Some Bodhran Basics

After a certain amount of sneering from the musicians who play for the Riot, it dawned on me that my largely ornamental bodhran, which I bought years ago from some unknown location, was regarded by the musos as “not a real instrument.”  So I decided that this Christmas I would ask for a proper bodhran by a respected bodhran maker – one which did not immediately proclaim me to be a completely ignorant amateur.

I got some advice from our resident bodhran player, John, and I’ve decided to pass it on in case anyone else is thinking of buying a bodhran.

Why did I decide to pass it on?  Am I simply an interfering old busybody?

Well, possibly.  But on Saturday I went into the largest music shop in Cambridge, to see if they had any bodhrans I could test out.  And they did.  They had a whole stack of bodhrans, 18″ in diameter, non-tuneable, with struts in the back and lovely looking decoration around the shell and on the drum skins themselves.

They were charging £80 for the cheapest of these, and I now knew enough to be appalled.  These were really badly made drums – worse made than my old thing, which looked like a quality piece of kit next to them.  They were worth perhaps £25, if you wanted something to learn on, or to hang on your wall.

What was so bad about them?

Well:

1. The drum shell was rough – neither varnished nor painted.  Not even properly sanded smooth.  You’d have got splinters from it.

2. The inner reinforcing ring, into which the tips of the staples/tacks holding the drum head protrude, did not even join.  There was a milimetre gap between the ends.

3. There was no tuning system (meaning that the skin would get lax and floppy in wet weather, and tighten possibly to the point of tearing in hot, dry weather.  It couldn’t be tightened or slackened off.)

4. The cross braces of the drum at the back were unsanded, and could not be removed.  Given that playing the bodhran involves the left hand travelling across the back of the skin, immovable cross braces are as useful as a headache.

5. The lip of the drum, across which the skin was stretched, was cut at a right angle.  This means that the tone of the drum will be flat and thin and knowledgeable listeners will wince when you play.

I thought “how awful!  If I was just taking up the drum and knew nothing, I might have bought one of these.  Then I’d be £80 out of pocket and the musos would still be laughing at me!”  So I thought I would do a post about what you should look for in a bodhran before you buy.

1. Unless you’re a giant with very long arms, 18″ is too big for most people.  I’ve borrowed a 15″ diameter one from John and that’s just right for a 5’5″ tall person like me.

2. It’s very important indeed that the lip of the drum, over which the skin is stretched, should be rounded.  This helps to give a truer note and a more mellow tone.

3. The drum shell should be sturdily and strongly made, and not show any signs of parting under stress.  It should be varnished or painted and butter smooth – you’re going to have it tucked under your elbow for hours, you don’t want splinters.

4. There should be an internal tuning system to tighten or slacken the skin depending on the weather.  You can get them with external tuning systems too, but I reiterate the bit about having it tucked under your elbow/armpit as you play.  Tuning bolts on the outside must be terribly uncomfortable.

5. You’re looking in a price range of approximately £150 and upwards for a good drum (but not that much far upwards.  If you’re into the £400s, you’ve probably gone too far.)  Ideally you would want to try them before you buy, but that’s not really possible unless you live near a maker or a really good shop.  I’ve had these recommended to me, so I’ll pass that on too:

Mog at Renegade Rhythms

Brendan White

Rolf at Bodhran Info.com

I’m currently borrowing a 15″ Mog, and I don’t really want to give it back 😉

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