There are many different options to consider when choosing a djembe drum. In this post, I will provide you with everything you need to make an informed decision.
The main components that you will want to consider when choosing a djembe are the shell, tuning system, skin type, size, weight, sound, and cost.
Choosing a Djembe Drum Shell
One of the biggest decisions you will make when purchasing your next djembe is to choose between an authentic wood carved djembe, a lathed wood djembe, or a synthetic djembe.
Each type of djembe shell has its own distinct benefits, and your personal needs will determine which type of djembe shell is right for you.
Authentic Wood Carved Djembes
Authentic wood carved djembes are hand carved by master djembe makers. These djembe carvers have crafted their art and refined their skills over many generations. Most authentic wood carved djembes are produced in Guinea, Mali, and the Ivory Coast.
One of the most important factors of an authentic wood carved djembe shell is the type of wood used. Choosing the right type of wood is very important because they each have their own unique properties. The type of wood used will affect the appearance, weight, durability, and sound of the djembe.
The djembe carver will begin the djembe carving process with what is essentially a large log. After deciding on the which type of wood to use, the carver will chip away the unnecessary wood. Slowly and carefully they will transform the piece of wood into a beautiful djembe drum shell. This is an intricate process with many steps. Due to this complexity, there are many indicators to determine the skill level of the carver and overall quality of the shell.
Authentic wood carved djembe shells have the most authentic “voice”, fullest sound, and the highest quality of craftsmanship you can find. These shells are a great choice for any skill level. If you’re serious about hand drumming, I highly suggest you make the investment for a nice shell.
Lathed Wood Djembes
Lathed wood djembes are crafted from wood, but are not hand carved. This method of production relies on the assistance of powered machinery (a lathe) to carve the drum. This type of drum is commonly produced in Thailand and Indonesia.
There are two distinct lathing methods. The most common method uses a lathe machine to carve a djembe from a full log. The other method uses a lathe to create “staves” which are then glued together to create a djembe shell.
The best results are produced using a single piece of wood. There are several reputable djembe makers in the United States, Indonesia, and other countries that make drums with the lathe method. These djembes hold their own and can be very high-quality drums. Drums made from staves can also be nice, but they have different sound properties due to their “stitched” together design.
Lathed wood djembe shells provide a great low-cost alternative to authentic shells, but may have less character and lack a “voice” or spiral groove on their interior. I recommend this type of djembe to someone who wants a wood shell but can’t afford an authentic wood carved djembe.
Synthetic djembes are typically constructed from a plastic or fiberglass mold. They are mass produced in factories and are made by machines. These types of drums are commonly produced in the United States (Remo), Thailand (Tycoon), and several other countries (Toca, Meinl, Pearl, etc.)
Synthetic djembe shells are a great choice for beginners due to their low cost, lightweight, and great durability. They’re a good starting point but will never produce a sound as rich as an authentic djembe shell can.
Djembe Tuning System
There are two types of djembe tuning systems; rope tuned or key tuned.
Rope Tuned Djembes
A rope tuning system is a traditional method of djembe tuning that originated in Africa. This method of tuning uses vertical ropes to place tension on the skin of the drum. These ropes are connected to the top and bottom ring with tension evenly distributed throughout all sides of the djembe.
The main benefits of a rope tuned djembe are their many points of tension (usually 26+), nice appearance, and increased comfort while playing. The negatives are that they require a special type of tuning method called the “Mali Weave” and demand frequent tuning.
The Mali Weave may be overwhelming at first, but is really not that hard once you get the hang of it.
A key tuning system is comprised of metal brackets that are attached near the top of the drum. These brackets can be tightened or loosened through the use of a “key” or a specially sized wrench. I’ve seen authentic wood carved drums that use the key tuning system, but it is generally used for synthetic djembes.
The main benefits of key-tuned djembes are that adjustments can be made very quickly and they’re easy to tune. The negatives are that the mounted brackets are bulky and may get in your way while you’re playing. They also tend to have just 6 to 8 points of tension.
Djembe Skin Types
There are several different variations of djembe skin types to choose from. The traditional skin used for a djembe is an African goat skin. Other types of animal skins are sometimes used, such as cow or mule skin.
Synthetic skins are designed to mimic the properties of a traditional goatskin and have improved in quality over the years. They are a great alternative to traditional animal skins.
Traditional Djembe Skins
The traditional African goat skin has been used for hundreds of years. It is the most popular and common type of djembe drumhead.
African goat skins are able to produce a “full”, authentic sound, but are not as durable as synthetic djembe skins. They can be damaged by changes in climate such as extreme temperatures, moisture changes, or high humidity.
Djembes with traditional African goatskin drumheads require more maintenance than synthetic skins and may perform poorly outdoors or in certain weather conditions. You will encounter these skins regularly since they have the potential to sound better than synthetic skins,
I recommend having at least 2 djembes (the more the better! ) A djembe with an African goatskin that is used indoors and for pre-planned events, and a djembe with a synthetic skin for outdoor and sporadic drumming.
Synthetic Djembe Skins
Synthetic djembe skins provide a few distinct advantages over authentic animal skins. They are more durable, weather resistant, and provide a better consistency throughout the skin with little to no imperfections. The downsides are that they can produce a “ringing” overtone, less expressive sound, and may feel unnatural to play.
Synthetic djembe skins are usually designed for a specific shell and are not interchangeable. An example of this can be seen by looking at a few popular synthetic djembe skins produced by Remo. They are called the Fiberskyn, NuSkyn, and SkynDeep. These are my favorite synthetic drumheads for djembes.
Synthetic djembe skins are a good choice for vegetarians, vegans, or animal lovers. They are also great for taking to spontaneous drum circles, events that may have inclement weather, and for anything travel or outdoors related.
Djembes come in many sizes, but their designs are all very similar. They follow the goblet shape and have a small opening on the bottom and a large the opening on the top.
There are 2 important measurements when it comes to the size of a djembe.
- The diameter of the large opening of the djembe will be the first number listed in the sequence and is denoted in inches.
- The length or height of the djembe will be the second number listed in the sequence and is also denoted in inches.
- An example of this basic formula would be a 12×24 inch djembe.
- This means that the djembe has a 12-inch diameter or playing surface, and a length or height of 24 inches.
- A 12×24 inch design is very common and you will see many different variations of this size.
Larger djembes are able to produce a wider range of sound including a deeper bass, higher slaps, and benefit from a “differentiated sound”. This means that there is a distinct difference between the sound of the bass, tone, and slap. Larger djembes can produce louder volumes and will carry their sound or “project” much better than a smaller djembe.
The main benefit of a smaller djembe is its reduced weight and ease of play. It’s often much easier for a beginner to start with a smaller drum rather than a 12×24 design. Smaller drums are also useful for children and those with smaller hands.
Djembes can be quite heavy and based upon your use of the drum, this can be a very important factor. In this section, we will look at the average weights of a 12×24 djembe.
Authentic wood carved djembes and lathed wood djembes are almost always much heavier than their synthetic counterparts. This is due to their wood body construction, which is obviously a much denser material than fiberglass or plastic. Wood djembes typically range in weight from 15 to 25 lbs with fluctuations based on the type of wood used.
The material of the drum and the thickness of the mold used will determine the weight of a synthetic djembe. Since these drums are made from plastic or fiberglass they can be extremely light weight. Synthetic djembes can be anywhere from 40% to 60% lighter than a similar sized authentic wood carved djembe. The typical weight range for a synthetic djembe is between 6 and 12 lbs.
Many drummers like to play from a standing position with their drum strapped around their shoulders. This is a great way to play during a performance or when there are no seats available. It can be very difficult to use drum straps on djembes that are over 20 or 25 lbs. You will get fatigued much sooner than using a lighter drum and may experience back pain or discomfort.
If you’re planning on primarily using your djembe around the house, either type of drum will be a good fit. If you plan on traveling and taking your djembe to drum circles, you may want to consider a synthetic djembe or a light weight wood djembe.
Authentic wood carved djembes truly shine in the sound category. Most drummers agree that they sound better than both wood lathed djembes and synthetic djembes.
Authentic Wood Carved Djembe Sound
A distinguishing characteristic of an authentic wood carved djembe is the spiral-shaped grooves carved throughout the inside of the shell.
These spiral grooves are the “signature” of the drum carver. They act as a channel for the vibrations created by the striking of the drum head. The grooves create the “voice” or unique tone of the djembe. This “voice” allows you to pick out the sounds of different drums while drumming in a group.
Lathed Wood Djembe Sound
Lathed wood djembes can sound great based on the craftsmanship of the djembe maker. These djembes may or may not have spiral-shaped grooves throughout the inside of the shell. The absence or presence of these grooves will help you determine the overall quality of the djembe shell.
The absence of these grooves shows a lack of craftsmanship and a non-mastery of the djembe making process. A drum maker that takes pride in their work will always carve a spiral groove into the djembes they make.
If a wood djembe shell does not have a spiral groove carved throughout the entire interior of the shell, I do not recommend purchasing it.
Synthetic Djembe Sound
Synthetic djembes are thought to have a stale or dull sound to them. This probably won’t be apparent to most beginner drummers, but experienced drummers can easily tell the difference. As you learn the different sounds a djembe is capable of producing and familiarize yourself with the intricacies, you will soon notice this to be true.
Many drummers complain that synthetic djembes have “no soul”. This stems from the fact that they’re unable to replicate the full range of sound that an authentic djembe can. I prefer to play an authentic hand carved djembe when appropriate and tend to agree with this line of thought.
Synthetic djembes sound much different than authentic wood carved djembes due to the materials they are made from their construction. Plastic and fiberglass have different resonant properties than wood and can produce a feedback effect. When a synthetic djembe shell is molded, it is void of imperfection and has a very smooth surface. This may seem like a good thing to a beginner, but is one of the main disadvantages of synthetic djembes.
If you’re looking for the most accurate, rich, and dynamic sound, there is no better choice than an authentic wood carved djembe.
There are a few important factors that determine the overall cost of a djembe. The shell type, craftsmanship, and size have the biggest influence on the cost, but there are other variables as well. In this section, we will be looking at the costs for 12×24 inch djembe models.
Authentic wood carved djembe shells are the most expensive and are usually priced between $120 – $350. The level of craftsmanship, type of wood used, and the djembe’s size will determine the overall cost.
A completed authentic wood carved djembe that already has a skin mounted will cost significantly more. These finished drums are usually priced between $250 to $650. There is a high-end authentic wood carved djembes market comprised of enthusiasts and professional djembe players.
Wood lathed djembe shells usually cost between the price of an authentic hand carved djembe and a synthetic djembe. Again, the level of craftsmanship, type of wood used, and the djembe’s size will determine the overall cost.
The machining process used for these drums allows for mass production and results in a reduction of required labor. This is the main reason these drums are generally cheaper than authentic hand carved djembes. Wood lathed djembe shells are priced between $80 – $250 and a finished lathed wood djembe typically costs between $150 – $400.
Synthetic djembe shells are usually only found as finished drums and have the lowest cost of the 3 different styles. Finished synthetic djembes can cost anywhere from $100 – $300. This makes them roughly 20% to 50% cheaper than an authentic wood carved djembe of similar size.
The three different types of djembes have considerably different costs. This variation is certainly justified based on the amount of work that goes into creating each different style.
Authentic hand carved djembes offer the best possible sound and are usually the most expensive type of djembe. Due to their weight and high cost, these drums are ideal for indoor settings and planned events. Having a nice hand carved djembe at home that can be supplemented with a synthetic djembe for other uses is something that all serious djembe players should have.
Wood lathed djembes offer great sound and are a good mid-price option. If you can find a wood lathed djembe with a spiral groove through the interior shell it’s something to consider. I don’t recommend purchasing a wood djembe without a spiral groove. If you don’t care about the spiral groove, a drum built from staves is a good inexpensive choice. Wood lathed djembes are a great way to get started with something nice if you don’t have money for a hand-carved drum.
Synthetic djembes can’t provide the same sound as a wood djembes but are cheaper, lighter, and great for traveling. These drums are resilient to poor weather conditions and come in a variety of different choices. They lack an interior spiral groove but are a great choice for beginners or those who will be playing outdoors often.