Wednesday, January 7, 2015

My Thoughts on Buying a First Djembe Drum

The short answer in my opinion is something like a Remo or Toca djembe with a 12” playable head size. Here's an older Remo of mine. I don't endorse any drum manufacturers or companies, so I can be straight up with you and share what I think. Plus they have all rejected me already anyway. 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, and not too expensive. They both have pretty good resale value. It’s best to see what size you like, and what fits you best 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 also.

I usually suggest something like a 12” Remo for a first djembe drum to a friend, or if somebody asks me at the drum circle, etc. 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. As I mentioned, go to a 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. The drum Remo and Toca brands are pretty easy to spot with the big logos on them. They have synthetic drum shells, and synthetic heads, most 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, as well as in the cold. Often times I have to move from outside heat, to indoor Air conditioning, and can do re-tunes real fast. I had this beautiful traditional wood carved goatskin head drum that was tuned a little bit too tight, and when I went into the A/C it just popped. Talk about ruining your day!

Anyway, the lug tunes Remo and Toca 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 out 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 twang 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. Now they have either goatskin or synthetic. Try them both out. Goatskin sounds better, synthetic lasts longer.

Here's one of my older Remo Doumbeks, they don't make this style anymore unfortunately, a shame, b/c it was a beautiful sounding traveling drum for it's size.

If you’re short on dough, once you figure out what brand you want, (Toca, Meinl, Pearl, 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 in the world, and have gorgeous hand carved art on them. The hand carved wood shell goatskin head djembes sound the best, but despite their weight, are also more fragile, and also more expensive. One thing about buying an "authentic" African djembe online is there are a lot of knock offs being sold out there as one. Many of them are mahogany from Indonesia. Now the last time I checked the djembe is not indigenous to Indonesia. So do some research if you want a real ivory Coast drum. Got to tell you though, nothing sounds quite like one once you play it.

With this style of rope tuned drum, 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 the 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 in a functional way. But nothing sounds quite like a real authentic Ivory Coast djembe. But in my opinion, it's just something you need to work your way up to.

As far as buying new drums, I buy a lot from 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. did that for me a few times 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. Even Guitar Center will bargain with you now and match prices if you're a good negotiator. 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. Visit their sites, and get on their email list. Most send out monthly discounts, shop around for the lowest price on the drum(s) you want online, save the link, then call them up, and negotiate. I do that 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. To me, the 14" is a little too much bass and reduced tone, and the 10" is the opposite. Most of the time, 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 Cris-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 ended up selling 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.

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 close to the same to me, and weighs a bit less as the shell is synthetic, (but not the drum head). I just love the Giovanni a little bit more.

I suggest to stay away from the low end entry level Latin Percussion (or any other brand) djembe. They just don't sound that good or have any range. I forgot what they call it now, it was the CP model for many years, and many of us would joke it stood for Cheap Percussion.) Now it's 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 Giovanni new at 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. I've had both for over 20 years, replaced the head only once, so yeah it was worth the price. (Didn't feel like it at the time!)

There are tons of online retailers that claim to sell “authentic” African 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, various lotions, oils, tonics, 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 and it works.

With congas much of the same about buying a set applies, cheap drums give you cheap sounds. A $200 set of congas may sound appealing, but you have to get at least to the mid-range pricing to get something decent sounding with good range and tone. I think you need to get at least LP Matadors or better. Getting a used set for $400 will serve you for a lifetime. I went with the LP Patatos and love them. Problem is they are about $600 a set new.

Here's a thought about what pitch to tune your congas or even djembe bass and tone 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 of "Here comes the bride". Perfect! Simple eh? Marry those drums.

I hope some of this is helpful to you in buying a hand drum. I have a 2 hour DVD of 101 drum circle rhythms for $15. I made it with the idea of an intermediate drummer in mind, so those new to drumming have something to work up to, and those more experienced have a variety of world rhythms to experiment with and make them their own. It will give you years of material to work with. It's also available at Amazon Instant Video for $14.

For more info on this and other hand drumming and drum circle topics, please consider buying my book, “A Practical Guide To Hand Drumming And Drum Circles” It’s $8 on Amazon Kindle, and sales of these help me to continue to do work in our community, and do what I love, making music.

Shannon Ratigan

Copyright © Shannon Ratigan 1999 - 2015 All Rights Reserved.

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