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How Do I Choose the Best African Drums?

Judith Smith Sullivan
Judith Smith Sullivan

The best African drums will be high quality, produce a great sound, and fit your needs as well as your budget. African drums come in a variety of sizes and styles, making them popular in many situations, including professional performances and the classroom. These drums are available through both online retailers and brick and mortar stores.

Before you begin shopping, it will help to understand how African drums can be used and then to decide, based on your own needs, what suits you. For instance, a small djembe is an excellent drum for individuals who travel often, dancers, and children. It is also a good size for instructors and therapists who need portability in order to hold classes in a variety of locations. The djembe is a fairly simple drum that creates two basic sounds — low and high. Technique is straightforward, and even beginning students can play immediately with only a few minutes of instruction.

Man with hands on his hips
Man with hands on his hips

For very small children, sometimes a modified African drum is best. These may be based on a conga, djembe, or other styles of African drum, but they have short legs to allow them to stand alone while still letting the sound vibrate from the bottom of the instrument. Children can stand at the drum and play it, eliminating the need to balance the drum while learning to play.

A talking drum can produce a wide variety of tones, making it a very sophisticated style of drum. Combinations of drums, whether multiples of the same drum or varying sizes and styles of drums, may also be appropriate. With its small size, it is appropriate for the classroom, therapy, and professional situations. The talking drum's only drawback is that it requires more skill and technique to play consistently, making it difficult for beginners.

Of course, there are many more types of drums. If you're not sure of the exact style you want, make a list of what characteristics you'd like the drum to have. For instance, jot down whether you want a stand alone drum or one that you can hold in your hands or hang from a strap. Note the size you would prefer and whether you want to play with your hands or with some type of mallet.

There are basically two types of drum heads: natural animal skin and synthetic. Natural tends to be softer on the hands and produces a warm sound. Synthetic is longer lasting and usually not as susceptible to changes in humidity. A synthetic head is typically less expensive than natural skin.

Next, determine your budget. Drums can get very expensive, especially if you are buying a set of drums for a group. When you have a small budget, you may be tempted to purchase the least expensive drum possible. In many cases, these drums have a poor sound, weak wood, and heads that tear and break easily. In the end, you will have to repair the drums or purchase new ones.

When you've clarified your needs and decided on your budget, it's time to shop. The best way to find good African drums is to play them, but if you must shop online, be sure to purchase from a company that has a generous return policy allowing several weeks for exchange or refund. Make sure that you won't be subject to restocking fees, which deduct a percentage of the overall price from your refund.

Play the drum and listen for a good sound that carries well. Check the wood for cracks and splits as this will effect the integrity of the instrument and the overall quality of sound. Strings should be firmly attached, and not fraying, especially in areas subjected to a lot of friction, like the edge of the drum head.

When considering the style and size of the drum, don't forget to try it out in the manner you intend to play it. If you plan on dancing or carrying the drum for long distances, try it on and take its weight into consideration. Make sure the drum is comfortable to play as even a drum with a gorgeous sound will go unplayed if it is uncomfortable to handle.

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      Man with hands on his hips