Posted on February 01, 2011
With so many options out there, selecting a djembe drum best suited for you can be an overwhelming task. The 7 tips below will help you narrow your selection as well as provide general knowledge to start you on your path to djembe drumming.
Sometimes, people looking for their first djembe will buy the smallest, most inexpensive drum they can find and expect to become a professional djembe player in no time. Please do not make this mistake! Smaller djembes are fantastic for children, but as an adult player you should opt for a djembe with at least a 9”-10” playing surface diameter and a 19”-20” height. Your hands need room to learn all the different striking techniques and trying to play a djembe that is significantly too small will work against you. For many players, the most comfortable djembe playing position, is seated in a chair, with feet planted on the floor and the djembe lifted slightly off the ground while anchored between feet and knees. In this position, the drum will ideally rise about 2-3 inches above your knees (if much lower, your knees will be obstacles while striking and if much higher, your arms will be raised uncomfortably high while striking). The following sizes are the most commonly recommended for adult players: 10 inch L Djembe, 12 inch XL Djembe (most popular), 14 inch XXL Djembe.
Traditional djembes are made from a single piece of wood (ie mahogany, lenke, etc) and range from Intermediate/Jammer to Professional Djembes (Please note these categorizations refer to djembe construction quality rather than player skill level) and come in a variety of sizes. Most wooden djembes are rope-tuned and commonly have goat skin heads. Many players like wooden djembes for their warm, rich tones in addition to their traditional hand-carved look.
Djembes can also be constructed of synthetic materials, such as Fiberglass djembes.Fiberglass djembes often have a more amplified, resonating tone with deeper bass. As a result, many players prefer these while performing so the djembe can be heard among other instruments. Players also like fiberglass djembes for their extreme durability and light-weight. These qualities make for an ideal traveler’s djembe.
With that said, you should select the djembe best suited for your preferences and lifestyle. If you’re a person who likes a lot of bass or may be traveling frequently with your djembe, you may want to consider a fiberglass djembe. If you like warm, full tones and a traditional hand-carved look, you should consider a wooden djembe.
It’s very important to consider the wood source of your djembe. Is the wood used to make the djembe Lacey Act compliant? Purchasing items made from illegal wood is extremely harmful to the ecosystems of the world at large, and provides much more detriment to Mother Nature than the rhythms you play on drums carved from it will ever benefit you as a player. All the djembes on motherrhythm.com are from government certified Lacey Act compliant sustainably harvested wood. Never buy from a company that can’t back this up. If a drum from another company sounds too cheap, it probably is. Particularly on Ebay you will see knock-off carvings of drums that appear similar to legitimate products, but are made from illegally harvested wood. Not only are these drums inferior in quality to our drums, they are leaving behind an ecological footprint that is unsustainable.
Most wooden djembes have goat skin heads. Jammer style wooden djembes have treated goat skin heads, and professional wooden djembes have untreated goat skin heads, providing for better tonal range and increased bass.
Many fiberglass drums also have goat skin heads, but more often than not, they will come equipped with a synthetic head. If you decide to select a synthetic-headed djembe, keep in mind that not all synthetic heads are created equal! Some synthetic heads consist of a harder plastic, resulting in a very tinny sounding drum. Other synthetic heads have a more realistic, malleable feel. Freedom Fiberglass Drums have FiberSkin synthetic heads, which look and feel very similar to goat skin, but maintain their tune much longer, which brings us to the next point…
There are two types of tuning systems; Key-Tuned Djembes and Rope-Tuned Djembes.Key-tuned djembes are typically synthetic and include a tuning wrench which enables you to tighten the lugs around the djembe head and in turn make the skin stretch tighter over the head. Key-Tuned djembes are slightly more convenient for the beginner, however you will sacrifice a slight amount of sound quality, as a rope-tuning system holds the skin in place a little tighter.
Tuning a rope-tuned djembe involves a process called the “Mali Weave” which is the process of weaving the extra tuning rope around the djembe head in a diamond pattern, thus creating tighter tension on the skin. The Mali Weave process is actually much easier than it looks, and something you should eventually learn as a player. There are many helpful resources and videos across the internet that demonstrate how to tune a rope-tuned djembe drum. If you’re willing to learn this relatively simple process, you will find owning a rope-tuned djembe drum quite rewarding.
With regards to tuning frequency, this is largely dependent on the conditions in which you store your djembe and your sound preferences. If you would like your djembe to maintain its tune longer, it’s best to keep it indoors and in a case. If you prefer a tighter sound, you’ll probably find that you want to tune it more often.
This is a very important factor to consider if you’ve decided to select a rope-tuned djembe.Just like djembe heads, not all djembe tuning rope is created equal. Low quality rope on a djembe can truly make an otherwise excellent drum sound sub par. When selecting a rope-tuned djembe, make sure that the rope used is internally braided and non-stretch. This allows the tuning to stay in place. If the rope used is stretchy and more similar to twine, all the work you put into tuning it will be for naught, and you will find yourself with a drum that sounds forever out-of-tune. Ideally, the rope will be made from nylon or polyester material, will be between 4 and 5 mm in width, and will not twist or spiral.
As mentioned earlier, it’s important not to select the smallest, cheapest djembe you can find and expect a great-performing instrument. With that said, however, it is still possible to get a high-quality djembe without breaking your budget. High-quality adult size djembes can start at $99.
For players not so concerned with aesthetic imperfections such as minor dents, scratches, small areas filled in with wood glue, slight skin discoloration, etc, there are additional opportunities to save BIG without sacrificing performance or sound quality. The beginner player will often find that their instrument may become slightly scuffed during the playing process anyway, so it can benefit you to receive or ask about discounts on blemished djembes.