In 2015, I made an exciting discovery! Have you ever taken up a new musical instrument? Then you’ll know what I mean.
That first discovery expanded my musical world, and eventually led me to another discovery, and the very question I pose to you today: “What is a Bodhran??”
Now that I’ve been playing a bodhran for a few years I can answer that question for ya! It’s exciting for me to introduce to you today its sound, its story, and its potential for making your music even more interesting than ever.
But first, lemme show you how I found it in the first place!
My first exciting discovery in 2014 was… the violin!
It wasn’t my plan to take it up as another instrument, but… life is strange sometimes. What was it Lennon said? “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Great insight. But then he was a Beatle!
I had actually planned to take up cello. I saw a fine-looking, dark brown cello for sale on CraigsList and just had to have it. When I arrived, the seller actually had dozens of instruments for sale, including a violin in good shape.
She said a hundred and thirty bucks for it. I figured, “Wow, that’s all?! I might as well at that price!” So I went home with more than I planned for. FOUR MORE instruments actually. Talk about Serious G.A.S.!
Back home, I was surprised to find that it was not the cello that consumed me, but rather the violin. And soon enough, the bodhran was in the mix too, because of a new appreciation for music… from across the ocean!
The Pipes Are Calling, Danny…
It was through one of my violin study books that I first heard and came to really appreciate the bodhran. The book included, amidst the mostly classical pieces, an Irish folk tune. As soon as I played it, I immediately appreciated its beautiful melody, as well as the unusual choice of chords sitting underneath.
I kept being drawn back to play this tune from the “Emerald Isle”, as Ireland is called. Again and again. “Hmmm… “, I thought, “… this Irish music rocks! Wonder if I can find more??”
A couple hours and online receipts later, I did! Eventually I was playing through more awesome melodies, and I just couldn’t get enough. Even “Danny Boy”, a song most people have heard at least once, seemed to really come alive and become so much more emotionally impactful playing it on a violin.
But there was also, almost always, a different-sounding DRUM playing along on these Irish songs. It sounded really different, but really cool. Researching, I found it was the BODHRAN!!
As I continued playing, and began listening to more and more Irish music, and watching videos of Irish groups, my interest in this north island beat-maker grew until I knew… I had to have one!
Getting Comfortable with my OWN Skin
Just around the time I was seriously G.A.S.-ing for a bodhran, wouldn’t you know it… one showed up on CraigsList!!
I ended up snagging this Roosebeck Tunable Bodhran, seen in the picture to the left, from a local girl who no longer played it and wanted it to go to someone who would appreciate it and play it into the future. I assured her I would.
There were others listed on CraigsList, but hers was the largest… exactly what I was looking for. No mamby-pamby play toy bodhrans for me – only the most powerful will do!!
She only asked $80. These sell new for $108 plus tax, and since it was in perfect condition I thought that a steal.
The head is genuine goat (apologies to any P.E.T.A adherents), tho’ you can buy the same model with a synthetic skin instead.
If you’re interested in my specific model, feel free to take a look at the MidEast company’s website by CLICKING HERE. They are more pricey than your typical beginner models, but as always, you get what you pay for.
Since I know you’re wondering, let’s cover the first thing most people ask when they’re looking into the bodhran is, “How do you SAY that??!”
This is especially the case when they see the drum spelled in the right Irish way: “bodhrán”. Most people outside of Ireland leave off the diacritical mark above the ‘a’. Heck, I don’t even know, as an American, how I’d type one in in the first place!
The easiest way to remember its pronunciation is to say, “It’s a bodhran, MORON!!” Keep those two in rhymed complicity and you’ll have no problems. Oh, and it’s probably best to say that in your HEAD, not out loud. For obvious reason. 😉
Dig That Gaelic Beat!
So you’re here because of genuine interest in this exceptional instrument. Maybe you noticed it in the movie “Titanic“, during the below-deck dancing and playing. Maybe you came across an Irish group recently, in a restaurant, pub or bar. Or maybe you stumbled upon Irish music on Spotify, Pandora or ITunes.
Whatever your reason, welcome! The BODHRAN awaits for you to breathe the pulse of life into it and make it come alive in some energized gig near you!
The bodhran is a simple, single-skin frame drum. It’s played mostly in Irish music groups, tho’ occasionally artists like myself will use it in songs that are not Irish, but still benefit from its sound.
Bodhrans come in different sizes, which make them louder or softer, higher in pitch or lower in pitch. The smallest is 10 inches in diameter. The largest? 26 inches.
A goatskin is usually used in Ireland for the beating material. In America, it might be synthetic, or even other animal hides that make the striking surface.
On the back of the bodhran, you will usually find one or two crossbars. These allow you to hold the drum securely, but even more, it gives the back of your hand something to brace against so that you can push the drum skin outward, raising the pitch when desired.
Sometimes you’ll see a tunable bodhran. Many are not tunable. You’ll know the tunable one by either lugs, bolts or hex key riggings, either on the outside of the side of the drum, or underneath on the inner side.
Did you know that bodhrans are a descendant of the tambourine?! There are even pictures of some Irish musicians playing from the 1950s that show jingles still attached, just like a tambourine.
Not Your Everyday Beat Box
There are a few things that set the bodhran apart from other drums and percussive approaches. They are:
- It’s played on its SIDE.
- It’s played with a “beater“.
- It’s played with your palm touching the underside of the skin
So, first, the bodhran is played on its SIDE, not with the skin facing up. It’s usually resting on your leg (usually the left thigh, if you’re right-handed). The skin top faces your chest as you play.
Secondly, you play it, not with drumsticks, and only occasionally (if ever) with your hands or knuckles. Most of the time, you’ll use a unique, artistically-crafted wooden stick called a “beater“.
Centuries back, it was more common to use an actual animal bone. The ends, where knuckles or joints would be, served as excellent striking mediums to pummel out the loudest sounds. That’s why you’ll hear some still refer to the beater as a “bone“.
You’ll also find this playing stick referred to by the name “tipper“, or “cipin” in certain territories, especially in Ireland. But the term I’ve heard the most here in American is “beater”.
Regardless of the name though, it takes a while to get used to the novel way of holding and sounding the drum with one of these. It’s different from any other percussion instrument I’ve come across.
Oh, and sometimes I’ve seen bodhran players use brushes on the skin for a softer effect. I just use the brushes from my drum kit and they work great. Adds another color to your tonal arsenal, but you probably won’t use them much, as Irish bands tend to be anything BUT soft and gentle!
Lastly, to coax, or explode, different sounds from the bodhran, you place your left hand (if you’re right-handed), open-palmed, on the back side of the drum skin. Lifting it from the skin, touching it palm open, or pushing the skin outward will provide different responses, pitches, and timbres, since that dampens or releases the vibration of the skin.
I find this technique to be very much like playing the hi-hat on a traditional drum kit. Your left hand will “open and close” the drum, by merely lifting or dropping your palm to the skin. Thinking this way, you can pound out rhythms as complex as you’d like with this instrument, just like you can get all Stewart Copeland on the hi-hat with drum sticks.
Opening and closing the drum skin sound is also great for musical accents. It’s easily done once you get the hang of it, and easily heard too. In fact, I don’t think there’s a more expressive drum with as much variance in skin resonance, except for the African talking drum.
Getting JIG-gy With It!
When playing the bodhran, you’ll find that most Irish music comes down to two varieties of songs:
- The Jig
- The Reel
A jig is in 3/4 time, and has a rhythm similar to saying “PINE-ap-ple”.
The reel, on the other hand, is in 4/4 time, and has a rhythm similar to saying “WAT – er – me – lon”.
If you’re playing the bodhran, it’s mostly your job to keep everyone centered on one of those particular grooves.
There’s not a lot of soloing typically; you’re mostly serving the song and the other solo instruments that keep the tunes on fire with their breakneck speed and rousing energy.
Irish music can be very fast at times, and I’ve found it a challenge to keep up on bodhran, but like anything, practice makes progress.
And besides… I’ve found violin is MUCH HARDER. 😉
The tipper you will hold in your beating hand similar to how you’d hold a pencil. Then, swinging the wrist up and down, you thump out your most ‘leapin’ leprechaun’ grooves for your fellow musicians to play along with.
There are, however, differing styles of beater technique, mostly based on geographic preferences and the origins in Ireland. The style that I play, and that is by far the most common, is “Kerry” style. This is the method that uses a tipper with TWO heads. The other less popular technique is called the “West Limerick” style, and it uses only ONE end of a longer, thinner tipper.
But wait! There are even some who play the bodhran with thumb and knuckles instead of with a wooden beater. If you try this, you’ll see that you do not get nearly as much volume out of the drum. Since some Irish music gigs are done with no amplification, it’s much harder to be heard over all the other instruments if you opt for this method. I personally am gonna stick with “tipper-ing”, thank you very much.
You can strike the rim of the bodhran too if you want, to get that “wood on wood” sound that’s more like South American claves. Just be careful you don’t do it too hard – nobody likes dented or chipped tippers!
The aural textures you can produce with the bodhran can go from deep and booming, to subtle and mid-rangey, to bright and staccato, if you want. The combination of controlling it with the tipper AND the palm muting gives you a LOT of controlled variety.
For those of you wanting GREAT online instruction, I suggest what I use myself: the Online Academy of Irish Music! They are actual Irish musicians who live over there and play this music week in and week out, and know how to teach it well.
I know there’s lots on YouTube but honestly I don’t think any of that compares to what OAIM offers us. Check out their FREE beginners instruction videos by CLICKING HERE! Then just navigate to your instrument of choice and start jammin’ with the experts.
Meet ya in the virtual practice rooms!
You Never Forget Your First
For those just starting out, I recommend you do what I tell all my beginner students to do: don’t spend a lot! Unless, of course, you’re really, really sure you love the instrument and will stick with it and develop into an expressive musician using it.
For those who are unsure, I recommend THIS 10″ INEXPENSIVE BODHRAN. It will do the job nicely and give you everything you need to start learning the Irish repertoire beats and grooves and improvisation techniques. The best part is, it’s under fifty bucks!
Or, if you don’t mind advertising an esteemed BEER while you play, THIS 16″ ONE is good for starters and a little bigger so the sound will have more beef. If you drink a coke while playing it however, don’t be surprised if you get your tipper stolen. lol
For those of you more certain of your decision, you’ll feed good about investing in THIS 14″ MID-PRICED BODHRAN. All three of these options come with tipper included, so you’re good to go out of the box!
Recognize that bodhrans, like most instruments, can be priced quite expensively. If you want to spend a lot on one, you certainly can! But the options I’ve given you here are great BAM for the buck, but aren’t cheaply made so that your playing suffers.
One of the more expensive ones I’ve ever seen it THIS ONE. Tho’ I’m a Lord of the Rings fan, I can assure you… I will not be picking up that bodhran any time soon. lol
Grins & Skins!
Because the bodhran is so unassuming and humble, it tends to get the short end of the beater when it comes to jokes. There are SOOOOO many, you could enjoy a whole day looking them up online, but I’ll give you just a couple to suffice here:
“When someone tells a guitarist joke, people laugh.
When someone tells a bodhránist joke, people nod in solemn agreement.”
See what I mean?! Here’s another:
“What’s the difference between a bodhran and an onion?
Most people cry when they cut up an onion.”
And finally… :
“What is the difference between a dead bodhran player lying in the road and a dead rabbit lying in the road?
The rabbit might have been on it’s way to a gig.”
There are many more, but you get the picture. But it’s all in good fun. I can tell you, for all the jocular put-downs, I’ve never seen an Irish group perform yet that did NOT have darn good bodhran players… and they helped make the concert exciting in big, toe-tappin’ ways!
Boost That Beat!
There will be times when you’re just gonna have to mic your drum. In the studio, on large stages, or at concerts where you have a lot of other loud, amplified instruments, will call for some type of help getting your sound up and over the other spotlight-stealers.
For studio use, the mic I use for picking up the bodhran (not to mention pretty much everything else), is the Audio Technica 4050. You can read all about that impressive mic in the article I wrote HERE. I also usually record with TWO mics on the bodhran, one in front and one in back. The sound is quite different for each side and it helps to have both in a mix to choose between.
For live performance, a dynamic mic like the Audix i5 works well, or even the common Shure sm57. I prefer the Audix tho’.
You can also get a mic that clips to your drum so you don’t have to worry about clunky mic stands and the like. I’ve come across numerous recommendations for THIS AT PRO35 CLIP MIC and plan to get one for myself for just this use.
Skin-rappin’ Gets Toes Tappin’!
So, what is a bodhran?? That’s easy – it’s fun in a drum! And now you know why everyone should have one… including you!
A little practice… a few upbeat, jiggy gigs… and who knows – maybe we’ll meet at the World Bodhrán Championships in Milltown, County Kerry, Ireland where it’s held each year.
If we find you’re spankin’ a mean bodhran… I’ll be sure to tip my tipper to ya. 😉
For now, get yourself one… start practicing… and go see some real bodhran bashers in action. Watch the ads for Irish groups near you. Irish PUBS are a good place to check for Irish music too.
Maybe you can even find what we have here in Michigan that’s put on by the put on by the “Detroit Irish Music Association” – an Irish music “open chair night“, where anyone can show up with their instrument and sit in on song after song after song from the Irish repertoire. It’s daunting when you first try, but worth the bravery!
Whatever route you take, may the luck o’ the Irish dance and jam wi’ ye! I know I’m so glad I stumbled upon this well of rhythmic riches. It was an interesting, surprising road but I’m glad my musical curiosity led me to it. Many lively hours of smiles, expressiveness and skill-building later, I’m still happily ON the beaten path.
Now, go… make… sounds!!