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Music

How to Play the Bodhran: 4 Irish Bodhran Playing Styles

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Jul 22, 2020 • 2 min read

The traditional music of Ireland incorporates instruments from many parts of Europe. One homegrown Irish instrument, though, is the bodhran.

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What Is the Bodhran Drum?

The Irish bodhran drum is a frame drum with a shallow body and a single-skin head. It is common throughout Irish traditional music and other forms of Celtic music. Use of the bodhran drum gained more prominence during an Irish folk music revival of the 1960s, when famed Irish composer Seán Ó Riada championed the bodhran as the traditional drum of Ireland.

The word bodhran means "drum" in Irish, which is part of the Celtic family of languages; the word literally translates as "skin tray." In centuries past, the word bodhran could refer to a variety of percussive musical instruments, but from the early twentieth century onward, it has referred to a specific Irish drum that is foundational in many forms of traditional Irish music.

What Are the Origins of the Bodhran?

Though the origins of the bodhran are unknown, the modern bodhran may be a derivative of the tambourine. Unlike the tambourine, the bodhran does not contain jingles, but like its antecedent, it has a round wooden frame and a tight drum head on one side of the instrument. A drummer can play the bodhran with their hands like a tambourine, but the drum is more commonly played with beaters.

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What Is the Bodhran Made Of?

A standard Irish frame drum has a wooden frame that is open on one side and topped with a drum head on the other. Traditional Irish bodhran makers fashion their instruments with a goatskin head, while other bodhran makers use different animal skins or synthetic material for the drum head.

Some bodhrans house adjustable tuners inside their wooden frames. On modern frame drums, these tuners are metal, and you can adjust them with a hex key as you would a standard drum skin or banjo skin. Other bodhrans contain crossbars that run across the open end of the frame. These bars make it easier for the bodhran player to hold the drum, but they are not compatible with a standard tuning system.

How to Play the Bodhran

Play a bodhran drum with a wooden beater—known as a tipper, bone, or cipín. There are four primary playing techniques among bodhran players:

  1. Kerry style: A Kerry-style bodhran player uses a two-ended beater and strikes the instrument by pivoting their wrist back and forth.
  2. Top-end style: The top-end playing style involves striking the bodhran around the outer edge of the instrument, particularly near its top. The player can move their hand to strike precise regions of the drum head, producing a variety of pitches on the instrument. Bodhrans played in the top-end style tend to be smaller with thicker drum heads.
  3. Bottom-end style: Bottom end bodhran playing uses the same technique as top end playing; the only difference is the player mostly strikes the bottom end of the instrument.
  4. Bare-hand style: As with most percussion instruments, a drummer can play the bodhran with their bare hands. For most players, this means holding the instrument with the left hand and striking it with the right hand.

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