Modern Drummer article: The Bodhrán


This article, from Modern Drummer magazine May 1993, was provided to me by Kevin Rice, bodhrán-player for the band Baal Tinne.


The Bodhran

by Joseph McKee

Drums have come a mighty long way since ancient man first banged out a beat on some hollow log to call his friends to the Saturday night dance. That same ancient fellow would have a tough time relating to modern drums--as, I suspect, would most contemporary drummers when confronted with many early percussion instruments.

It's unfortunate that so few drummers have a true sense of the history of the instrument they've chosen to play. For many, the only history they know probably comes from watching stereotyped African natives in the old Tarzan flicks (and other such Hollywood drivel) pounding on generic prop drums.

Fortunately, there are some living remnants to remind us of the history of drums and teach us why they were invented in the first place. My involvement with the music of my Scots-Irish heritage introduced me to one such instrument years ago: the bodhran (pronounced bow-rawn). The bodhran resembles an oversized tambourine, but without jingles. Although it has an ancient and rudimentary design, it can be a surprisingly complex and modern-sounding instrument.

The English translation of bodhran is deaf. (The phrase bodhran and ballamhan is Gaelic for deaf and dumb.) Though there is no way to be completely sure exactly how the word bodhran came to be used to represent this particular drum, there is an ancient Egyptian drum called the deaf that bears a striking resemblance to the bodhran; this might be the connection.

The bodhran's origins lie somewhere in Ireland's dark and distant past. The Gaelic peasant folk, like all other ethnic peoples, had a basic need to beat the skins. Being an extremely poor people, they had to create their own instruments out of what they had around the house. Rib bones from last week's pig were adapted. Then some genius noticed that a soft drum sound could be produced from the family husk sifter (a round, wood-sided pan used to shake the husks off grains). But the mesh head wasn't loud enough, so it was replaced with a solid goatskin. This kind of serendipity is probably responsible for the creation of many early musical instruments.

The bodhran is struck with one hand (usually the right). At first, this was done with the bare hand, with the index finger acting as the stick, beating the head in a strumming fashion. The other hand is placed on the backside of the head, with the drum tucked between the arm and chest. Later, a stick called a cipin (pronounced ki-peen and, in Gaelic, meaning kindling) was pulled from the wood pile to add some extra punch.

Today's bodhran is fundamentally the same as its early version. Its dimensions range from 3" to 6" deep, and 16" to 24" wide. One modern adaptation (on more expensive models) is the addition of tuning pegs, but most models still require the use of moisture to tighten and loosen the head.

The price range for modern bodhrans runs about $60 to $365. The least expensive model I've seen is made by Cosmic Percussion, a subsidiary of LP Music Group. Remo makes a 16" pre-tuned model for $89.50. These bodhrans can be purchased at many local drumshops. Higher-priced, higher-quality bodhrans made by Buck Musical Instruments Products, of New Britain, Pennsylvania. But, according to Kevin, one should be wary of ordering bodhrans from overseas because the quality can vary greatly, and you may end up paying a high price for a low-quality drum.

The cipin has been modernized from a simple piece of kindling to a more uniform, double-headed, wooden stick. Cipins run between 6" and 10" long; naturally, the longer the stick, the louder the sound produced. But, as I was told by Kevin Rice, the lighter the cipin the better. By using too heavy a cipin, Kevin developed tendinitis, which kept him from playing for several months. Felt-headed cipins are also used for a softer sound. (One of the most innovative variations on the basic cipin I've seen was employed by Jim Sutherland of the Scottish folk group Easy Club. Sutherland attached two drum brushes end-to-end to produce a scintillating jazz-like effect on the bodhran-- but this would have to be considered rather avant-garde.)

The cipin is held exactly as you would hold a pencil or pen. The wrist is turned in towards the body to place the cipin in the correct playing position. By turning the wrist and forearms back and forth, the lower head of the cipin--the head that would correspond to the pointed tip of a pen--strikes the head of the bodhran on both a downward (or outward) stroke and a return upward (or inward) stroke. This is the fundamental technique all bodhran students learn first. It's similar to the technique used for strumming a guitar.

The lower head of the cipin carries the bulk of the playing load--as much as ninety percent. It strikes all significant beats and rhythms. The upper head is used only for filler notes between the strokes of the lower head. It plays the middle notes of triplets. This is achieved by continuing the momentum of the downward stroke until the upper end of the cipin hits the bodhran. The lower end then returns on the inward stroke. This can be reduced to the three-syllable sequence: down-top-up, which can be replaced with: trip-elet. But triplets are used mainly as a flourish, and not as a rhythmic mainstay.

The true magic of the bodhran is the drum's ability to speak in many different tonal levels. And the mark of the truly great bodhran player is his or her ability to pull these levels out of the drum.

Gaelic music is closely related to the language and poetry of the people, with all of its accents and inflections, and all the joy, sorrow, and anger those people put into their language. The fiddler and flutist have instruments highly suited to match these qualities. The bodhran player has a much more limited instrument, and must therefore be especially careful not to trod over the emotional content of the music. He or she must nurture that emotional feeling and work to pull it out of the bodhran. Though the bodhran is a simple instrument, it is surprisingly well-suited for its task.

In this respect, the back hand plays a vital role--controlling the timbre and pitch of the bodhran. By applying varying amounts of pressure to different spots on the head, the drummer can achieve a wide range of sound and pitch qualities.

A full, flat hand on the head produces a short, staccato sound. Pressing the heal of the hand into the head allows the head to ring, but in a controlled fashion. A sound midway between these two is achieved by pressing the back of the knuckles on the head. A simultaneous cipin strike and backhand slap produces an extra loud note, when needed.

To vary the pitch, the hand slides between positions near the center of the head, to the rim, and even completely off the head. The nearer the hand is to the rim, the lower the pitch. By pressing and sliding the heel of the hand across the head in a controlled manner, one can actually produce scales similar in sound to that of the acoustic bass. In Edinburgh, I heard Jim Sutherland employ this technique--breaking into a rendition of When The Saints Go Marching In--during a very impressive bodhran solo.

Learning to play the bodhran may present something of a problem--not so much because learning to play it is difficult, but because finding someone to teach it may be. There are no manuals to learn from nor schools to attend--although there are workshops held at many Irish folk festivals. So I suggest that those who are interested should find out where Irish or Scottish folk groups may be playing in their area--be it bars, at festivals, or wherever. Talk to the bodhran players to see if they teach, or if they can recommend someone who does.

Gaelic music is divided into two distinct types of tunes: dance tunes and airs. Airs are slow, song-like pieces that don't offer much playing opportunity for the bodhran. It usually sits out completely, or plays a minimal background part. But dance tunes-- especially jigs and reels--are where the bodhran player can really show his mettle. The internal rhythms of these tunes play a very important part. By following these rhythms, the drummer can create some highly imaginative and syncopated lines. In this way, instead of just a background beat, the drummer becomes an integral, contrapuntal part of the ensemble.

To illustrate just what the bodhran player might play, I offer two examples--the first from a reel, the second from a jig. I've never actually seen bodhran parts written out (as far as I know, they never are; they're usually taught by rote), so I've made up my own system of notation. Notes above the center line are downstrokes, notes below the line are upstrokes, and those on the line are played on the upper head of the cipin. The diamond-headed notes are loud, cracking accents played on the rim and always on the upstrokes. Both examples start out with a simple pattern, and expand from there.

The bodhran may be relic of the past, but it is still as vital and dynamic today as when it was first transformed from a utensil to a drum, all those many years ago. Without living pieces of history like the bodhran, we drummers might soon forget our own history and lose an important piece of ourselves.



Return to the
Bodhrán home page.

Part of the Ceolas
celtic music archive

Josh Mittleman

Last updated 30 Mar 1999