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Bodhrán - Basic playing technique

Paul Marshall ©2003


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

Holding the drum

The drum is normally played when sitting. In the case of a right handed player it will sit on the left knee with the frame pointing directly ahead or slightly to the right, it is supported by the left hand inside the drum and held snugly against the front left side of the chest. The edge of the drum will ususlly find a resting place in the crook of your elbow. This method is the same whether cross bars are employed or not, the use of cross bars really is to facilitate left hand pressure for tonal use or to hold the drum when standing, but this is much less common because of having to execute both left hand supportive and tonal requirements simultaneously.

Which hand is used where?

The dominant hand (usually the right) is used to strike the drum with the tipper and the sub-dominant hand (left) is used to modulate the sound of the drum by changing tensions and muting the skin inside the drum.

Playing technique

The most common style is the Kerry style where the bottom of the stick strikes the drum for the main rhythms and the top of the stick swings over to make triplets or other ornamentation. The style demonstrated here is the Kerry Style.

Right Hand

The bodhrán has a unique and distinctive playing style. The tipper is held loosely in a pen-like grip somewhere around the middle of the stick.



The hand holding the tipper is turned in slightly, maybe 20-30 degrees toward the inner wrist. The tipper should be somewhere around horizontal and parallel with the drum head this is the basic starting position.

    Imagine an axis running from your elbow through the middle of your wrist, rotation of the arm about this axis will cause the hand and tipper in the position above to rise and fall, tracing an arc in the air (see animated image) The bottom of the tipper will strike the drum head on the leftmost point of the arc on the way down and again but slightly lower on the upstroke. You will notice too that my thumb seems to stay fairly close to the centre of the drum in this basic stroke. When playing my hands do move over the surface of the drum however this is a good general reference point.
    To a casual observer the movement looks not dissimilar to strumming a guitar.

    These images have been taken from a player's point of view.

    .........Top of arc....................Bottom of arc .......Arc extension to cause triplet

The ubiquitous triplet

The most common form of rhythmic ornamentation is the 'triplet'. The triplet is an additional strike on the drum accommodated into the basic playing technique. It is the logical next-step after the up/down strokes and is very distinctive, it is used no matter what time signature is employed although the musical effect does vary slightly.

As you progress in your playing you will find many ways of playing triplets (or even quadruplets), however the following should be enough to get you started.

  • The 'extra' stroke occurs between the downstroke and the upstroke and is achieved by rotating the hand holding the tipper very slightly further around anticlockwise than on a normal downstroke. The effect of this is that the upper portion of the tipper comes around and makes contact with the skin, it's no more complicated than that and it is a natural motion, see the images above.
  • The most common difficulty experienced by progressing players is in controlling the triplet so that it only happens when you want it to. I'm sorry to tell you that this is purely a question of time spent practising. I am compiling some practise suggestions.
  • A quadruplet is achieved by rotating the arm even further on the downstroke so that you can achieve an upstroke on the return with the top end of the tipper. This to me is is seriously difficult to execute smoothly at playing speed!

The Rim

It is possible also to play on the wood shell of the drum. There are many different ways of doing this, some for selecting individual accents by moving the tipper to contact on the rim or you can turn the drum around and play the entire rhythm directly onto the body. It may take a few minutes to get an angle that suits both tipper and rim 'hitability' but the tipper actually only needs a very small area to play, and you should find a comfortable and accessible position. NB a book is a good practise drum :)

Other Styles

  • Limerick style - Where the stick is held with the top in the hand and the body pointing back toward the player. If you can imagine the kerry grip above but with all the stick below the thumb
  • Roscommon style - there is no tipper and the drum is struck with the right hand knuckles.
  • Both styles and more are demonstrated in Tommy Hayes' excellent tuition Video

Left (voice) Hand

The left hand has two main purposes;

Support. Where it keeps the drum upright and held comfortably but firmly to the player's body. This can be a tricky part for new players or a new drum, particularly if the drum doesn't have a crossbar. Practise lots, spend time getting used to the drum and it will soon provide you with a comfy familiar position.

The second role of the left hand isn't usually the most instantly obvious or visually impressive contributor to the sound from a non-drummers perspective, yet it is probably THE most important aspect of a bodhran player's personal style.

I explain this role is by drawing a parallel to our own voices where the voice box creates the sound and the mouth shapes it; a bodhrán tipper will create the sound and the left hand will speak its message. This is why I call the left hand the 'voice' hand

There are many discussions and propositions as to appropriate positioning and activity of the left hand, any motion on the left hand may cause sound by rubbing over the skin. As an observer and a player whose left hand has free range on the drum, I think that the general rule is to find a position that is comfortable and readily gives you the range of tones you need.

Some listening and watching as well as a good amount of experimentation will give you a reasonable range of left hand activities to select from. Some you will use all the time, some occasionally, some almost never.

There is nothing like really getting to know your drums voices, experiment, be intimate

  • Do nothing
    • Just leave it open and boomy
  • Muting
    • Using the left hand to kill the resonance of the skin providing a very useful tonal variance
  • Changing pitch
    • Using the left hand to change the size of the vibrating area of the drum and thereby the pitch
    • Using the left hand to apply greater or lesser pressure to the drumhead and therefore adjust pitch up or down respectively
  • Bending pitch
    • Using the heel of the hand to slide a bass note upwards. Indian tabla style
  • Bass lines
    • Using pitch changing techniques to play specific low pitch patterns to match/complement the tune being played by other musicians
  • Melodies
    • Using point of finger in centre of drum to press and play specific-pitch patterns to match the tune being played by other musicians (extremely difficult but worth a laugh)
  • Harmonics
    • Using the point of the finger at different points on the head to isolate a particular frequency when struck
  • Pops
    • making a very small area of drum head in the triangle between your index finger and thumb at the top of the drum that is hit with the tipper
  • Finger drumming
    • As the name suggests, bringing all kinds of middle eastern or roll variations
  • Slaps
    • using the flat of the hand to slap against the back of the skin
  • Thumb rolls
    • Old tambourine players trick, emits a groaning sound. (You don't need to be an old tambourine player or play an old tambourine tho' :)
  • ....More....
    • Use your own imagination :)

Tools and toys

A bodhráni has a range of tools at his or her disposal, the most obvious of which is tippers. I am compiling research on different tippers, styles and effects, if you can help, please mail me

Right hand

  • Various styles of tipper
  • Brushes
  • Rods
  • Switches
  • Shakers

    Left hand

  • Brushes
  • Switches
  • Claves
  • Snares
  • Shakers

As a framedrum

And of course to make it ultra versatile, the bodhrán can also be used as a framedrum and played in myriad styles from around the globe Check Out N.Scott Robinson's piece 'Travel By Hand' on the Yahoo Group Framedrum CD