What Is a Bodhran?

by Jeff Smith

The Bodhran (pronounced Bow-Rawn or Bough-Rawn) is a simple and very old type of drum known as a frame drum. Frame drums by different names are found in many different countries around the world, including Algeria, Morocco, China, Russia, and Egypt. Native American Indians also used frame drums. While most of these drums from different countries are similar in appearance or playing technique, Ireland's version, the Bodhran, has developed its own look and playing technique.

The Bodhran can vary in size from 15" to 22" in diameter, with 18" being the most common. The wooden rim or shell can be from 2" to 6". The head of the Bodhran can be made of deer, sheep, calf, goat, greyhound, or horse skin, although goat is the most common and favored material. The head is cleaned and treated by a secret process, stretched over the shell, glued and tacked in place, and then left to dry. Modern manufacturers have also begun producing Bodhrans with synthetic skin heads, which are more durable and unaffected by the weather, but a skin head still produces the best tone.

There has traditionally been a crosspiece of one or two bars mounted inside the shell. The purpose of the crosspiece is to make the Bodhran easier to handle, and enables the player to play and walk at the same time. This would be an important feature since the Bodhran serves an important role in many festivals, such as St. Stephen's Day (December 26), when the "Wren Boys" carry a captured wren from house to house, playing and singing as they go. Bodhrans are also used to support favorite sports teams. As traditional music began to move indoors to the concert hall and recording studio, many players found they no longer had need of the crosspiece, and that without it, new techniques became possible. Many of today's Bodhran's are made with no crosspiece or with a crosspiece that is removable.

The Bodhran is played with a double-ended stick called a cipin (ki-peen) or a tipper. This stick and the way that it is employed is one of the things that separates the Bodhran from other frame drums, which are more often played with the hands.

The exact origins of the Bodhran are still unknown, but there are two theories as to the way that this unique instrument developed. 1) In ancient Ireland, and in fact up until the 1950's, a skin tray or sieve was used to sift various materials. This skin tray was called many names. Interestingly enough, one of those names was Bodhran. The Irish word Bodhran can be translated as "tray" or "thundered," "deafening" or "dull sounding." It is believed that during the use of this skin tray, it was noticed that it could be used to produce a soft rhythmic sound, and that the drum developed from there. 2) It is possible that another form of frame drum arrived in Ireland through the Roman Empire or Arabic traders. There is in Arabic countries a frame drum called a def or daff, which taken phonetically in English and translated to Irish could have become Bodhran. Whichever theory is correct, the Irish frame has developed into an instrument unique to that country, using playing techniques found almost nowhere else in the world. To hold the Bodhran, rest it on your left knee with the head parallel to your leg. Tuck the shell under your arm so that you can squeeze the drum against your body. Be careful not to dampen the head more than necessary to hold the drum securely. Place your left hand against the back of the head just inside the shell to help steady the drum.

If your Bodhran has crosspieces, rest it on your leg and hold it by the crosspieces. Pick up the tipper just as if it were a pen or pencil. Then, turn your wrist so that the end of the tipper which would be the point of the pen is pointed at your belly. The tipper should be parallel to the head of the Bodhran. The "point end" of the tipper will do the majority of the playing. Rotate your arm from the elbow in a downward motion so that the tipper makes a downward arc and strikes the head in approximately the middle of the arc. Hold your wrist loosely as you do this.

Next, rotate your arm in an upward motion so that the head is struck in an upward arc. Practice alternating the downward and upward motions to produce a steady rhythm. Remember to keep your wrist loose. The motion produced will be similar to that of strumming a guitar.

Triplets-- Turn your wrist inward a little further, angle it down, and hold the tipper a little more loosely. By exaggerating your follow-through on the downward stroke, you can cause the back end of the tipper to strike the head immediately after the front end of the tipper (the tip of the pen). The front end will play again on the upstroke. This will produce three quick notes, which should sound like diddle-de. Add another downstroke to produce diddle-de-dum. When you can produce this sound, try to make the triplets continuous by always causing the back end of the tipper to strike the head on the downstroke. diddle-de diddle-de diddle-de....

Rim Shots -- rim shots are produced by striking the shell of the drum with the tipper. This produces a nice change of sound. The Rim Shot is produced by the same basic motion as playing on the head, but may require an exaggerated motion, or lifting and lowering the drum itself. A rim shot on a downstroke should be played at the 12 o'clock position on the shell, and on an upstroke at the 6 o'clock position.

Use of the Left hand -- By sliding the left hand along the back side of the head, different tones can be produced. Experiment with different hand positions from edge (very open) to the center (muffled). By pressing harder against the head, the pitch can be changed. Try this in combination with triplets for a nice effect.

Jigs are fast dance pieces. They differ from reels in the fact that each beat is subdivided into 3 pulses rather than 4. There will typically beat six pulses in a bar, divided into two groups of three. There are several different ways to play a basic jig pattern. The basic jig pattern can also be used to accompany some marches and most slip jigs.

Reels are fast dance pieces. Each beat in a reel is subdivided into four smaller pulses. Alternating downstrokes and upstrokes produces the basic pattern for reels. When you master the basic alternating pattern, create new rhythms by "missing" the head on some strokes of the pattern. Reel patterns can also be used to accompany hornpipes, polkas, marches, and some slip jigs.