Main Menu

What's New?

Writers

Want to Contribute?

Guestbook

DrumDojo Discussion Group

Thanks to...


Drumdojo is provided and maintained by bingbangbong™

 

 

The Bodhrán - An Introduction

Paul Marshall ©2003-04

Any playing references assume that the reader regards the right hand as the dominant hand, if you are left handed, simply reverse the handing.

Online Tutorial Tuning Commercial Tutorials Neo-bodhran

I should start this section by saying clearly that I am by no means an expert player on this wonderful wee drum, I am an enthusiast (read nerd) however and because I am driven to know and understand more, my own skills as a player are progressing. The Bodhran sections are a mixture of information that I have been given, that I have uncovered by research whether in literature, online, from commercially available sources, by participating in bodhran specific discussion groups or through my own growing experiences. I hope that you find it useful and I will be delighted to respond to any comments either by e-mail or on the dojo discussion forum.

------------------------------

The bodhrán (pronounced Baw-ron or Bore-on) is regarded in contemporary terms as an indigenous drum of Ireland.

It is unique among drums because of its 'one-handed' style of striking the drum using a two headed stick. There is no record of this striking style anywhere else to the best of my knowledge, Rina Schiller makes reference to a french two headed stick, a 'mailloche double' although my small direct research on this has not yet borne any further information.

Basic research will deliver several and varied opinions on the drum's roots. Many claim it as an ancient druidic drum and indeed the frame drum is the oldest form of drum. In the case of the bodhran, a 'potato' road formed by trade could feasibly be traced back over several millennia to Persia where the frame drum is considered to have originated. Others yet believe it to be of African origin, coming to Ireland via or Spain or America where emigration met slavery. Most make the connection to its use in 'winnowing', separating stones or seeds and this would provide the most likely source as it provided the basic drum for most of the other frame drumming cultures.

The name bodhran is Irish meaning deafener or deafening. It derives from the word 'bodhr' meaning deaf. If one can imagine stones landing on a taut skin then the connection is not hard to understand. The drum itself is not loud having a playing volume around or slightly above normal conversation levels, melody players at a seishun will beg to differ :)

A bodhran was played fairly simply initially and has continuously developing musical sophistication. The drum is known to have been in use in the earlier part of the 20th Century with flattened-penny or other jingles attached, similar to a tambourine, riqq or muzhar. Jingles were removed or taped over as desired to create the drum we have today.

The most significant development of the instrument has taken place in the past 50 years or so, its rise co-inciding with the work of Sean O'Riada who, by developing music from informal gatherings in the pub and the parlour into a performance type on the stage, opened Irish music to new audiences. The many styles of bodhran playing employed now are vastly different and more developed than can have existed previously. Johnny 'Ringo' McDonough is acknowledged as being seminal in the introduction of the left hand ON the skin and thereby opening up the instrument to a whole new world of sound options. The drum continues to evolve and emerging styles abound as do developments in materials and construction.

A note on the 'Other' Bodhran more...

There is a completely new style of bodhran playing emerging which employs techniques from the middle eastern frame drums. Percussion maestro Glen Velez Video link is held as being the originator of this style, however it is completely different from traditional bodhran playing. There is a new dojo section for this style of playing on the site thanks to my friend and emerging hand drumming virtuoso David Kuckherman. The section has an introduction, basic instruction and first rhythms with MP3, there are great video / audio links.

Striking the drum

The bodhrán is usually played with a short two-headed stick called a 'cipin' (ki-peen) or 'tipper' employing a unique playing technique involving both hands in completely different ranges of actions. It is held in the right hand for a right handed person. The size is generally around 9" - 10", many shapes & types are used.

A note on styles

In the 'Kerry' style that is most commonly taught, both top and bottom ends of the tipper are used. The right hand strikes the drum and the left 'voice' hand determines the sound that is made by that strike.

Another style, the 'Limerick' style uses only one end of the stick or a short bulbous stick, triplets are accomplished with doubling hand speed. In the 'Roscommon' style the knuckles or finger joints are used instead of the tipper. There are many other styles and variations. Every player will have their own version of a style.

An emerging style is the Top End style which comes from Northern Ireland. It is different in that the tipper hangs vertically from the hand and strikes mainly (you guessed it) on the top end of the drum, the left use hand is also different in that it determines the very high poppy sounds that delineate this style. This is a contemporary emergent style providing super-wide tonality and demanding new qualities from drums and drummakers. In my opinion this style has been strongly influenced by the lambeg skinned drums made by Seamus O'Kane from Lower Drum, Dungiven in N Ireland. These drums have super-flexible, soft impact skins that provide easy access to multi-octave playing and extended voicings.

Nomenclature

A bodhrán player may be called a bodhráni / bodhráness, the plural is bodhránii. Most people just stick with bodhran player :)

The Drum

Physical description

The bodhrán is a circular frame drum which means that by family definition, the depth of the shell is less than half of the width of the head. There are certainly bodhráns with deeper shells, these would technically fall into the cylindrical drum category because shell resonance and air resonace start to come into the equation. The playing techniques for these longer drums are identical to a regular bodhrán, however the drum shell may require to be physically modified by a cut out or even holed to allow the player's left hand to access the rear of the skin.

Many traditionally constructed bodhráns have an arrangement of crossbars on the back, this can be a single bar, a 'T' shape or most commonly, a cross that is centralised or offset. These bars can assist with the bracing of the left hand, allowing greater pressure to be applied to the skin or to allow it to be held when playing unmuted and in an 'open' style. The bars were added traditionally to help to maintain the circular shape of the drum (riddle / sieve), however with the advent of modern laminate construction techniques, the bar on a drum of any reasonable quality is viewed as an optional extra for playing purposes rather than a key structural element.

Generally the head diameter is usually in the range 14" to 20" and shell depth is in the region 3" to 6", there are of course extreme depths and diameters and makers who specialise in these, there are even oval shaped drums but these are relatively uncommon. The most common drums are circular with diameters 15" to 18".

Construction materials

The wood used in the construction of a bodhrán shell can come from any type of hardwood or other material, the majority of modern shells are constructed from a number of layers of beech or birch ply. Because of the depth of the standard shell, there is no significant shell (or air) resonance to be accounted for and it only needs to be strong and capable of accepting the bending processes and bearing the playing tensions. Aesthetics are much more individual and can vary greatly.

The shell of a bodhrán is generally in the range 4" - 6", however there are makers who make deep shelled drums up to 12" and beyond. The shell tends to be one of the thicker of the frame drum family, 1/4" - 1/2" (7-15 mm-ish) - thicknesses are relatively common.

The shell can be made of a single steamed & bent piece of wood or can be constructed as a series of laminated plies, glued around or inside a former. Plies correctly constructed in a 'staggered' manner i.e with joins not placed on top of each other, will usually be mechanically stronger and more stable than a solid piece of wood. In a deeper shelled drum, plies vs solid shell can also have an audible difference as can the choice of material. See the Dojo section on Drum shell construction for more detail.

Tuning

Drums commonly are available in tunable and untunable variations, a tunable drum will usually have some form of mechanism that lifts up an inner ring to push the skin upwards and apply tension, a second, rare type, pulls down an external flesh ring with the skin attached for the same effect. The inner ring method (see image) is by far the most common and there are many variations on both types. Visit the bodhran tuning section

Drum head / drum skin

a bodhran head is generally made of goatskin although any animal hide can potentially be used. It is not uncommon to hear of kangaroo, calfskin, deer and even dog skin being used. It is also becoming common to hear of bodhráns headed with a plastic (mylar) headsee.... Both natural and synthetic materials have a range of advantages and disadvantages. I haven't yet come across a synthetic headed bodhrán in Ireland.

With the bodhrán, the skin is the most critical element to the sound of the drum, and the skin requires to be 'played in' before the drum achieves its optimum sound. This process of playing in happens through the playing of the drum and breaks up the fibres that keep the skin rigid. A thin skin will require less playing in and will deliver a warm accurate tone, rich in overtones, a thicker skin will be more 'thumpy' and more 'rounded'. A thin skin will be more flexible with a greater octave range than a thick skin There will always be exceptions with individual skins & the makers' processing has a huge effect. A soft skin will deliver less noise from contact with the tipper than a hard skin and will be 'warmer'.

There is a trend nowdays away from thick hard skins toward the use of thinner skins and/or skins that have been scraped super thin. Many hold the Lambeg skin preparation processes as being ideal also for thin bodhran skins. This is in keeping with contemporary and emergent playing styles. In Lambeg processing the skin is scraped down to the absolute thinnest and skins of 0.5mm and less are common. Lambeg skins are only made in N Ireland and there are only maybe a half a dozen Lambeg makers who can produce these. This puts the skins and drums which bear them, at a premium.

To prepare a skin for use on a drum it needs to be cleaned so that all fatty and other tissue deposits are removed from the inside of the skin and the hair is removed from the outside. Most bodhran makers have particular methods or substances that they employ but that part of the process is generally somewhat shrouded in secrecy. Some research shows up a range of methods from burying it in the ground to soaking for days in baths of oak bark or lime to depilate and cure the skin. Although we know certain facts about the processes, there are further skin conditioning processes which are applied but it is rare for a bodhrán maker to share his skin 'recipe' in its entirety.

if I can quote second hand from a well known N Irish bodhrán maker "I taught him everything he knows about bodhrán skins, but not everything I know!" There are many myths and countermyths out there be careful what you do with a skin :)

Temperature effect.

A natural skin head will always seek to equalise with humidity levels, the amount of moisture in the air is the #1 cause of flabby or over-tight drums. Hot and/or dry weather will make the skin tighter and higher in pitch as moisture is taken from the skin, conversely damp moisture laden air will make the skin looser and lower in pitch. Hot and humid weather will lower the pitch most as moisture in the air has a greater effect combined with heat. As the skin gets 'played in' over time, it becomes more stable in terms of the width of the range of the fluctuations and more forgiving but it will still be susceptible to ambient effects.

On a non-tunable drum, the way tuning... to counteract these variations in pitch is either by warming the skin to raise the pitch or dampening the skin to lower it. Water should be applied sparingly to the skin on the inside of the drum, a plant mister is useful. Please only use water to dampen the skin, there is a romantic notion that using Guinness or beer on the skin is the way to go, don't do it!! using beer will rob the skin of the natural oils that keep it supple and will eventually stink to high heavens.

If heating your drum over, or in front of, a naked flame, keep your hand between the flame and the skin to gauge how close you safely want to be. The heat & friction from the players hand when playing is often sufficient to warm up and dry out a skin and a player may need to continually adjust the tuning.

A plastic/mylar head is not susceptible to these variations in ambient temperature or hand-heat, this is by far its biggest selling / purchasing point particularly in arid areas of the world. Any player with a drum headed with an artificial head will most likely tell you that where they had a choice between the two materials, this was their reason for choosing that particular head type. A plastic head will stretch and lower in pitch over time, they gensrally are not replacable. A natural skin tunable head is generally the choice for professional players.

The subjective and most important issue of course is the sound of the drum, a mylar head will sound different to a natural one, notice I'm not saying worse or better, just different, they tend to be thinner and livelier with more overtones. I have heard the term 'plasticky' used as a descriptor but have yet to find a suitable definition for this word or the sound it attempts to describe.

At the end of the day, the choice of skin is entirely yours based on the factors that you have to consider based on your personal tastes and the conditions in which you intend to play the instrument.

The Bodhran is a super instrument capable of almost infinite variation. I describe it as a chatty wee drum but it is capable of tremendous power when used well. It translates to professional performance superbly, mics beautifully and 'rattles yer windys'

Playing the Bodhrán

Ihave written some further pages on aspects of the bodhrán. There are more to come.

 

Summary

I hope that this has been a useful introduction to the Irish Bodhrán , it is a wonderful drum to play, it is extremely expressive and has a fabulous range of voices. There are bodhránii all around the world.

Many of these bodhranii are on the web and congregate at discussion fora, check out

Bodhrani Yahoo discussion forum

The bodhran discussion group

Frame drummer

A personal note : In my part of the world (N Ireland) The bodhran unfortunately carries the 'baggage' of being tagged a Nationalist/Republican drum, similarly to the Lambeg which has been tagged a Unionist/Loyalist drum. Both of these drums have been used to varying degrees by both communities for as long as they have had a history in Ireland, the traditional repertoire of tunes and songs is largely shared with the exception of some sectarian or party tunes on each side.

Many will of course argue differently and seek to maintain the division, there has been great polarisation over the troubled years, including cultural appropriation and the generation of modern sectarian folklore based on nothing more than the politics of hate.

It makes me sad that I feel I have to either play both drums or neither of them.

I am proud to play both.

Paul


Ireland