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Considerations when buying a djembe

Updated: Aug 3, 2023

Drum size:

Head diameter - The head diameter for an adult player should be 12-14 inches.

I prefer a head that is right around the 12” size. A larger head can add to the overall weight of the drum and can make generating distinguishable strokes more difficult when playing.

Height - The height of the drum for an adult should be within the 20-26 inch range.

When you are playing while seated, the drum should be tall enough for you to rest the bottom edge of the drum on the ground and play comfortably. If the drum is too tall, you will have difficulty achieving a comfortable hand/arm position while playing - your shoulders will come up too high and your wrists will flex rather than having a nice “straight line” angle across your forearms and back of your hands when resting your hands on the drum head.

If the drum is too short, you will have to hold the drum off the ground while playing to achieve a comfortable hand/arm position and you will probably have to bend at the waist or hunch your shoulders to reach the drum.

Shell Materials:

Wood - Wood is traditionally used for djembe shells.

Traditional drums are carved from a single piece of wood. When you look at the inside of the drum from the opening in the bottom, it should be relatively smooth on the inside. It won’t be carved as nicely as on the outside but shouldn’t be super rough either. The thickness of the shell and the type of wood makes a difference in the resonance of the sound that is created while playing. Wood drum shells are often quite heavy in comparison to synthetic shells. Wood can be affected by weather conditions such as temperature and humidity. In very dry climates, the wood can split. Given good care, wood shells are very durable.

Synthetic - Synthetic shells are made of fiberglass, PVC, plastic and other patented materials.

Synthetic shells are significantly lighter weight than wooden shells. Synthetic shells are somewhat impervious to weather conditions. They also tend to emit a “brighter” sound than a wood shell drum. Synthetic drum shells are very durable and come in a variety of colors/patterns. Synthetic shells are relatively care-free and very amenable to travel and outdoor use. A drum with a synthetic shell is significantly less expensive than a drum with a wooden shell.

Head Materials:

Goat skin - traditional djembes are fitted with a goat skin head.

Natural hide heads are significantly influenced by temperature and humidity. Lower temps or higher humidity will result in a duller/flaccid sound. Higher temps or lower humidity result in a “higher” pitched or “brighter sound. Exposure to wetness, direct sunlight and extremes of heat or cold will damage a natural hide head. Natural hide heads produce a broader range of sounds and tend to have a deeper/richer sound profile than synthetic drum heads. It’s more challenging to produce clearly differentiated strokes on a natural hide head, so can be somewhat frustrating to a new drummer. Natural hide heads may require more frequent tuning than synthetic heads.

Synthetic - Synthetic heads are an excellent option for many reasons.

Synthetic heads require far less care than natural hide heads. Synthetic heads are minimally responsive to changes in temperature and humidity, and many/most or water proof. Synthetic heads tend to have a “brighter” sound than natural hide heads. Stroke differentiation is easier to achieve on a synthetic head. Synthetic heads are more durable than natural hide heads and typically require less frequent tuning.

Tuning method:

Rope tuned - Takes some practice to learn how to do it.

Is typically more comfortable on the hands and knees when playing.

Mechanical tuned - Easy to tune your drum.

Can be hard to avoid hitting the hardware when playing and is less comfortable against your knees when playing the drum in a seated position.

Personal preferences:

I would hesitate to buy a wood shell, goat skin head drum without being able to inspect it and play it before purchasing it. A traditional drum will have a unique voice, feel and spirit that the potential player should be able to check in on before buying the drum. There can be a very special bond between a drummer and her drum. I don’t have the same reservations about purchasing a drum with a synthetic shell and either a synthetic or natural drum head online. These drums are engineered to produce a reliable sound and feel and don’t have the same idiosyncratic characteristics of a traditional drum.

I prefer a rope-tuned drum. It is harder to tune, but easier on the hands and knees when playing.

I love the easy care and lighter weight of a drum with a synthetic shell and synthetic head.

Sources for buying a drum locally:

Music Villa and Eckroth Music - neither of these vendors has much selection to choose from.

Drum Brothers in Arlee, MT have traditional djembes available that you can probably test drive before purchasing. Visit them online for more information at

Sources for buying a drum online:


Musician’s Friend


The drums we use in class are Toca and Schalloch (synthetic shell, goat skin head, rope tuned).

Remo, Meinl and Latin Percussion are also good brands.

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