Any percussion you could play with your bare hands, without the help of sticks or other tools, falls under the broad category of hand drums.
Note: If you’re looking for an article about hang drums then check out our article about that here instead.
Hand drums were already very popular in the ancient world and they still are, in many different genres, styles, and Countries.
The fact that you can play hand drums with bare hands could mislead you into thinking that they are fairly “easy” instruments. They are not!
First of all, there are many different kinds of hand drums, each of them with specific characteristics and sounds. Secondly, hand drums can be played with different techniques, often involving the use of sticks or hammers too.
Hand drums often fall under the category of frame drums, i.e. percussion instruments where the drumhead is wider than the depth of the whole device. The well-known tambourine is an example of a frame drum, which is also a hand drum.
Some others, however, have a completely different structure. Think about congas or djembes as an example.
Can you start seeing the complexity of the subject?
To study the different hand drums available to the player means to travel around many different areas and cultures. Are you ready to embark on this fascinating journey?
South American hand drums
Drum types: Congas, bongos, cajons, tambora, blenera
Hand drums are very popular in South America, where they are a consistent part of the local folk music.
Congas and bongos, among others, became very well-known worldwide as unmissable protagonists of salsa, merengue, bachata, and Latin jazz.
Congas, sometimes called tumbadoras, are tall, narrow, single-headed drums originating from the Afro-Cuban folklore.
Congas are usually made of three different types of drums: quinto (highest pitch), tres dos (middle pitch), and tumba (lowest pitch).
The name comes from la conga, a drum used in traditional Cuban carnivals.
Congueros can use five basic strokes: the open tone (played with four fingers by the edge of the skin), the tono ahogado (holding the fingers on the skin to muffle the sound), the tono bajo (achieved by striking the full palm), the tono seco, and the toque de punta.
Some other popular Latin hand drums are the tambora (originated in the Dominican Republic) and the plenera, a Puerto Rican frame drum.
Another extremely popular hand drum, now also employed in any pop acoustic setting, is the cajòn, a wooden box originally from Peru, that was quickly extended to flamenco and jazz.
In conclusion, hand drums are a fascinating mix of different styles and cultures. Playing them requires a lot of skill, achievable only through restless practice!
Drum types: Djembes, ashiko, bougarabou
Djembes fall under the category of goblet drums, so called for the shape of their body, on which a membrane is mounted.
Goblet drums are popular in Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe.
The African djembes are possibly the most well-known goblet drum in the Western world.
A djembe usually has a body made of hard and dense wood, while the membrane is usually goatskin, mounted on the body through a rope and two steel rings.
Its name probably comes from the Bambara saying Anje djé, anke bé, meaning “Let’s gather together in peace”.
Considering its small size, a djembe can emit a very loud sound, up to 105 dB. It also offers a big variety of sounds, making it a great instrument for solo interludes over an ensemble.
The three main sounds used by players are the bass (low pitch), the tone (medium pitch), and the slap (high pitch), resulting from different striking techniques in different areas of the membrane.
For example, to play the bass sound you’ll have to hit the drum with the palm of your hand, towards the center of the skin. To play either the tone or the slap sound, instead, you’ll have to play closer to the edges.
Some other similar but lesser known African drums are the ashiko and the bougarabou.
Drum types: tambourines, bodhran, tar, daf, ghaval
As highlighted above, the tambourine is possibly the most known frame/hand drum. It is so popular that we can find various versions of it in different genres and cultures, from folk music to rock, from South America to Europe (Italy, Greece, Turkey,…).
Tambourines probably originated in Ancient Egypt and they were also used by the Hebrew people for religious rituals. The term has a French origin (tambour means “drum”, although it seems to originate from the Arabic tunbur or Middle Persian tambur).
The peculiarity of a tambourine lies in the metal chimes (zills) attached to its structure (usually made of wood or plastic), which give the instrument a bright, jolly sound.
We all must have played the tambourine at some point in our childhood, but mastering a performance with this seemingly easy instrument is trickier than it sounds. The hand techniques you could employ are various, and you could even use your legs, hips, or a stick to produce sounds of different intensities and characteristics by stroking the frame. Or you could not stroke the frame at all and go for a tambourine roll, rapidly rotating your wrist while holding the instrument in your hand.
In our times, tambourines are extremely popular in rock and pop music and are often played by the lead singer of a band (think about Mick Jagger or Robert Plant) or the drummer, who can have them mounted along with their cymbals.
Frame drums are very common in Middle Eastern music too. Many traditional instruments from the Middle East and North Africa are actually frame drums you can play with bare hands.
Examples include the tar, the daf, or the ghaval. All these three have similar structures, made of a wooden frame with skin on top of it. These instruments can be played with the palm of your hand, with your fingers, or with sticks and hammers, according to the intensity of sound you want to achieve.
A very similar kind of instrument is the Irish bodhran, which has a comparable structure, but which is usually played with a traditional stick (cipìn).
With this kind of drum, the differences in sound and pitches are mostly attributed to their materials. Their modern versions often have tuners.
The Hang, Handpans, and Steel Tongue Drums
These are a group of melodic percussion instruments that are rich in tone and expression.
The ‘Hang‘ is a very interesting and specific instrument introduced by the Swiss company PANArt in the year 2000 (The company didn’t like it being called a ‘Hang Drum’, and in fact, probably would rather it not be included in this article at all!). Many other producers of similar instruments emerged – these instruments are more specifically referred to as handpans (though casual observers can often refer to all these types of instruments as ‘Hang Drums’).
These are usually handmade and tend to cost in the region of a few thousand dollars. Check out our article on handpans to learn more. Be sure to stay clear of scam artists selling junk metal for 1000s of dollars that have taken advantage of the high-value expectation of handpans!
Another group of instruments known as Steel Tongue Drums have also emerged. They are often smaller and cheaper than handpans, though they are based on a similar tone layout. Some even include built-in piezo microphones and tuning magnets.
All of these instruments are usually made in a single scale (apart from certain models which have a limited amount of tuning possibilities through magents). The benefit of this is that you can hit anywhere and you won’t be out of key. The drawback is that you’re limiting your sound possibilities to a specific key.