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The bodhrán (pronounced bow-rawn to rhyme with cow dawn) is a drum used in Irish traditional music. Struck by a double-ended piece of wood called a tipper, it produces a deep, dull sound. Bodhráns provide the backbone rhythm of Irish dance music, although too many can be a bad thing. It has been said that the quality of an Irish traditional group is in inverse proportion to the number of bodhráns in the group!
The bodhrán has a circular wooden frame between 12 and 20 inches in diameter and about 4 inches deep. Over the frame is stretched a cured goat skin. The skin is tacked to the frame all the way around. Across the back of the frame are two struts of wood in a cross shape.
There are two main types of bodhrán: those intended to be hung on the wall as a decoration, which are usually covered in Celtic patterns, and those intended to be played, which are plain. A plain 18-inch bodhrán can be bought in a good music shop for about £30 - £50.
Playing the Bodhrán
Holding the Bodhrán
The bodhrán is held by gripping the crossed struts at the back in the left hand1. The left index finger is pressed against the back of the skin to deaden the sound. The pitch can be altered slightly by pressing on this finger. For a really loud sound, the finger is removed from the skin. The bodhrán should be held so that the drum skin is vertical and facing to the right, with the side of the frame pressing against the player's chest.
Holding the Tipper
The tipper, which is usually about 6 - 8 inches long, is held in the right hand in the same way that you would hold a pen, being almost vertical and close to the skin of the drum. The right arm should be perpendicular to the surface of the drum.
Beating the Drum
The point at which you strike the bodhrán is not the centre. It is about half-way between the centre and the lower edge. The skin will become worn at this point, but you can turn the bodhrán so that the wear is distributed evenly over the surface.
There are three basic movements of the tipper. All these are done by the wrist without moving the right forearm at all.
Down Beat - The first beat of each bar is played by hitting the lower end of the tipper downwards against the skin.
Back beat - After the down beat, the upper end of the tipper is very close to the drum skin. If desired, a beat can be produced by twisting the hand, causing the upper end of the tipper to strike the skin.
Up Beat - If desired, a third beat can be produced by hitting the lower end of the tipper upwards against the skin.
There are three basic rhythms you should be able to play. Once you have mastered these, you can experiment with your own rhythms.
One of the simplest rhythms in Irish music is the hornpipe. The easiest way to feel this rhythm is to say the words 'Humpty Dumpty' over and over again. You will hear that the 'hump' and the 'dump' are stressed. These are the down beats. The 'ty' is not stressed. It is the up beat. There is a slight pause between 'hump' and 'ty', so the rhythm is 'hump-pause-ty dump-pause-ty'. This 'down-up down-up' rhythm comes very naturally and is used in much of Irish music.
The double jig is basically the same as the hornpipe rhythm except that the pause between the down and up beats is filled by a back beat. To get the feel for this rhythm, say the sentence: 'All of a sudden a lump of black pudding came rolling down the hill'. The words 'all of a' form a triplet - three short beats of equal length with the stress on the first. The same pattern continues in 'sudden a lump of black pudding came'.
To play this triplet rhythm, you need to do a down beat, a back beat, an up beat, a down beat, a back beat, an up beat and so on. This takes a bit of practice but it is used everywhere in Irish music so you'll need to learn it.
To finish off the sentence, note that 'rolling down the hill' is our old friend the 'Humpty Dumpty' rhythm again. You should be able to switch between double jig and hornpipe rhythm at any time.
The reel is the most difficult rhythm to play although it sounds the most straightforward. Try saying 'Tum tigga tigga tigga tigga tigga tigga tigga'. This is composed of rapid downs and ups with no back beats. There are two things that make the reel rhythm difficult: the up beat is the same length as the down beat, so you have to put more effort into it to get it to be even; and the reel rhythm is very fast.
You now have the basics of bodhrán playing. You can turn up at a traditional Irish music session and join in the fun.
There are all sorts of other fancy things you can do, like hitting the side of the wooden frame with the tipper, changing the pitch of the drum with your left index finger as you play, and introducing complex syncopated rhythms. But all these need plenty of practice!
For lots more information on bodhráns, including pictures, try The Bodhrán Page.