NOTE: As with most Gaelic spellings, the word "bodhran" keeps you guessing for a pronunciation. Bodhran is usually pronounced "BOW-ron." The "dh" is silent, and the accent is on the first syllable.
Introduction to the Bodhran
The bodhran is an Irish hand drum. It's one of the traditional percussion instruments played to accompany jigs, reels, hornpipes, slip jigs, and other types of the Celtic dance music. It adds a strong, remarkably compelling, rhythmic drive to the already spirited, frequently fierce music played in Celtic circles.
The bodhran bestows a rich bass tone to the mix, adding a nice low compliment to the high pitched instruments like the fiddle, concertina, flute, and penny whistle usually featured in this genre. The drum adds the deep effect of a bass, but the accompanist is free to improvise! So playing with the bodhran can be great fun for the chordal accompanist.
Unlike a bass guitar or bass fiddle, the bodhran contributes little pitch. So drummer and chord accompanist needn't worry about chordal collisions. Nor need they rehearse for hours hammering out a choral consensus for each tune. In fact, when playing with a drummer the accompanist is free to improvise chordally and if you've accompanied Celtic music, you know that improvising chords can be a great fun. But if other musicians are playing chords or bass, it's not possible, at least not to the same degree.
What Got Me Interested
Although my interest in playing the Bodhran goes back many years, there were several influences that finally motivated me to take up the drum:
I have long wanted to include another accompanist in performances, but as previously mentioned, there's always a potential problem when two accompanists play differing chords to a tune. But now that I'm able to switch to the drum, that's no longer an issue.
Holding the Bodhran
Bodhran players usually sit, holding the drum upright between the arm and chest, resting lightly it on their thigh.
Across the back of the bodhran there's a single brace or X-shaped double brace. Right handed players rest their left hand between the brace and the head of the drum, pressing their hand against the head of the drum. This is done partly for support, but also to change the tone and to mute the drum in varying degrees. The drum is rarely play entirely unmuted.
Drummers use a number of left hand techniques to change the sound of the drum:
Advanced players create a seemingly endless array of sounds by combining rhythm patterns, muting, and tonal or pitch adjustments.
As you explore the various possibilities, and as you acquire an range of skills on the bodhran, remember, in music and certainly in percussion, less is more. The drum's primary role is accompaniment. It should add stability and drive, supporting and framing the music without drawing much attention to itself.
Holding the Stick
A single stick, called a tipper, cipan, mallet, bodhran stick, or beater, is used to play the bodhran. There's a knob at each end of the stick. Right handed drummers hold the stick in the right hand.
A beginning drummer might play exclusively with just one end of the stick the end that extends below the hand. Advanced players alternate rapidly between using the single end and both ends.
The tipper is held much like a pencil but with the stick crossing the middle segment of the middle finger. A secure hold only requires a small amount of energy. Excess energy will restrict the basic movements, and if these are limited to a significant degree, it may be nearly impossible to get the movements to produce the desired result. Furthermore, an excessively strong hold will tire the drummer in a surprisingly short period of time. So try not to squeeze or grip the tipper firmly.
As with most musical pursuits, relaxation is the most essential element in playing the bodhran. It's probably impossible for me to over emphasize this point. And it's of utmost importance, because unrelaxed movements can easily strain the body. So take it easy, especially at the start.
As you begin to play, focus on relaxing your tipper hand and wrist. Allow your wrist to droop downward, or flex it slightly in this direction. But don't flex it too far, as it will become to rigid, and a relaxed wrist is most of the aspect to successful drumming on the Bodhran.
There are a number of things that will instantly lock up your wrist:
Keep your hand in a "neutral" position as much as possible, that's the position your hand assumes when you relax it and allow the fingers to gently curl. (This position is most easily achieved with your palm turned upward.) A neutral hand position will eliminate the first two problems listed above.
The Basic Stroke
The basic stroke is a combination of two movements:
The main movement is a rotation of the wrist. As you increase the extent of the wrist rotation, and simultaneously relax your arm, your upper arm will begin to move slightly.
With each stroke you'll see a small change in the elevation or position of your elbow. It will alternate away from you side, and then close again slightly higher and slightly lower. As your elbow raises, your wrist lowers, and visa versa. Thus a point near the center of the forearm becomes a floating fulcrum.
This alternating movement between wrist and elbow is subtle. And a tense or rigid arm will foil your attempts to learn it. Once you can rock your wrist and elbow around a fulcrum point you'll be able to extend the amount of wrist rotation. In fact, you can use the leverage you get from this rocking to further propel your wrist, and this will allow you to increase your volume, or add accents.
If you have trouble learning this movement, try exaggerating it. But be forewarned, in it's exaggerated form this movement is less efficient, and takes far more energy. After you get it, refine it to a very subtle movement of just an inch or so.
Swing & Straight Rhythm
When playing the bodhran you'll find that the rhythm has a tendency to swing the down stroke tends to last longer than the upstroke at a ratio of roughly 2/3 to 1/3. There's a lot of swing in Celtic music, so this is a valuable skill to cultivate. But you should also master straight time as well, and with the bodhran, there's an inherent challenge to that.
By practicing straight and swing rhythm you'll become sensitive enough to easily recognize and produce varying degrees of swing. This ability can make the difference between a good drummer and an excellent drummer. It's great playing with a percussionist who quickly hears and aligns to the subtleties in timing.
Music can sound mystifyingly wrong if players fail to align the extent of swing. Each musical part may sound fine by itself, but a clash in timing will occur unless all players align their rhythm to play perfectly straight or with the same degree of swing. When there's a conflict in swing, notes on the beat align properly, but the notes on the offbeats occur at slightly different times creating quite a clutter of sound.
As you learn the basic movements you should focus on a number of goals. Learn to:
This list of topics in not meant to provide a complete description of basic bodhran technique. But it should point you in the right direction. As you learn, listen to the bodhran players on your favorite recordings. Spend time practicing with these recordings. Nothing is more helpful than hearing good players and playing along with them. And your won't find a more tolerant environment than playing along in your home with the pros on the stereo. This is the best place to experiment and push your limits. When playing in sessions, stay well within your range of certainty. Trail blaze on your on time.
Types of Tippers
Tippers come in different weights and lengths. Some have padded ends covered with cloth, leather, or yarn, etc.
My Personal Experience
I began playing the bodhran early in 1999, and was rather surprised how quickly I progressed. The movements and accents felt remarkable similar to guitar strumming a skill I've cultivated since I was twelve. No doubt my foundation with guitar boosted me forward a considerable amount. And focusing on relaxation (something which I have also cultivated through careful practice) helped tremendously.
Progress was pretty slow for the first couple of weeks. Weeks three and four proceeded at about the same pace but at a slightly higher plateau. Each subsequent month I noticed dramatic improvements. In particular, more relaxation, and more stamina, and the ability to incorporate new patterns and ideas.
Finding Drums and Sticks
I haven't had to do a lot of research on finding drums or sticks, partly because Lark in the Morning in San Francisco specializes in percussion instruments. The phone for the San Francisco store is: 415-922-4277
The first time I was at Lark in the Morning's San Francisco Store they had about fifteen models of bodhran on display. There were drums by Cooperman, Howard, Claddagh, and others tunable models, natural skin or synthetic heads. At the counter was a bowl of tippers. Plus there were a couple of nice carrying cases for sale as well.
Lark in the Morning has been in business for many years. The original store is in Mendecino, CA. For many years Lark has maintained a thriving mail order service.
An Inexpensive Start REMO Pre-Tuned Heads
REMO makes several "pre-tuned" drum heads. These provide an inexpensive way to get started and test your interest. And they produce remarkable results for only about $15.
There are coated models which are opaque white. And there are clear models. With the coated head you'll get a different sound by playing the coated or uncoated side. The coated side sounds like a rough goatskin head. The other side sounds like a polished natural head. All the pre-tuned heads a simple aluminum rim, about a half inch.
For a numerous reasons I recommend one of the 16 inch models.
I especially like the REMO PTS Pinstripe Super Dark, which is about 16.5 inches in diameter. It has a clear uncoated head. This drum can sound a bit flappy, especially if you fail to mute it properly. But it's got a really good deep pitch and there's no excessive ring. (Of course, it's not traditional for your arm to show through the drum. But if that doesn't bother you, this is a nice practice drum.)
Also try the REMO PTS AMB Dark, a 16 inch coated head. Model number PT3116BA
I believe. The AMB stands for "ambassador" And the term "dark" refers to the pitch of the drum. "Medium" is pitched higher.
Playing a Pre-Tuned Head
When playing a REMO pre-tuned head, you'll need to use different techniques than with an actual bodhran.
Hold the drum so the palm of your hand rests against the back of the drum, with your fingers wrapped lightly around the rim, crossing onto the front of the drum. (When holding a real bodhran, your hand is completely behind the drum head, wedged between the brace and the head. It supports the drum, and it changes the sound of the drum, muting and changing the pitch.) With a pre-tuned drum head, since your fingers are busy holding the drum, you cannot use them to mute or change pitch. But your thumb, wrist, elbow, forearm and upper arm are relatively free. So you can use them for these purposes.
Mute by pressing your forearm (and possibly your elbow) lightly against the back of the drum. It's difficult to mute effectively with a bare arm or a light shirt sleeve. If it's not well muted the drum may ring too much and contribute too much pitch. I'd recommend using some sort of cloth against the head: an old sweatshirt sleeve on your arm, a towel, cloth, or a small pillow.
To change pitch press in with your wrist or thumb inward against the head. A lower pitched drum gives you a better working range of pitch. A 14 inch drum with a "medium" tension produces a distinctive and undesirable snare or high "tom" sound.
If you chose to use a REMO pre-tuned head to get started and move on to a real bodhran, use your REMO PTS, for camping or backpacking, or loan it to a friend.
REMO also has a line of bodhrans by Howard. These have a synthetic frame and head. They come tunable or fixed, with a single brace, and are available in 14, 16 and 18 inch diameter. These are good drums although the ones I've seen come in a fairly intense shade of green, and everyone I've asked says that's the only choice of color. I believe prices range between $90 and $160.
The REMO Tipper
REMO also makes a nice stick which they call the "cipan mallet." It's model number is HK3000HW and it costs about $15. The 1999 catalogue shows a very thick stick that's much wider at the middle than most tippers. But when I ordered item HK3000HW from the REMO catalogue, a very nice stick arrived, although it was quite different from the picture in the catalogue. Perhaps the one pictured is no longer available.
Whatever the case, I've played with both sticks, and each is really quite comfortable, and worthy members of your tipper collection.
Some Final Thoughts
There are many traditional rhythms used to accompany Celtic dance music. Of course, the tradition continues to expand and evolve. Still, when you play traditional dance music with others, start conservatively with a traditional approach. Don't play just any wild rhythm that you've mastered. Find a simple way to blend in. If you ease your way in you'll find yourself welcomed in many traditional circles. Once you're in you understand the desires of the group, and you can branch out from there.
Fiddle, Guitar, Violin, Mandolin & Bodhran
Singingwood Music is the studio of John Blasquez