From The June 2017 Issue Of DRUM! Magazine | By Brad Boynton | Photograph: Clem Onojeghuo
Our drums spend a lot of time making us look good and sounding great, and now it’s time to return the favor. It’s a good thing to periodically inspect your drum and to give it a little tune-up. With proper maintenance, a drum can last almost indefinitely. Sure, skins come and go, as do rope, lugs, and other components, but with a little love the actual drum — that special wooden vessel — can last a lifetime.
We need to define our terms before we can even begin. For some unknown reason, drums that come from other traditions and have natural skins are called “hand drums” even though only a minority of them is actually played with hands. Seriously, think about it. Almost all the samba instruments, all talking drums, Ewe drums from Ghana, sabar drums from Senegal, the bodhran from Ireland, the davul from Turkey, dhol from India, dun dun drums from Guinea and so forth are all played with sticks or a hand/stick combination. Yet most of us would also ironically call them hand drums. Of course, congas, bongos, bougarabous, djembes, bata drums, and atabaques are played with hands. But rather than trying to convince an entire industry that they’re probably using the wrong term, for the sake of our discussion here we’re going to include any drum that has a natural skin, usually water buffalo, steer, antelope, or goat.
Go ahead and grab your drum. Look for moths, termites, cracks, thirsty wood, buzzes, rusty lugs, and dirty skins before they get out of hand. African djembes that have fur collars are especially susceptible to moths in and around the skin itself. Likewise, drums made from softer woods such as the tweneboa djembes from Ghana are more susceptible to wood termites that can literally eat trails inside of your drum shell if they aren’t caught early.
Here are ten quick fixes you can do yourself.
1. Be Cool
Critters don’t like freezing temperatures. If you have moths, larvae, or termites you’ll need to take a hit out on them. Leave your drum in a cold garage for a week, or put it in a refrigerator if it will fit. At our shop, we store all of our skins in two large refrigerators for this exact reason. We like it better than stinky mothballs or chemicals. But in a pinch, you can also sprinkle diatomaceous earth or crushed mothballs around the playing surface and fur collar (Fig. 1). As a last resort, put your drum in a plastic garbage bag with a bug bomb (Fig. 2).
2. Don’t Crack Up
Fill any cracks you see in your shell. Most any wood filler will work, but if you want something a little more structural, and at the same time will match your drum, do what the Africans do and mix sawdust with wood glue to patch the wood. Occasionally drums need to be clamped while glue dries if it’s a gaping crack, but honestly anything will help and your drum will thank you.
3. Give Your Wood A Facial
If your drum is factory made and has a lacquer finish, you shouldn’t have to condition the wood. Chances are that the shell on your conga or bongo is kiln-dried and the exterior finish is impenetrable. But African and other carved drums need occasional conditioning, both inside and out (Fig. 3). Plant-based oils such as palm, coconut, and linseed work the best.
4. Banish The Buzz
Sometimes a buzz occurs because the head is vibrating over an uneven surface, and a quick tightening will solve the problem. Buzzing can also be caused by a flap on the underside of the skin, especially if its goatskin. In that case, reach up through the underside and feel around for any loose skin fibers and remove any that you find. Sometimes a buzz is an indication you have a tear, which is generally unstoppable and will require replacing the old head with a new one. If all else fails to stop the buzzing, remove the head and file down or fill any divots, valleys, or cracks in the bearing edge (Fig. 4).
5. Tame Errant Overtones
A lot of hand drums with synthetic heads lack the warmth of natural skins and often have annoying overtones, especially when you play a “slap.” A quick fix is to apply a strip or two of duct tape on the underside of the head (Fig. 5). It will be invisible to the world, but will help eliminate the unwanted overtones while retaining the midrange and bass range of the tonal spectrum. Studio engineers do this all the time with snare drums, so why shouldn’t we?
6. Refresh The Metal
For mechanically tuned drums, rusty lugs, hoops, and other metal surfaces can be cleaned up in a jiffy with a piece of steel wool (Fig. 6). This is a great time to be sure all your lugs have washers and adequate lubrication to keep the wheels turning (Fig. 7).
7. Get Rid Of The Gunk
Over time, hand drums can reveal a little too much of the blood, sweat, and tears that are occasionally spilled while playing. The heads of congas, djembes, and the like can get soiled, which is not only yucky, but also can deaden the sound. The easiest fix is to take a razorblade and carefully scrape the head with the blade perpendicular to the skin (Fig. 8). This can brighten things up both sonically and in its appearance. If it’s particularly dry, then a little dab of shea butter will condition the skin while helping to insulate it against extreme changes in weather (Fig. 9).
8. Get A Waist Strap
This is mainly a tip for djembe players. Most pros use a waist strap while sitting, which lets the ground take all the weight, so that you use your legs only to balance the drum (Fig. 10). Your legs won’t get tired and you can concentrate on getting your left-hand slap to sound like your right.
9. Buckle Up
Whether or not you have a case, you never want your drum rolling around in the car. It might collide with the growler you just picked up and you wouldn’t want a double tragedy. So, buckle up hand drums just like your kiddos, but be sure to turn it head-side down so it will be less likely to tip over (Fig. 11).
10. Making The Case For Cases
Always put your drum in a case when you aren’t using it. It’s cheap insurance. Sure, a case will protect it from moisture and sharp objects, but more importantly it’ll keep people who don’t know what they’re doing from hurting your drum.
Ta da! That wasn’t so hard, and I bet it felt good to pay your drums back for getting you all those gigs, helping you make all those friends, and allowing you to pursue one of the coolest crafts of all time – drumming!
Brad Boynton is the owner of Rhythm Traders in Portland, Oregon.