One of my absolute favorite styles of drumming is that of hand drumming. No matter whether it is the djembe, cajons, or a conga, if it is played with the hands… I’m there!
If you are coming from a traditional drumming background or are new to drumming altogether, though, hand drums can feel intimidating. There are no sticks, and you have to get used to moving your hands in a new way as you slap away. Oh, and that is not to mention that depending on where you strike the drum, you can usually create a myriad of interesting sounds.
But rest assured, once you start drumming, something primal kicks in and the rhythm just sort of starts flowing. Hand drumming may seem intimidating at first, but it is one of the easiest to pick up and learn, by far.
If I had to describe how easy it is to learn to play hand drums, I would say it is almost instinctual.
So, if you are just getting started out, or you are buying a hand drum as a gift for that drummer in your life read through this article and by the end you should have a fairly good idea of how to get started and keep going.
Choosing a Hand Drum
A lot of hand drumming techniques rely on some pretty basic sounds. The majority of these techniques can actually be applied to everything from djembes, cajons, steel pan, and most other varieties of hand drums.
When choosing your first hand drum, you should play around with and research a few of them before making your final decision.
So, if you are ready to get started, let’s dive in and take a look at a few of the most popular hand drums on the market that are waiting on you to get your hands on them… literally.
The djembe for instance is probably one of the first type of hand drums that I would recommend to a beginner.
There are several types of hand drums out there for you to pick up and learn, but the djembe is extremely easy to learn. The djembe is an African hand drum that has been used for centuries in ceremonial and religious practices as seen in many of the African Traditional Religions (ATRs). More specifically, this hand drum finds its roots planted firmly in West Africa with the Mandinka people.
This hand drum is known for uniting people, as a matter of fact, its name roughly equates to “everyone gather together in peace”.
Supported by a beautiful purpose and an equally beautiful range of sounds that ignites the spirit of both the drummer and the drum, the djembe is the perfect hand drum for beginners and… well, everyone alike! Plus, they are the quintessential drum circle drums… and everyone loves a good drum circle.
One of my favorite djembes is this Meinl mahogany djembe. This is my go-to djembe, and my Toca djembe is what I carry with me to drum circles.
My second favorite hand drum is the cajon. Seriously, if you have never heard anyone play a cajon before you are missing out. I highly recommend checking them out and maybe getting your hands on one. Plus, cajons can be fairly inexpensive.
The design of a Cajon is fairly simplistic and extremely straightforward. Cajons are essentially a wooden box that features various spots for you to strike; each resulting in a different sound. For instance, to get a higher pitch tone similar to what you hear when you play the slap on a djembe, it is also played similarly. Whereas with the djembe you would strike the rim, with a cajon, all you do is strike the edge of the box (essentially, the rim of the box).
Slapping the center results in a bass tone that has a very distinct wooden sound. It doesn’t resonate quite as much as the bass tone on a djembe or conga, it is more of a sharp, thumping sound.
If you need some ideas on which one would be best to get your hands on, check out this post!
My third favorite type of hand drum would have to be the conga drum. While the conga sounds amazing, it is probably not best for the absolute beginner. Professional conga players (often called a conguero or a conguera) spend countless hours mastering the art of playing the conga. It’s not a simple affair but it is also one of the most rewarding when you finally master it.
The techniques used in playing the conga can get rather complex when they are strung together, but with a decent mentor (or YouTube videos!) and a little bit of dedication, you can start playing with the best of the congueros in Cuba!
Steel Pan Drum
The steel pan drum is probably one of the hardest hand drums to learn how to play. Originating in Trinidad and Tobago, the steel pan drum carries with it one of the most recognizable Caribbean sounds.
What makes the steel pan drum interesting and different from the others is that you can play it with steel pan mallets or with your hands. Furthermore, there are roughly eight versions of the steel pan drum; each of them are designed to produce different sounds.If you want to get started playing this iconic Caribbean drum, this one is one of my personal favorites for beginners.
Warm Up First
Drumming can be one heck of a large workout when you get into your zone and into a deep jam session. And that is exactly why you need to make sure to warm up before playing your drums.
This actually goes double for hand drums. With hand drums, you are going to be moving and twisting your wrists and forearm muscles in ways that you probably don’t already use them on a daily basis.
To ensure that you don’t pull any muscles, you really need to get the blood flowing to them before you start playing. This doesn’t need to be anything extensive or time-consuming; some light wrist rolls and fist stretches is a good start.
Every drummer has their own warmup routine that works best for them. And with all the different warmup instructions online, with a bit of searching you should be able to throw together a warmup routine for yourself.
Understanding the Basic Hand Drum Sounds
In general, there are really only three major hand drum sounds that translate across most types of hand drums. Familiarizing yourself with these patterns will help you tremendously in mastering the hand drums.
If you are coming from a traditional drumming background, this simplicity may be a bit hard to wrap your head around at first. This isn’t due to it actually being any harder, it usually is due to the fact that you are still trying to look at it in the same way you do your full drum set… which usually involves having to understand complex patterns.
But, the first piece of advice we can give you before we jump into the basic patterns is to simply approach it with fresh eyes. Forget everything you know about drumming and treat this as if it is the first time you have seen a drum.
When you start with a clean slate in that way, you can only learn and get better from there.
The bass sound on a drum is one of the most recognizable sounds in the world. This is probably because it is one of the easiest and core sounds to make… it is the signature of the drum if you will.
With a hand drum, this sound is made by simply striking the center of the drumhead with your open palm, and with your fingers together. Give it a tap and allow your hand to bounce back off of the drumhead.
The tone sound is also one of those signature hand drum sounds. It sounds a bit like a thud sound. The tone sound often compliments the bass in African drum beats, creating a balanced and sharper sound.
This sound is created by striking the drum head of the djembe with closed fingers along the rim of the djembe. For this sound, the palm is not used, but rather hangs over the edge of the drumhead.
The slap sound is the highest-pitched sound on any hand drum. It sounds very sharp, loud, and it acts as an embellishment in most djembe rhythms.
To make this sound, you basically use the exact same motion as you do for the tone sound. The difference with the slap sound would be that instead of using closed fingers, you just simply open them before your hand strikes the rim.
Start Learning a Few of the Basic Patterns
There many different hand drum patterns out there waiting for you to play them. But not all of them are the simplest, and many of them can indeed be a bit frustrating.
My advice, as with any other type of drum is that you really want to start slow. Take things one step at a time as you learn how to walk, so to speak.
It doesn’t matter how many years you have dedicated to playing traditional drums in your rock band. When you come over to the world of hand drums, it is a whole different game entirely.
The best thing that any drummer can do if they want to truly master a hand drum, is to simply master the basics. While hand drum rudiments such as single and double-stroke rolls are fairly simple to achieve and master, don’t let them deceive you, they will always be of the greatest use as you find yourself incorporating them into just about every rhythm you play.
As you master these and begin to advance, you can then start to practice some of the other basics such as paradiddles and flams.
And the best part about playing hand drum rudiments is that they are usually fairly interchangeable. What you can play on a conga, you can usually play on a djembe or bongo, and vice versa.
Move on to More Advanced Techniques
Once you have mastered the various sounds, and can play a few of the more basic patterns, it is time to step your game up again. It’s time to start learning some of the more advanced hand drum techniques that add that extra spice to your rhythms.
These can be used as cajon techniques as well as used in conga music.
Hand drum rolls are one of the more complicated techniques that you will ever use, but they are used quite frequently. Sure, you could pound out single strikes in really fast succession to get that roll sound on your hand drum, but that is not how the master drummers approach it.
Instead of wearing yourself out the second you start trying to make your hands keep up with one another, why not try a technique that is beloved by most conga players? And yes, this technique can be used on a cajon or a djembe as well.
The ping technique is a bit more advanced than a lot of the other techniques that you will come to learn in time, but it is well worth it. This technique is used to produce a sound that sounds very similar to the tone sound, but it carries a bright and high pitch with it.
To play this sound, you keep your fingers together as you would when playing the tone sound. But instead of striking the drumhead with the better part of your fingers, you only use your fingertips to hit the rim of the drum.
This may seem simple at first, but it is something that not everyone masters right away. So, don’t be discouraged if you don’t get it the very first time that you try to play it.
Practice makes perfect, but more on that later.
Muted notes are exactly what they sound like; notes that sound muffled, distant, or dry.
They way that this sound is accomplished is by simply altering the way that you are used to striking the hand drum. Usually when you play a not on your drum, you want to make sure that your hand bounces off of the drumhead slight when you have completed the note.
With muted notes, you just do the exact opposite. Once your hand contacts the drumhead, you do not allow it to bounce back up. Instead, you will leave you hand where it lands which deafens the note as it trails off.
Additionally, this same technique can be used to deafen the very next note that you play.
If you really want to build on your chops and give more substance to your hand drum rhythms, you really need to start incorporating new rudiments into your jam sessions.
There are numerous rudiments out there for you to learn. Some of them are specific to the type of hand drum that you are playing while other still may be easily translated over to another type of hand drum.
Either way, if you are looking to be able to play full songs, you need to study advanced rudiments that pertain to your hand drum.
Drumming is all about rhythm. To keep your drumming ideas and exercises well-rounded and refreshing, you should always strive to learn ne rhythms to incorporate into your practice time.
Not only will this expand your musical vocabulary as it were, but it will also keep you from suffering from burnout and just straight up giving up on it out of sheer boredom and redundancy.
Maybe one week, try rhythms from one country or culture, and then the following week or whenever you master them, try to play some rhythms from another culture. Or, if you are really brave, do them in month-long intervals.
Practice Makes Perfect
As the saying goes, practice makes perfect.
There is no drummer, traditional or otherwise on the face of the Earth who did not benefit or come to realize their full potential without plenty of practice. You get better with an instrument the more you play it.
This statement could not be truer when it comes to hand drums. If you are coming from a more traditional drumming background or are just getting started with drumming altogether.
Start small, start slow, but no matter what, keep playing!
We hope that this blog post has given you a better understanding of the types of hand drums that are waiting for you to pick them up and start on a new musical journey.
While the majority of the hand drums that we have covered in this article are suited for any skill level, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t going to take a fair amount of patience and dedication to your craft.
Now, go play something!