Preventing broken heads

topic posted Mon, April 3, 2006 - 10:30 AM by  Unsubscribed
I am breaking my drum heads way too often. I have replaced the head on one drum three times in the last 6 months. I broke a head on my favorite drum this weekend. That one bummed me out because it had a wonderful, dry sound.

I like my drums to be tight so that the slaps really ping. I am looking for advice on how to prevent this from happening. I have broken a head while tighening it, so now I do it really slow and easy. This weekend I was playing outside and it was a little cold in Los Angeles (maybe 45-50). I had been playing for a couple hours when the head just popped.

What can I do to help prevent drum heads breaking on me? I will plan to back off a few pulls after I play, but that would not have helped this weekend.

posted by:
  • What kind of drum do you have and what kind of skin are you using?
    • Unsu...
      >What kind of drum do you have and what kind of skin are you using?

      African djembes with goat skins. I get the skins at Motherland Music here in LA. Some are from Africa, others from the US. Usually they are untreated and still have the hair on them. I like to leave a ring of hair around the drum and then I shave off the hair on the playing surface with shaving powder. I have not used a chemically treated head, but I think that is what is on my Toca djembe.
      • Now if you have what is known as a Tourist Djembe, that would be a smaller lighter in weight, drum made from tweneboa wood, then goat skin is the way to go. If you have a larger and heavy hardwood Djembe you might want to up grade your skin to a cow hide.
        • Plus when you head your drum make sure your edge is sanded smooth and soap the edge of the drum so the skin will slide over the wood and not snag. This will improve the streching the skin evenly.
        • Unsu...
          >Now if you have what is known as a Tourist Djembe, that would be a smaller lighter in weight, drum made from tweneboa wood, then goat skin is the way to go. If you have a larger and heavy hardwood Djembe you might want to up grade your skin to a cow hide.

          I made the "tourist djembe" mistake once - never again. I thought one should always use goat skin on a djembe. Wouldn't the cow hide be thicker and sound more conga-like?
        • P
          offline 56
          Just a quick thought: is the shell on you djembe a circle or an oval? It becomes harder to seat the skins and you get tears more often so some people will use 3 rings to compensate when shells become a little more oval shaped. also dont crank the djembe up so high, instead, work on your tones and slaps.
          • Unsu...
            It's pretty much a circle.

            I've gotten some good info here, folks. Thanks. I looked at the rim of the drum and there were a few spots that could have caused a rip. So I will sand then all down smooth. Somebody suggested using soap on the edge, but I wondered how that would work with the wet skin. Then somebody else suggested using cangle wax on the edge, that made good sense. I have also been debating using a thicker or thinner skin. Thin sounds good, even though it can "break your heart when it breaks", as one fellow drummer put it.

            Now a question about rings. Most of my djembes have rings that have bumps on them, kinda like rebar does. I make sure to wrap all rings in material before using them, but wonder if smooth rings would still be better.

            I also found a site that showed a different way of mounting the head than I had used. In this method, you punch small holes around the edge of the skin. Then you place the ring over the playing side and use string to thread through the holes. This allows you to get the skin fairly tight on the ring and to prevent folds. Here is a link if anyone is interested.

      • Chris,
        How is the bearing edge? Is it rough? are there sharp places? Are the rings smooth? Are you pulling the drum before the skin is entirely bone dry?
        I have a few djembes which have hair on the rims and although they LOOK great that way, as you tighten the head sometimes the hair pulls and you can start a tear.
        When I shave a head which has had hair on it, I don't use a razor blade because the flat blade can cause scratching which can lead to tears. I use a razor sharp curved skinning knife (no sharp points).
        Don't shave the head to the rim. Once you get to the rim when the wood is under the skin, it is inevitable that you will shave into the skin too much. Shave up to the rim before you do the final pulling, then as you do the final pulling, the shaved part will eventually be over the rim anyway.
        These are a few of the troubleshooting problems that I can think of. You may have to sand and smooth the bearing edge of the drum before you rehead, You may have to file down and rough spots on the rings and be patient about pulling and tuning.
        That's all I got for now.
        • Unsu...
          Thanks for all the feedback. I will inspect the leading edge of the body and sand it smooth. I can soap up the edge too, but won't that cause a mess when I go to shave the skin? For shaving, I have been using the shaving powder. I mix it with water, put it on and let it stand, then scrape it off with a butter knife. But if the hair around the edge can cause problems I can easily live without it.
        • JW
          offline 14
          Instead of shaving you might try Nair.
          • Unsu...
            Could also be humidity, or lack of --- my teacher here in Japan cautions us in the fall to loosen our heads because the dry air can pop them, and then this month we're all being extra cautious about mold, since it's the rainy season. Was it dry when your heads were splitting?
            • Unsu...
    's Los Angeles, so nearly always dry. I think it was the temperature swing from being inside, which was hot from the sweaty dancers, to outside, which was cold because it was early spring. Probably as much as a 30 degree swing.
              • Cowskins just sound very different. I would NEVER consider using a cowskin on a djembe. It would make it into a bougerabou. It would have that dull dead tone that is attractive on a conga but really lame sounding on a djembe. I have heard of some people using calfskin and that is slightly better, but forget about getting sharp cracking slaps even with calfskin. I use mostly goat and on occassion antelope, but I still prefer goat. I head a lot of drums for people, sometimes as many as 5-10 a week, usually less.
                Sometimes a skin just goes and there's nothing that you can do about it except whimper a bit and replace it. For some reason right before it starts to go, the djembe has the best sound ever (sad, really). Usually a head starts to tear around the rim and just above the rings. If you find that it is tearinag across the head then usually that tells of a flaw in the drum or skin or somebody has been doing something that they shouldn't have with your djembe. Dropping a djembe so that the rings hit the ground with a thump can also blow the head as well as other more serious damage to the rings and shell.
                • >Cowskins just sound very different. I would NEVER consider using a cowskin on a djembe.

                  concurring. this seems an absurd idea, at least in my head. cows are for congas, ashikos, and bougerabous. (thanks for the spelling, Jeffrey.)
                  • This is the maximum depth. Additional responses will not be threaded.
                    I would recommend sanding down the wooden rings on the inside of your djembe. A lot of drums (specifically the cheap ones imported to places like TJMAXX and Pier One) are meant for decoration so they didn't sand down the rings so well...I've known many people with this problem.
                    I've also heard that African goat skins are tougher than others..
                  • This is the maximum depth. Additional responses will not be threaded.
                    Beware of your ideas, many players use Calf skin on their Djembe. If you Hit very hard and not finess, you'll need more durable skin. The more you play the better technique or harder the hand and more broken skins.
                  • This is the maximum depth. Additional responses will not be threaded.
                    Hey La-La,
                    Not contradicting, but my congas have always had water buffalo skins on them. Incredibly resiliant, long-lasting, very responsive. Cowheads, in my experience just aren't as musical. IMHO.
                    • Once you put a cowskin on a djembe, it is no longer a djembe. It is a slightly different shaped bougerabou. The reason that we use different skins and of different thicknesses is for the sound. I play incredibly loud and sharp on the djembe with high sharp slaps, solid fat and round tones and a deep booming bass. I play much louder and sharper than people that wallop their drums and that is due to technique and years of study. The djembe is a drum of the Malinke people and it spills over into other people a bit. It is primarily the drum of the people that live in what is now Mali, Guinea, The Ivory Coast and Birkina Faso. In the mid 20th century it became popular in Senegal and more recently in Ghana. It has never been the drum of the people of Nigeria. I have played and studied with countless West African Drum Masters over the years and was taught how to re-head djembes by Madou Dembele. I can think of NO African Master that would use a calf skin or a cow skin on a djembe. Those are meant for the Dunnuns, the Bougerabous and of course in Latin America, the conga family, although Angus is correct that Water Buffalo is the preferred skin, but Cow will do. If you head a djembe with a cow skin, it will sound more like a conga and therefore you'll need to use different technique. You'll never get the sharp cracking slaps using West African technique, you'll have to hit harder and try to drive the sound into the drum as you do with a conga and not draw the sound out of the drum as you do with a djembe. I wouldn't even bother mentioning this and just let it go, but somebody that has limited experience in heading drums was asking for advice and I couldn't bear to have misinformation stand.
                      • Unsu...
                        Regarding: I couldn't bear to have misinformation stand.

                        I hear ya, that's why I'm replying. I think the traditions of all drums, once they are loose on the multi-cultural world, evolve. Regardless of the credentials you present to impress us, the fact of the matter is that djembes are now loose on the world, are owned by no culture, and are becoming rather mainstream in the U.S. drum circle scene. That someone puts a cow hide on a djembe doesn't make it a bougarabou, it makes it a djembe with a cow hide head. If time must stop on some particular day, then with regard to djembe tradition, surely that day was long ago on another continent before white dudes like us even heard djembes. So, with regard to time-stopped djembe tradition: you're not in charge because you're too young (you're alive). With regard to living tradition: you're not in charge because you don't own and control all of the djembes. That's all just my opinion.

                        On another note, I believe that water buffalo is preferred on conga heads only in that water buffalo skins are readily available where cheap mass produced congas are manufactured, like in Thailand. I used to play water buffalo skins on my beginner set (Matadors), but when I stepped up to congas made of higher craftsmanship, I found steer hide to be far more musical. Yeah, my friends object that the steer hide hurts their hands when they try to play loud, however, I don't have a problem. But hey, I use a hard wood stool sitting on a hard wood floor as a quiet practice pad. I cut the stool to the height of a conga. Contrary to intuition, this does not harden my hands ... it improves my technique so that I don't need hardened hands. I recommend Moperc congas to anyone who is ready to step up. Check out The maker of those fine drums has nothing to do with my opinions. There certainly are other fine brands. I'm not aware that any serious conga craftsmen use water buffalo heads. If you want to freeze tradition, be aware that lug tuned congas evolved on this continent where domestic steer hide is available. But I don't want to freeze tradition. That's why I'm trying out mule skins from Venezuela. I've got one on my quinto, and a steer hide on my conga. Man, they both sound great. It's a close call. But they both spank water buffalo. I suppose there are as many opinions on this matter as there are congueros ... there are probably more opinions than congueros as I have several opinions. By the way, with a little investigation, you can find Isaac Gutwilik, who, at least at the time of this posting, sells mule skin heads. Look for JCR Percussion, or look on Ebay.
                    • thanks Angus -- yes, I'm a fan of buffalo too; it's rich and sweet on a conga (or my soon-to-arrive djun-djuns!). what I actually meant there was basically an echo of what Jeffrey is saying in the post that follows yours -- that cows don't really belong on djembes, in my opinion. and I'm not a hard-and-fast culture-preacher -- I mix it up a lot and am happy when a mix works out right.

                      however, Angus, have you ever played African cow? my teacher makes a whole line of beautiful ashikos with African cow on them, varying in size and tuned like congas. extremely melodic -- they were my first drums and they continue to be my favourites for jamming, teaching and performing. waaaay different from your typical cow-cow. his drums are here, if you're interested --
                      • Good stuff. Thank you la-la and Jeffrey. Nope, never played African cow. I'll have to troop down to 'rhythm fusion' (oh darn) and check it out. And yes, conga playing is more playing in, whereas djembe is more drawing out. Good description. The troupe I played in for 4+ years was all congas and accompanying toys. And it was during that stretch (mid 90's) that the djembes became very popular - dare I say it? Fashionable - and the drum of choice.
                        Now-a-days I am looked at strangely when I set up my matched tuumba and quinto. But I've always liked being Old School. :-P
                      • Reply to la-la & Jeffrey: Jeffrey shares a lot of good info in his 7/1 post, but I can't agree with all of it. As I mentioned elsewhere in this thread, cowskins are indeed used for bass djembes, & I recently saw my first lead djembe using cow (made by the master craftsmen of Drumskulls). It's one of the best sounding djembes I've ever heard! Local djembefola extraordinnaire Thione Diop liked it so much, he got one for himself. I recently had the pleasure to hear Moussa Traore play this same drum -- it sounded amazing (although he could probably make a kitchen table sound amazing) ;) He seemed quite pleased with the sound himself. So I can't agree that putting a cowskin on a djembe makes it something other than a djembe, or that no African master would ever play one. But I would agree that, unless you *really* know what you're doing, it may not sound so good...
                        • Unsu...
                          First, I'm far from being a drum master.

                          I was bored years ago and put a bison skin on an ashiko and djembe. IMO both drums had a very dull sound compared to the goat skin. They had a different voice to add to the circle, but neither one had a crisp slap to it.

                          It's been many years and I don't remember the size of the drums. That might have had something to do with it. They were a pain in the ass to skin too. Tucking bison sucks.
                • Unsu...
                  Truly traditional djembe was headed using (African) antelope, which is thicker than most goat, much like calfskin. I use calfskin on my Guinea drum, and it cracks louder then it ever did with a goatskin, plus it really deadened the ring the drum used to have, and made the tones much thicker sounding. Based on my experience, I'd say calf works great.
  • Those temp changes will do it to you. My advice: Chemical treated head. I had one on my first drum, and loved the sound of it. I was out at joshua tree and managed to pop mine... Was close to the 30s and had to keep setting it by the fire. it popped some time the next morning.

    Sorry about not getting back with you sooner, chris... been swamped.
  • Oh, my aching head!!

    Personally, I like thick skins pulled tight for thick tones as well as crackling slaps. Don't know if I'd go all the way to cow, though, unless you really know what you're doing. Recently saw my first cowskin on a (lead) djembe (seen bass djembes with them) & it sounded awesome, but was built by the mad scientists at Drumskulls. I hear the thicker goat skins come from Mali.

    Good rounded bearing edge & avoiding extreme temperature/humidity swings help, too. Good luck!
    • Unsu...
      I'm sure it was the extreme temps that popped the last one. It was night and I was going inside, then outside, then in again.
      • broken heads

        My freind, don't go go to cow if your hands are not very thick and callessed. When it comes to skins you never now which will break and when. Humidity is very bad for a pulled skin. You may have some sharp edges or dips in your mouth do to droppping or bumping the drum. use sand paper and a rasp to even the edge. A circular curve inward is the desired shape. Your rings might be improperly fitted. I see very often that players pull their djembe to high to improve the sound of their playing, in this case work your technique. Keep in mind that motherland gets weak skins very often. To shave your skin just wait until dried and use a 3 inch blade non serated. get a sharpining stone and you'll have your equipment for years before you need replacing.
  • After reading all the replies in this topic, I only have a couple things to share.
    I once put a cow skin on my djembe & it did not sound like a djembe at all. It wasn't long before I changed it out. Not the skin for me for that drum. I like the sound of the goat skin on my drum.
    I use a sharp, curved knife that my husband made when I shave my head. I wait till the skin has dried & then slowly & carefully shave the hair off before I tighten it. I don't use any shaving products on the hair/skin. So far, I've not had any problems.
    • Hello Bridgit, try pulling drum first then shave. Its easier and faster.
      • G'morning folks!

        I wanted to post here in this thread because it's here that I really formulated the creation of something spectacular over this last week and a half.

        It all started when a friend of mine up in DC gave me a split, dried up husk of a conga that had been left in the mini-storage place he owns. I took it home and looked it over, sat it in the living room for days contemplating how best to restore it. I'm a djembe player, really, but I thought it would be cool to have a conga. The problem is, I knew next to nothing about how to go about restoring this one. It really was a mess, the only thing most obviously salvageable was the skin.

        Then I read this thread, and the idea of cowskin… I play a lot of base beat to complement all the folks at our drum circle who like to spin out descants and harmonic. Our circle is very diverse, with a lot of beginners as well as experienced players. I find I have the most fun with the challenge/rush of finding the common base thread in the midst of tentative tapping that new folk do and the full out trance drumming that some of the experienced folk achieve. I think they like it that they can hear the floor clearly in a deep base tone that supports/anchors them in whatever they might be creating in the flow. I'm also not particularly good at the quick-handedness required for the slap and ping art of djembe. For a while I've thought I should get an ashika and really stick to base.

        Then the tiny hole in the head of my natural djembe got a little bigger and it started sounding "off".

        So I got a wild hair and took the head off that warped old conga, then left it to soak in a mop bucket for about three days. I thought about it some more, researched, and found some wonderful instructions for replacing the head on a normal djembe (special thanks to ). I played around with the idea, ran my hands over the slowly softening "rawhide" in the mop bucket and debated the pros and cons of what I was about to attempt. In the end, I decided it was no skin off my nose to give it a shot, I had to get a new head anyway, why not try and be a little creative?

        It really took two tries to get the head shaped. Even after three days soaking, it retained the conga shape of the old drum enough to give me trouble. I ended up sticking it on the drum as best I could, and leaving it to partially dry up again into this new shape for a couple more days. Then I re-soaked it for about 5 more hours and re-sewed the edges around the lower ring of my djembe…much more tightly than the above instructions suggested.

        In any case, details aside (I should have taken pictures), I finished it yesterday and I have to tell you all, it is the most fantastic, mellow, beautiful sound that drum has ever made. It responds so sweetly to my hand that I can barely touch it to make a deep, rolling tone shake the floor under my feet. I can't wait to hear it sing with everyone else tonight.

        I suppose this is my support for thicker skin on a djembe, at least for those who employ the base more than the ping.

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