The Irish bodhrán (pronounced bough-rawn) is perhaps one of the most misunderstood drums in the world. Only mentioned in passing in Mickey Hart's comprehensive history of drumming, Planet Drum, it is often dreadfully associated with the type of person who will bang away incessantly on it from 8 p.m. till closing time at your local pub. Hence the inspiration for the Four Men and a Dog song, "Moron With a Bodhrán."
Classified as a single-headed frame drum, like the Spanish tambourine or the Egyptian tar, it differs in that it is "tuned" down to a very low tone with the skin just short of being slack. The word "bodhrán" appears to be derived from the word bodhar, meaning "deaf" or "dull sounding."
It can be beaten with the bare hand or with a single- or double-headed stick, the double-headed beater, or "tipper," being the most common. The drum is played with the lower end of the stick, reserving the top end for playing triplets. The holding hand can be employed to damp the skin or tighten the skin by applying pressure to the drum head. Modern players like Johnny McDonagh also use a series of rim shots to augment the beat.
Buying a bodhrán can be tricky. Mainly, one should look for a frame made from a hard, well resonating wood; the skin should be of a thicker variety, like goat, deer, ass-foal, or even horse. I have recently seen a few synthetic skins that have mildly impressed me, but in general real wood and real skin (free of beer company logos) is preferable.
There are several good instructional texts available
The Bodhrán: An easy to learn method for the complete beginner showing the different regional styles and techniques (phew) by Micheal O Suilleabhain. [Pub. 1984; Waltons Musical Instrument Galleries Ltd./ 2/5 North Fredrick Street/ Dublin/ Ireland]
Bodhrán Tutor (pamphlet and tape) [Halshaw Music/ 37 Catherine Street/ Macclesfield, Cheshire SK11 6ET/ U.K.]
The best video I know of, which is available in U.S.-format, is Bodhrán & Bones by Mel Mercier (son of the Chieftains' original bodhrán player Peadar Mercier). [Ed. The original bodhránist for the Chieftains was David Fallon. Mercier replaced him in 1969.] It can be obtained from Interworld Music/ RFD3 Box 395a/ Brattleboro, VT 05301]
Finally, the following are some of my personal favorite recordings by two of the best bodhrán players alive today. Some of these tracks might be daunting for the beginner, but they are well worth seeking out, to hear just what the bodhrán can really do.
Johnny "Ringo" McDonagh:
DeDannan Song for Ireland [Sugar Hill]. Includes some of McDonagh's best playing with one of the band's finest lineups.
Various artists The 3rd Irish Folk Festival in Concert [Celtic Music Ltd.] Featuring the all-male version of DeDannan, with guest Andy Irvine and a mighty bodhrán solo by McDonagh.
Mary Bergin Feadoga Stain 2 [Shanachie]. The recording to listen to in order to hear how to sensitively play accompaniment to an instrument as light as the pennywhistle.
The Easy Club Essential [MCA, U.K.]
Billy Jackson The Wellpark Suite [Iona]
Both albums feature the innovative playing of Scotsman Jim Sutherland. The Easy Club played a hybrid of Celtic and swing music with Sutherland often playing the bodhrán with sawed-off whisk brooms. The Wellpark Suite sports a vigorous bodhrán and trap drums duet. Amazing stuff!
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