I am often asked, “what is the best djembe”? And, “which drum should I buy”. If you are in the market for a djembe drum you are faced with a huge variety of choices. There are djembes made in West Africa, Bali, Thailand, India and many different parts of the world. The internet has hundreds of ads for seemingly nice and even inexpensive drums.
The first thing we need to realize is that a djembe drum, is a musical instrument like any other instrument. Like a guitar, violin or any other piece of gear tha tis made from a craftsman. It is not a toy, and on a professional level it has had careful design, forethought and expert execution in its develpemet from a log to a finely tuned musical piece.
So what is the best djembe for you, for your needs and where do you get it?
Which djembe drum should you buy? Most of the time I recommend a professional level djembe. It does not have to be the super high end top of the line, but a “Pro” model.
Why? Because they are made with the highest quality materials that will last the longest, they are generally made with more care and the sound is going to be better. The skins are going to be better and probably last longer as well.
Obviously you want to look for a djembe drum that is made very well. What does this mean?
It means that is was made with the intention of being played as a musical instrument and not a toy. There has been time and care put into the carving. The wood quality is high, the wood was properly cared for and aged.
if you are examining it in person, check to see that it is balanced, one side of the skin is not higher or lower then the other side. Also you do not want the skin pulled too low over the side. Look for cracks. You want uniformity.
Many new drums have cracks! Some cracks are superficial and some can become problematic down the line. You also want good strong quality rope and a quality skins.
A crack repair does not mean that you will have a problem with the drum ever and as amateur of fact you can often get a substantial discount from ordering a drum from a reliable source that has done a proper repair.
I have several personal drums that i have bought either with cracks or that I have had repairs done to and none of them have ever given me any problems in the last 30 years! But, it depends on who repairs or repaired the drum. Knowledge is the key strategy here.
Remember this. “The misery of a low quality, cheap item will last a lot longer then the initial pain of an expensive high quality one”. It might seem like a great buy or maybe it is all you can afford. But when your drumming improves later on and you try to sell this drum it is going to be very difficult to sell a cheaply made drum.
Therefore, I strongly suggest you get the best possible drum you can afford and please do not buy it on eBay.
Save your dollars and invest in a quality instrument.
Why, because you get what you pay for. And right now there are great opportunities to buy some really interesting beautiful and great sounding drums from some really good companies that care about their products and even more so that their buyers are happy.
The companies I have listed below have good , solid reputations and really great products. You don’t have to worry about if you are getting the real deal or not. There are so many fakes on line and craiglist. And on ebay, forget it! Everyone say’s they have a professional djembe there. They are not! Unless it is a used model from one of the companies I have listed.
The problem with any used djembe is you do not know how the drum was taken care of and therefore there is no way to tell about how long the skin is going to last. If you have to change the skin it is a big deal on a traditional rope tuned drum if you don’t know how to do it yourself. I do suggest people learn this skill but if you are just starting out you need a reliable skin.
As far as what size and weight to get, that depends on if you play standing or sitting. Some people do not mind a heavy drum and some don’t like them as they are hard to put in and out of the case and carry around. If you play
standing you might want a slightly lighter drum. Or a very light drum. It depends on how your body handles weight on your shoulders or hips. How strong you are and how good your back is as well.
The weight on most quality professional level djembes varies from 16lbs to as much as 26 lbs as more. In my experience and opinion it is very hard to find a drum under 18lbs that sounds as good as heavier drums. With thicker heavier wood you generally get more resonation, more fuller sound.
Again this is my opinion and experience and yours or your friends my vary but keep this in mind when shopping.
Wula drums, lists all the weights of their drums on their website which is really nice! remember that a rubber bottom (often optional) will protect your floor and your drum but also ads wait as do other accessories and options.
If you only play sitting then you may opt for a heavier drum. But again please consider the weight carefully and don’t get a drum too heavy or you won’t want to take it out of the house!
Occasionally, you can get lucky and find a light drum that sounds great. If you do, grab it!
As far as size goes, the smaller drums tend to be higher in pitch and more solo oriented. Therefore much less practical or useful as a larger drum. I always recommend medium sized drums.
For me anything from 13″-14″ is good. Keep in mind that every 1/4″ is huge on a drum. It does not sound like a lot here but in actuality it is. The sound and size of the drum does indeed change even with a seemingly small increase or decrease in size and shape.
If you need a recommendation then you are not ready for a strictly (small) solo drum. That is for the elite crowd. That is to say the professional soloists who do not play accompaniment anymore and just solo’s all the time. However, if you are a traveler maybe that is all you can handle (size wise). for me, when I travel I want a small light drum.
There are 3 basic types of skin available now. Goat, Cow (split cow/calf and thin cow) and recently mule skin ( I have only seen the mule from Manito Percussion). You will have to listen to each one to see what is right for you. The mule is a cross between the goat and cow.
My preference for sound is goat skin which is medium thick. However, goat pops the fastest and does not last as long as cow products and mule. Also you don’t have to tune cow and mule as frequently and they are not as subject to loosing tuning from weather conditions. All skins need to be tuned in time and all skins pop in time no matter who you get a drum from. If you take care of your drum and treat it properly you will get much longer life out of it. However, popping is the nature of the beast.
The problem with cow skin is that it is more dense, thicker and harder on your hands. It has become very popular in recent years because of the facts I just mentioned and it also sounds great. However, if your hands are not like brick buyer beware. for most of us it takes a toll on our body.
Because there are so many choices for drums we are going to narrow our search down to the best drums, or the best style drums that I have found in my personal experience playing and being in the drum community for many years (over 40).
Some people recommend buying a small drum or an inexpensive drum to start. I am not going to go there. This is not what this article is about. If this is your goal this is the wrong article for you.
We are going to concern ourselves with professional level djembe drums (since the name of this article is “The Best Djembes”) made from trees or logs, vs drums made from staves or pieces of wood glued together.
I don’t recommend stave drums, that is to say drums made from pieces of wood glued together. I have not heard one sound as good as the real thing.
Those of us who have played for a while disagree on many things but one thing we almost all agree on is that drums from all one log are better then those glued together (staves, like a conga drum). The magic of the solid shell cannot be replicated by pieces of wood glued together.
I have never played a stave djembe that is professional level or sounds anywhere near that of a solid shell djembe. This includes Meinl, LP, Gon Bops, Moperc, etc., etc. I can make them sound pretty good with the right skin on them but basically they don’t sound or feel as good in my experience.
Some of them sound good in their own individual, unique way and I like them as they are super lightweight and easy to tune, just not my cup of tea in terms of sound quality, look and feel. If you want a loud drum for a drum circle this might be good for you however.
But who knows, if someone makes one that sounds as good as a solid shell drum I will play it and post it here as well! I played 2 fiberglass djembes with goat and cow skin that sounded very good. Almost as good as wood recently .Everything is changing and there are great craftspeople out there. And that is what this is all about. Great workmanship, solid quality and great sound!
Unlike conga drums each and every djembe is vastly different from each other even if it is a model that is copied by the same drum
carver or drum company. This is because most popular djembes drums are individually hand crafted from a single log, and because every tree is different, so is the wood which effects the sound.
Also the skins on djembes can vary widely and make a huge difference in sound compared to that of the buffalo skins used on popular mass market conga drums such as those made in Thailand.
Because of this, I can not say that one actual djembe is better then another djembe because there is so much variance from drum to drum. And players look for different sounds.
However, I can say that certain companies such as Wula drum in New York have a reputation for high quality and constantly consistent great drums.
Because they have been working with the same carvers and crafts people for so long in Guinea they have been able to refine their products over the years and achieve a level of professional quality and sound that no one else can simply match. What I love is that when i play one of their drums it sounds very similar to their other drums. They have their own special unique wula drum sound that their drum makers are able to achieve.
So they can say confidently that when you buy a Wula Drum, you know you are going to get that particular, professional Wula drum/Guine djembe drum sound.
As I previously stated the types of wood used varies, the skins vary and so does the shape of the drum. So sound can vary from drum to drum.
These factors can and will effect the sound even on two drums that look exactly a like made by the same drum carver or company.
So no two djembe drums are the same are even close whereas with congas the drums can be very similar.
I often have drums made from the same log, similar skins and rope, similar weight and sometimes the sound varies. Its important to her sound demos of the drum before you but it if you are ordering on line as well as great photos.
The drum companies and products I am going to list below are drums that i have had some contact or experience with over the years. Hopefully they are
models that I have had constant, positive direct experience with and have played and seen the drums from.
I will also list some of the others that I have gotten very good reports about.
I can not list all the drum companies out there because there are so many. And these are basically companies dealing in or with the USA with one exception.
So I do apologize in advance if your company or your friends company is not here. You can always write in and give me your feedback about your drum and drum company as well. Send photos, too!
There are many small importers or individuals selling fine imported drums as well. As I mentioned too many for me to list.
I will list the drums and companies in this article by approximate price range. Prices always varies as the drums do and various options can drive the price up such as rubber bottoms, inlays and other add ons.
Again these are only my suggestions and in no way do I mean to say these are the only choices out there on the djembe drum market or even the best choices, they are my favorite choices and what I recommend to people who ask me.
I generally suggest to buy the best drum you can afford with the concept of keeping it as long as you can. I am not a believer in entry level or budget drums be it djembes or congas.
When you are buying a djembe you are paying for the wood quality, the skin, the rope quality and the
rigging, or the “set up”, how the drum was put together, laced and pulled. There is a lot of time spent learning to put drums together. I can not emphasize this enough. The art of lacing and mounting is just that, an art form.
There is no substitute for experience, knowledge and knowhow. This is what you are paying for when you buy a professional level djembe.
You are also paying for carvings (if you have them on the drum) and extras such as a rubber tire bottom or rubber pad glued to the bottom or even metal inlay work.
Other extras include ‘Cesse’, the 3 or 4 metal decorative fins many djembe folas use and rubber bands to hold them on, djembe straps and so on.
There are different styles of skinning such as the flap over which overs the outside top ring, the cut off style and other finishes. There are also two and three ring clamping systems.
These are all personal preferences and no one can really say which style is better or not. It is really personal preference. I love the flap over style maybe some other people do not. These points can be and are argued about regularly elsewhere.
To me the difference in the most expensive drums and the lesser expensive drums of similar quality is the fit and finish, the rope quality, the skin quality, the add ons and most of all the wood and carvings. The shape, size and weight all play an important role as we have seen as well. The inside of the drum and attention to detail are also factors.
I love the latest carvings i have seen on many of todays popular drums however i personally am completely fine with no decorative carvings. That is just a personal preference as carvings have nothing to do with sound and sound is what i am all about.
Please keep in mind in my opinion it is not how pretty a drum looks or where it is from. It is all about the sound and how comfortable the drum is to play and also to wear if you like to play standing up.
Some people prefer drums from Africa for a variety of reasons. I am not here to argue or discuss those points, there has been much written about this elsewhere already. I have drums made completely in the USA and other countries which are just as nice as my African drums.
I am not for or against drums coming from any particular place. I have been playing great drums made in India, Thailand, Bali and Africa. And I can honestly say they are constantly improving. Soon, as drum makers improve their techniques and continue to learn and grow in their art forms, it will all be very similar quality. There is no way around it and this is the way of the world. When Yamaha first came out making pianos people laughed at them and now they are some of the finest pianos in the world.
Most of the companies mentioned that I know of are trying to use wood from renewable sources, places where trees are being replanted and regrown as well. This is happening more and more and continues to be an urgent issue.
When I look on line, on eBay and on Craigslist I always see listing for professional djembes and they are almost never professional djembes. They are usually awful drums.
Please be careful of these drums. eBay is another place where i very rarely see any decent djembes. Everyone is saying “professional” yet they are not! Not even close. Please do your research and homework before buying.
This is not a djembe buying guide per se, just my choices of drums from the following companies. As usual please click on anything highlighted in brown to be taken directly to that persons or companies website or address.
“The Best” Number One.
My top pick for drum companies and djembes is Wula Drum. They have drums in every price range and are consistent in both sound and quality at every price point. You can count on them for sound and you can count on them to back up their product as well.
They are designed by drummers and played by some of the great masters in world today including Bolokada Conde and M’Bemba Bangoura who has also been instrumental in the design and development of wula drums over the years. Many of the current innovations in the djembe world have been started first by wula drum.
Most people will agree that for the top dollar, Wula drums has some of the best sounding and arguably some of the most beautiful drums on the market today, with the most exquisite, beautiful and intricate wood work and wood carvings. Real art pieces that sound great.
They also have entry level djembes priced very inexpensively as well. So don’t be scared off by their top of the line models. My drum student in Bangkok just came back with an amazing drum he bought from them in NYC. It was the most beautiful djembe I have ever seen, period point dot. And I am not even a fan of carved drums! But I do have some and I do have to give credit where credit is due!
Sounds great, looks unbelievable. Would I want to drag it around or take it out of the house? Maybe not. The intricate carvings can get chipped very easily and I would be worried about it getting scratched, but that is just me. If you do get it, use it!
I personally play wula drum (as well as my own MP Pro Djembe models. My students in Florida also have a few of their drums from various price ranges so I have had plenty of experience playing their very fine drums. They also have less expensive models available that are quite nice. Check out their less expensive Melina wood light weight drums for size, shape and sound.
In my opinion, for the type of drum I like to play, which is medium thick goat skin on super finely crafted hand picked beautiful Guinea shells Wula Drum is the best and no one even comes close (except of course my MP Pro Imported Guinea djembes, LOL!). Again , this is just my opinion and your or other peoples may vary.
In this price range Drumskull Drums has many very fine choices in Kahdi, Linge (Lenke) and other traditional djembe woods. When I see a Drumskull drum, (and I see many) they always have consistent quality, sound and beauty.
Matt is not only an excellent craftsman he is a great player as well and he really knows how to go for
and get the right sound out of his drums. Furthermore Matt has been doing this a long , long time now and really has the art perfected.
He is also putting some killer rubber bottom rings on the drum which really enhance the look, save the bottom of the the drum and also any floor you may play on. They are glued on so no nails go into the wood. This is one of my favorite advancements Matt has come up with!
Furthermore, he has perfected the art of the flap over skin and what more can I say except for any djembe needs you have from spare parts, cases to the whole drum, these are the “go to guys”.
West African Drums & Percussion is a newer company, at least to me. Started in 2009.
I have had excellent experiences with them, especially with Marcus the owner. He goes out of his way to accommodate customers, is very, very helpful and is very well organized. He is easy to reach returns phone calls and messages and is another all around great guy in my opinion.
He is also a sub contractor for Drumskulls drums and sells these as well as his own import models which he sets up himself (heads and skins) as well.
I recently bought one of his Khadi Mali shells and I am very satisfied. This is my kind of drum. I love the flap over skin as well as the smooth shell with no carving. Just a personal preference of mine.
Wide Range of Prices
Another great company is Motherland Percussion. Motherland has been in business for over 25 years.
Motherland Music and Drums is the central point for drumming in Los Angeles.. They are big in the community there.
They have a solid reputation and are a very reliable company and easy to deal with as well.
They have a wonderful website and all kinds of drums from Africa including congas and bata, too. I have not ordered from them but all the reports from buyers I have talked to have been very positive. I would stay away from the shells from Ghana. I have played some excellent djembes in Iroko wood with goat skin flap over skin job and rubber bottom that was very nice indeed.
Although it is African they are not quite on par yet with the other drums from Guinee and Mali. However, they may soon be.
African rhythm Traders offers a solid djembe offering from Guinea coming in right at $450 price point with a flap
over skin job. they look great, sound good and are made of quality materials. They have been around for a while and there are never any worries dealing with them. A very straight ahead company and product.
Is one of the hardest working guys in the djembe business. Anyone involved for any time in the
djembe world on any level knows or knows of Shorty Palmer. Not only is he the “go to” guy for djembe skins but he also offers quality djembes, djembe kits and djembe parts at the most reasonable prices on the market. That is saying a lot!
He also offers “seconds”, slightly out of shape or very slighty damaged drums at a significant savings. If you are on a very strict budget you will want to check him out.
His drums may not be as beautiful as the pricier models but his drums can sound as good. If your drum has to be from Africa, and you want the least expensive best sounding drum you can get for the least amount of money, Shorty is a great choices and offers a wide variety of drums from all over west Africa as well as drum making supplies, too.
I have played several of his drums and they are always consistently great sounding. A very solid resource for anything in the djembe world and another great all around go to guy as well.
MP Pro Custom Designed Djembes
I am now designing and importing my own professional level drums from Guinea, West Africa. These drums are available in a variety of woods, shapes and sizes.
Basically I am making drums that I will play myself. Everything that i want in a drum I put into these drums. These drums are for professional players, or anyone who can afford them.
I have a few basic models but I can also have a drum made to your specifications as well. The possibilities are endless. Simply put, i have spared no expense in making the best possible djembe.
This is most definitely not a budget drum by any means as my sole goal is to produce the best sounding, nicest drum possible and often there are a variety of people involved in making this process happen. We use the nicest wood, shape, weight and ropes along with the best skin. The sound is amazing.
I have several sound demo videos where you can see that the sound of my drums is as good or possibly better then just about anything out there.
One Of A kind
MP Pro Cassia Wood 13″ Guinea Djembe: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=whAL6pu9W6g
These drums are made one at a time. I do not have several made at once. It is a labour of love and there is very little profit made in these drums. I am making them on a per order basis.
If you want something truly unique please contact me by private message here and i will be happy to discuss how we can put together a dream drum for you based on your needs and desires.
What’s available in the $250 Price range?
For under $250 there is nothing I really can recommend that sounds good to my ears except a great deal on a used drum.
If it is used you are taking a chance because with djembes, the skins do not last as long and if the skin pops you are looking at an expensive replacement.
You may want to look at a good friends used djembe or possibly look on Criagslist for possible deals although they are rare to find in this price range but who knows? You could get lucky. I found a reasonably priced djembe my teacher Bolokada Conde hand pulls and riggs his own drums and shells originating from Guinea, West Africa.
Someone had won at an auction and had not played it for a few years. The skin needed replacing but other then that the drum was in perfect condition. Remember to replace a skin if you do not do it yourself is going to be in or over $100 U.S.!
SOME OTHER VERY INTERESTING AND SOLID OPTIONS
Using this curve inside the bowl of the drum maximizes the slap and tone notes, which he say’s “reflect off the curve like a radar dish and come out the top”.
Bolokada Conde who I have studied with and performed with over the years rigs and sets up beautiful djembe drums. He is a grand master on the djembe, toured Canada co teaching with Mamady Keita as and prior to that performed and toured the world with PDG, (Les Percussions Du Guinee).
Besides being the djembe fola (djembe master) playing the djembe he has an amzing technique for rigging or putting together djembes. His drums are very special if you are lucky enough to get a hold of him.
They always have amazing sound. I do not know what his ‘secret technique’ is but his drums always look fantastic and really have that very special and unique sound quality that I love.
I have 2 of his drums and have had several others as well. You can check out his website, Facebook page and try and write or call him.
If you have the initiative he is a good guy to track down for a very special djembe. The one on the photo on the left is one of his unique creations.
Michael Tivier has some beautiful drums from Mali. His site is in French but you can see all of his very interesting line of African instruments there. He lives in Mali and is very dedicated to bringing fourth a very high quality, beautiful and all around great product.
James Mack a percussionist and performer from Cirque du Soleil also has some nice and interesting drums you can check out more about him and his drum offerings.
Nate Vellinga comes highly recommended from some good drum buddies of mine. A very knowledgable drummer and drum rigger.
I looked at his site and talked with him extensively about his drums. He has some beauties and really knows his stuff. He has travels to and studied in Mali as well and is a former student of Abdul Doumbia now in Colorado. He is also a very good drummer.
Another interesting djembe and drum company is Rhythm House drums. I do not have any experience with them but they sure look great and worth checking out for sure. Some of their carved drums look right up there at the top of the line. Check out these drums in the photos! Pretty amazing looking drums for sure!
Types of wood
There are many types of wood used for making djembes. My favorite are Khadi and Lngue. Below are a list of other woods.
khadi (Hare, Gueni, Kari, Bala Wood)
guele (Iron Wood, gele)
lingue (lenke, lenge)
duki (dugara, dougara)
acajou (Djala, Diala, Bois Rouge)
iroko (african oak, sine)
melina (whitewood, bois blanc)
This video is me playing three different djembes. A Guinee djembe I got from Bolokada Conde, my Mali djembe and the MP Eco Pro djembe from Bali:
Here is are two more video of different djembes with different skin options. Skins do make a huge difference in sound!