The short answer in my opinion is something like a Remo djembe with a 12” head size. I don't endorse any drum manufacturers or companies, so I can be straight up with you and share with you what I think. Plus they have all rejected me already anyway. LoL. I can also mention the places I have bought mine from with an unbiased position.
Picking a drum is an important choice, and the following is just my point of view. Finding the one that’s best for your hands, your body, and your soul. One that really “speaks” to you, and has the sound and range you can really enjoy playing. I started out getting the wrong ones for me and ended up constantly upgrading over the years. So I think its best to buy up in quality as much as possible, so you can grow into it. But, hey money’s tight right now, and if you only have a 100 bucks or two, here’s what I suggest.
If you’re on a budget, I think a Toca or a Remo 12" or 14" head djembe is a good head size for a first drum. It’s best to see what size you like first. I think the best thing to do is go to your local music store like Sam Ash or Guitar Center, then and try a few drums and different brands out. Most all the big chain stores have impressive world percussion selections now to choose from now. Talk with the drum guy, ask him to show you around, and try a few out. Then you have a better idea what feels right and talks to you. I think it’s important to support local business in your community, especially the smaller ones, so check them out if you can.
I usually suggest a 12” Remo for a first djembe drum. A 12" head gives you plenty of range and isn't too big or too small. The last time I checked they ran about $200 new. Go to the music store and try playing one, or ask to try one at your local drum circle. If you get a chance, talk with a few other drummers while you are there. They are pretty easy to spot with the big logo on them. They have synthetic drum shells, and synthetic heads, are lug tunable, so they need little maintenance unlike traditional rope tied goatskin drums. Plus they can take a serious beating, and they hold up real well in the humidity like we have here, as well as in the cold. And they have pretty good resale value if you end up needing to sell it. I think they are made from all recycled materials, so that's cool. I use one as a beater drum for the beach, it works great, and sounds halfway decent to me even on the sand.
For a little less cash you can go with a lug tuned Toca “Freestyle” djembe. A little bit lighter drum shell, (It’s a PVC material) and it has a goatskin drum head on it, which I prefer over the synthetic heads. So while it is less durable, it doesn’t have that Remo ping sound, and is more responsive to me. Plus my hands tend to hurt less on goatskin as opposed to synthetic if I get to jamming at a drum circle for a few hours on it. And believe me, that is easy to do.
If you’re short on dough, once you figure out what brand you want, (Toca, Meinl, Remo, etc), you pretty much know what you’re going to get with one of those, so buying one used isn’t really that big of a deal. I’ve bought a lot of them at places like Ebay and Craig’s. If you are patient, you can get one for a lot less than retail. Not bad.
For a wood shell djembe with a goatskin head, a decent one can easily run over $400. Some of them are matched by nothing else in sound and quality, and have gorgeous hand carved art on them. The hand carved wood shell goatskin head djembes sound the best, but are more fragile, more expensive, and you need to learn how to tie the Mali weave knots in order to keep it in tune. Or have a good friend, or pay somebody. There is a lot of cost if your drum head splits. Most of the expense is the time and labor involved. The problem with goatskin is that the pitch changes when you go outdoors. The wood can split over time also. Most all the high quality djembes are rope tuned. I prefer lug tuned goatskin in our Florida humidity. The Latin Percussion Classic or Giovanni djembe is my drum of choice for gigs or performances. To me it brings together the best of both worlds.
As far as buying new drums, I buy a lot from music123.com They also have an outlet store with some pretty good deals, but they come and go fast. I’ve bought quite a few from them in the past because they would usually match the lowest online price I could find, and they also shipped free if I spent over $100. musiciansfriend.com did that for me also. I don’t know if their policy has changed or not. My experiences with both companies has been very positive, customer service and everything. The online retail drum world is very competitive now, so many of them will negotiate with you. I always call them and talk to a sales person, sometimes get a percentage off. Especially if I am buying a few drums.
Please feel free to ask me any questions, I’m always happy to share my experience, and help a fellow musician or artist. As to the what size djembe head size thing, I've come to prefer the 12" (playable size) because it has good range, decent bass, but yet still has the crisp tones I want. It isn't quite so bulky and heavy either. If I get into playing for hours, even with a Slider djembe strap, my back starts to ache. LoL. To me, the 14" is too much bass and reduced tone, and the 10" is the opposite. I like to stand and play, so that my body is straight and energy can flow smoothly through me. If I’m sitting I feel scrunched up. I think Remo makes the Slider djembe strap. It’s a criss cross clip on strap that distributes the weight evenly across my back, and it just clips right on the drum. I swear by those. So does my back.
I've bought and then sold a number of djembe styles and brands over the years, and ended up very happy with the Latin Percussion Giovanni. There is also the LP Classic, but for the price difference, the Gio is only a little bit more money. Plus it looks and sounds just plain beautiful. I love the fact that I can still get the responsiveness of goatskin, and tune it up quickly with a few twists of the wrench. Some have sneered at me for playing a lug tuned djembe, but I'm up and playing while they are on the ground struggling to tie knots and tune up their drum. Plus here in FL the humidity is a problem and drums need tuning indoors or out. I went to lug tunable for most of my djembes for that reason. I like doumbeks because of that also. But if you do end up going with a rope tuned djembe, I do have djembe tuning instructions with photos (pdf.file) on my website. drumcircles.net
So about that synthetic Remo ping sound. Some like it, some don’t. It drives me nuts. Recording sessions, even worse. But for the price, I think it’s a very durable, and a decent sounding drum. One quick fix for the ringing sound is to get some of that blue painter’s tape and stick it under the drum head, Get like a 12” piece, and stick the middle part of it together, kind of like this, “\/” so a 4 inch tail is hanging underneath the drum head in the center. That absorbs it a little, and takes that sound you might hear down a notch.
So is the Latin Percussion or Meinl Floatune lug tuned high priced djembe worth the cost? To me absolutely. A good quality djembe will last you forever if you take care of it, and you can pass it on to your kids. I’ve seen the high end LP’s and Meinl’s used now and then for around $300 on Ebay. I own the Meinl model also by the way, it pretty much sounds the same to me, and weighs a bit less. I just love the Giovanni a little bit more. I suggest to stay away from the low end entry level LP djembe. I forgot what they call it now, the aspire or something newer now. As I'm sure you know, with the big name brands, you get what you pay for. I got my Gio new at music123.com They did match the lowest online price I could find, and took $10 off that. They shipped it free also, so I was pretty happy. I got mine for around $400. Once you play one of those djembes, it’s over, you have to have it imho. I love the Meinl Floatune also because to me it is very similar in sound and quality, yet it has a fiberglass body, so obviously it weighs a bit less than the LP wood shell.
There is tons of online retailers that claim to sell “authentic” roped djembes. Honestly, with a drum like that, I need to see it, play it, and hear how it sounds before I buy it.
I‘ve heard many things about using lotions on djembe and conga heads. Shea butter, and lots of other stuff. Most all my friends over the years whose experience I really respect say to use nothing at all. Just the natural oils that come from playing when with your hands that builds up. So that's what I do.
A thought about what pitch to tune your congas to, and an easy way to do it. This wise old beatnik dude years ago said to me when I asked him, tune them both to the notes in "Here comes the bride". Simple eh?
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