Shopping for djembes but can’t quite tell the difference between one and the next?
If so, you’ve come to the right place.
Because in today’s ultimate guide to the djembe, you’re going to get a crash course on everything you need to know, and nothing you don’t…
As begin your journey of incorporating this new and fun instrument into your skillset as a musician.
A Brief (But Fascinating) History of the Djembe
Originating in Mali about 800 years ago…the djembe was historicaly played by men in ensembles…
As opposed to today, where it has evolved into a solo instrument in western music.
In Africa, learning the djembe is actually a really big deal, and seen almost as a right of passage.
For you today though, we’ll try to keep things a bit more casual.
So let’s continue…
The 4 Key Components that Define the Djembe’s Iconic Tone
The djembe is made up of 4 main parts:
- Wooden shell
- Rawhide skin drumhead
- Metal ring for tuning
- Ropes for tightening the rings
So right now, we’ll take a closer look at each of these important parts.
Starting first with…
1. What Makes a Great Shell?
The djembe shell is made from a single piece of carved hardwood.
The volume and depth of the instrument is determined mainly by the shell’s:
Hard dense woods generally work best as a default, since they produce the loudest tone.
While originally made exclusively from exotic woods found only in West Africa…today’s manufacturers have adapted the instrument to be made from more commonly available woods including:
- African and regular mahogany
- African mesquite
- American ash
As you can see in the weird picture above, the interior of the shell has an unusual spiral scalloped pattern that shortens sustain. Smooth interiors on the other hand, are usually avoided as they produce too much sustain.
In terms of size, 13″ and 14″ diameters are standard, but you can also find smaller djembes in the following ranges:
- 9″ – for kids
- 10″ – for the shortest adults
- 12″ – for any adults under 6 feet tall
2. The Rawhide Skin
While factory-made djembes often use synthetic hides which are easier to produce…
Djembe skins are traditionally (and ideally), made from the skin of commonly available animals in Africa, including:
Interestingly enough, the skin of poorly-fed animals in hot climates (such as those in Africa) are ideal for djembes because of their lower fat content.
Yet even though the male goat skins have lower fat content, the females are actually preferred because they don’t smell as bad.
To prepare the skin, the process begins by heating over an open flame, causing it to dry out and shrink.
The hair can then either be shaved or removed chemically through a process called liming. However, liming is not ideal, since actually weakens the skin and hurts the tone.
When mounted, the area of skin over the goat’s spine (where it is thicker) is run through the center of the drum head for even tuning. When played, each hand strikes either side of the spine.
One of the biggest factors in determining the sound and playability of a particular djembe is the thickness of the skin.
- are harder on the hands
- produce a warmer sound
- produce more overtones in the slaps
- are easier to play full tones, but harder to play sharp slaps
- Produce a sharper sound with fewer overtones in the slaps
- Emit a louder sound overall
3. The 3 Metal Rings
To secure the djembe head to the body, 3 metal rings are used:
- The “crown ring” – on top of the head
- The “flesh ring” – beneath the head
- The bottom ring – around the stem
Originally in Africa, all these rings were made of cowhide…
Until around the 1980’s when new manufacturing technologies allowed them to be replaced by metal.
4. The Tuning Ropes
Up until the 1980s the most common mounting system was twisted strips of cowhide as rope.
Today though, djembes are made exclusively from synthetic rope, generally of kernmantle construction…
Meaning the rope has a reinforced core made of various thinner fibers, protected by an outer sheath as you can see in the picture.
The rope is usually 4–5 mm thick and low-stretch (static) rope is preferred. Most ropes have a polyester core with a 16‑ or 32‑ plait mantle and around 5% stretch.
As you can imagine, ropes less vulnerable to stretching are also better able to hold their tuning.
But very low-stretch (<1%) materials such as Vectran and Spectra, are rarely used due to their much higher cost.
Traditional vs Modern Djembe Mounting
Now that we’ve covered the 4 parts of the djembe, let’s see how it’s assembled. So there are two ways to do it:
- The Traditional Method
- The Modern Method
Traditional Mounting: How It Was Originally Done
Using cowhide ropes and rings, assembly begins with one ring was sown over the skin, and another placed below it.
The skin is then held together by looping a rope around both rings.
To add tension to the head, another rope is woven between the top rings and stem ring in a diamond shaped pattern known as “Mali-weave”.
Wooden pegs can be wedged between the shell and the lacing to increase tension further, but even then, the achievable tension with traditional djembes is minimal at best.
Players would hold their djembe above a fire before playing, and every 15-30 minutes after, to re-tighten the skin.
Luckily, today’s mounting systems, which we’ll cover next, offer a much better solution….
Modern Mounting: How It’s Done Today
By the early 90’s the modern djembe mounting system, using synthetic ropes and metal rings…completely replaced the traditional system, with higher tuning with greater stability.
Here’s how it works:
The crown and bottom rings are joined by a rope that goes through loops on the top ring.
By tightening this rope, you apply tension to the skin, which stretches over the bearing edges of the djembe.
Now, in the early 2000’s, somebody came up with a third ring. The idea was to add even more friction points so as to trap the skin and keep it from sliping between the rings while you apply tension.
The rings are often covered in colored cloth to prevent rust, as well as for aesthetic reasons.
7 Good Budget Djembes to Check Out
First there’s the percussion brands that make anything and everything. Those include:
Usually these are budget to mid-priced djembes.
Now that you’ve got plenty of great info on how djembe’s are built, and how they’re played…
The only thing left to do is choose a good one that suits your budget…
And start playing.
So up next, I’ll show you 6 of the top brands to check out, and several of the top models from each.
With these, you can really just pick one based off which you think looks coolest. Providing it has good reviews of course.
- Meinl HDJ3 – (Amazon)
- Meinl ADJ-3M – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Meinl HDJ4-XL – (Amazon)
- Toca Freestyle Colorsound – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Toca Freestyle – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Toca Street Series – (Amazon)
I recommend these for kids, and anyone who just doesn’t want to spend a lot.
Then there’s the brands that specialized in djembe manufacturing…
Unfortunately for us, the best djembes money can buy are probably hand-made in Africa.
And as far as I could find, there’s no reliable place to find those online.
But not to worry, because there are plenty of big name companies that make great ones as well.
For traditional style djembes, these are the 2 main companies:
The Africa Heartwood Project is a non-profit organization whose goal is to fight poverty by selling handcrafted instruments and other traditional objects built by local artisans.
When buying from them you are guaranteed to get a genuine and unique handcrafted piece, and you also help families to develop their business.
And if you’re looking for high-end mechanically tunable djembes, the biggest names in the industry have got you covered with the following models:
- LP Galaxy Giovanni Series – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Meinl Floatune Djembe – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Tycoon Master Handcrafted Series – (Amazon)
Mechanically Tunable Djembes
It’s never an easy task to take an established design and revamp it completely…
And yet that’s exactly what the brand Remo did when they decided to make their own line of djembes.
Mostly famous for their drumheads, they decided to take a completely new approach to the djembe and focus on what is probably the biggest issue of its traditional design: TUNING.
And as you’ll see in the next part this is not exactly an easy endeavor.
To address this issue, Remo first re imagined the whole structure of the instrument by — almost — taking wood out of the equation, replacing it by fiberglass, ABS plastic or their proprietary Acousticon material.
And while the purists might be put off by such a different design…
The truth is that it is more convenient in many ways, and most players agree that their sound definitely holds its own when compared to traditional djembes.
Check out this video to get an idea of how they sound:
Since their launch about a decade ago, they’ve been so successful that many other well-known percussion brands followed through and started making their own “easily tunable” djembes.
Check out the models I recommend:
- Remo Mondo Djembe – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Remo Key-Tuned Metalized Shell – (Amazon)
- Meinl Floatune Djembe – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Remo Apex – (Amazon)
- LP Galaxy Giovanni – (Amazon/Thomann)
How and When to Tune a Djembe
While the previous models are easy to tune, traditional djembes require a bit of practice in order to tune them.
Watch this video to learn how to tune your rope djembe:
Most sources recommend you tune your djembe if the “slap” tone is not crisp and dry. If you can’t hear a difference between the slap and open tone, then your djembe probably needs some tuning up.
Basic Playing Techniques
The djembe can produce a wide variety of sounds, making it a most versatile drum.
Djembe is loud: up to 105 dB, which is about the same volume as a jackhammer.
Basic djembe rhythms consist of 3 basic sounds:
- Bass (low pitch 65-80 Hz)
- Tone (med pitch 300-420 Hz)
- Slap (high pitch 700-1000 Hz)
Here’s a video explaining the all 3:
As a beginner, you could spend months, even years just mastering these 3 sounds.
Super advanced players however, have up to 25 different sounds in their arsenal.
Basic Djembe Rhythms
Now that we’ve reached the end of this post, hopefully you’ve found a djembe you’ll be happy with, and hopefully I’ve educated you enough to know exactly what this instrument is all about.
But before we wrap things up, I might as well leave you with one finally video on how to play a few basic rhythms.
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