One of the great things about being a percussionist is that there is no end to how many percussion instruments there are to broaden your horizons. All around the globe, you'll find one-of-a-kind instruments that stretch back thousands of years with roots in Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean. Today, instruments like congas, cajons and djembes span countless musical genres and are manufactured by the most respected companies in drums and percussion.
This world percussion guide has been assembled to give you a better understanding of the world percussion instruments that bring us together. From their origins to the musical style they fit best - every drum, shaker and rattler has its own unique back story and sound characteristics.
Tuned Vs. Untuned
To start things off, it's important to know the difference between tuned and untuned percussion. Instruments that are "untuned" can be defined as anything that doesn't produce a definite pitch or note. Triangles, rattles, woodblocks and maracas are obvious examples of untuned percussion instruments.
On the other hand, some percussion instruments have the ability to play melodies, so they need to be "tuned" to a specific pitch (similar to brass, woodwind and stringed instruments). The following are two commonly-used tuned instruments.
Xylophones: Played with wooden bars of different sizes with resonating tubes underneath them, xylophones are tuned chromatically and are laid out in a format that's similar to pianos. Played with plastic-, rubber- or wood-headed mallets, the xylophone is a versatile instrument that is used in everything from rock to jazz to classical.
Marimbas: Similar to a xylophone but pitched an octave lower, the marimba contains bars that are usually made of synthetic materials (but they're traditionally made of wood). The bars on a marimba are also wider and thinner than a xylophone's to create a richer tone with more sustain.
Africa - Where it All Began
Many percussion instruments have roots in Africa. Even today, percussion traditions are dominant in African culture where polyrhythmic music is a daily occurrence. These events typically consist of complex counter-rhythms played simultaneously by a variety of dynamic drums that play off of one another. Below are some of the more well-known percussion instruments of Africa.
Djembe: Played with two hands (sometimes with one stick and one hand), the djembe is a large drum is shaped like a goblet and is said to have origins in West Africa among the Mandinka people. It has a wide tonal palette and can easily go from thumping lows to sparkling highs. Djembes are also favored for their loud projection that can cut through even the loudest mixes. Traditionally, djembes are made of wood and use goatskin for their heads, but modern versions of the instrument consist of synthetic materials.
Djun Djun: These drums represent a huge group of West African rope-tuned drums and they come in many different sizes. Djuns are usually performed alongside a djembe and are played with a mallet, bell or stick.
Tama: Also called a talking drum, the tama is played with a single hand and a curved stick. Its pitch is changed by squeezing the strings that run around the body of the instrument.
Udu: Shaped like a clay pot, the Udu is a Nigerian instrument that is played with one hand while moving your other hand over the hole to create an array of stunning sounds. A variation of the instrument called the Ibo is also commonly found.
Mbira: Also called a thumb piano or a "kalimba", mibiras are melodic percussion instruments that use "keys" made of flattened nails. The body is usually carved from wood or gourd.
Gonkogwe Bell: Originating from Ghana, this large two-tone bell is played with a wooden or metal stick. Gonkogwe bells play a significant role in the sounds of West African Ewe drumming.
Slit Drum: Sometimes called a tongue or log drum, slit drums are made of wood and contain cut-out surfaces that produce various tones when they're played with mallets. slit drums have excellent projection and produce warm, resonant sounds.
Congas, Bongos and More: Afro-Cuban Drums
The rich grooves of Cuban music have their roots in the sounds of Spain and Africa. The music includes everything from chants and rhythms performed for religious purposes to rumba and guaguancó that can be heard quite commonly in famous festivals like the Carnival in Rio de Janeiro (for more info, see the section of Brazilian and Samba Percussion below).
Congas: The most popular Latin hand drum, the congas were originally made with wood staves and calfskin heads. Today, they're made of wood or fiberglass and feature synthetic heads. Synthetic or fiberglass shells have excellent projection - making them ideal for use with louder amplified bands. Wooden shells are quieter, but their round tone makes them a pleasant addition to softer, mellower music applications.
Congas can be purchased both individually, in pairs or in full sets of three. These sets typically feature a tumba (the biggest drum), a conga and a quinto (the smallest drum). If you're thinking about purchasing congas, you'll definitely want to pick up a case or gig bag to keep them safe-guarded when you're not playing them. You might also want to consider grabbing a stand for your conga if it isn't already included with the one you buy.
Bongos: These small hand drums are also of Cuban origin and are held between the legs and played while sitting down. Bongos are used as both a lead percussion instrument and for soloing.
Timbales: First used in the iron vessels that were used to transport sugar cane juice, timbales are single-headed drums that are made from steel or brass. They have a cutting sound that makes them a perfect lead instrument for both rock and Latin music styles. Well-versed players will often play patterns on the side of the metal shell while accents are played on the drum heads with a free hand. Sometimes players will mount a cowbell or woodblock to the timbale stand for additional color.
Cajon: It is believed that the cajon drum began when slaves from Africa substituted their native homeland drums with shipping crates. This concept then developed in Peru with dresser drawers and fishing crates. A cajon is played by sitting on the instrument and hitting the front surface. Sound resonates through a hole that's cut in the back of the drum while its front surface is loosened around the edges to allow for slap tones. Today, the cajon is widely used in flamenco and pop rock bands alike.
The Captivating Beats of the Middle East
Middle Eastern percussive sounds cover an extensive region, from Iran and Turkey to Morocco and North Africa. Many recognizable drums come from the Middle East and can be heard in countless dance pop groups around the world. Below is a list of some of the better-known percussion instruments that have Middle Eastern origins.
Doumbek: Arguably the most popular of all Middle Eastern drums. Sometimes called (or spelled) the dombeck, dumback, derbeiki, darbuka or tombek, this drum is placed horizontally on its side and played on the lap with your fingers and hands. The doumbek is a dynamic drum and produces an impressive range of sounds. Shaped like a goblet, it comes in a variety of styles: for example, Turkish doumbeks are made of a thin metal and have tunable heads. Their metallic, resonating tone is the result of its sharply-defined rim and many doumbeks even come with cymbals and jingles inside for additional color. Another common type are Egyptian cast-metal doumbeks. Known for their brilliant projection, these doumbeks have rounded edges to play loudly in comfort and they usually have tunable Mylar heads.
Finger Cymbals: These small brass cymbals are also called zils, zills, or sagat. Round and shaped like bells, they're worn on each hand as pairs, and sound is made by striking them together with the fingers. Finger cymbals are played often by belly dancers.
Tar: One of the oldest drums on record (with images depicted in Turkish shrines from 6000 BC.), the tar is a type of frame drum (a shallow drum with a diameter bigger than its depth). Tars traditionally have a profound spiritual significance. They're held upright with one hand and played with the fingers of the same hand, as well as with the fingers of your other hand.
Tambourine: Most percussionists are familiar with tambourines. These shallow drums are available with or without a head and have jingles around their circumference. Tambourines are used in many different types of music - especially styles from the Middle East.
The Sunny Beats and Carefree Rhythms of the Caribbean
The people of the Caribbean Islands have a world-renowned reputation for their distinctive brand of vibrant, lively music. While many instruments used in this part of the globe have Afro-Cuban origins, many of them are homegrown as well.
Steel Pans/Steel Drums: The sound of steel pans and steel drums immediately bring to mind images of singing seagulls and sunny tropical paradises. Originating from Trinidad, these drums came to fruition when locals discovered that a metal barrel head's dented section could produce a one-of-a-kind musical sound. Over time, the design of the pan was refined with sections of the metal hammered in different areas to create specific tunings and scales. In modern times, pan musicians make up full orchestras, many of which participate in competitions and carnivals on the islands of Tobago and Trinidad.
Note: When looking for steel drums, it's important to keep in mind that smaller models are pitched to specific keys like C or G, then they're tuned to pentatonic or diatonic scales. On the other hand, large chromatic pans cover the full range of notes.
The Jigs, Reels and Roots of Celtic Percussion
The traditional music of Brittany, Cornwall, Ireland, The Isle of Man, Scotland and Wales depends greatly on the percussion instruments that are native to these Celtic nations.
Bodhran: When Irish music rose in popularity during the '60s and '70s, so did the use of the bodhran. Most likely, this instrument was the result of local musicians combining the tambourine with different rural tools. It's a frame drum that has an attached handle which is held with one hand; the other hand is used to strike the drum's head with a double-headed stick.
Bones: Consisting of two pairs of curved bone pieces (or wood), bones are played by holding a bone in each hand and striking them together. Although this folk hand instrument is used in many different musical styles and can be found in various cultures, bones are played in the Irish tradition with only a single hand.
Bhangra, Bollywood and Beyond: Indian Percussion
There's no mistaking the wonderful musical sounds that come from India. They're unlike anything else, and the percussion drums that come from this country play integral roles in both Indian classical music and their film industry.
Kanjira: Similar to a tambourine, this Southern Indian wooden drum has a single drum head (historically made of lizard skin, now synthetic) and jingles that are built into the frame. Fast, complex patterns can be played with the kanjira.
Tabla: Perhaps more than any other Indian drum, it's the tabla that can be heard most often in Indian films and modern dance music. A single tabla set is made up of two drums: a tabla (also called a daygan) and a bayan. The smaller-sized and highest-pitched drum is the dayan; the larger bayan is crafted from brass or copper.
Both tablas feature heads that are made of goatskin which is then topped with a black patch. This patch is typically made of iron oxide, rice paste and other trace ingredients to give it a distinctive tone. A variety of complex hand and finger techniques are used to play tablas.
Other notable Indian drums are the mridang, khol, gatham and pakhawaj.
Brazilian and Samba Percussion - A Way of Life
Music is more than a pastime in Brazil - it's an integral part of everyday life. Of course, the yearly carnival celebration is where Brazilian and samba percussion can be seen in full force around the city of Rio de Janeiro. Carnival bands are known as baterias: large percussion rhythm sections that feature many of the Brazilian percussion instruments listed below.
Surdo: The large bass sound heard in samba bands comes from the surdo drum. Made of steel, aluminum, wood and featuring two heads, the surdo is a versatile drum that consists of multiple tuning options for playing different parts. Surdos are sometimes performed on a stand, but they can also be worn with a strap and played horizontally.
Pandeiro: A Pandeiro is a hand frame drum with metal jingles and is quite similar to a tambourine.
Repinique: A metal drum with two mylar heads, the repinique has been a part of samba percussion since the '50s. It has the appearance of a tom tom and is usually tuned fairly high.
Tamborim: This drum is made of plastic, metal or wood and contains a synthetic head. Typically played with a nylon beater or wooden stick, the sharp tone of the tamborim can be controlled by the hand you hold it with, and it's used frequently in bossa nova music.
Cross-cultural Drums, Percussion and Effects
Not every hand-held percussion instrument is exclusive to a particular country or continent. Some span countless cultures - and in so doing, cover numerous musical genres. From cowbells to maracas, you don't even have to be a discerning percussionist to play many of these instruments. With a reasonable sense of rhythm and a passion to create incredible music, any one of the following percussion instruments or effects would make a top-notch addition to your band or ensemble.
Cowbells: You'd be hard-pressed to find a classic rock fan that isn't familiar with the sound of a cowbell. They're used often in many different genres, including Latin music, rock and jazz.
Washboards: Employing a washboard as a musical instrument is truly an American concept. First used by African and Irish immigrants, washboards are still played today and can be heard in everything from Cajun groups to Zydeco bands.
Shakers and Rattles: There are a vast range of shakers and rattles on today's percussion market that each have their own one-of-a-kind sound. Available in various sizes and styles, notable shakers include egg shakers, large shekeres and beaded gourds.
Truthfully, the amount of percussion instruments used for creating effects is seemingly endless, but the following are definitely worth considering if you want to add more versatility to your repertoire:
Triangle: As its name suggests, a triangle is a triangular steel bar suspended from a stand or hand. Played with a metal striker.
Chimes: Hung vertically, chimes create an evocative sound when played with your hand.
Jam block: Made of strong plastic, jam blocks sound similar to woodblocks but are more durable.
Shekere: An African dried gourd that's covered with a woven net of shells or beads; used in samba.
Latin Percussion Vibraslap: Used to simulate the rattle-like effect of a Brazilian quejada.
Latin Percussion Afuche/Cabasa: This instrument features steel loops that wrap around a textured wood and metal cylinder. Shaken, tapped or stroked, the afuche/cabasa produces a sound that resembles a shekere.
Tubano Drum: Lightweight and easy to learn, tubano drums are a fairly new instrument that come in a variety of sizes.
Caxixi: Featuring a flat bottom and a woven rattle, the caxixi can produce two distinct sounds depending on how you shake it. Often found in Brazilian and African music, this instrument is said to ward off evil.
Berimbau: A bow with African origins, the berimbau is often used to accompany the caxixi.
Chocalho: This is a well-known samba instrument and is available in many different jingle configurations.
Conclusion - World Percussion Unites Us!
Music really is the universal language. After all, it brings people together in a way that reminds us of our similarities more so than our trivial differences. The simple truth is that keeping a steady rhythm is essential to making music that stands the test of time. When you're ready to expand on the possibilities of your percussion performance, don't limit yourself to the instruments from only one country or culture. The world is full of so many diverse and authentic sounds, you owe it to yourself to try as many different world percussion instruments as possible. Doing so will not only make you a more accomplished musician, but a more knowledgeable one as well.