A hand drum— as the name implies— is a general type of membranophone that musicians can play without drumsticks. The term “hand drum” is a broad drum classification that mostly includes traditional instruments.
If you’re in the market for the best hand drum for your percussive needs, you’re in the right place. I crafted this informative guide to help you find the right-hand drum for your music.
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7 Popular Hand Drums Today
As stated, a hand drum is any percussive instrument you can play using your hands. However, playing hand drums is not limited to solely hitting its drumhead. Some hand drums can also be played by shaking, tapping, and more.
Although the most famous percussion instrument in the world today is drumkits, there’s increasing usage of hand drums in music. For instance, the hit song “Skate” by Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak features congo drums to highlight its Latin influences.
That said, here are 8 of the most popular hand drums ideal for casual and serious musicians. If you have a recording that needs hand drum elements— here are the perfect instruments for you!
Conga Hand Drum
A staple in Afro-American and Latin music, Conga drums feature a single drumhead stretched across the rim of staved barrels. Most congas feature shells crafted from fiberglass or wood materials. Consequently, this construction delivers a deeper tone than bongos. Congo drums are divided into three major classifications— the Quinto, tres golpes, and Tumba.
The Quinto is a type of conga drum that utilizes a thin and tall shell, allowing it to deliver a high pitch. Typically, the Quinto is used as a lead drum in Cuban rumba music. Furthermore, the tres golpes are the middle-sized Conga. Oftentimes, they are referred to as the standard size of Congas. Lastly, the Tumba is the smallest in terms of height and is typically featured as an auxiliary in a Conga set.
Here are the diameter of Quintos, Tres Golpes, and Tumba:
- Quinto– 11” in diameter.
- Tres Golpes- 11.5” up to 12” in diameter.
- Tumba- 12” up to 12.5” in diameter.
Similar to Tambourines, Congas typically feature rawhide heads which deliver a warm and full sound. You can tune your Conga in any tuning you want. However, there are times when tuning isn’t required, especially when you’ll use a Conga in a purely percussion line.
Moreover, Congas can also be utilized as a definite pitch instrument. When used as an accompaniment in a song, you can tune your Congas in various tunings. For instance, if you’ll be playing in C Major, you can tune your Conga set with the root note C, its 5th G, and one octave. There’s no rule to tuning a Conga, that’s why it’s an incredible instrument for tonal experimentation.
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A tambourine drum features a rawhide drumhead stretched on a hollow frame. Users can hit a tambourine’s drumhead to activate its side metal zills, delivering a percussive rattling sound. In addition, tambourines can be utilized on top of a hi-hat to provide drummers with a better “chick” sound.
When buying tambourines, buyers should look at the following:
- Jingle Material
- Tambourine Shell
- Drumhead Material
The five most used tambourine jingle materials are brass, bronze, copper, nickel, and silver. Brass materials are known for their warm sound. Contrary to this, nickel jingles provide a bright sound that easily cuts through a mix. Silver jingles are quite similar to nickel in terms of projection; however, they deliver a crispier tone. Bronze jingles dish out a rich and darker sound while copper has a higher pitch and drier sound.
When it comes to a tambourine’s shell, buyers should look for shells measuring 6”-10” in diameter. While their material doesn’t have any significant effect on tone, it contributes to its overall playing feel. Wooden materials will provide a heavier playing feel but durable performance. On the other hand, a synthetic tambourine is lighter but oftentimes doesn’t feature a drumhead.
Speaking of drumheads, they allow players to play with various styles, such as finger rolls and hand thumping. That’s why if you’re using a tambourine as a hand drum, it’s crucial to get one with a drumhead. To get the best playing feel, find a tambourine drumhead made from animal skins.
Handpans are hand drums that get their inspiration from steelpans. However, unlike steel pans, hand pans feature a concave steel construction that features zones that corresponds to 9 notes. Similar to a Kalimba, a handpan isn’t tunable and only features a set number of determined pitches on its surface. Still, handpans are prone to lose their tuning under extended abuse, that’s why it requires a high level of maintenance.
A handpan usually features glued half-shells and its two main playing zones are the Ding and Gu. The ding is positioned in the pan’s middle, around it are 7 up to 8 playing zones that hold other notes within a scale.
The first handpan was made by Pantheon Steel in 2007. Even though they are fairly new in the market, they have seen their rise in popularity through various social media platforms. Handpans got their media exposure through musicians and content creators alike on Instagram, Reddit, YouTube, and more.
This hand drum style is extremely easy to learn, making them an incredible gateway instrument to both percussive and harmonic playing. A handpan’s soothing tone also makes them great for songwriting and recording purposes.
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Bongo Hand Drum
Popularized in Cuba during the late 19th Century, the Bongo drums are one of the most recognizable hand drums today. Bongos have been utilized in classic works, such as America’s hit song “A Horse with No Name” and the meme superstar “Bongo Cat”.
A bongo drum is closely similar to a conga drum. However, despite their numerous similarities, both drums have their specific usage. One major difference that separates the two would be their size; consequently, affecting their sound. A bongo hand drum features a smaller shell construction, allowing them to deliver a brighter sound than conga drums.
The shell material of bongos affects its overall resonance and sound. Wooden materials will provide a bongo set with better resonance. However, wooden shells are heavier than synthetic shells. Moreover, it’s extremely susceptible to damage due to humidity and weather changes, making it a poor choice for touring musicians.
Typically, Bongo Drums features a rawhide head. Animal drumheads provide bongos with a warm and detailed tone. However, their tuning stability is inferior in comparison with synthetic drumheads. Conversely, synthetic drumheads provide better durability and tuning stability; however, they lack in terms of tonal quality.
Some bongo hand drums come pre-tuned from the factory. Although this ensures users with the best tuning stability possible, this also reduces the overall flexibility of the bongo. That said, I’ll always advise percussionists to find bongo drums with built-in tuning lugs.
Djembe Hand Drum
The Djembe drum came about during the 12th Century thanks to the Mandinke Tribe of West Africa. Its name is a direct translation of “everyone gather together in peace”, highlighting its usage as an instrument during social gatherings.
The Djembe’s construction features a shell, drumhead, and a tuning rope. Each part of the Djembe has a function that enhances its tone. First, its body’s construction is crafted from a hollow tree trunk that allows for better reverberation. The Mandinka used Lenge wood in their traditional Djembe construction— which serves cultural importance to their tribe. Furthermore, the upper body of the Djembe allows it to deliver deep and resonating bass tones. On the other hand, its lower body utilizes a shape that enhances its projection.
Second, the Djembe usually comes with a goat skin drumhead, providing users with a high-pitched tone. This specific drumhead construction also allows for other types of playing dynamics such as slaps and thumps.
Lastly, the tuning ropes of the Djembe are more than a shell design. Tuning these ropes is an art form on its own— and rightfully so, considering the amount of effort and skill it requires. A djembe’s tuning requires precision and balance. Failure to balance the tension of the djembe can lead to overtones, compromising its crisp final tone. That’s why if you want to own a Djembe, you might want to start learning how to tune one.
Top 3 Djembe Hand Drums for All Skill Levels
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A Cajon is the bass drum substitute in a Cajon drum set. However, we should not forget that the Cajon is a completely capable hand drum. You’ll frequently see a Cajon within an acoustic setting, mainly accompanying guitars and vocals. In addition, its smooth percussive timbre makes it perfect for both unplugged sessions and live recordings.
Most Cajons utilize a hollow rectangular construction. The Cajon’s hitting area features snares placed behind it, delivering a crispy snare tone and thumpy bass sounds.
Some Cajon manufacturers feature easy snare controls to help users modify their sound. Moreover, manufacturers of high-end Cajons even put subwoofers, Piezo pickups, and EQ controls to provide users with the best sound possible. Therefore, if you want a hand drum that can play some drumkit sounds, then you’d love the Cajon.
Although Maracas are not membranophones, they are still a part of the percussion family. These idiophone instruments utilize an internal shaker to accentuate a rhythmic passage. Maracas were based on various indigenous groups that used rattlers in their culture and religious traditions.
Today, Maracas are utilized within Latin and Caribbean music, providing music with a soft shaker sound as its main rhythmic drive. Manufacturers utilize various materials to make their maracas.
Some of the most popular maraca materials are wood, fiber, plastic, and animal skin. Although these materials do not contribute to its overall sound, they still affect the overall playing feel of maracas.
3 Excellent Maraca Hand Drums for all Budgets
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Frequently Asked Questions about Hand Drums
What are small hand drums called?
There are many styles of small hand drums in today’s market. There are bongo drums, tambourines, handpans, and maracas. Small hand drums aren’t limited to the mentioned examples above.
What is the best hand drum?
There’s no objective way to rate which is the best hand drum. Picking the best hand drum according to your needs and taste would boil down to personal preference. If I would recommend the best hand drum, I’d say go with a Cajon as it provides you with a good snare, tom, and bass drum sound combination in one compact instrument.
Do handpans go out of tune?
Unfortunately, handpans do go out of tune, especially under constant hard hits using the hand or sticks. In addition, bending the steel too much could also affect the pitch of hand drums. If your handpan ever goes out of tune, always seek the help of a professional and avoid fixing the problem on your own.
How many notes are on a handpan?
Typically, a handpan features a ding at the center surrounded by 7-8 Gu. Each of these surface playing areas corresponds to a single pitch. That said, the notes on a handpan total around 8-9 depending on its construction.
What is a calypso drum?
The calypso drum is an instrument similar to a handpan. However, instead of a concave construction, a calypso drum features a convex body played using a stick. This instrument originated from Trinidad and Tobago and is usually seen in Afro-Caribbean music.
In a nutshell, there are tons of hand drums out there in the market. Without knowing the nitty-gritty of these instruments, it would be hard for you to find the hand drum you need.
Hopefully, this guide helped you find the suitable hand drum for you. If you did find this article helpful, make sure to check our other drum-related guides here!
With over 30 years of experience, drumming has been a huge part of Joe’s life. He has experienced every stage of drumming imaginable – from playing in my parents’ garage, to playing local venues and to doing national tours.
Today, Joe tutor kids on how to play drums and shares all the things he has learned about drumming to all of BasicDrummer readers. He also reviews the best drums and gadgets not only for kids but also for beginners as well.