The Troupe
This drummer's journey with other drummers.

You play a what? Part 1: Doumbek, Tonbak, Darbuka, and Tabla

At the urging of a few people who are reading this, and because this has come up within the troupe as well, this is probably a good time to go over the various instruments that we hit with our hands.

Let me start though with a word of advice: Take all of the following with a grain of salt.

This is all a bit confusing, especially at first.  A single drum is generally known by a few different names, usually depending on how many countries, regions, or towns have been playing it.   As much as possible, I will start with the westernized name, and also list the other names that I have heard so far.   Please, feel free to comment with corrections and additions.   I am still fairly new at this and I am learning about cultures that are thousands of years old.  I will listen to all opinions and I will take all the help and knowledge I can get.

Also: Great googly moogly, people are reading this.  Eeep!

Here we go.



This is probably the most common drum overall, and certainly the most common seen at tribal festivals, haflas, and outdoor events.   Most tribal drum troupes have the majority of their drummers playing this instrument.

There is a lot of variation possible in materials and size.   The drum bodies themselves are typically cast aluminum, wheel thrown ceramic, or occasionally wood.   Generally speaking the aluminum versions have nylon or plastic drumheads, and the ceramic and wood ones have natural skins made of goat or fish skin.   Those with nylon heads tend to have 4-8 bolts that hold the drum’s rim down directly on top of the rim of the drumhead.  The natural skins are usually tied down with rawhide, or sometimes with cord.  The natural skins tend to have a more mellow sound, a bit warmer in terms of the deep tones, and a bit softer in the high tones.  The plastic skins tend to be sharper in tone, with a higher tone.  Another advantage of the aluminum drums is that they are essentially indestructible, short of power tools.

As far as the variations in size, I have seen doumbeks that are child sized (8” tall with a 5” drumhead) all the way up to the super doumbeks (21” tall with a 14” drumhead).

Doumbek Simbati Dohola

Standard sized doumbeks (17” tall with a 10” drumhead) are also called darbuka or sometimes tabla.  Slightly bigger doumbeks (19” tall with an 11” drumhead) are called large doumbeks or sometimes simbati.  The big doumbeks (21” tall with a 14” drumhead) are called super doumbeks, or sometimes dohola.   There are tons of ways to spell all of those names.

For the most part the bigger the drum, the deeper the sounds.   This is very useful for creating dynamics within a troupe.  In fact, I am looking for a super doumbek (dohola) as I write this, so that our troupe can get some really big bass tones.

One thing that differentiates a doumbek from all of the other goblet style drums is that it has a smooth playing surface on the rim.    No cords, metal stretching rings, bolts, or flanges interrupt the curve of the drum’s rim.   Many of the sounds made with the doumbek require freedom of movement around the drum rim and sharp edges or hard protrusions limit that.  This is very important, as it is quite easy to hurt your hands if you are not careful.   For example, playing an African Djimbe (with its heavy cording and metal stretching ring) using Doumbek techniques is a great way to bruise, and possibly break, your fingers and palm.

Doumbeks use a bewildering number of techniques and can produce a huge range of tones, but they all tend to be one of five basic sounds: doum, tek, pop, thunk, and taktakatakata.  Getting the right tone, at the correct volume, and on time within the rhythm is the trick.



A tonbak is a traditional precursor to the doumbek, made of wood with a natural skin head.  The skin is attached with small nails or tacks, which are then covered with a braided cloth ribbon.   These are often beautifully crafted instruments, and with their squared upper chamber and flaring bell, can produce really great bass tones.   Sadly, as wooden works of art they don’t travel well and so they tend to stay at home, or in the studio.



This is what I think of when I am talking about a darbuka.  A goblet drum with a metal body, usually brass, and a synthetic head held down by two rims and external bolts on the outside of the rim.   These tend to have a higher, brassier tone than a doumbek, and a really low doum.   The drawback is that the rim of the drum is so unforgiving, in fact punishing, of any missed hits or mistakes.  As you can imagine, hitting your knuckle, fingertip or the soft spot on a crease in your hand really, really hurts.



These are tabla.  I agree that looks nothing like a doumbek.   For one thing, they are not shaped like an hourglass.  For another, there are two of them!   The bigger one gives the lower tones.   Both are played with palms and fingertips.   I don’t play them, so I have almost no clue how they get the sounds out.   To me it sounds like a cross between drumming and plunking a string.  They are a staple of Indian drumming.  Someone who is good at these can make even other drummers stare at them in a sort of awed hush.   I plan on trying to learn these in about 10 years, when I have retired and can devote 12 hours a day to study and practice.

As a quick side note: Indian Tabla are one of the reasons that western drummers call a doumbek a doumbek.   Personally, I understand that in some places what I am playing is called a tabla, but it is just really confusing, especially with new drummers or in a crowded space, to have to explain that I play tabla, not tabla.   So, you nod, smile, and say, “I play a doumbek.”, and everyone knows what you mean, even if you are an ignorant westerner who has no respect for the great musical traditions.

As a side note to the side note: The westernized drummer slang used will be a recurring theme here.  For the most part I am drumming with westerners (like myself) and festival drummers, faire drummers, and tribal drummers.  Some of the true professional drummers have had the time, money, and determination to travel to the middle-east and study with Egyptian, Persian, Turkish, or Balkan masters.   But the vast majority of drummers have not, and so all that wonderfully traditional, esoteric knowledge about folkloric tradition and modern interpretations of regional rhythms becomes confusing, and ultimately alienating.   I do my best to keep it simple, accessible, and fun.

8 Responses to “You play a what? Part 1: Doumbek, Tonbak, Darbuka, and Tabla”

  1. Awesome Blog! Thanks for sharing .I Appreciate it.

  2. Great post. Really good information on doumbeks.

  3. Also, there are Djembe, from West Africa, Talking Drum, similar region, dholki, and dholak from India (same as Tabla above) Our drum circles predominantly use Djembes because they have decent volume and are not too expensive and the above mentioned doumbek.
    Something else that has gained huge popularity recently are the Cajon, which is a wooded box with a sound hole that one plays, usually sitting on it.

    • For sure.

      The number of types of drum in the world are seemingly endless.

      Cajon has certainly gained in general popularity, as it is a very solid drum, good tones, and practically indestructible. Not to mention, you get to bring your own seat!

      I could also mention Ashiko, Kanjira, Pandeiro, etc…

      I am but a small cup in a vast ocean of knowledge. My true hope is that these posts inspire study in those who read them.

  4. What you dismiss as an unforgivingly hard-edged drum (darbuka) is played with a technique entirely different to that of the arabic doumbek. It is only unforgiving if played incorrectly. Hitting the sweet spots on the flat of, or immediately next to, the rim is a matter of practice. Accuracy may take many months.

    It’s use is widespread in certain southeastern european countries, such as Turkey (and the former Armenia). As with any folk instrument, there are a wide range of playing styles, but where I would on the whole describe the doumbek as a hand drum, the darbuka is at it’s most distinctive played primarily with the fingers.

    The product is a finer, crisper sound allowing more space (silence) for lightweight instruments and song to shine through. That said, hard finger-snaps to the rim can have all the drama of a gunshot.

    • I completely agree, except the part about my dismissing it.

      There are a lot of drums, most of them honestly, that I have not developed the proper technique for, and therefore almost never play them.

      My personal focus is on frame drums, and on the softer edge Egyptian Tabla (which westerners call “Doumbek”).

      I am personally not a fan of the way a darbuka feels in my hands, but that is not to say that it is not an excellent drum, or that those who study and eventually master it don’t sound amazing.

  5. This is very informative and explains the differences and similarities of these instruments in a direct and basic format . Excellent presentation.

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