A Beginners' Guide to the Bodhrán
A Beginners' Guide
By Josh Mittleman
Alan Ng and Mike O'Regan for their contributions.
If you think that this comment is obvious, then you have learned the first
lesson. Far too many people pick up the bodhrán with the laudable
desire to join in the music, but without the dedication necessary to learn
to play any instrument properly. If you work at it, you can make
lovely music with a bodhrán. If you just pick it up and hack at it,
you'll be one more person adding to the bad
reputation that plagues Irish traditional
percussionists. Mark Nelson used
to teach a class at
Lark in the Morning music camp, entitled Bones, Bodhrán and Social
In Irish traditional music, the tune is everything. Mike O'Regan, writing on
put it well:
The ... class grew out of years of
hearing people say "I really love Irish music, but I'm completely
unmusicial and anyway, I don't have time to really learn an instrument so
I'll play the bodhrán." So I insisted that anyone interested in
[bodhrán classes] sign up for the whole week and agree not to play in
sessions unless they were confident they would fit in. We spent a lot of
time on basic musical ideas like how tunes work, arranging, dynamics, basic
time, etc. The class was a gas, and a big success over the four or five
years that I taught it. I had people come back year after year and it was
great to see real improvement. Not to mention all the thanks I got from the
The bodhrán shouldn't try to drive the beat like a rock drummer, and
should rarely jump out front to solo. It should match the beat, ornament
the rhythm, and follow the music.
You'll need to decide for yourself how much you want to spend; a new
bodhrán will run you anywhere from $30 to $300. I deliberately
bought an inexpensive, durable drum to start, because I figured I'd spend a
couple years beating the crap out of it before I got good enough for a
top-quality drum to make a difference. I got my first drum from Mid-East Manufacturing; the body is
thin wood, the head is plastic, but it has served me very well and I still
use it when the weather disagrees with my other drums. Don't disdain
plastic drumheads; they are impervious to weather, will hold up to almost
any abuse, and on a well-made drum produce a sound well within the range of
natural-skin bodhráns. And they are much better than natural-skin
drums in the same price range. A lot of the low-price natural-skin drums
are made in Pakistan. I've tried several and they are not worth your time
or money. The skins were very poor quality, the bodies were flimsy.
You really can't stress enough that getting the rhythm is critical.
However, unlike rock and a lot of other styles, the rhythm instruments
... are not there to create the rhythm, but to draw it out, to accent
and highlight it. The rhythm itself comes from the tune ... how it is
structured and phrased ... and how it is played by the melody
players. ... Alternate rhythms are great, but we have to stress to
beginners that they must complement the original rhythm. No matter
how many rhythms you pile on top of each other, they all still have to
work together. The result of stacking rhythms should not be several
rhythms, but a single, integrated, complex one.
When you look at a drum, here are a few easy ways to evaluate it:
These tests will help you avoid a piece of junk; any decent drum should
pass all these tests easily. If you decide to invest in a higher-quality
drum, here are some tips.
There are dozens of varieties of beater, differing in length, weight,
shape, and balance. I found it helpful to start with a very heavy stick
with a large lump in the center. The central bump makes it easier to keep
a grip on the beater, and the extra mass makes it easier to learn the basic
techniques, especially the double-downstroke. As you improve, you may want
to move to a lighter beater. I've done so twice; my current favorite is
about 1/5 as heavy as my original one.
- The body should feel solid and well-made. Find the joint where the
hoop of the body was closed; if it looks ill-joined, stay away from that
- The tacks should be snug to the body, and the skin should be held
firmly. If the skin appears to be tearing away from the tacks, shop
- Look at the corner, where the skin turns over the rim. If the corner
is sharp, then the skin will tear easily. Good drums have smoothly curved
- If you don't like the sound, don't buy the drum. If it's a little
high-pitched, ask if you can wet the skin a little.
You probably want to get several beaters of different weights and shapes.
Experiment with them until you find one that's comfortable. Save the rest
for future experimentation and progress.
There are lots of
workshops and classes,
books and videos,
all designed to
teach you to play bodhrán. In my experience, they
can only teach you the basic movements, and you can get that just as easily
with a couple private lessons from any friendly bodhrán player. If
you want to start with a book, I can recommend Mícháel O
But you really need to get someone to show you the basics.
You've got your drum and beater, but you're not ready to play yet. Playing
the bodhrán requires rapid, repetitive motion of your wrist. Sound
familiar? If you're foolish, you can hurt yourself. But it isn't hard to
avoid problems. Mark Nelson
suggests you follow three simple rules:
I'm not trying to scare anyone; Mark is the only person I know of who had
to give up the bodhrán because of wrist injury, and he was playing
for long hours, very frequently, on a drum with a very loose head. But
some sensible precautions will help you avoid problems.
Here's a brief description of how to play the bodhrán. There are
many different styles; I'm trying to describe the most common one, the
Kerry style. If you can't picture what I'm
describing, let me know and I'll try again.
- Warm up before playing. I always stretch my hands, arms, and
shoulders before I play for more than a few minutes. There are lots of
exercises that will do the trick; here's my routine: I bend back each
finger of my stick hand separately, then in combinations, then I bend
the whole hand back, forward, and sideways. I grab my stick hand with my
other hand and twist the wrist hard each way a few times, then rotate the
entire forearm in the same way. I stretch both arms across my body, over
my head, and around behind my neck. Once you're loosened up, start slowly.
give yourself a little time to build up to full speed.
- Don't over-stress your wrist. Try to play with your wrist as
straight as possible; it will reduce the strain. Some people like the
sound of a very loose skin; if you play that way, be aware that you're
working your wrist and arm much harder. You may want to pace yourself more
- If you hurt, stop. Take a break and do some more stretching
exercises to work out the cramps. If your hand continues to feel tired and
crampy, you've had enough for the day. If you have regular problems, you
should probably lay off the drum and see a doctor.
The drum is held with the left hand and arm (assuming you're right handed,
which I'm not). Rest the drum on its side on your left thigh, with the
skin to the right, and tuck the near side under your left armpit, so that
the drum is roughly perpendicular to the plane of your chest. You will
anchor the drum with your chest and your upper arm. Place your left hand
inside the drum, pressed against the skin.
Take the beater in your right hand; hold it at the middle, like you'd hold
a pen. Hold it securely but not too tightly; it should waggle freely in your
hand, but not slide in your grip. You're going to strike the drum with one
head of the beater, the end where the tip of the pen would be. For now,
ignore the other head. Turn your hand inward so that the tip of that pen
points toward your navel. Move the beater by rotating your lower arm, so
that the lower head describes an arc roughly perpendicular to the drumhead.
You should hit the drum roughly at the center of that arc, once on the way
down and again on the way up. That's the basic stroke.
Did you get that? If not, here's
Alan Ng's description of how to hold the
beater and how to strike the drum.
Start with the hand flat, grip the middle of the stick in the bottom
of the gap between thumb and palm. That's what holds it. Now you can
curl your fingers out of the way of playing, which means the shaft of
the stick will touch and bounce off of the side of your middle finger.
Now you rotate your whole forearm (point your index finger straight
out to see this) along the axis
elbow / wrist / index-finger-knuckle / index-fingertip. One straight line,
and it should mostly stay that way while you play! The rotating stick
moves in one plane perpendicular to that arm-axis, and that
plane intersects at an angle with the surface of the drum.
Practice it until you can keep a regular rhythm with reasonably constant
tone and volume. You should be able to accent any beat, on a downstroke or
upstroke. By varying the accents, you can play different rhythms: 4/4
for reels, 6/8 for jigs, and so on.
When you feel that you have good control, you'll want to try to use the
other head of the beater. The upper head is used for ornamenting the
rhythm, by adding extra beats. This technique is called doubling the
downstroke. On your downstroke, you want to turn your hand a little
further, so that the upper head comes over and strikes the drum. It may
help you to change the angle between your arm and the drum, either by
tipping the drum toward the beater or by raising your elbow a couple
inches. You need to figure out what works best for you; the goal is to be
able to double the downstroke whenever you want, but only when you want.
Doubling the downstroke should not change the timing of the beat. The
extra beat should come halfway between the downstroke and the upstroke, but
those two strokes still carry the main rhythm, so they must be even.
You may wonder what you're supposed to be doing with your left hand while
all this is going on. Your left hand should rest against the back of the
skin, allowing you to muffle the ringing of the drum. You can control the
tone of the drum by allowing it to ring more or less. You can change the
pitch by pressing against the skin to tighten it. Experiment; you'll find
you can make your drum sing to you if you work at it.
Once you have the basic mechanics, you need to practice. I devoted about
four months to serious practice before I played in public.
If you want to play with other musicians, then the most important things to
practice are matching the beat and controlling your volume. A bad drummer
can throw off an entire session; how do you think bodhrán players
got their bad reputation? Recording your
practice sessions will be particularly helpful in this regard: You can hear
if you're off the beat, playing too slowly or too fast, or playing too
Tommy Hayes suggests a couple useful exercises. Once you learn how to double your
downstrokes, you need to learn how to add rolls when you want them and only
when you want them, and you want to learn how to make them even, precise,
and crisp. Practice a single, 4-beat roll: doubled-downstroke, upstroke,
downstroke (diddle-de-dum). You should be able to do that once,
very precisely. Then move on to a seven-beat roll: doubled-downstroke,
upstroke, doubled-downstroke, upstroke, downstroke. And so on. This
excerise will help you work on fine control. A second exercise is designed
to help you learn how to put your rolls exactly where you want them. Play
even four-beat measures, in sets of four. Once you've established a
regular rhythm, play eight sets of four with a roll on the first beat of
each set. Then switch the roll to the second beat of each set for eight
sets; then to the third, the fourth, back to the first, etc.
The bodhrán is an accompaniment instrument in Irish traditional
music, and the traditional method is to follow the music, i.e. match
your rhythms to the those of the music. In order to follow the music, you
need to learn the music; so get hold of a bunch of recordings and listen
carefully. The better you know the tunes, the better you'll be able to
play. Ideally, you should know the tune: You should be able to hum
it or sing it or play it on a melody instrument. By knowing the tune,
you'll be able to anticipate and match changes in the rhythm and pitch,
phrase your rhythms to match melodic phrases, and help the melody player
clarify the different parts of the tune and their repeats, instead of
muddying the structure of the tune.
Listen to professional bodhrán
players and pay attention to how they highlight and ornament the
natural rhythms of tunes. Play along and try to do the same things. You
may want to record yourself along with the music, and listen to it
afterward; you'll be able to hear what you do well and what you do poorly.
Once you think you're ready to play with other musicians, find a session in
your area. Find out who is running the session, and introduce yourself.
In my experience, most sessions will welcome a novice if he's polite. If
there are other drummers, introduce yourself to them, too; you might even
ask them to suggest when you should join in. Unless it is a very large
session, more than one drummer playing at a time may not be welcome. At
first, you may want to keep your volume low and keep the ornamentation to a
minimum; give the other musicians a chance to recognize that you know what
you're doing. Don't feel that you have to play with every tune, even if
you're the only drummer at the session. When you're not playing, listen to
the tunes. Pay attention to other rhythm instruments (e.g. guitar,
keyboard), and listen for ornamentations used by the meoldy instruments.
If there are other drummers, watch what they do; I still learn a lot by
watching other peoples' styles.
Practicing any musical instrument can be hard on roommates, neighbors,
and local wildlife; for some reason, people are particularly unsympathetic
to the needs of a budding drummer. Practicing outside is always fun, but
not always practical. The best solution is simply to learn to play
quietly: It's a skill you'll want to develop anyway, and it will come in
very handy when you find yourself at a session with too many drummers.
People have found a variety of ingenious methods of reducing volume to
spare your loved ones: Press the flat of your hand against the middle of
the skin, or equivalently, stuff a towel, a legal pad, or a magazine under
the crossbars, against the skin. Practice on a rubber drum pad held
sideways; or use a large paperback book. I've even played a folded-up
At any session, you're likely to hear tunes that you don't know. You may
choose to sit out those tunes or to improvise an accompaniment. If you do
try to improvise, listen to one repeat of the tune before joining in, and
try to figure out the large-scale structure of the tune. That's your
template; everything you do should fit that structure.
Have a good time. Don't worry too much: Sessions are supposed to be
relaxed and informal.
Return to the
Bodhrán home page.
Part of the Ceolas
celtic music archive
Last updated 30 Mar 1999