On 1 May, 1995, I attended a workshop taught by
Tommy Hayes. In the course of the
class, Hayes described the various styles of bodhrán play used in
Irish traditional music. Hayes identified three hand styles and five stick
styles. Hand styles are those which do not use a stick: The drum is played
directly with the hand. Sticks styles, as you may have guessed, are those
which use a stick. A fourth hand style, described below, is used by
Jesse Winch. Most of the original regional
styles have died out, but new twists are appearing.
Two of three hand styles are quite similar. In Roscommon style, the
drum is played with the back of the knuckles of the hand. Hold the drum
with your left hand, resting on your left knee, as I've described elsewhere. Hold your hand
loosely open, with the fingers have curved. Bend your wrist slightly, so
that your knuckles lie in a plane parallel to the drumhead; move your
forearm up and down in small motions, allowing your wrist to flop loosely.
Strike the skin with your knuckles. You should get one beat with each
downstroke, one with each upstroke; rolls are produced by moving your hand
twice as fast. This style is easily combined with Clare style,
which differs only in using just the index finger. Close your other
fingers and leave your index finger half extended, and play as described
above. By alternating between one and several fingers, you can vary the
tone of the beats. Hayes noted that this style works particularly well on
a drum with jingles set into the rim, like a tambourine; indeed, it is
quite similar to several hand-drumming styles from the Middle East, central
Asia, and South America. At a concert in August 1995, I saw
Johnny McDonagh play several songs
with these hand styles; they produced a softer tone than a stick.
The third hand style is completely different. Tommy Hayes learned it from a drummer from West Cork, who in turn said he'd learned it from a old man in his town. But Mícháel O Súilleabháin does not believe it to be a traditional style; it certainly bears a striking (sorry!) resemblance to some techniques used in Middle Eastern drumming. Wherever it originates, it works beautifully. Place the drum vertically in your lap, with the skin facing away from you, and lean the top edge of the drum back against your chest. Hold one hand in front of the drum, palm inward, with the middle three fingers curled under, and the pinkie and thumb crooked. Play the drum by rotating your forearm and striking the drum alternately with the knuckle of your thumb and the back of the last knuckle of your pinkie. To get a roll, add an additional beat with the thumb on the upstroke. Played well, this method produces a very soft, even rhythm. It also leaves the left hand completely free to add beats, slaps, etc.
I saw another hand style used by Jesse Winch at a recent concert. He
places the drum across his lap, as in the previous style, leaning against
his body. He holds his hands in front of the skin, palms toward his body,
and plays the drum with the fingers and thumbs of both hands, in a manner
similar to many styles on the tar or tambourine.
The most common style of play is the Kerry style, with a two-headed
stick played obliquely to the drumhead, the main beat produced with the
lower head and the upper head used for rolls and ornamentation. This is
the style I've described
elsewhere. But there are
several other styles, which produce slightly different tones and rhythms.
In the oldest stick style, still found today in Waterford, a thong is tied around the middle of the beater and twist around the middle or index finger, so that the stick hangs perpendicular to the fingers. The hand and arms are used much as in the Kerry style. This style tends to be very loud and allows very little fine control. It is not used in musical performance.
More useful and more common is the single-headed or West Limerick style. A short stick is held by one end, sticking straight out from the palm, like you hold the stick shift of a car. Alternately, the stick can be braced between the lower jointed of two fingers. The hand and arms are used as in the Kerry style, and the open end of the stick is swung across the head to strike once in each direction. Rolls are accomplished, once again, by increasing the speed of the hand.
The Scots developed a unique style, which might be called tambour technique, using the name of the Scottish framedrum. In this technique, the center of the stick is gripped in the fist (or by fewer fingers in the same position). The hand and forearm are rotated to allow alternate ends of the stick to strike the skin directly. In this style, it is possible to play very fast, very easily; but in the long run, it seems to provide less control than the Kerry method.
Finally, Tommy Hayes has developed he own, unique style. I don't entirely understand it, so my explanation is likely to be utterly confusing. You can probably learn more from Hayes' video. The stick is held between the tip of the thumb and the crease of the first knuckle of the index finger, with the top of the stick tilted slightly away from the hand. The other fingers curl into the palm, so that the outside of the middle finger rests against the stick. The drum is played by flicking out the middle finger, so that the upper end of the stick snap back and into the skin; this is the first beat. The middle finger is closed, allowing the pressure of the thumb to snap the stick back, flicking the lower end against the skin; this is the second beat. Note that there is no follow-through, and the forearm does not move; the hand rotates slightly as the fingers control the stick. To produce a roll, the hand is turned toward the skin about fifteen degrees, so that the upper end of the stick can strike twice before the lower stroke.
Hayes developed this style entirely on his own, nevering having played another style. He admits freely that it is a devilment to learn his style after becoming proficient with any other. He believes that his approach allows him to play much faster, very precisely, and thus to play much more complex rhythms. But because the stick snaps into the skin, there is less bounce and he gets a sharper, less resonant tone.
The double-headed brush stick was invented by Jim Sutherland. It is simply two soft drum brushes connected to the ends of a short, stout stick, and it is played exactly like any other bodhrán beater. The drum is struck with the brushes instead of the heads of a beater, producing a lovely soft sound. Sutherland used it to get a jazz feel on swing music played by Easy Club. Ken Larson makes brush sticks; the picture here is one of his sticks. Mance Grady makes brush sticks, too; the ones I saw had shorter, stiffer brushes.
Mance Grady invented the
which is used on the back side of the head to change the pitch and to move
quickly from one part of the drum to another with no adhesion to the skin.
Grady holds a patent on the slide bar (also called a back slide) and
no doubt would be happy to make one for you.
Lark in the Morning offers one version for
sale; I have a picture of their model.
Musicians in genres other than Irish traditional music have adapted the
bodhrán to their needs. In particular, the bodhrán is quite
Middle Eastern percussionists,
perhaps because of its
similarity to the tar. In this style, the drum is held upright in
front of the body, skin outward, with one hand supporting the drum from
below. A traditional tar has a hole or semi-circular notch cut into the
frame to allow the drummer to anchor it with his thumb. The drum is then
played with the fingers of both hands.
Glen Velez is one of the top
practioners of this style. Some traditional bodhrán players have
found that this style allows them to play some rhythms more easily than the
traditional stick styles; polkas are particularly hard with accompany with
a stick, but are relatively easy to play with both hands on the surface of
The bodhrán is also used in other genres:
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