There are two positions for playing the Djembe, standing and sitting. We find the best way to begin to play the Djembe is in the sitting position. This is the most common method with Drum Circles as well. You can also play the Djembe in a standing position with the use of a strap. For this article, we will discuss the sitting position.
To play the djembe, sit up straight on the edge of a chair. Cross your ankles and tuck them slightly under you. Hold the djembe between your knees or thighs so that the bottom of the drum rests behind your heels.
There are three basic tones for the Djembe. You can experiment and find variations on these tones. However, it's important to begin with first mastering the basics of these tones. A good practice method is to first work on your tones for 10 - 15 minutes each practice session then work on various rhythms using the tones.
Here are the tones:
Bass: Noted as B, Gun or Dun. Use a locked or stiff wrist. If you rest your hand on the drum then lift your third knuckles up just slightly, this is the position the hand should be in when it strikes the drum. The bass tone is made by striking the center of the drum with your hand in the above-described position. When your hand comes down onto the head of the drum, allow your slightly raised knuckles to drop to the head. Remove your hand immediately after the stroke as if the drum is hot. Envision yourself pulling the sound from the Djembe. At higher drumming speeds you will want your hand to bounce off the head as a drum stick would if you used a stick. This tone uses the whole hand.
A note to women, and possibly men, with long dresses. Keep the bottom of the drum open and unobstructed by your dress. The reason we tip the drum forward is to open the bottom of the drum to let the air pressure out. Without this free movement of air, the drum is choked and cannot produce a bass tone.
Slap: Noted as S, Pa or Ta. With your hand relaxed and fingers open, strike the rim of the drum with your third set of knuckles and palm at the rim of the Djembe and allow your fingertips to "slap" down on to the head and immediately bounce back off. If done correctly, you can even leave the palm of your hand on the drum without affecting the resonant sound of the slap. In this tone the weight of your fingertips will do all the work. You don't need to play hard to get the slap tone. Think of this tone as using half your hand.
Tone: Noted as T, Go or Do. With your fingers together and your hand flat and firm, strike the Djembe close to the edge of the rim. The only part of the hand that should come in contact with the drum is your fingers from the tip to the center or second knuckle. Unless you want a dead or choked sound, let your hand bounce off pulling the tones from the drum. Of the three tones, this tone takes the least amount of hand to drum contact.
With all the strokes, don't hurt yourself! The slap tone is the tone most people over play and run the risk of being injured. You don't need to be the loudest drummer around. You're striving to be the drummer who can plow the deepest groove. That is, the one who is the most consistent and overall rhythmically musical. It's all about enjoying yourself, being musical and getting lost in the music. Pain only interrupts the journey.
Practice does not make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect. The idea here is you do not want to practice bad habits. Work on your tones and get the basics down to the point that they become natural. Instructional books and DVDs are a great way to get started.
A good practice method is to move through the tones, slowly at first, one at a time B - S - T. Once you have nice definition between the tones, move on to the rhythms, e.g., B B - S - T, etc. Work with one hand at a time. When you feel comfortable with your right (R) hand, move to the left (L) hand. Then begin to alternate hands.
Try these exercises:
BTT BTT BTT BTT or Bass Tone Tone Bass Tone Tone Bass Tone Tone... etc.
RLR LRL RLR LRL or Right Left Right Left Right Left Right Left Right... etc.
BBS BBS BBS BBS
RLR LRL RLR LRL
TSS TSS TSS TSS
RLR LRL RLR LRL
Stay relaxed and comfortable when playing.
Above all, play from the heart!