The bodhrán (pronounced bow-ran, bow-rawn or bore-on, depending on the source) is an ancient Irish instrument that has gained mainstream popularity over the last 50 years. It is a handheld drum that produces a low, staccato sound and provides the foundation of the percussion in Irish and Celtic music. Thought to originally have been used for agricultural purposes and then by Irish soldiers, it is used today in both traditional and conventional Irish music. Its rich history and sound have made it a popular instrument all over the world, with more and more musicians taking the time to learn how to play.
Due to the age of the bodhrán, which translates to “deaf” in Irish, its true origins are unknown, though there is plenty of speculation. The most common belief is that it was brought to Ireland by migrating Celts coming from either Asia or Africa. A similar instrument, known as a dallan, was used by the Irish to sift edible grain from the chaff and historians believe there is a great possibility that the bodhrán was used in a similar capacity. However, it is first found in written history as being used by military forces to produce marching music during battles. It was also used as a noisemaker during harvest festivals and other large town events. Despite this long history of use, Sean O Riada was the first person to use it in a traditional music ensemble, beginning in the 1960s, and naming the instrument the native drum of the Celts.
Music and Sound
The bodhrán is the heart of Irish and Celtic music, providing a low, short beat. Following its introduction by Sean O Riada, many other musicians began using the bodhrán, including the six-time Grammy winning group the Chieftains, headed by Paddy Malone. It has also been used in the music of Robin Morton, Tommy Hayes, John Joe Kelley, Colm Murphy and Johnny McDonagh. Since this time, the bodhrán has become a staple of Celtic music and is even featured in the annual All-Ireland Championship musicianship competition. Other than Ireland, the bodhrán has gained popularity in Scotland, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. The American rock band The Sandcarvers also uses it often in their music, as well as the Dutch band Rapalje.
While playing the bodhrán, the musician is usually seated and holding the drum vertically over their thigh. Right handed players will hold the drum on the left side, while left handed players will hold the drum on the right. The hand is placed inside the skin to control the tension and the other hand strikes the drum with either with the hand itself or a piece of wood known as a “tipper” or “beater”. There are several playing styles, though the most popular is using both ends of a tipper to strike the drum, known as the Kerry style. When striking the drum, the beater is held perpendicular to the head and the wrist is rotated forward then back to strike the drum. The easiest way to remember this is to think of the drum as a clock – if one end of the tipper hits 3, then the other end of the tipper needs to hit 9. Once this technique is mastered, players learn to rotate their arm to hit every “number” on the drum. Despite this rotation of the arm, the movement of the wrist is the most important part of learning to play the bodhrán. After these basic techniques are learned, players can move on to more advanced, tricky beats and sounds, utilizing the hand inside the drum to create different tones.
Buying a Bodhrán
The bodhrán ranges in size from 10 to 26 inches in diameter and 3 ½ to 8 inches deep. One side has a head stretched across and tacked to the sides, while the other end is open, allowing one hand to be placed inside the head, controlling the pitch and timbre. Many bodhráns include one or more crossbars inside the frame that can serve either directly as a handle, or as a brace for the player to hold the drum by wedging a hand between the bar and the head. Today, many bodhráns are tunable mechanically, typically with an allen wrench that tightens and looses the skin. However, there are some, known as tacked bodhráns, that are not tunable. Perhaps one of the greatest decisions to make when purchasing a bodhrán is deciding on the type of skin used for the drum head. Goatskin, the original material used for the head, will have the deepest and most traditional sound, though it will need to be oiled regularly and protected from moisture. Synthetic heads require much less maintenance but are often thought to lack the quality of sound produced by the goatskin. The frame of the drum should be free of knots, cracks and have a smooth finish. There should be no gaps in the joints and no warping of the wood. And as with any instrument, those looking to purchase a bodhrán should always play several different drums to decide which one produces the sound they are looking for. Today, several larger music stores and a multitude of online retailers offer the bodhrán for sale.