How To Rehead a Djembe Drum
This set of instructions is originally for heading the Finished Ashiko Kit purchased at Rhythm House Drums, which is why we use an ashiko to show the process instead of a djembe drum, however, the process is exactly the same. I get asked so often about how to head a djembe or an ashiko, and though I have found other guides online and often cringe when I have to send someone to them for advice/photos, none were very comprehensive or left out some crucial info. Unfortunately I’ve also seen some guides that just had poor information…. My goal is to help you get it done right the first time, and by putting this on my blog I am opening it up to comments and suggestions and will be answering questions. Hopefully this will become an in-depth, fully inclusive, guide to reheading a djembe drum or ashiko drum…. So here you go.
What you’ll need for heading your Djembe Drum:
- Cotton fabric – Color is your choice. This is optional but highly recommended. The fabric is for wrapping the rings, and adds some color to your drum to make it yours. It also aids in protecting the ring from rust. Use a good quality cotton, this wrap can also help keep your drum in tune longer.
- Fabric glue/wood glue/super glue/double sided tape (any type of glue works, this is to keep the fabric on the ring)
- Lighter – for burning the ends of the rope to make sure they don’t fray.
- Scissors – Strong, Sharp / scissors or razor (cutting rope & Skin)
- Yard Gloves (helps save your hands from blisters and rope burns when pulling the rope tight to tune the drum)
- Razor – single blade bic razor works great, or you can use a straight razor blade as found in packs at hardware stores (although the technique is a bit different than shown here).
- File – a metal file or sand stone or anything with some texture, you’ll need to take the corners off the razor blade so they don’t dig into the skin.. just a few light passes to dull it is all you need.
Step 1: Prep
If you plan on doing this all in a day, go ahead and start soaking the skin in a tub of water. The water should not be cold or hot, room temperature is perfect. You want the skin fully submerged in the water for 2-3 hours. The thickness of the skin and type of skin will determine how long to soak. If you don’t soak long enough, the hide will be tough to stretch over the drum head, but if you soak too long it can swell the fibers in the skin and weaken it. A thinner skin soaks good for about 2 hours, a thick skin maybe 4-5. An hour or two over won’t hurt… just don’t leave it soaking overnight or for half a day.
If you are taking your time with the process, or are unsure of how long it will take, I recommend doing all the prep work first, and soaking the skin once the djembe or ashiko is ready to be headed.
You are going to need a total of 3 sections of rope; one for the top ring, one for the bottom ring, and one long piece for the vertical rope that you will use to tighten the head.
You are going to want at least 22 knots in the top and bottom ring. For this you’ll need approx. 13ft. of rope for each ring (15ft if you want 28 knots). The third section is the long remains of the rope; you’ll use this for your vertical rope and should have 65-75 feet.
note: when working with the rope, try to keep it from getting bunched up and/or tangled. It can be a pain to get out.
Cut a 1″ wide strip of the fabric you choose for wrapping your rings. A good reason to wrap them is to keep the rust (the metal will eventually start to rust) off the skin. RHD wraps all of the rings on our completed drums, and it also aids in the rings gripping into the skin so you won’t have to tune as often. You will usually use about a yard length per ring, but you can add multiple strips if there isn’t fabric long enough.
Step 2: The Rings
Now that you’ve got your materials ready, we need to wrap and knot the rings. Please count your knots twice. There is no feeling like heading up your drum and getting to the last set of knots to realize that there are a different number of knots in the top and bottom ring… So COUNT TWICE… or three times.
Wrap the rings with the fabric you chose. To do this you’ll want to put a dab of glue on the ring and then press the fabric against the glue for a few seconds. While maintaining a pinch on the fabric to the ring with one hand, pull the fabric tight with your other and start wrapping around the ring at an angle so that the fabric creates a spiral pattern around the ring. After a few wraps around you can let go of the starting point. Keep tension on the fabric while wrapping to make sure it stays tight to the ring.
Finish up with a dab of glue on the end to keep the fabric from unraveling.
Repeat this on all three rings. One of the top rings will not be shown, so you can use any fabric for that one. Note that most djembe drums will have the bottom ring welded around the base of the djembe. If this is the case, the process is the same, you just have to work around the shell.
Tie the loop knots.
Find the middle of one of the short pieces of rope you cut from above. Tie a knot (loop knot or cradle knot are common terms) around the ring as shown in the photo.
This is your starting point, now you’ll go halfway around the ring putting a knot approx. every 2 finger widths apart for the largest ring. The amount of space between knots will be determined by the size of the ring. The max spacing for the top ring is about 2 finger widths. You need at least 22 knots for an 11″ ring, and I suggest about 26-30 for a 13-14″ ring. Some adjustment may be needed to get the correct amount of knots and have them all evenly spaced. If you take some extra time to lay it out first, or to clean it up and get everything even and tidy, the finished rehead will look much better and your drum will tune more evenly.
Finish off with a square knot on the final loop
Do the exact same thing on the bottom ring, you need the same amount of knots on the bottom ring as on the top…. make sure you double check. It’s much easier to fix now than when you start roping up the djembe in the next step. Make sure each of the knots are evenly spaced. Because the bottom ring is smaller, you’ll have to space the knots much closer to fit the same amount. Please note that most djembe drums have the bottom ring already welded around the base of the djembe. You must wrap the rings and tie the knots with the ring on the djembe. It makes it a tad more time consuming, but it is the same process.
Also make sure that your rings are on the correct side before roping up. As in the photo below we see that the knots form loops, and between these are a small loop tight against the rope. You always want that small loop on the outside, if you flip the ring the wrong way, the rope loop will be on the inside. Though it doesn’t effect how the drum will be roped up and tuned, it does look a lot better.
Step 3: Heading the Djembe or Ashiko Drum
This is a crucial step in the process of heading a successful djembe drum. Pay close attention to your work. Heading your own drum is extremely rewarding and a great way to bond with your instrument. However this is the step that causes the most frustration and head aches. It takes practice and patience to head a djembe drum well. If this is your first experience, chances are it won’t be your last. Once you gain the experience to head a drum, you will forever be able to head and tune your own hand drums which will not only save you money in the long run, but will allow you to define your own sound; something that can only be achieved when the musician creates their own instrument. Be patient, and stay relaxed. If you get frustrated, take some time… do not rush or force anything.
Now it’s time to take the skin out of the water, it should have been soaking about 3-4 hours now. Drape the skin over the top of the djembe (again I’m using an Ashiko drum for the demo, but its the same process) and make sure to align the spine in the center. Place the top ring without the knots ‘flesh ring’ over the skin so it will fit around the top of the shell. Fold up the skin so it sits on top of itself and covers the ring. As a general rule, we play the djembe from the neck end of the skin, so keep this in mind if you have an opinion as to what side of the drum shell you like or want to be shown when you play. The neck end of the skin will have the hair going away from you.
Place the top ring with the loop knots over the hidden “flesh” ring. Pull out the loop knots so they are easy to thread by facing them to the outside of the ring. Slide the bottom ring up the ashiko if the fit is tight, or just leave it on the floor around the ashiko base. If you are heading a djembe the bottom ring is probably already welded around the base.
Find the center of the large rope, make a bend and pass it through a loop in the top ring heading up. Tie a basic overhand knot here. (you’ll need to undo this knot later).
Pull one end of the rope up through the same ring loop, and pull it back down through the next loop. Then go into the loop on the bottom ring directly under and come up through the next loop on the bottom ring. Now bring the rope through the same top loop that the rope is coming down from, and then around and to the next loop and down through the bottom loop that you just came from, then go to up through the next loop and start the process over.
Repeat this process until you get half way around the drum. Now go back to your starting point, undo the knot, and continue this same pattern for the other half of the drum.
Make sure you don’t skip any knots, or you won’t end up in the right place… double check your work as you go, it’s easy to skip a loop, and the only way to fix it is to back out of all the loops you’ve done right, and start over from where you missed.
Now that you’ve got all your verticals on the drum you need to set them up for tension. To do this, tie a bow knot in the end of the vertical rope coming from the top loop.
You are now set up to start adding tension to the rings to hold the skin on.
Starting at the bow knot, pull the rope so that the bow knot is against the top loop and gives some tension. Lightly go around all the verticals pulling them just to get out the slack… make sure and keep the ring centered over the top of the drum, and make sure the rings don’t go down on the shell just yet. Do not try and put tension on the rope at this point. You should only be pulling hard on the last few rounds around the verticals. Too much tension starting off will get your rings crooked. Throughout this whole process, you want to make sure that the top rings stay level with the bearing edge. They will go below the bearing edge line, but you don’t want it to be uneven. You are not putting pressure on the ropes, just taking out the slack. If you didn’t have enough rope to go through all the loop knots in the rings, you should now, each pull will give you a little more. It’s ok if you are still 1-2 knots short of coming all the way around, you’ll get lots of extra rope once you start pulling tight.
Go ahead at this point and make sure that the goatskin is still centered on the shell. If it got a little off, you should be able to work it back to the center. If you can’t move it, you’ve pulled your verticals too tight and need to loosen them up a bit to re-center the skin. Once the skin is centered, pull all the slack out by pulling on the sides of the skin towards the center of the drum. Do this evenly and pull all the way around the head. This should tighten up the drumhead a bit and make everything nice and even.
Now you can start adding pressure to the verticals… You’ll end up doing about 4-5 rounds around the drum pulling verticals. The trick is to pull gently and evenly multiple times. If you try and pull hard the first time, your rings won’t be level to the bearing edge. So take your time, adding more and more pressure each time you go around the drum, and make sure to keep the ring level…. if it starts to get high in some places, pull those verticals harder to bring the ring down to level. The top ring in its final position shouldn’t be more than .5″ from the bearing edge. Some people like the rings higher… just depends on your style.
You don’t want to have a playable drum at this point. The goal here is to level the top rings and set the loop knots of the top ring into the skin. If you try and get the head super tight, you’re rings will just get lower and lower. You want the head tight enough to be able to shave, but not so tight that you can’t push into it with a finger.
Step 4: Shaving the goatskin (if needed)
If your skin has hair, you’ll need to shave it before the skin dries out. The best way to do this is to take a yellow single blade bic razor and using a pair of pliers break off the guard. You need to file down the edges to make sure they don’t pierce the skin. A fine metal file or sandstone will work. You can see in the picture that there is no safety guard on the razor, be careful when working with this. It can cut you or pierce the hide easily.
Something worth mentioning here that was suggested to me was that these plastic razors build up quick in the landfills. A more eco-friendly option would be to use a double edged straight razor blade. The process is the same, dull the edges before you start. With a double edge blade, you might want to wrap a piece of leather or thick cloth over the top of the blade so you don’t cut yourself when shaving the skin. Somehow I overlooked this little piece of earth friendly advice. I will switch my method as well.
Be careful here… if you cut the skin, it’s all over. Take your time, work in the direction with the hair and shave it off little by little, you may need 2 or 3 razors to complete the job.
You can choose to pull the skin over the top ring, or to trim it off just above the ring. If you pull the skin over, I use a rubber band, or a piece of rope to hold it against the shell. Then I go around the skin and pull out any kinks or folds in the skin. The band or rope should be fairly tight, and cut off any extra skin. It’s much easier to cut wet than if you let it dry. If you want to just cut the skin off, take a razor blade or sharp knife or scissors and cut the skin about ½” above the ring or level with the bearing edge (maybe just a tad under). Wrap some fabric or rope around the skin so it presses against the bearing edge… and let it dry – you don’t want it to stick up further than the playing surface.
Now we wait… it usually takes 3-4 days for the skin to fully dry out. If you try and put too much tension on the skin while it’s still wet, it’s going to stretch thin and pop, or slip through the rings.
Step 5: Tuning your Djembe Drum
Tuning a djembe drum isn’t as hard as it might seem. At first glance there are lots of ropes, lots of knots, and it can be intimidating to know where to start. Once you follow these instructions, it should shed some light on the subject and make the process more enjoyable. I hear lots of djembes that are not tuned properly… usually the pitch is way to low, or the tone is uneven. I usually find that the owners don’t know how to tune their djembe. To me, you have to treat the skin as guitar strings. They have to be tuned regularly (not as often as a guitar once every few months is plenty) and should be replaced when torn or punctured.
Once the goatskin is dry, go around the verticals the same as you did before, it may take 2-3 passes or more. The goal is to keep the rings level and gradually add more tension. Your final pull around the drum you should be pulling the verticals as tight as you can. You want to pinch off the vertical rope at the top loop once you’ve pulled it tight, while going to the next vertical, this way the slack won’t go back and loosen up the verticals you just tightened. You can use a pair of locking pliers and/or a pry-bar, but be careful not to nick the skin and don’t use too much pressure or you will fray the rope. When you get around to the starting point (the bow knot) tie a knot at the bottom loop with the vertical rope in order keep the tension on the rope, or lock it off with some pliers if you need to tighten the verticals again… you don’t want to let go of the rope and let the tension release to the ropes you just tightened.
You’re drum should be sounding pretty good now… If you want it tighter, you can tune the drum using a method called the Mali Weave. This is a traditional weave pattern used in West Africa for tuning up ashikos, djembes, and dunun. It is very difficult, almost impossible to tune the drum up to a proper pitch without doing the weave. The Mali Weave is also referred to as pulling diamonds as doing this creates somewhat of a diamond pattern with the vertical ropes.
These following photos show how to tie off the rope coming from the bow knot on the top ring… this keeps the rope from slipping back.
Now we start the actual Mali Weave… I’ve taken photos that should be fairly self explanatory, however if you like words.. try to follow this as you look at the photos:
1) From the knot you just tied to keep the rope from slipping back, skip the first loop knot on the bottom ring, then go over two vertical ropes.
2)Go under that vertical and back towards the first.
3)Go over the first vertical and around and back under both verticals
4) Pull tight and the rope will twist up. It should look like the photos below if it is done properly.
Continue doing this around the drum until you get the correct tension on the head.
Only thing left to do now is play!
If you like, you can take some fine (400 or higher) grit sandpaper and lightly sand the top of the head. This will smooth it out and lighten up the texture on a darker skin.
My goal is to create an in-depth resource on heading your own drum. Please, if you have comments or suggestions I’d love to hear them. There is no single correct way. There are many processes to achieve a good rehead, this is a good starting point for developing your own technique for heading and tuning a djembe drum, or any rope tuned hand drum for that matter.
If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact me… Leave a message/comment. 🙂
I check ’em!