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If you’re interested in the art of hand drumming, learning how to play the djembe is a great place to start. This West African instrument is simple to learn, as there are just three fundamental ways to strike the drum. Once you master those strokes, you can move on to progressively more intricate and impressive percussion patterns. 

Dive into the origins of the djembe and learn how to play djembe drum in the tutorial below. 

What Is a Djembe Drum?

The djembe (pronounced “jem-bay”) is a goblet-shaped drum from West Africa. Traditionally, the djembe drum is carved from a single piece of African hardwood, and an animal skin is stretched over the top to create the drumhead. Loud and versatile, the djembe can make a wide variety of sounds and can be heard even over an ensemble of other drums. 

The name of the drum comes from the African phrase, “Anke djé, anke bé,” which the Bamana in Mali used to call their people together. The phrase translates to, “Everyone gather together in peace.” 

drums
The djembe drum is a goblet-shaped drum carved from a piece of African hardwood. 

Is the Djembe Drum Easy to Learn?

Mastering the djembe can be a lifelong pursuit, but you can get started easily. Learning how to play the djembe drum comes down to mastering just three fundamental tones: bass, tone, and slap. Once you understand how to make those sounds, you can use them in several basic patterns, and from there, you can learn increasingly complex rhythms

How to Play Djembe

Step 1: Get Into Position 

The djembe can be played  either standing and sitting. To play standing, you need a strap, so this tutorial focuses on the sitting position. 

First, sit on a stool or in a chair that has no arms. With your upper legs parallel to the floor, gently wrap your legs around the drum and tilt it slightly forward, which allows the sound to come out of the drum. Make sure to remove any jewelry, which can impede the sound and damage the drum.

person with drum
To learn how to play a djembe drum, start by sitting with your legs wrapped around the drum and the drum tilted slightly forward. 

Step 2: Learn the Bass Tone

The bass tone is the lowest sound that the djembe makes. To make this sound, use the entire bottom side of your hand, including the fingers and palm. Keep your hand flat, and strike the drum a little off center. Once you hit the drum, immediately lift your hand off the surface—otherwise, you’ll mute the tone. 

hands placed on drums
The bass tone is played by striking the entire hand just off center on the surface of the djembe drum. 

Step 3: Master the Open Tone

The open tone is a sound created on the edge of the djembe drum. To learn exactly where to strike it, place your fingers on the drum, lining up your knuckles with the outer edge of the surface (keeping your thumbs off the drum). Strike the drum, keeping your fingers together. 

hands on drum
To play the open tone, line up your knuckles with the outer edge of the djembe drum. 

Step 4: Practice the Slap Tone

The most difficult of the three to master, the slap tone is an aggressive sound that’s often used as an accent beat. To make this sound, line up your hands in the same way you’d set up for an open tone. Slightly separate your fingers. When you strike the drum, aim to hit the edge with your palm and allow your fingers to just slightly rebound off the surface of the drum. 

man playing drums
To play the slap tone, aim to hit the rim of the djembe with the top portion of your palm, allowing your fingers to rebound off the drum’s surface. 

Step 5: Play a Basic Pattern 

Now that you have a grasp on all three tones, incorporate them into simple patterns. Start with a basic quarter note exercise—bass, open, bass, slap—which will help you get comfortable with the three tones, as well as alternating hands. 

drumming pattern
An essential step in learning how to play djembe drums is practicing basic patterns that combine the three main tones. 

Now that you understand the fundamentals of how to play the djembe, you can progress to more advanced patterns. Practicing consistently is key to mastering this instrument, so pull out your drum often, or find a group of fellow drummers to play with. You’ll have fun, make good music, and find a new way to express yourself. 

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