Playing The Bodhran

Left Hand    Other end of the stick    Crossbars    Rhythm
Playing in tune   The Rim

Just about everybody who sees and hears a bodhrán being played wants to have a go. That's when the tears can start to flow, since a good player can make it look very easy. The problem that most people encounter is that they are trying to 'force' the beat. When I'm playing, I sense that the bodhrán is actually doing a fair part of the work. My right hand is often channeling or harnessing the energy that the skin gives back to the cipin. It's this reactive control that gives the subtlety and variation to the beat.

The best way to demonstrate this is to follow the first two exercises. Firstly, though, get set up in the correct position. (The following instructions assume right-handed playing. If you're a lefty you'll have to go through the usual, tedious, reversal thing).

1) put the bottom of the drum on your left thigh, a little to the inside of it.

2) put the rim of the drum under your left armpit 

3) put the heel of your left hand (the bit next to the wrist) on the inside of the drum, about 1/4 of the way across (quite close to your body) 

4) position the rim of the drum so that it sits about 10 cm (for me) along the left arm from the elbow towards the wrist. Exert some pressure with your upper arm. 

5) push lightly with the heel of your left hand towards your body. The resistance points are your body and your knee. This is the pressure that keeps the bodhran steady. It also means the drum always has a bit of left hand on it...essential. (this is kind of like string players who will sometimes play a fingered note on a lower string in preference to an open higher string) 

6) The drum should now be firmly held. This technique ensures that the drum is firmly held, the left hand has much freedom (all the way from the top to the bottom), and lots of the drum is available to hit. Also, the whole drum can be pivoted in and out by moving your arm sideways. (important for triples) 

7) lift and drop your left foot until all of the above feels right. I often need a small stool or box to lift my foot if the chair is too high. I'm not exactly the thinnest guy on the planet, and I can get the cipin to about 90% of the skin with this technique..;)

8) Hold the cipin in your right hand, like a pencil. I hold mine just about half way. Hold your right wrist so that the 'writing end' of the cipin points at the middle of your chest. If you then turn the writing end of the cipin away from you by turning your wrist, but without moving your right upper arm or elbow, you will find that you get a little more than 90° of movement. That's all you need.

9) Turn your right wrist back until the writing end of the cipin is back pointing at your chest, and the cipin is about parallel to the drum skin and 10cm away from it. This is the 'starting position'. Using the force of your right forearm, beat downwards with the cipin until the writing point hits the skin. Let the cipin bounce off the skin, still moving away from you. Continue the movement until your right wrist has completed its full range of turn. You've just made your first beat.

Exercise 1

Now return to the starting position, and repeat the downbeat again and again. Try to keep a regular beat, and make sure that your upper right arm moves as little as possible. Make downbeats only. Now try to speed up by making faster and faster downbeats. Eventually you will reach a speed where you can't go any faster. From time to time your cipin will have accidentally brushed the skin on the way back up.

Exercise 2

Now go back to your starting speed, and move your right arm a little closer to the drum. A tiny amount will do it. Now make a few downbeats, and try to allow the cipin to hit the skin on the way back to the starting position. Notice the word ALLOW. Don't try to force the hit. Move the position of your right arm in towards the skin and away from it until you are getting the upbeat hits when you want them. Once you are getting the upbeats to hit regularly, try to speed up. If this is all working properly (and it will feel much better if it is) then you should be able to go faster than you could with downbeats only. This is what I mean by the bodhrán doing some of the work. The skin bounces the cipin back to you, returning some of the energy and speed.



The two first rhythms to learn are the 4/4 beat and 6/8 beat. Most tunes will be in one of these or multiples of them. Forget the top end of the stick for now.


D= heavier down beat
d= normal down beat
u= normal upbeat

The 4/4 goes Dudu Dudu Dudu Dudu :  HEAR IT!

The 6/8 goes Dududu Dududu Dududu Dududu HEAR IT! Brush version!

The D can be achieved by lifting your left hand mostly off the skin (only one finger left touching it). So your left hand is constantly flapping up and down. Off for the loud beat and on for the normal beats. Once you have that going, then the right hand can attempt to hit the skin harder with the D beat, but only a little, since it can upset your rhythm.

Some tunes will be played so slowly that you find it difficult to play an interesting accompaniment. That's when I play what I call 'doubling'. In other words, I play exactly twice as fast as the music. Try accompanying something slow and see what I mean.

Sometimes, it's nice to add variety to a rhythm. I'll often start a verse with a double downbeat: -

DDudu Dududu Dududu : That's really just missing the first u, and keeping the left hand off for 2 strokes. HEAR IT!


Another thing I've been doing (occasionally) is to catch the rim on the 2nd upbeat, giving DudRdu DudRdu DudRdu, where R is the rim shot. This is a bit tricky for any length of time, but sounds good on the occasional jig. HEAR IT!



The other end of the stick


In the style of playing which I described above, (sometimes known as the Kerry style), the main rhythm is created by the bottom end of the stick. The top end of the stick can however come into play for some ornamentation, or for rolls.


If you push the top of the drum more towards your cipin hand (or if you tip the wrist of your cipin hand more towards the drum), you'll find that the top of the stick catches the skin between the downbeat and the upbeat. This is known as a 'triple'.

It's good to be able to put a triple in EXACTLY when you want it.


It sounds good if you play Dtududu Dtududu, where t is a top end hit and Dtu is the triple. Once you start hitting triples, it can be hard to stop! A great exercise is:-







Basically, what you're doing is moving the triple through the bar. Once you've mastered this, you can be confident of dropping in a triple when (and only when) you want one.


A roll is achieved by performing consecutive triples: dtudtudtudtudtudtudtudtu. Try it! HEAR IT!



The Left Hand


Remember, this will be your right hand if you play left handed!


The Cipin hand has the job of keeping the basic rhythm, but the left hand also has a lot of work to do:


Firstly, the left hand will always be somewhere on the skin. This allows muting and the ability to set the tone of the notes being played.


Just play an ordinary 4/4 beat for the moment. While doing that, push the left hand harder into the drum, leaning more heavily on the skin. Notice that the note appears to rise, and become more 'pingy'.


Move your left hand to another spot on the skin, repeat the pressing you hear different sounds?


Lift most of your hand off the drum, leaving only the thumb in contact...the note will become louder and more boomy. Try it with only the heel of your hand on the drum, or press with only the edge of your hand.


Drop your left hand to the bottom of the drum and hit the cipin on a position on the skin higher than the hand...notice a difference?


By this point, you will have made many new tones/notes/effects on your beats. Can you repeat any of them?


When you find a tone you like, look at where your hand is and what shape it's in. Remember that position for later.


Try sliding your left hand while playing a roll with the'll notice you just got part of a scale or run. Can you get discrete notes? (Once you can get discrete notes, you will always to be able to play a note that 'matches' the melody...kind of like playing in tune. With lots of practice and a suitable tune, you might be able to actually play the melody, or at least part of it.)


Other effects can be achieved by playing on the skin where the hand is touching it, or moving the hand during a beat, kind of 'sliding' the note.


Try cupping your left hand. Play over the cup.


Press the edge of your hand against the skin. Hit above and below the hand. You will hear different notes.


Another useful effect is what I call 'popping'. This is achieved by opening up a Vee between your index finger and thumb, and moving your hand to the rim, thereby 'trapping' a bit of skin next to the rim. Play directly over the trap to get a 'popping' sound. This, in conjunction with playing on the open part of the skin, will allow a kind of 'poppadada' sound. HEAR IT!


As you can see, the left hand plays a very important part in getting much more out of your drum. Generally, the first beat of a bar will be different in some way from the others. I started off by just lifting my left hand mostly off the skin, leaving just the edge of the hand for the first note. Then I discovered that more subtle effects could be achieved by moving the hand to another part of the skin, then hand shape began to play a part. The whole effect (or range of effects) can be introduced gradually until your playing achieves a much richer, varied result. HEAR IT!


Another interesting effect is slapping the inside of the skin with your left hand. This can help to add much more complex rhythms. The left hand is adding to the beats from the cipin, either at the same time as them, or asynchronously with them. I've also used a wooden egg in my left hand to hit the skin.


One more thing on left hand 'tools'. There is a device called a backslide which is held in the left hand. At it's simplest, this is a piece of thick dowel (think broom handle) which is slid over the skin to get different effects. Or it can have a handle which is used to push it around.





Some drums come with 2 crossbars, some with one, and some have none. One or two have a T shaped bar. My current preference is for no bars, but there is a style of playing which demands a crossbar - the 'jamming' style. In the jamming style, the left hand is jammed between the skin and the crossbar. When the hand is clenched or loosened, the skin tightens or relaxes. This gives different tones to the note. Not my preference, but I've heard it used to good effect.


Two crossing crossbars severely limit the ability of the left hand to move. In some cheaper drums, the bars are there to keep the drum in a round shape, so removing them might be detrimental to your drum's strength. Take one out (the one nearest the skin) and see how things go. You can always put it back if you need to.


This section of the tutorial has turned out to be longer than any of the other bits, but I guess that's no great surprise.



Playing 'in tune'


It's all very well being able to play in time, and with some interest in your drumming, as opposed to the boring old tada tada tada tada tada (believe me, I've been subjected to people playing like that ALL NIGHT!). But you must remember that your job as a bodhran player is to compliment the music. You must enhance the experience without dominating or damaging the overall sound.


I have a small number of rules which I like my students to think about when playing: -


If you don't know how the tune goes, don't play - you might get an unpleasant shock

Listen, listen, listen

Be considerate

It's not a race

Vary it

Most Irish tunes are made of at least 2 parts. I'll call them part A and part B. These tunes go: Part A Part B Part A Part B.....and so on. You can quite easily pick out the break....Part B might sound louder or higher than Part A. It's helpful (and impressive) to make your accompaniment match the part you're playing with. For example, you might bring in a rim click or two on the Part B, or push hard and do Part B in pingy notes. It's also cool if you can make a 'click' on the rim between the two parts. This shows that you know what's going on. Remember that it's your duty as a bodhran player to enhance, augment, bolster, and generally 'help along' the melody players. Dominance is never good - Irish music has survived for a very long time without any percussive support, and it doesn't NEED you now. So be thoughtful, sensitive and humble. Remember that the bodhran is an instrument of war, and that's how some people play it (and get kicked out of sessions).


You ideally need to know a piece before you play along with it. Just knowing that a jig is 6's and a reel is 8's is no use. Vary the beats according to what is being played. If the tune has runs in certain places, then think of putting in some triplets at that point.


Don't start every bar the same way - start some with double downbeats, and some with a high note, or some with a low note. Surprise the other players with your subtlety. Just repeating the same old 6 or 8 notes is utterly boring. Miss some beats. Double up sometimes. End a bar with a low get the idea.


If you feel the music and play back what you feel, then people will appreciate your playing so much more.


Another thing to consider is that low notes tend to travel further in a session. Varying the percentage of low notes can make your playing seem more 'involved'.


I just realised this section could go on for ever...



The Rim


Hitting the rim with the cipin can be very good. It can also be very bad. When the cipin hits the rim, it is very loud. That means you have to be deadly accurate. I tend to use the rim very rarely.


So-called 'rim shots' are where the rim is hit instead of the skin. This can be catching the rim on the upward beat of the cipin, or moving the cipin hand so that it catches the rim on all beats. Some people spin the drum so that the cipin can be used on the rim instead of the skin. Be aware that rim shots that catch the skin where it touches the rim will eventually wear through the skin. This, of course, ruins the drum.


I like to click the rim between part A and part B of some tunes, and certainly between tunes as the switch over is made. I also like the Dudrdu, as mentioned above, for the part B of some jigs.


I think it's all a matter of taste, but would never think of playing the rim all night.


Here's my 11 year old daughter, Kirsty, playing.


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