Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Choosing An Inexpensive But Good Sounding Drum For Your Child

When I was 10 years old, my dad got me an old marching snare drum. I was happy. Many others…were not. I was a hyperactive kid, and it calmed me down a bit. Little did I know that drumming would be the thread that held my brain together for 40 some years.

When I was old enough, I was able to be a high school band geek. (Fortunately it’s more fashionable with the popularity of TV shows like “Glee”). Anyway, music always gave me a place to have a good time and be entertained. A chance to play in fun places, and even earn a few bucks here and there. Sitting in with bands, jamming at drum circles, or just by myself. Sometimes I just want to be comfortably “away”. A drum is good for that, as well as building social skills.

Lots of parents bring kids to family friendly facilitated and public drum circles. For the most part, those kind of drum circles are a safe comfortable place for your child to be able to interact socially with others in a non threatening environment. Keeping in mind that with any public group you are likely to have a few oddballs in there, so it makes sense to supervise them. If it were my children, I would want to visit the drum circle alone just to see the general vibe of it first.

Kids are welcome at most drum circles if they are supervised. Here’s something cool where you can connect, and do something positive with your kids. When you’re at a drum circle just remind them to respect other people’s space while they are playing, and not to run wild, or touch anyone else’s drums without asking first.

You might consider getting a drum for yourself also, that way you can learn how to play together. For about $300 you can get a pretty decent drum for both of you. Learning how to play is easier than you may think. With all the great YouTube videos out there, it’s at your fingertips.

Check out my drum circle finder page and see what’s going on nearby, and perhaps consider visiting one for the first time, or practice and learn a little first. No big deal either way. Drum circles are pretty organic and, for the most part, welcome everybody, regardless of skill level. Most musicians are very supportive, and are happy to offer a few pointers once you have played in the group with them a few times.

So you want to buy your kid a drum. These days, there is an amazing selection of low cost hand drums available. Most music stores have a world percussion section where a kid can just go bang a bongo or two and see what “talks to them”. A first drum is an important choice even for kids. I think buying a full size drum rather than a so called “kids” drum is a better idea, because the price difference is like 20 bucks. Plus it gives your child something to grow into, rather than out of, or needing to upgrade at some point.

Most of the drums designed with kids in mind are not tunable – just a drum head glued on with some decorative ribbon around it or something. A grown up drum that is tunable, teaches them more, and they will get a lot more enjoyment from it. They can learn to customize the pitch to their liking. Kids like personalizing their phones, and designing levels for video games, so I think teaching a kid to tie Mali weave knots and how to tune a drum is great. Tuning a roped djembe is hard, and not easy to do.

You can get a great sounding drum for around $60 - $100 depending on what kind and brand. As far as the head size, I suggest a drum with a 10” or even 12” playable size drum head. They have a better range of bass to tones.

A couple of video games cost $80, and a drum will last practically forever if you take minimal care of it. I suggest getting a drum with a synthetic head on it, rather than a goatskin one because they are harder to break. A djembe drum is the most popular, or a goblet drum, (doumbek). I think bongos are a very good choice also, because it gives them two drums to play. Most of them have thick cowhide heads and are hard to break. Plus, they can be played with hands or drumsticks. Most bongos have 5” and 6” heads on them. There are also 4” and 5” head size sets, I suggest getting them the big ol’ drums.

With bongos, there are two kinds of rims, one is straight down vertical, and the other has a more comfortable curved edge rim. Some call it the comfort curve. It’s a good name, because the fingers can get beat up after a little while on a straight rim. These days, the curved rim can be found on some djembes and now on most conga drums as well. The bearing edge can be a bit rough on the hands without one. A nice comfortable curved bearing edge on a wood shell djembe is particularity important as well.

Recently I wrote an article about buying a drum for adults, but a lot of it does apply to kids, so you might give it a read. It is one of my older posts. I always suggest buying as much drum as possible so your child can grow into it, but still enjoy having fun playing and being a kid.

You can get a very decent synthetic djembe drum, where both the drum body, and head are synthetic for under $100 these days. Get them a grown up drum with an 8, 10”, or 12” head. (Playable size.) Again I stress getting a lug tuned drum because they can easily learn about tuning and pitch. With these kinds of drums, most have synthetic heads. Once they are tuned up, that’s pretty much it. All you need to do, boom. The rope tuned goatskin djembes are more fragile, and higher maintenance. There’s nothing wrong with learning about and respecting a good djembe though.

I mean, don’t get me wrong here. If you have the money to buy your child a really good drum, I suggest doing it. In my opinion, a rope tuned authentic Ivory Coast djembe is the sweetest sounding drum ever. I also like the LP Giovanni, and Meinl Floatune djembes. Both of those are lug tuned. Most of the high end drums cost in the $350 range. The Gio and Float have goatskin heads, yet are lug tunable. And at least with one of these from a major manufacturer, you can buy it new and be assured that it’s not a knock off drum.

Most of these drums are 12” heads, usually solid wood bodies, and they are a bit heavy after awhile. They can weigh about 15 to 18 pounds. So getting a djembe strap might be a good idea, they can stand and play if they want. Otherwise they are stuck playing seated. Most people prefer to stand and play, it feels better. A djembe strap that criss crosses over the back is best, because it distributes the weight better. Get the one that clips on in front to the drum. They cost around 20 bucks. A tie on style becomes a bit more tedious. A shoulder strap tends to hurt after awhile.

You might as well spring for a djembe hat to protect the head, and a padded drum bag to store and transport it in. Might want to consider springing for a djembe drum stand also. That frees up the weight issue, so you can play comfortable standing or seated. Check to see how well made and sturdy it is. Some of them look pretty solid, but when you try to play a drum on it they bounce around like bobble heads. A good one runs in the $80 range. Having fun yet?

The two main problems with getting an expensive djembe is finding one that really is authentic. There are a lot of knock offs out there. For example, the last time I checked, I don’t think the djembe is indigenous to Indonesia. So you need to find someone knowledgeable to get the real deal here. Some of these drums have magnificent carvings and/or artwork on them. The sound is unmatched by any other drum in my opinion. Wood body drums have a warmer, fuller tone to me. The synthetic are lighter, but have a synthetic sound, for obvious reasons. But they are fine for a good all around playable drum that will last.

The other thing is that a goatskin drum head can be damaged pretty easily. One good drop, bump on a door jam, or hit with a drum stick, bye bye drum head. A head replacement can run $60 - $80. Most of it is the labor tying all the Mail weave knots. We’re talking a few hour job here, minimum.

So, drums with synthetic heads that are lug tunable are better suited for kids in my opinion. They’re a little more costly but worth it. Try to get a good brand name drum. ie: Latin Percussion, Toca, Meinl, Remo, Pearl etc. There’s a bunch out there now. Most of the ones with synthetic heads hold up very well. The wooden shell drums tend to be a bit heavy for kids, and now they not only have synthetic drum shells, but lighter polymer, and PVC ones also. Perfect drums for kids.

A goblet shaped doumbek drum is a good choice also. They have a naturally curved rim and are comfortable on the hands. They are easy to hold and play. I like the ergonomic design of them, they are made to fit the natural curve of your hands. I recommend that you get a professional size tunable doumbek. Look for an 8” playable size drum head, and thick cast aluminum on the drum body. Some of them are very thin and the sound sucks. What I mean is, it doesn’t resonate as much, or have the range of pitch. And of course 6 - 8 allen wrench tuning lugs. Cheap drums give you cheap sounds.

The majority of kids seem to like the bongos. They look like more fun to play, and they are what most of the kids I work with gravitate to because there are two drums to play. Two for the price of one. I suggest getting a decent grown up set, as the kids ones are pretty toy like. A drum that is a genuine musical instrument will serve much better, and a pretty decent set of bongos is in the $60 range. The child can set them on their lap and play, or put them on a chair, stool, or table in front of them and jam away. If you are handy, you can build a bongo stand, or buy a collapsible one for about $40. A stand is going to encourage them to play more. Plus hey, it looks cool set up in the corner of the room.

Many drum manufacturers now offer wide selections of drums designed for kids, They are low priced, sound pretty good, but many are not tunable. They are after all, kids drums. They also make grown up drums with 6 and 8 inch heads that are tunable and better suited in my opinion. A little more costly but worth the extra amount in the long run.

The drum selling businesses is so crazy competitive right now, that once you determine what you want, you locate the lowest online price, bookmark it, and most music stores will meet or beat the price. Maybe even ship it free. Most of them do if you spend $100. When I’m looking for a new brand name drum, I research for the lowest price, print it out and go visit my local music store. Most of the time they will match it or come close. I like to support local if I can.

I guess you can also get an old marching snare drum like I did. The schools sell them off from time to time, and I see them on sites like Ebay pretty reasonably priced with the shoulder strap and everything. These days, you can get a rubber practice pad for the kids to drum away on, (it sits right over the drum head, or on a table) for $20. Had they been around at the time, I’m sure my neighbors would have gladly bought me one.

Two sites I have bought from that seem to have the lowest prices, and have matched prices are music123.com and musiciansfriend.com Both also have outlet store pages with some good deals, but they come and go fast. They both carry bongos, doumbeks, and smaller djembes. There are lots of online retailers out there, check for buyer reviews on them before you buy. A simple search on the brand or dealer name + the word “review” will give you plenty of opinions from owners. I like to shop at our local music store for two reasons. Supporting local businesses, and I like to try a drum out before I buy it.

A good drum will bring years of fun and entertainment. It will last a very long time if you take care of it. Playing music is very satisfying alone or with friends.

If you would like to get much more in depth with teaching your children to drum, please consider picking up my 300 page book on hand drumming and drum circles. It’s $10 on Kindle, or physical copies for $18. Purchase it from my website and I include a 75 minute facilitated drum circle CD you can just enjoy, or even play along with. If you do choose to buy it, thanks in advance for helping me out a little bit. With the price of gas going up 35 cents in the last two weeks, entertainment money is a lot tighter. I have 5 full length drum circle mp3’s you can listen to, or download free at my website: drumcircles.net - No registering or signing up for anything is required.

With so many changes going on in the world today, I think that the arts can contribute to our coming together on a global scale. And drumming and dancing are both things that everyone can be a part of with minimal training or skill. They transcend barriers of language, religion, and countries. What better reason to introduce your child to the joy of drumming. You might have a lot of fun together along the way.

Shannon Ratigan


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