Learning how to play the bodhran can be a challenge for anyone just starting out, so I’ve tried to make things easier by giving beginners 5 easy steps to follow to get them started playing their bodhrans right away.
Dubbed the heartbeat of Irish music, the bodhran is an ancient frame drum originally made with goatskin for the head and wood for the body. This traditional Irish drum is played using a either a single or double headed stick called a tipper, stick or beater. The origin of the bodhran is quite controversial as many believe it was first used in Africa while others argue that it made its way into Ireland through Spain.
However, there is no arguing that the bodhran has become an integral part of Irish music. This traditional Celtic drum is fairly simple looking but requires the right skills and techniques to be played correctly. Here are five easy steps to learn how to play the bodhran like a pro.
Table of Contents
Step 1: Positioning Yourself and the Drum
Firstly, I did want to mention that these instructions are meant for right handed players. If you are a lefty (like me!) then simply use the opposite side for each step.
Start out in a seated position as this is the best way to play the bodhran since you’ll be able to have more control of the instrument by holding it against your knee and mid-section. While some bodhran players do play standing up, it is best practice to play the bodhran in a seated position.
Pick up your bodhran and lock it against your body at a 90 degree angle by placing it on your left knee and tucking it under your left armpit with the front side facing right. Your left arm should be tucked inside the back of the drum towards the top with your hand pressed against the skin. This hand will control the pitch of the bodhran when you begin to play.
You don’t want to place the bodhran too far back under your armpit as this will cause the skin to be too muted, but you don’t want it too far forward either otherwise you won’t be able to hold the drum steady, so try to find that sweet spot.
This illustration should give you a good idea of how to position the bodhran with the top of the red line being your armpit and the bottom of the line being near your upper thigh:
As you can see, you’ll only have a small percentage of the bodhran tucked underneath your armpit for support.
Play around with it until you find what’s comfortable, then move on to the next step.
Step 2: Holding the Tiper
When holding the tipper, your grip should be loose and as if you are holding a pencil. Certain bodhran tippers come with an off-centered knob or a groove that indicates where exactly you are supposed to hold it. The “point” side will always be the longer end, as illustrated here:
As mentioned, make sure that your grip is loose enough to allow the tipper to wiggle, but tight enough that it doesn’t fall out of your hand. Many bodhran beginners have trouble when they first start playing because their tip will sometimes slip out of their hand – this is normal. Eventually, you’ll figure out the exact amount of grip you need to play the bodhran effectively.
Step 3: Your First Basic Strokes
Start by striking the bodhran with the head of the tipper in a downward motion for your first downstroke. A good way to explain this is to point the end of the tipper towards your chin and then strike downwards with your wrist at an arc which will end at your right knee. Then, bring your tipper back the opposite direction for the upstroke. Here is an illustration explaining the arc:
Repeat these two basic strokes at a moderately paced tempo until you feel comfortable with the motion. Eventually, your strokes will become more fluid, shorter, and won’t require much thought. Your wrist should feel loose and your elbow should be stationary with your wrist and forearm being the only two parts of the arm moving. Resist any temptation to raise your elbow as this is not necessary when playing the bodhran.
Step 4: Kerry Style Rolls
Kerry style is the most common technique used to play the bodhran. As part of this technique, the tipper is held perpendicular to the head as the wrist rotates forward then backward to strike the instrument. The simplest way to understand this is to imagine the bodhran as a clock. So, if one end of the tipper strikes 3, then the other end should strike 9. Upon mastering this technique, musicians move on to rotating their arm so as to strike every “number” on the bodhran. This technique is a little more advanced, so don’t worry about using it until you’ve mastered your basic strokes. A more in depth look into the Kerry style rolls can be found here.
Step 5: Keep Practicing!
As with anything, in order to learn how to play the bodhran effectively you have to practice. A lot. Try and find a block of time each day where you can practice your bodhran playing for around 10-15 minutes. Expert bodhran players didn’t become experts over night, it takes years of practice to get to where they are now. Remember, if you feel the urge to quit because you’re not seeing any improvement, I guarantee you that most professional bodhran players had that same exact feeling when they were first starting out too. Stay committed, don’t give up, and make it fun!
How to Play the Bodhran Tutorial Videos
Here are some FANTASTIC tutorial videos that are guaranteed to help you learn how to play the bodhran like a pro!
This first video is from the Online Academy of Irish Music and really breaks down the beginning steps to playing the bodhran super well.
This video is by Canadian folk singer Jesse Ferguson who does a great job of explaining the technicality of the bodhran. Check this guy’s music out as well, he is incredibly talented!
- Mittleman, J. (2000, May 16). History of the Bodhrán. Retrieved December 14, 2015, from http://www.ceolas.org/instruments/bodhran/history.shtml
- “177-bodhran-playing-hinnerk-ruemenapf-0067” by Hinnerk R, Hinnerk Rümenapf – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons.
- Beginner Bodhrán: FREE Lesson No.1 of 2 from WWW.OAIM.ie with Brian Fleming. (2011, August 11). Retrieved December 14, 2015, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y540acW6NQM
- Bodhran (Irish Frame Drum) Tutorial. (2011, June 11). Retrieved December 14, 2015, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=790kmxPtHwA