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
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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!
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
other end of the stick
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
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'.
to be able to put a triple in EXACTLY when you want it.
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
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!
this will be your right hand if you play left handed!
hand has the job of keeping the basic rhythm, but the left hand also has a
lot of work to do:
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.
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'.
left hand to another spot on the skin, repeat the pressing above..do you
hear different sounds?
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.
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?
point, you will have made many new tones/notes/effects on your beats. Can
you repeat any of them?
find a tone you like, look at where your hand is and what shape it's in.
Remember that position for later.
your left hand while playing a roll with the cipin..you'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.)
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.
your left hand. Play over the cup.
edge of your hand against the skin. Hit above and below the hand. You will
hear different notes.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
section of the tutorial has turned out to be longer than any of the other
bits, but I guess that's no great surprise.
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
I have a
small number of rules which I like my students to think about when
don't know how the tune goes, don't play - you might get an unpleasant
It's not a
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
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.
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 note.....you get the
If you feel
the music and play back what you feel, then people will appreciate your
playing so much more.
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
realised this section could go on for ever...
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.
'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.
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.
think it's all a matter of taste, but would never think of playing the rim
my 11 year old daughter, Kirsty, playing.