Here I’m going to go in deep on everything surrounding tuning a djembe! This isn’t for the faint of heart, or the curious web browser… This here is for the few of us crazy folk that like to get in deep, that like to know what causes the djembe to sound good or bad, what makes a djembe have a deep low end, a long sustain, or a quick attack. What makes overtones and how do we get rid of them? What makes a loud djembe and what aids in a drums projection? How much effect does the wood type and density actually have? What about the bearing edge and thickness of the skin?
If these questions spark something inside you… you’re in the right place! Tuning your djembe is crucial, and knowing why and how to tune a djembe is going to help you understand what you’re doing so you get the best sound possible out of your drum, and not just trying to crank it up so you have the tightest djembe around.
This article ended up being over 4,000 words of pure information.. that’s a bit much to put on one page and so I broke it up into subsections, with the first two being more about how a djembe makes a sound and what effects the sound, with the last being an actual guide on tuning. However all pages are very much related to tuning a djembe and to tune one properly, these first two pages will really give you some insight.
Page 1 (current): Importance of the djembe shell
Page 3: How to tune a djembe
If you are simply looking up how to do the Mali weave to tune your djembe, then skip all this stuff and go directly to the how to tune a djembe on page 3.
First Things First
The Djembe Shell
Before we can really understand how to tune a djembe, we have to understand how the djembe makes a sound and what variables change the sound. You ready?
There are lots of variables when talking about the sound of the djembe. It’s hard to pin-point which ones count more than others because they all work together to produce a sound. I’d say head diameter, skin thickness, and amount of tension are the biggest factors for the sound from a djembe. We get caught up a lot in wood density, bearing edge, origin and shape of the djembe. Though these do effect the sound, they more or less color the characteristics rather than have a profound influence on the overall sound. Let’s take a look at the djembe shell.
As I stated above the density of the djembe shell isn’t a huge factor in the sound of the drum. There are other variables that effect the sound much more so than the density or hardness of the wood, but it does change the character of the sound, so it plays an important roll.
The djembe is known for it’s presence, it’s huge projection and super high sound pressure levels (SPL). For this reason any djembe considered a pro level djembe needs to be made out of a hardwood that is very dense. Softer woods like pine or mango (mango is a white wood that some lesser quality djembes are produced from) and the wood used for some Ghana drums called twenenboa, are all soft and absorb some of the projection / volume, as do the Plantation Grade Mahogany drums that are mass produced. This takes away from the attack and the presence of the djembe, the life of the djembe in my opinion. It does however warm the sound and soften it. The more dense a wood the more reflective it will be towards sound waves which aides in more efficient projection. The less dense a wood is the more it absorbs and bends the sound, so it’s less efficient for projection. This is good to know when tuning a djembe, as the character of the shell will affect how you tune it to be most efficient and to honor the drums design/build. A soft wood will sound much better with a lower tuning, it will have a well rounded sound that is soft and warm with deep tones and lots of bass. A dense wood (Lenke, Djallaa, Khadi (Hare’), Dimba, Dugura, and US Hardwoods like Maple & Ash) will benefit from higher/tighter tuning giving you more dynamics in your playing and a louder drum.
Size and Shape of the Djembe
(—————-PHOTOS OF GUINEA / MALI / IVORY COAST & MY SHELLS —————–)
I always say that the bass is the sound of the air pushing out of the djembe, the tone is the sound of the wood, and the slap is the sound of the skin. That’s not 100% technically correct, but it gives a good representation of the sounds and how they’re achieved. The shape and size of a djembe is much more important than the wood density. A good full size djembe should be between 13 and 14 inches in diameter across the bearing edge. Sizes smaller are okay for smaller hands or younger djembefola, and larger drums do serve a purpose, but for the time being we are talking about a standard sized djembe. This size is no coincidence. It is most efficient with the thickness of skins that are used, typically goat skins. Much bigger with a goatskin head and you’ll get more sustain/vibration, but if you go smaller you loose the power of the tones and some volume. For me personally, I love a drum around 13.75″ diameter. You get huge tones and good volume while still keeping the sharpness of the sound and quick attack.
The shape of the bowl is important to the sound. By bowl I’m referring to the top half of the djembe and by stem I’m referring to the bottom half. The shape of the bowl will determine how much volume (not sound but measurement in cubic feet) is inside the drum. The more volume or cubic feet of space inside the shell the deeper your bass is going to be. The bowl will also define a nice tone. If the inside of the bowl is angled towards the middle sound hole and the hole is big, (Ivory Coast djembes are often shaped like this), you are going to have a sound that’s not as dynamic. If the bowl is rounded or squared on the inside and there is a nice ledge, and the sound hole is no more than 4.5″ diameter, than you are going to get a much more dynamic range to your bass, tones, and slaps.
(—————PHOTO OF INSIDE OF GUINEA AND IVORY COAST BOWLS————–)
The sound hole and the stem also determine the pitch of the bass. A smaller hole and longer stem will lower the pitch where a larger hole or short stem will raise the pitch. The bass note cannot be changed by tuning your djembe. The djembe drum is a Helmholtz Resonator which means that the frequency of the bass note is determined by the interior shape, not the tension on the skin. The bass pushes air out of the bottom of the drum; this compression is what produces the low frequency waves. The interior volume of the bowl and the size of the sound hole along with the length of the stem and the rate at which the stem widens at the bottom all contribute to bass. The tones and slaps are not as effected by the specifics of the shell shape. A larger bowl will give you a deeper fuller tone, but the pitch can be adjust with tension, as with the slaps. If the sound hole gets too small the djembe turns into more of a ported sub woofer sounding drum. Because of the extra pressure inside the bowl this tends to leave a sound that lingers. A tone and slap will have more sustain. A lot of Ghana djembes have very a very small cubic foot measurement in the bowl and have a tiny hole. This makes the djembes sound a bit different than a more traditional djembe from Guinea or Mali.
The thickness of the shell is pretty minute on the sound when comparing hardwoods. Given the same wood, a thinner shell will resonate at a lower frequency and a thicker shell will resonate at a higher frequency. This will somewhat effect your tones. A “perfect” djembe will have tones that resonate with the shell. This gives an excellent woody sound to your tones, but is hard to dial in and depends a lot on the skin thickness, which I’ll get to in a bit. I feel that a half inch is too thin, and one inch is too thick. A one inch thick shell is going to be HEAVY! Though its projection will be very efficient. The less vibration a shell does the more efficient it is. I judge the thickness of a shell at the bearing edge. The thickness can change throughout the shell, and the foot is often 1.5″ thick or more. The thickness at the bearing edge will also determine how you can shape the bearing edge.
The Bearing Edge
The bearing edge is often overlooked even by “accomplished” drum builders. I still can’t figure this one out. I’ve gone blue in the face arguing about the effects of the bearing edge on the sound. I hear “just shape it for comfort. it doesn’t effect the sound of the djembe since the only thing vibrating is skin that isn’t touching the wood”. I wonder why then do drum kit manufactures spend big bucks on developing bearing edges for their drums? Because it makes a pretty significant difference! The shape of the bearing edge is a big factor in determining the sustain. Having the bearing edge level and consistent all the way around is the first step to getting a good sound from the djembe, and is much more important than the actual profile shape. If the edge is not even it can cause stress points on the skin. This means the skin will break sooner and won’t be able to be tuned up as high. This uneven tension is also the cause for a lot of overtones and odd, fluctuating sustain coming from the skin.
(————–PHOTO OF PROPER BEARING EDGE WITH INSIDE AND OUTSIDE CLEAR———)
The outside round-over will also effect how your rings sit, and how your hand hits the skin. The amount of flatness on top can help shape the amount of sustain. More flat area acts as a dampener and gives a drier sound with less sustain.
The inside of the bearing edge will effect the sustain. A sharp drop off into the shell is most efficient and gives the purest tones. If it rounds into the shell or angles then you’ll get lingering notes and a wetter sound due to the way the pressure bounces back to the skin.
(————-PHOTO OF DRAWN BEARING EDGES & DIFFERENCE IN SOUND———–)