Irish Musical Instruments – About the Bodhran Drum

The bodhran, principal Irish percussion instrument, is a circular frame drum, with a shallow wooden frame and a skin head. The drum is most commonly between 16 – 18 inches in diameter and 4 – 8 inches deep. The head is usually (and ideally) made from goadskin, although other skins such as calfskin may be used. The frame is open at the back, and may have a crosspiece; this crosspiece can have 1 or 2 struts and was initially added to give rigidity to the structure; modern fabrication techniques mean this is no longer necessary and it is now a personal choice rather than a necessity.

The name of the bodhran comes from the Irish word “Bodhar”, meaning “deaf”; bodhran would translate to something like “deafening”!

The Bodhran & Percussion in Irish Music

The bodhran began to be used in Irish traditional music mainly in the 1960s. Beforehand, there is little documentary evidence for its use, although it did exist. It  would appear that Irish music in the early 20th century and before was primarily a melodic music, with percussion as the exception rather than the rule. Due in part to marketing and the “Celtic” revival, it is now mistakenly seen as a central element to the music historically – its anachronistic use in the film Titanic, especially with a modern playing style, is ridiculous to anyone familiar with the music.

Before the 1960s, the bodhran was mainly associated with the wrenboys; as Micheal O’Suilleabhain said in the 1996 conference, it was an instrument that was taken out and played once a year, on the 26th December.

The Bodhran and Other Percussion Instruments.

This type of frame drum is not unique to Ireland. Similar instruments are found in other countries, for example in North Africa and the Middle East. It is remarkably similar to Spanish military drums, and may have been introduced to Ireland in this way, although Séan O’Riada described is as the “native drum of the Celts”, which “predated Christianity”. What is unique to Ireland is the playing style.

The Bodhran & the Traditional Music Revival

In the folk music revival of the 1960s, the bodhran gained enormously in popularity, through the playing of groups such as the Chieftains and Ceoltoiri Chualainn. Through the 1970s it grew in popularity, and even spread to other traditional music, such as that of Cape Breton, Scotland or the traditional music of Spain.

Bodhran Playing Techniques and Styles

The bodhran has a unique playing style among frame drums. It is held under the left arm (for right-handed players) with the left hand against the skin, serving to damp the tone and also to produce variations in tone. In some older playing styles, the bodhran was held by the crosspiece, with the skin un-damped; this is rarely done today.

The rhythm is played with the right hand, using the stick (a cipin, beater or tipper) or the knuckles in an up-down pattern.

There are several different styles of bodhran playing, although they are less associated with regions than other instrumental styles.

In the hand style, the player uses the knuckles of the right hand to play the rhythm.

The one sided stick style, the player uses one end of the stick.

The most common style is the two-sided stick style (sometimes called the Kerry Style) where the player uses both ends of the stick.

Modern styles and techniques

A new style of playing the bodhran drum is known as the “top end style”; the player uses a longer, thinner stick, with a smaller, deeper bodhran and a thinner skin, derived from the skin of the Lambeg drum. This style allows the player to closely follow the tune being played, and to produce a wide variety of rhythms and tones.

Bodhran photo gallery

Some bodhran players

Ringo McDonagh, bodhran player with De Danann
John Joe Kelly, Flook, who plays in a contemporary top-end style.
Peadar Mercier and Mel Mercier.

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