Beginner’s Guide to the Frame Drum
So, you’ve fallen in love ❤️ with this musical, magical disk, whether it be at a concert, at a friend’s house, on a CD or on YouTube. But what exactly is a frame drum, how do you get your itchy fingers on one and what might happen when you do?
Here is Frame Drum Academy founder, Grammy-nominated performer and teacher Marla Leigh’s Beginner’s Guide to the Frame Drum* to give you all you need to start your rhythmic adventures…
Happy reading and happy frame drumming!
Q: What is a frame drum?
Where does it come from? Tell me everything!
Essentially, the frame drum is any hand-held drum with a head stretched over a
round frame. Most commonly, they are played with fingers, although sometimes
beaters are used. Examples include: Bendir, Bodhrán, Daf, Ghaval, Pandero, Riq, Tar
and Timbrel, to name a few.
Traditionally, the drumhead is made of rawhide, but there are some great vegan-friendly, synthetic alternatives these days (yay!). The frame is also called the ‘shell’ and is constructed of wood including rosewood, oak, ash etc, or plywood or man-made. Metal rings or jingles may be attached to the shell/frame.
The frame drum is one of the world’s most ancient musical instruments, having been used for thousands of years in spiritual ceremonies by shamans and high-priestesses. Practically every country has its own version, but its earliest depictions were found in Mesopotamia (Middle East) c.3000-6000 BCE ~ making the frame drum probably the first drum ever invented!
The first named drummer was an amazing woman ~ the Ur Priestess Lipushiau (2380 BCE).
Although most modern professional frame drummers are men, the instrument has a rich, feminine history.
You can learn more about it here >>
Q: How do you play a frame drum?
There are three playing styles: Upright, Lap and Freehand.
The upright style is the most ancient style, and the freehand is the most recent.
You may all be fabulous at all three or be most drawn towards one ~ we learn them all at the Frame Drum Academy!
Click below to watch examples of each:
Q: I have never played an instrument/a drum before, will I be able to play it?
At the Frame Drum Academy, we give a resounding YES! It is an instrument for anyone to learn at any age.
(Last year, we had an 82-year-old ‘newbie’ in our Academy!)
First, you are taught the basic strokes, then there are skills such as extended techniques, global rhythms, improvisation and much more.
Don’t just take my word for it – LISTEN to our Frame Drum Academy Grads GROOVE >>
Q: What are the benefits of playing the frame drum?
It is not only about drumming, it is a journey that enhances your life in so many ways ~
mentally, physically and spiritually, stress levels, community, career, confidence, creativity, loved ones… the list is endless.
Drumming is the healthiest addiction you can have!
Q: Where do I buy a frame drum?
How much do they cost?
Cooperman Frame Drums are my very favorite make ~ hand-crafted with love in Vermont, this family company creates tuneable, beautiful drums that last a lifetime. For the passionate drummer or serious musician, you can do no better than Cooperman*.
I am honored to be a Cooperman-endorsed artist, and have created three Signature Drums:
The Marla Tar (16”), The Green Goddess (14)” and the Purple Haze (12”).
(* ALL students at the Frame Drum Academy receive a 10% discount off any Cooperman drum!)
Alternatively, Remo is a solid option for beginners on a shoestring, and they are
available on Amazon etc. Meinl, Schlagwerk and Anklang are also really good.
Have some fun exploring!
As for cost, like all musical instruments, it varies. There’s mass-produced and
hand-crafted ~ ranging from c. $25/€21/£18 for a 14” Remo, to
$500/€412/£365++ for a custom Cooperman.
With your budget in mind, go for the best you can afford… you’ll hear AND feel
See it as a rhythmic investment 😁
Q: What are your top tips for buying my first frame drum?
Size? Drumheads? Pitches?
When you’re just starting out, it should be all about ease and comfort in the style
you prefer. Practice all 3 positions with your kid’s tambourine, a paper plate, a
pizza box or similar, to see which feels best.
As for tone, it’s an incredibly personal choice – so find the one that sings to YOU.
I encourage you to listen to as many different types as possible. To get your heart and ears tuned in, you can hear various drums on my YouTube channel LINK >>
Of course, nothing beats the real thing! So ideally, find a kindly frame drummer or local music shop and play as many as you can before committing.
Now Onto the Technicals…
(A) Q: What size should I choose?
If I am to suggest only ONE, I’d opt for a 16″ frame drum; It is the perfect size for all 3 playing styles. (Try the Cooperman Marla Tar 16” ~ a great drum for beginners that works well in all styles!)
However, my motto is: One can NEVER have too many drums!
I always encourage my students to develop a drum addiction 😉
(Can you guess how many I own? I’ve got it bad!)
- 14″-16″ drums ~ Great for Upright & Lap styles
- 16″ drums ~ Great for all three styles
- 16″-22″ drums ~ Great for Lap & Freehand styles
(B) Q: What pitch should I choose?
Again, go with your heart and ears. Also, if you play other instruments or with other frame drummers/musicians, think about complimenting their pitches.
Here are some frame drum pitch estimations:
- 22″ A-D possible, B-C best range
- 20″ B-E possible, C-D best range
- 18″ E-A possible, F-A best range
- 16″ G-C possible, A-B best range (size of the “Marla Tar signature drum by Cooperman)
- 14″ F- B possible, G-A best range (size of Marla’s “Green Goddess” signature drum by Cooperman)
- 12′ – E-A possible, F-G best range (size of Marla’s “Purple Haze” signature drum by Cooperman)
(C) Q: What is the best drumhead?
There are many drumheads to choose from and I like them all!
Here are the two I recommend to start you off:
The most common head – with a bright, enlivening, sweet tone
A warmer, softer, relaxing tone.
For more info on the different types, please read this wonderful explanation.
In conclusion, when shopping for your first frame drum, go with your heart and purse strings.
You don’t need the perfect one right now – you can always add more later…
The important thing is to get a drum and START YOUR JOURNEY!
Q: How do I learn to play the frame drum?
“It won’t sit on my lap properly, my fingers hurt and I’ve no idea how to play it
without sounding like a drunk elephant tap-dancing. Help!”
Don’t panic… As a friendly and experienced frame drum teacher, I know all
about the issues that newbies can have.
👉 Luckily, my FREE Frame Drum Mini-Course >> is at hand to help you start with ALL the right drum habits!
👉To truly progress in your new-found passion, you can also join thousands of wonderful students worldwide at the Frame Drum Academy – We have a 4-month training program just for Beginners like you (Frame Drum 101) >>
Q: How do I care for my frame drum?
(A) Cleaning the frame drum
The right care depends on what your frame drum is made from. Never use harsh
or chemical products. Most times, just a wipe with a clean, dry cloth will suffice. If
the drumhead is synthetic and it’s really dirty/sticky, you can use a cloth slightly
dampened with water.
If the drumhead is skin, again just wipe it with a dry cloth.
If really dirty, you can use a teeny tiny amount of leather cleaner sparingly on the
dirt spots. However, this will add moisture to the head so it will need to dry
completely (24 hours+) before playing it again.
(B) Storing your frame drum
To store your frame drum safely, just prop it carefully against a wall or rest it on a
shelf. Never hang it up as this can affect the frame/tone. Better still, if you have a
spare corner or space, create a beautiful Drum Sanctuary in your home!
Q: How do I tune my frame drum?
GOOD NEWS: Once your drum is in tune, you do NOT have to tune it much!
If it does require a tweak, it’s easier to show, rather than tell 😊
Q: Where are all the other frame drummers and how can I meet them?
We’re everywhere and we’re awesome!
Come and say Hi over on our FREE Facebook Frame Drum Family Group >>
we’re full of inspiration, support, drum buddy connections, rhythms and love!
Q: Where can I listen to frame drum music?
There are so many amazing frame drum masters, many of whom were my teachers.
Look out for anything by Glen Valez, John Bergamo, Hands On’Semble and Layne Redmond.
🔸 I also recently released my first (frame drum-focused) album, Rhythms of Tof Miriam. >>
🔸 I also created a music video for the title track, that honors the ancient lineage of women frame drummers and filmed in exotic desertlands of Israel…DIVE into this magical video here >>
♫ Now, time to stop reading and START YOUR MAGICAL DRUM JOURNEY! ♫
PICK UP YOUR DRUM, PAN, BOX OR PET & GET YOUR FINGERS DANCING
with my FREE Mini-Course
I hope this has inspired YOU to pick up a frame drum… It could become your new best friend!
* If you have any questions that are not included in this Guide, get in touch 😇
(Drum models: Our Frame Drum Academy students’ pups!)