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Roundstone Musical Instruments
and the World of BodhrŠns

The Instrument and Playing

The Secrets of the BodhrŠn and How to play it

By Malachy Kearns

The Instrument and Playing

The BodhrŠn arrived into the popular area of music in the late 1950's, although I'm sure it was being played up and down the country at some small gatherings. Its close cousin the tambourine was a lot more popular, but its use has nearly died out. The author has been using the tambourine for 20 years and remembers hearing old recordings of percussionists from the West of Ireland using the instrument and some years ago Seamus Tansey, the Sligo flute player doubling on the tambourine on an L.P. recording.

Be that as it may, the Bodhr5n is now the prominent percussion instrument in traditional music today.

The BodhrŠn is as valid as any other instrument despite what its detractors claim. OK, its not a front-line instrument like the flute or accordion. OK, you can't play a tune on it (although I'm sure that supreme percussionists such as Tommy Hayes could get very close). But in the hands of gifted, sympathetic percussionists, it is both extremely exciting and a joy to hear.

So remember, when you pick up your drum and 'tipper', it is an instrument of subtleness you are handling, not an old tin tray that you are banging away at!


The playing of any instrument requires getting to know the implement - and practice, practice, practice!
It is recommended, that before lifting stick to skin, that you familiarise yourself with the weight and balance of drum and stick. Balance the drum in your left hand, feel its weight, get it comfortable in relation to your body. When holding the drum it is best to be seated in an upright position. Hold the bodhran with the hand against the skin on inside. This dampens the sound and also, by pushing against the skin, gives different tones to the drum. Resting the rim of the drum against your left shoulder and on your left leg (reverse for left handed persons)

Next take the stick in your right hand (reverse for left handed). Now hold the stick as if holding a ballpoint pen, but in the middle. Now point the stick (writing point end) towards the skin at nearly right angles. This is the end of the stick with which you will strike your first and all important beat.

This may feel really awkward at first -but perservere- it is the

best way to produce that unique Irish sound of the BodhrŠn.

Divide the drum, mentally, like a clock - 12 o'clock, 9 o'clock,6 o'clock, 3 o'clock.

There are two areas on which to make a start. Once you have mastered these then the "drum is your oyster".
I have suggested two areas because you may feel comfortable with one or the other to practice on.

The 9 o'clock area (backend of drum). Point beater end to 9, bring stick down and strike at 7.30 and allow stick to follow through past 6 towards 5. That is the downward stroke The upward stroke follows immediately afterwards, bringing the stick back from 5, hitting once again at 7.30 and following through past 9.

The 3 o'clock area (front end drum). Point beater at 12, bring stick down and strike at 3, follow through to 5, and reverse for the up stroke.

Remember - when striking the beat you must hit the skin towards the middle, not at the edge. NOW PRACTICE - down, up, down, up, down, up, down, up. Loosen up the wrist, balance the stick, keep the shoulder straight - Remember its all from the wrist!


Now we can learn a reel. The reel beat is basically placing your

practice beats into two groups of four e.g.

The black dots over the first down stroke indicate you must hit this beat harder than the others.

So its

counting out the beat

When you have mastered that - double the speed. I suggest you acquire recordings of good traditional musicians - go for solo artists, either FLUTE, ACCORDION, or FIDDLE. Its much easier to play with a solo than a big band. Also obtain recordings of good BodhrŠn players such as Tommy Hayes or Ringo McDonagh. Remember LEARN tunes. It is ESSENTLAL!


Now we can learn a jig. The jig consists of 6 beats to the bar,divided into two groups of three.

This time the accented beat is on the 1st stroke in the first

section - the down stroke, and the 1st stroke in the second section

- the up stroke - complicated? Not really -

counting out the beat

When you have mastered that - double the speed. jigs are much harder than reels, so you have to devote much more time tothem. Now try this

Three sets of three both an extra beat added for a flourish. it makes a nice tidy beat.

You can now try placing the flat of your hand against the back skin of the drum, this will alter the tone, especially if you take your hand on and off at intervals. Try it! Hard? Yes, you have got to learn to rebalance the drum - but just Practice!

End Piece

Hopefully we have started you on the road to many a good session of music. Because of the size of this booklet we cannot bring you the secrets of playing Slip jigs, Hornpipes, Polkas, Waltzes, Mazurkas, Rock and Roll or any of the other varied rhythms of the world. These you will have to seek out in other publications or just go along (without the drum at first) and watch the best BodhrŠn players in your area.

When you do venture out with your drum, go with the intention of beaming! Don't try and dominate a session with one or two rhythms. Don't try and drown out other musicians. There is nothing worse for both musicians and audience than a selfish BodhrŠn player 'thundering' away. Musicians and audience soon learn to avoid BodhrŠn players in this category. Oh! And by the way avoid 'packs' of BodhrŠn players, unless you are at a football match.

So on behalf of Malachy and Anne Kearns.

"Keep on Tipping"

Beannachtai ” Chonamara!


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