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One Drum, Two Hands, Three Tones for Our Soul

Article by Jayson Brinkworth // March 02 2008
One Drum, Two Hands, Three Tones for Our Soul

When asked to write an article about hand drumming, I was both excited and a bit apprehensive. I was excited because my years of experience in hand drumming have proven to be very beneficial on a musical and spiritual level. I was apprehensive because I realize there are many other players out there who are way more qualified to be writing this article than myself (that is right, I, too, am insecure).

In this article I will share some of my experiences with hand drums, and hopefully motivate those who have only played drum set to explore the history of our instrument. 


My first real experience with hand drumming was in high school. Our band and music teacher was a percussionist with the symphony orchestra, so we learned a lot about percussion as well as music theory. We had congas, bongos, shakers, guiros, tambourines, and a variety of other hand held instruments, and we were encouraged to explore the sounds all of these instruments had to offer. Throughout my exploration, I became very curious as to the origins of the drum. I had been given a glimpse into the drum set origins in the 1920-30s, and the ensemble percussion in music from New Orleans before that. I knew this instrument had a power, spirit and soul way beyond what I knew, and it was time to dig a little deeper.


The power of the drum is a universal phenomenon. Its voice can be heard in all corners of the world, from India to Spain to South America, North America and Asia; it is everywhere. I tell my students that drums are around us all of the time (we all have two ear drums, see what I am saying). Our true journey in the history of the drum has to begin in Africa, the homeland of the drum. We need to research all corners of this great continent to discover the rich music history, and the history of the drum dating back thousands of years.

The subject of Africa, music and the drum can be written about for days (I have listed some resources on this subject at the end of the article). The first place to start this journey is with one drum that holds plenty of history all on its own, the djembe. This particular drum has been at the forefront of African culture and music, and its movement around the world for hundreds and hundreds of years. Again this article can go on for days, but I want to share my views on the djembe and its importance.

The beauty of the djembe is this: 1 membrane (drumhead), 1 solid piece of wood and 1 rope. The simplicity of this instrument is also in its complexity.  As kit players, we are used to having plenty of tonal options around us, but with one drum, we have to explore all of the tonality it has to offer. With this in mind, we should also be taking the time on each piece of our kit to explore its full potential as well.

After I had been playing the djembe for a while, I found myself being much more sensitive to touch and tone. This really worked my musical awareness, and made my drum set playing much more focused (I started to play music on the drums).

In my own teaching, all of the students learn about the djembe, and definitely get hands on lessons in basic technique and African rhythms. These lessons are important in understanding our instrument's history, and it encourages the students to be more creative with less.


As percussionists, we use our hands all of the time. We work on techniques to improve our grip, relax our hands, develop finger control and many other related exercises. One thing that really helped me with my hands, as far as relaxing and getting a big sound, was playing the djembe. The biggest reason for this was to get the proper tone from the djembe (or any hand drum). We can’t have any tension in our fingers, hand or wrist; we have to play off of the drum. I think of my fingers as being limp like wet spaghetti, bouncing off of the head like a rubber ball. This relaxed feeling is the only way we can attain correct tone. If the drum sounds choked, we have too much tension in our fingers, hand or wrist.

By playing the djembe for a while, I guarantee it will help your stick control on the kit. It will allow us to feel the stick relax in our hands, and also bring out the true tone of the drums and cymbals with everything vibrating as one. Our hands are our most important tool (along with our ears), and we need to take care of them to prevent injury. By developing a relaxed technique, we can ensure ourselves a lifetime of playing.


There are many ways to access different tones on a djembe, but there are 3 standard tones that will make up the basis of our playing. The three tones are: Bass, Open and Slap. We also have a muted or tap tone that we can play.

The bass tone is played in the center of the drum, and the more hand that contacts the head, the better the tone. When we strike the drum in the center, we release the hand from contact to allow for maximum resonance of the drumhead (do this with both right and left hands).

The open tone is next, and for this we will move our hand to the edge of the drum. Our fingers should be resting on the head with the inside of our knuckles resting on the rim/edge of the drum. When we strike the drum, we will only have our fingers playing on the drumhead. While keeping our fingers loose (like wet spaghetti), they will hit and release from the head, again giving us maximum sustain and resonance (use both right and left hand again).

The slap tone is a bit tricky as you can play this a few different ways. First we move our hand to the outside of the drum, so our last knuckles are resting on the edge/rim, like we are going to play with just our fingertips. Strike the drum and release the fingers for resonance (this should give us a high, sharp sound). The slap can also be played by striking the edge while we move our hand towards our body. Another technique for this tone is to cup our hand and strike the drum with the outside of our hand along the pinky finger.


In my years of teaching, I have found the drum to be a powerful communication tool as well as a community and team building anchor. Practicing the drum is a wonderful release and escape for our mind, but when we interact with other instruments and drums, it is beyond explanation.

My teaching ranges from drum set to hand drum students aged 6 – 70, and the idea of sharing this much information on drumming is a gift for me. The reward is seeing everyone enjoying themselves as they get lost in the act of drumming.

I, as well as many others, believe that drumming is like medicine. It is a primal, almost instinctive reaction for human beings (clapping, toe tapping, shaking a rattle as a baby and so on). When we engage in the act of drumming, or even tapping along with our favorite songs, our mind is in a different state, and we become more open. There have been several studies conducted on this subject and the results have been amazing.

I have used the drums for conflict management, team/community building with sports teams and in the work place. It has also come into play with healing and experiencing the drum with senior citizens, as well as working on rhythm with the mentally handicapped.

This instrument means more to me than just setting up the drums and cymbals and playing as fast and as loud as I can (although this is fun sometimes). It has taught me about self control, discipline, awareness of surroundings, being in the moment, experiencing the best high in the world, and many other lessons I have learned and look forward to learning. My honest thought on drumming is that everyone is a drummer; they just don’t know it. I realize this sounds a little crazy, but I am honestly on a mission to have as many people as possible experience the power of the drum. I also want them to realize that everyone’s voice on the drum is equal and as valid as the next person’s. The world would be a better place if everyone took the time to drum and clear their minds of any negative energy.



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About the Author
Jayson  Brinkworth

Jayson Brinkworth is an accomplished drummer, percussionist, vocalist, educator and writer based out of Canada. He is co-owner of the Saskatchewan music school Music In The House, as well as the founder of both the Regina Drum Festival and The Stickman Drum Experience.

Jayson proudly endorses Yamaha drums, Sabian cymbals, Vic Firth sticks, Evans heads, Impact cases, Kickport, Flix, Future Sonics and Mountain Rhythm. Visit Jayson online at www.jaysonbrinkworth.com.

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