How to Play Hand Drums for Beginners

Posted by Ben Heckler

The sound of hand drums can add depth, excitement and a certain flair to music that no other instrument can.

If you've ever tried to play a hand drum you probably know that there is a HUGE difference in just hitting it any which way and watching a pro's fast hands work effortlessly.  

Knowing how to play the basics of playing hand drums is mandatory to be able to contribute adequately to music or even your local drum circle 

Fortunately, there are some techniques that apply to making a decent sound on MOST DRUMS. However, each instrument has its own story and its own language, so if you get hooked on one instrument be prepared to go down the rabbit hole!

Knowing and practicing hand drumming is an important way for each percussionist to find out how to create terrific noises on every percussion instrument. When you play timpani, snare drum, or xylophone for example you always have a stick between you and the instrument, so it is necessary to have some experience in making an excellent sound with simply your hand on a percussion instrument.

Let's go over some techniques.

Drum position

When it comes to hand drums, the djembe is an excellent addition to anyone's musical instrument closet (from beginner to pro musician).

The Djembe is a drum from West Africa with a long and terrific history. The drum is made in an hourglass shape with the shell made from a hardwood like mahogany and the head typically made from the skin of a goat.

This African drum will include real depth and tone to your music. And it is one of the easier drums to start out with.

Start by putting the drum between your legs, angling the head away from your body and tilt the drum off the ground so that the hole at the bottom is exposed.

This position will allow you to place your hands on the drum properly and will allow the noise to escape from the bottom and produce a crisp clear sound.

Holding the drum at this angle likewise makes sure that the djembe is positioned with the natural orientation of your arm. This will permit you to play with more ease and power.

person playing a djembe drum

The bass tone

There are a couple of different tones you can get from this drum. The first we will go over is the bass tone.

This is the simplest tone to play and it is essential to playing the djembe correctly. It is also the most frequently utilized tone.

Strike the drum in the center of the drum head with the whole hand. Try to strike it evenly with your whole hand and even arc your fingers up a bit so that the drum is struck more with the middle of your hand. 

Then as quickly as you strike it you want to pull your hand back up right away so you can let the tone escape.

Practice this at various volumes and try to make your hand as relaxed as possible.

If the tone sounds too short it could mean you are leaving your hand on the head too long.

If the tone sounds too low in volume it could mean that you are not making enough contact with the drum.

how arched hand should look for playing hand drums

This is how an arched hand should look for playing a bass tone on hand drums

The open tone

The open is a little bit trickier as it requires your hand to relaxed yet strong.

Close your fingers together and strike the drum on its edge. You want to strike it about a fingers length from the edge.

As quickly as your hand hits the drum head, pull it away right away. This permits the sound to escape properly.

Again you are hitting the drum with the fingers and not your palm, the tone produces a higher-pitched note than the bass. To master this method, you want to strike the drum firmly but be relaxed enough so that you can pull your hand quickly away and let the sound escape.

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If your hand is too stiff it will produce a muffled sound (and will be bad for your hand in the long run).

You can experiment hitting the drum at different spots. Playing the slap somewhere in between the center and rim of the drum.

The closed tone

The other common tone that we use is the closed tone. This tone is basically the same as the open tone however you leave your hand on the drum to intentionally produce a muffled sound. 

This tone is played exactly the same way as the open tone, with one key distinction. Instead of pulling your hand away after striking the drum, keep it on the drum head.

This should be relatively easy after learning the previous two tones.

Putting them all together

Now let's try to put all of these sounds together so that we can actually play some djembe grooves.

I like to start with the first two tones since they are the most difficult (and common) to switch between.

Let's try a simple eighth-note pattern—two bass tones and two open tones.

If you want to hear this example take a listen below. For our purposes, the bass drums are the bass tones and the snare drums are the open tones.

Next, let's keep the same pattern and take away a couple of notes. We will also add the closed tone (which will be the stick sound you hear).

Practicing these tones together in a rhythm is challenging. But practice makes perfect (if you practice perfectly).

Other resources

If you are still looking for more patterns check out this video of beginning drum patterns.

Also if you are interested in learning to play the drumset, check out some of our other articles!

5 Best PDF Beginner Lessons For Drums!

Songs to Learn for Drums (If You're a Beginner)

How to Read Drums Notes

Beginner Drummer Drills

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