small drums)
India: tabla (set comprising one small wood drum and one larger metal drum)
Ireland: bodhran (circular frame drum)
Japan: taiko (many variations of large-shell drums)
Middle East: doumbek (small goblet shape)
North America: hoop drum (circular frame drum)
Peru: cajon (wooden box)
Thailand: klong yao (long goblet shape)
That’s a lot of drums to choose from, and it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Pearl’s Glenn Caruba suggests that the cajon could be the ideal entry point for set players looking to expand their percussive palette. “The cajon has multiple frequencies that emulate the sound of a drumset,” he explains, “and it’s very easy to play and mike.”
Chris Brewer at Meinl agrees. “Cajons are our top-selling hand drum because they’re such versatile instruments and are just plain fun to play,” he says. “The cajon can be used in so many different musical styles and settings, and it’s easy to play for beginners and novices.”
Toca’s top-selling hand drum is the djembe. “We have lightweight djembes as well as traditional-style models,” Victor Filonovich says, “and our djembes’ prices fit every budget, from inexpensive to premium models.”
“Remo’s key-tuned djembe has had great success,” Sue Kincade concurs. “With features like portability, tunability, durability, and playability, it’s [a good] choice for professionals, educators, and recreational drummers for all drumming activities.”
Tycoon has had a lot of success with its cajons and djembes as well. “Right now, our best-selling hand drum would be our Supremo series cajon,” Quincy Yu says. “Part of the reason is that cajons in general are one of the faster-growing markets in the percussion world. The other part is that cajons are affordable and durable instruments that can be used in so many different ways. Djembes have a similar ability, in that they can find their way to fit into music from around the world. Naturally, the wider the range of any instrument, the more styles it might find a way to be a part of.”
Congas might not produce low-end frequencies as well as djembes do, but they cross musical genres fairly easy. Bongos can work well in many settings too. “Congas, bongos, and djembes could be played in any genre of music,” Brewer says. “But some of this depends on how experimental the user is within the style that he or she is playing.”
Here’s a breakdown of the basic tones of cajons, djembes, and congas:
Cajon: moderate low end, woody mids, snappy high end
Djembe: big low end, warm mids, high-end “pop”
Conga: moderate lows, warm mids, high-end “slap”
Like the modern drumset, today’s hand drums are available in a variety of materials, which might play into your preferences for one instrument over another. “Natural products allow for natural sounds,” Filonovich says. “Also, natural products capture the beautiful elements of the wood. With a wood conga, bongo, or djembe, for example, you’ll see the natural beauty of the wood grain.”
“Natural materials are great because they’re safe, time tested, and very durable,” Yu adds. “The process of making wood congas, bongos, and cajons is fairly well established. Of course, each manufacturer’s different techniques are what give them their uniqueness.”
Synthetic materials have their own advantages. Caruba feels that they “produce brighter tones, are less affected by varying climates, and are greener to the planet.” Brewer points out the visual, sonic, and economic advantages of synthetic instruments. “Using man-made materials opens the door for new and exciting opportunities in unique sounds and appearances,” he says. “Along with being resistant to changes in weather, synthetic materials in some cases can also allow us to have more affordable options.”
Remo offers drums featuring lightweight synthetic Acousticon shells; the company’s Mondo synthetic drumheads offer additional benefits. “Weather-resistant and durable synthetic drumheads produce deep bass tones and sharp slaps in all weather conditions,” Kincade explains. “They stay in tune longer and are easy to maintain.”
The characteristics of natural versus synthetic construction are generally as such:
Natural materials: warm, round tones, tuning affected by climate changes, less durable
Synthetic materials: bright, sharp tones, less affected by climate changes, very durable
For individuals looking to purchase a hand drum for a youngster or beginning percussionist, djembes, congas, and cajons might be the best bet. According to Filonovich, “A djembe is very user-friendly because it can be played in different styles of music and it’s very easy to learn to play.” Adds Kincade, “Mondo djembes are very popular, lightweight, and easy on the hands. They’re durable, portable, tunable, and playable.”
Caruba chooses the cajon because it’s “easy to play, and a drummer can quickly relate to the kick/snare/hi-hat drumset patterns that can be emulated. It also doubles as a throne.” Similarly, Brewer prefers cajons. “They’re fun and easy to play,” he says, “even without a proper musical background or teaching. Through its bass tones and slap, a cajon allows the player to create a wide variety of beats and sounds.” Yu feels that “congas, bongos, and djembes are great for beginners. Learning congas or djembe teaches a player to achieve three different sounds—open tone, bass tone, and slap tone.”
Answering a few simple questions could help your decision making: What type of music are you looking to use the drum for? What is your price range? What materials would you prefer your drum be made from? Once you whittle down the options, go to your local drum dealer and try out a few different models to see which one feels like the best match. Good luck!
And be sure to check out our other What You Need to Know About features here.