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Taiko - Japanese drumming

Compiled by Paul Marshall


Traditional taiko playing is perhaps thousands of years old, contemporary taiko playing has built rapidly on that foundation

Taiko Drumming - tone generation

Essentially taiko is closer to drum kit drumming than the other forms of percussion that its 'world music' label may indicate.  This is by virtue of the fact that the instruments are played almost exclusively with sticks (bachi), furthermore many of the sticking patterns and rudiments are common to the two. Generally one taiko drum is played by one person for a song.  however It is becoming increasingly common to see 'kumi-daiko' which sets up several drums around a central playing position.  This is similar to a drum kit's toms, although kumi-daiko are not normally ordered by descending tone. 

Style of drumming

To me (and this is purely my own opinion) the taiko style is best characterised by an approach and an attitude.  This is comprised of highly stylised and disciplined elements, executed by one or more players with extreme accuracy and control.  The emphasis is not on speed or chops but on making deliberate and definite patterns  that either provide, support or weave through base rhythms.  Because rhythmically each piece is comprised of several interlocking parts the drum melodies are complex and synergistic and the listener cannot help but be engaged.  If there was one key requirement for taiko playing, focus would probably be there for me.

The drums The drums are by far the most recognisable element of any Taiko performance.  Most people think of the giant O-daiko when they think of taiko drumming.  O-daiko means literally 'big drum' and is a term given to any drum with a batter / playable head in excess of 3ft.  I have seen pictures of these drums where a grown man is able to stand upright inside the shell.  The shells are traditionally made by carving a huge trunk of Japanese Oak (zelkova) into one single barrel-shaped piece however contemporary woods include ash & American oak and it is common to see groups in the west playing taiko made out of winebarrels.  Some manufacturers have started to manufacture drums out of synthetic materials.  The heads on the drums are made out of rawhide, the O-daiko uses the full hide of a Holstein Bull for each head.  The heads are stretched very very tightly over the drum and are tacked into position.  A Taiko head can last years of beating before requiring replacement.There are many different types and sizes of taiko drums, however the 4 main variations are.

  • O-Daiko: as described above.  Any large barrel shaped drum with a head size in excess of 3ft. carved from one solid piece of wood.  The inside of the drum is shaped during the carving process with the purpose of cancelling out the overtones that come from such a large head under such great tension.  An O-daiko may have 4-6 carrying handles, however I defy 4 people to lift one as they generally weigh about a half a ton (open to correction on that one)
  • Chu-Daiko: Medium sized drum. generally 24-28" or so tall with a 20-22" playing head, carved from one solid piece of wood.  As with the O-Daiko, the interior of the drum is carved for acoustic improvement
  • Oki-Daiko: smaller lighter drum made from staves, head 14-16" height 18-20", usually carried and used for dancing Rope tuned .
  • Shime-daiko: the baby of the set and a beautiful drum. 10-12" playing area (14" head), about 10" deep. single piece construction, tuned with thick ropes (1cm approx.) and placed under immense tension to give the highest tone possible.  It takes 2 men 20minutes to tune this drum using all their strength and several large pieces of wood for leverage.  There is also a bolt-tuned version which takes much of the strain out of tuning, however the rope tuned drum looks much better and sits better aesthetically with the rest of the drums
Playing positions There are a number of different playing approaches each of which gives a different sound and requires different posture and 'attitude' from the drummer. Some of the positions are common amongst drums.O-Daiko This drum is positioned with the lowest part of the playing surface at chest height and is struck with oak bachi (sticks) that are approx. 2" in diameter and 18" or so in length.  The physical exertion involved in swinging these huge sticks is immense however the stick has to match the drum to get the correct sound out of it.  The drummer stands facing the drum with one leg bent at the knee (usually the left) and the other stretched out behind him.  This gives the leverage to be able to hit the drum and maintain balance.   The drum can be played by one person or by two, however one player will almost always be the lead player and the other has a supportive role.Chu-daiko:  I have seen at least five positions for playing this drum
  • Upright: The standard 'ensemble' playing position is similar to just having the drum standing upright on the floor, excepting that it is on a low flat stand 3-4" tall that angles it slightly toward the player and allows the bottom head to resonate freely.  This position gives a slightly muted and more attack oriented sound to the drum.  The player stands square-on behind the drum with knees bent to maintain balance as one would do in marital arts and is struck in a vertical plane.  The sticks used are smaller versions of the o-daiko sticks, approx. 15" long however they taper from handle to tip  from approx. 1" - 0.75" in diameter.  This is the most common way of mounting and playing the Chu-daiko.
  • Onbayashi (1 player) this is one of the two most ergonomically demanding positions for the player.  the drum is angled to around 30 degrees with one end on a support on the floor and the other end is raised about 12".  The player sits on the ground with his legs either side of the raised head of the drum and plays mid-crunch style for the duration of the song.   The drum is almost totally free to resonate and delivers quality and fullness of tone that we normally associate with big drums.  I have tried this style and it is a wonderfully responsive way of playing the drum but you need to work up to having the abdominal strength to play for more than a few minutes.  The sticks used are brutal, resembling short baseball bats. This is the style best known for its use in the Kodo piece Yatai Bayashi.
  • Miyake style (1-2 players).  This is the other of the two most demanding playing styles.  The drum is set absolutely horizontally about 9-12" off the ground and both sides can be played simultaneously.  The players adopt a similar style to the O-Daiko but much lower and more side-on.  The player stands left side (generally) on to the drum, left foot in line with and to the side of the drum's head.   The left knee is bent so that the hips are at around knee level.  The right leg is kept straight and extends away from the drum.  When striking, the right stick moves horizontally insofar as is possible and the left stick swings from either under the right armpit or from over the right shoulder.  This is a beautiful playing style to watch.  The drum is completely free to resonate  This is the style used in Miyake.
  • Mid position (1-2 players) The drum is mounted similarly to the above position but is raised about 2ft off the ground.  the playing methods is similar to the above but it is much less physically demanding
  • High Position (1-2 players) Played in exactly the same manner as the O-daiko and is used by many taiko groups who cannot yet afford to buy or make an O-Daiko
Oki-daiko:  I have seen three playing styles for this type of drum
  • Low position: mounted on a three legged stand, with the head about 2'6" off the floor, similar in height to the standard chu-daiko positioning.  it is played similarly to the chu-daiko in ensemble pieces but has a lighter sound,
  • Carried: The drum is light enough to be worn on a strap around the shoulder and is usually used in this manner when the drummers are required to dance or move around the stage.  The right stick can be used on its own in the usual manner or both can be used where the left stick is held like a pen, allowing the player to alternate left hand strikes between both heads, sometimes with incredible speed.
  • High Position:  Again, I have seen this drum mounted in the shoulder-high position and played like an O-Daiko.  I have also seen this drum played with a long version of 'hot-rods' a stick made up of many smaller dowels.
Shime-Daiko. I am aware of two positions for this drum
  • Low position: Mounted on a frame formed from a single length of solid wire about 1cm thick.  The playing area sits about 12" off the floor angled towards the player.  The player sits cross-legged in front of the drum to play it.
  • Mounted: in this position the drum is placed on a cradle similar to that used by the Oki-Daiko.  With this mounting the drum can be played from a standing position as it will be at the same height as both the Chu-daiko and Oki-Daiko.
Learning Taiko Taiko is traditionally taught orally using 'Kuchi Showa' which is a systyem of giving each stroke or combination of strokes a word. The word also indicates which part of the skin / rim / body is struck as well as giving the rhythmic elements. The basic premise is that if you can say it, you can play it. 

THE FOLLOWING SECTIONS ARE BORROWED FROM TATSUMAKI TAIKO Sounds, used in teaching taiko by "kuchi showa": (taken from Tatsumaki Taiko) The following chart shows the most commonly used phonetic alphabet used to learn taiko songs.

These phonetic words are used to express both the sound and emphasis of the beats, as well as the time value of the beats. As a result, the notation is not exact compared to the western method of music notation. There are 4 columns in the chart: the first shows the taiko player's sound, the next the shimedaiko player's, then the atarigane & "canon" sounds, and finally the meaning and value of the sound.

Taiko Shimedaiko Atarigane, Canon Meaning & Musical Value
Don (Kon) Ten Chan A single loud beat to the center (hara) of the drum. The left hand on a taiko is sometimes called "kon." This could be considered the equivalent of a quarter note; but could also be a half note, etc..
Do (Ko, Ro) Te (Ke, Re) Chi (Ki) A single firm beat to the hara, but with a value 1/2 that of "don" (the left is sometimes called "ko" or "ke"). This would be an eighth note, if "don" is a quarter note.
DoKo TeKe ChiKi 2 Fast beats of equal sound, and power. This would be the equivalent of 2 eighth notes.
DoRo TeRe ChiRi 2 Fast beats, but with a slight "rolling" feel to the beats. Played "right, left."
Tsu Tsu Tsu A note played softly. The value of the note is variable.
TsuKu TsuKu TsuKu 2 Fast beats played softly (the left hand is "ku").
Ka Ka n/a A beat played on the edge of the drum (fuchi), sometimes on the body (ko).
KaRa KaRa* n/a 2 Fast beats played on the fuchi, with a slight "rolling" feel to the beats. Played "right, left."
Su Su Su A rest. The value of the rest is variable, but usually it is one beat of the pulse of the meter.
Zu Zu n/a Another term for a soft beat, sometimes played with a slight "drag" to the beat.
*not normally played on a shimedaiko

Taiko Dictionary (used with thanks to Tatsumaki Taiko)
  • Taiko - the generic Japanese word for drum, sometimes spelled "daiko" when combined with another word.
  • Nagadou Daiko, Miya Daiko - the most common taiko, these are the drums used most frequently in festivals. Usually between 18 to 36 inches in diameter, with the taiko body length equal to, or longer than the diameter. The name literally means "long drum." Nagadou Daiko are made from a single log (of zelkova, or "keyaki"), they have a loud booming sound. They can either be played resting on their end ("flat"), or on a stand in either a horizontal or diagonal position.
  • O-Daiko - the largest taiko, some can be 6 feet or more in diameter! These are the drums made famous by "Kodo" and "Ondekoza," Japan's premier taiko groups. Taiko groups will sometimes paint a "mitsudomoe" (3 sided "ying/yang" symbol) on the O-daiko skins. O-daiko are played on stands in a horizontal position ("kagami uchi"), often with a drummer on each side of the same drum.
  • Chu Daiko - a taiko that is larger than a "miya daiko" or "jozuke," but smaller than an "O-daiko." Usually about 24 to 40 inches in diameter.
  • Wadaiko, Miya Daiko, Nagadou Daiko, Jozuke - all are terms used for a taiko between 18 to 24 inches, that can be played flat ("beta uchi"), or on a slanted stand ("sukeroku" style). Note: some US taiko groups refer to a taiko this size as a "jozuke." That term comes from the taiko group "O-Edo Sukeroku Daiko" of Tokyo, and is not commonly used by others in Japan.
  • Shime Daiko and Tsukeshime Daiko - the small high pitched taiko (usually with a head 14 to 16 inches in diameter) that often plays the "jiuchi" of a song. The name comes from the word "to tighten," since the skins are traditionally held with rope (sometimes bolts) and can be tuned.
  • Eitetsu Okedo Daiko, Kakko - taiko that look like small Okedaiko, and made of stave construction. The Eitetsu Okedo is named after Eitetsu Hayashi, one of the founders of "Ondekoza." Traditionally these drums were used in festivals, and worn around the player's neck. The skins on these drums are held with rope, like Shimedaiko, or large Okedo.
  • Hira Do, Hira Daiko - a taiko cut to a quarter of the height of a standard taiko. Often hung on a frame in a horizontal position. Hira daiko have a deep tone, with a sharper attack and quicker decay than Nagadou Daiko.
  • Okedo Taiko, Oke Daiko - a large taiko with 2 hooped heads held with rope (like a shime, or tsukeshime). Okedo are usually about 36 inches or more in diameter, and 4 to 6 feet in length, played on a stand ("kagami uchi"), and have a deep sound. These drums were originally made from buckets or barrels called "oke."
  • Uchiwa Daiko - a "fan" drum. Uchiwa are shaped like a fan, with the skin stretched around a metal hoop. They have no body, just the hoop with a handle, and come in various sizes. Their sound is similar to Remo "Roto-tom" drums. Tatsumaki Taiko

Parts of a Taiko:
  • Ko - the body of the drum.
  • Hara - the center of the skin.
  • Fuchi - the edge of the top and bottom of the drum.
  • Kawa - the skin.
  • Mimi - the excess skin that wraps around the side of the taiko.
  • Byou - the tacks that hold the skin on a taiko.
  • Kanagu, or Kan - the ring shaped handles on larger nagadou taiko. ("Kanagu" literally means metal fixtures, or hardware).
  • Nawa - the rope on a shime or okedo daiko.
Tatsumaki Taiko
Taiko Measurements and Dimensions:
  • Shaku - the measurement used for large taiko. 1 shaku = 30 cm/12 inches. A shaku is made of 10 smaller units called sun. Usually the shaku diameter of the head is used to categorize a taiko, so drums will be referred to as 1.5 shaku, or 2 shaku...
  • Sun - the measurement used for small taiko, and bells and cymbals. 1 sun = 3 cm, or 1 and 3/16 ths inches. A shimedaiko's skin diameter is measured in shaku, but the shell is measured in sun. Standard sizes are 5, 6 and 7 sun.
    Shimedaiko Sizes
  • In addition the weight & thickness of the skin is used to categorize a shimedaiko:
    Namizuke - lightest weight, thinnest skin. Not normally used for taiko performances.
  • Nichougake - also called a "Number 2." Slightly heavier & thicker than a namizuke.
  • Sanchougake - also called a "Number 3." Heavier & of the more popular sizes.
  • Yonchougake - also called a "Number 4." Probably the most popular size among taiko groups.
  • Gochougake - also called a "Number 5." The heaviest and thickest skin. Can be tightened to a very high pitch.
Tatsumaki Taiko
Types of Wood: Japanese name in bold - English equivalent (if any), and use in taiko, antiques, etc..
  • Keyaki - Zelkovia, used to make single piece taiko and shimedaiko bodies.
  • Tochi - Horse Chestnut, used to make single piece taiko bodies.
  • Sen - Unknown, used to make single piece taiko and shimedaiko bodies.
  • Nara - Scrub Oak, used by Kawada Taiko to make their "Hi-Tech Taikos" which are constructed from staves, also used for Bachi.
  • Tamo - Unknown, used by Kawada Taiko to make their "Hi-Tech Taikos" which are constructed from staves.
  • Hinoki - Cypress, used to make bachi, especially for O-daiko.
  • Matsu - Pine, used for bachi, especially for O-daiko.
  • Kashi - Evergreen Oak, used for bachi (all sizes), and for dai (stands).
  • Haku - Oak (general term).
  • Hoo - Magnolia, used for bachi, all sizes.
  • Buna - Beech, used for bachi, all sizes.
  • Take - Bamboo, used to make fue (flutes), and for special types of bachi.
  • Kaede - Maple, used for special bachi.
  • Kiri - Paulownia, used for special bachi. Also used in furniture and antiques.
  • Sugi - Cedar, used in furniture and antiques.
  • Kaba - Birch, used in making western drums.
  • Hannoki - Alder, used in furniture and antiques.
    Tatsumaki Taiko

Other Instruments:
  • Bachi - taiko sticks.
  • ane - a bell, or small gong (see Atarigane).
  • Dora - a gong.
  • Suzu - also means bell. Usually small round bells. The bells at a Shinto shrine are referred to as "suzu."
  • Atarigane, or Chanchiki - a saucer shaped bell, often hung from a cord like a small gong. Atarigane are played with a "shumoku," a single stick that traditionally has a piece of deer antler on the end. The atarigane often keeps the "jiuchi" of a song.
  • Chappa, or Tebyoushi - small hand cymbals that are used in place of an Atarigane, (or "Canon,") to keephe "jiuchi" or basic rhythm of a song.
  • Canon, or Tetsu-tsutsu - a set of bells on a stand consisting of high and low pitched bells with a hollow metallic piece in between of indefinite pitch. The 2 bells are usually tuned to a 3rd or 4th step, as in Latin music. The middle piece makes a metallic "ching" sound. The "canon" (or "tetsu-tsutsu" in Japanese) is used to play the basic beat.
  • Tsutsumi - the small hourglass shaped drum used in traditional Japanese music, and Noh theater. Tsutsumi are played with the hands, not with bachi.
  • Hyoushigi - wooden "clapers." Two wooden blocks tied together with rope, and struck together to produce a clave like sound. Used in old Japan by street merchants to call their customers.
  • Narimono - the generic term for small percussion instruments.
  • Fue - means "flute" in Japanese. Fue come in many sizes and pitches, but they are generally high in pitch and made of bamboo (called shinobue).
  • Shakuhachi - a special Japanese flute made of a long piece of bamboo. Shakuhachi have a low melancholy sound.
Tatsumaki Taiko
Other Taiko terms:
  • Ashi dai - a stand with legs (ashi), usually ashi dai will hold a drum in a horizontal position so that the middle of the drum is slightly above eye-level.
  • Beta uchi - playing a taiko that sits flat on the floor with one skin horizontal.
  • Dai - The generic word for a stand.
  • Dojo - the Japanese term used for a school, or a group in training.
  • Hachijo daiko - a style of playing taiko where the taiko rests horizontally on a stand at about shoulder height, so the 2 heads are vertical to the player. Drummers play both sides of the taiko - one side plays the "O-uchi," while the other plays the "Ji-uchi." This style originated on Hachijo Island, and is known for its flashy arm movements, and impressive stick work.
  • Hayashi (or Bayashi) - a musical band, or accompaniment. Also refers to festival music, for example "Matsuri no Bayashi."
  • Henbyoushi - change of rhythm.
  • Hyoushi - musical time, a rhythm, or a musical time pattern.
  • Ikko - the first beat of a war drum.
  • Ji-uchi, or Jikata - the basic feel and meter of a taiko song.
  • Kagami uchi - playing a taiko that rests horizontally on a stand. The 2 heads are vertical to the player. Used for O-Daiko, and Hachijo styles. Sometimes drummers play both sides of the same taiko.
  • Ka kai e - playing an Okedo held by a strap over the drummer's shoulder. This style is generally associated with "Kodo" and Leonard Eto (a former member). Although "ka kai e" originally comes from festivals, Leonard Eto and "Kodo" popularized the speedy stick work and cross-over arm movements that are now associated with it.
  • Kamaete - the performers' starting position for a taiko song.
  • Kata - the performers' positioning and movement. This is a term borrowed from martial arts, and loosely means "form."
  • Ki ai, or Kakegoe - the shouts and verbal cues that taiko players use to keep time, increase their energy, and encourage one another while playing.
  • Kuchi showa - the method of teaching and learning taiko songs by the use of an "alphabet of sounds." For example, "Don" for a loud beat to the center of the drum, and "Tsu" for a soft beat.
  • Kumi daiko - the arrangement of many different taiko into a drum set, as in a western drum kit. This style shows the influence of jazz and dance band drumming in modern taiko.
  • Matsuri - means "festival" in Japanese. Taiko is often played at a matsuri, for example "O-bon Matsuri". There is even a song called "Matsuri Daiko," which has many regional variations. Each version celebrating the uniqueness of the community that performs it.
  • Miyake daiko - a style of taiko where a large taiko rests "kagami uchi" (horizontal) on a low stand. Sometimes 2 taiko are used, with the player in between. This style originated on Miyake Island, and is unique in the way drummers must position themselves to play the taiko on low stands.
  • Onbayashi - the style of playing a nagadou taiko where the drummer is lying on the floor in a reclining position. The taiko rests on a low stand in a horizontal position, the drummer's legs straddle the taiko. This style comes from the piece "Yatai bayashi" and was popularized by "Ondekoza."
  • Oritatami dai - translates as "folding stand." This is the general term for any folding leg taiko stand, including slant or diagonal stands. Slanted stands are sometimes called "sukeroku dai" by US taiko groups. The term "sukeroku" was coined by "O-Edo Sukeroku Daiko" of Tokyo, and is not generally used by others in Japan. For example, a taiko catalog would list a slant stand as an "oritatami dai," not as a "sukeroku dai."
  • Oroshi - played at the beginning of a performance or song to focus the player on the taiko, and bring a group of drummers together. Usually an oroshi starts with slow beats that gradually increase in speed and intensity until a fast roll is played.
  • O-uchi - the main player, or the "song" part of a taiko piece.
  • Renshu - means "practice." As a warm-up, some groups play a "renshu daiko" or practice exercise.
  • Sukeroku - a style of playing where the taiko rests in slanted (diagonal) position. Popular in the Edo (Tokyo) area, and traditionally played at "matsuri." This style has been taken to new heights by a group from Tokyo called "O-Edo Sukeroku Daiko."
  • Tekoto - a style of playing where the drummer alternately plays the "hara" and the "fuchi" of the taiko.
  • Uchite - a taiko drummer.
Tatsumaki Taiko
Other Music terms:
  • Ainote - interlude; accompaniment; strain of music
  • Bugaku - court dance and music
  • Bukyoku - musical dance; music and dancing.
  • Butoukyoku - dance music.
  • Chouchou - major key (music notation).
  • Ei - a sharp (music notation).
  • Eihechouchou - F sharp major (music notation).
  • Ensou - music performance.
  • Fukikomu - to blow into; to breathe into; to inspire; to lay down a recording (music, video, etc.).
  • Fumen - written music.
  • Fumendai - music stand.
  • Gagaku - old Japanese court music.
  • Gakufu - score (written music).
  • Gigaku - ancient music.
  • Gosen - staff (music notation).
  • Gosenfu - a written music score.
  • Gosenshi - music paper.
  • Gouchou - tuning (music instruments).
  • Gungaku - military music.
  • Hakusuu - count of beats in music.
  • Han'on - half tone (music notation).
  • Han'onkai - chromatic (music scale).
  • Happyoukai - recital (i.e. of music, by a pupil).
  • Hassou - expression (when referring to music).
  • Heikinritsu - temperament (music).
  • Hen - flat (music notation).
  • Henrotanchou - B flat minor (music scale).
  • Hensoukyoku - variation (music).
  • Iemoto - the head of a school (of music, dance).
  • Ikkyoku - a tune (melody, piece of music).
  • Jinrai - wind instruments.
  • Jouen - performance (when referring to music).
  • Kagura - ancient Shinto music and dancing.
  • Kangen - music for wind and string instruments.
  • Kangengaku - orchestral music.
  • Kigaku - instrumental music.
  • Kogaku - ancient (early) music.
  • Kokyoku - old music.
  • Kyoku - tune; piece of music.
  • Kyouon - accent (music notation).
  • Kyuufu - rest (music notation).
  • Kyuushifu - rest (music); period; full stop.
  • Mimigakoeteiru - to have an ear for music.
  • Myuujikku - the word "music" spelled phonetically in Japanese.
  • Okesa - type of traditional vocal music.
  • Ondai - College of Music (abbreviation).
  • Ongaku - music.
  • Ongakudaigaku - College of Music.
  • Ongakushi - music history.
  • Onpu - music; notes; notation.
  • Saifu - writing a melody on music paper; recording a tune in musical notes.
  • Sakkyoku - composition (of music).
  • Sanbyoushi - triple time (music).
  • Seigaku - vocal music.
  • Shuusaku - study (when referring to music).
  • Suisougaku - music for wind instruments.
  • Tanchou - minor key (music notation).
  • Teion - rest (music notation, obsolete).
  • Teionpu - rest (music notation, obsolete).
  • Zen'on - whole tone (music).
  • Zenkyuushifu - whole rest (music notation).
  • Zokuchou - popular music; "vulgar" music.
  • Zokugaku - popular music, world music.
  • Tatsumaki Taiko

  • Happi, or Hanten - the colorful "short coats" that are usullay worn with an "obi" (belt). Often the happi bears the name and logo (called "mon") of the taiko group.
  • Fundoshi - the cloth that is wrapped around a man's legs and waist (basically like small jockey pants), and worn when playing the O-daiko or Okedo. In Japan men still wear fundoshi during summer matsuri, for example when carrying a "mikoshi" or pulling a "yatai."
  • Haragake - originally used as a carpenter's apron. Haragake look like aprons, they cover the chest and stomach, and have straps that criss-cross over the shoulders.
  • Tabi - shoes worn by taiko players. They are similar to high-top "kung fu" shoes, but the big toe is separated like the thumb of a mitten.
  • Momohiki - the pants often worn by taiko players. They are like long under pants, or tights, but tie around the waist.
  • Hachimaki - the head band worn by many taiko players (and sushi-ya).
  • Obi - the belt that holds a kimono or happi coat. Tatsumaki Taiko

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