To all fellow bodhrán players I say, “Give me some skin”. This phrase which initiated in the mid 1930’s by jazz musicians could not be truer when speaking about the bodhrán drum. The skin used on a bodhrán is a key element toward achieving the rich sound that people want to hear. Having been fortunate enough to own or to have played bodhráns made by a wide variety of great artisans around the world, I have drawn this conclusion. The Skin Type, Texture, Thickness, Placement, and Durability are the keys to a great bodhrán. Let’s explore these elements individually.
Skin Type: Goat skin is considered the traditional hide used for bodhrán drums. By farmost bodhráns are produced using goatskins.
There exists an element of bodhrán makers using alternative hides such as calf or even kangaroo skin, often with satisfying results. Yet
there seems to be great logic involved in why goat skins are the hide of choice for most bodhrán drums. Overall, the goatskin seems to
work best for professional bodhrán players who will occasionally perform at outdoor venues, due to their durability in a wide variety of weather and humidity conditions.
Texture: The hide used must have the texture and flexibility to allow for a variety of tones to be achieved by pressing on the skin from inside the drum. More elemental, however, is a skin texture good enough to provide more sound than just the attack of the tipper. For example, the second tuneable bodhrán I purchased was built by a gentleman on the far west side of the Connemara range. Early into owning it, the rough non-yielding skin had the texture of an interstate highway, even when tuned all of the way loose, because the skin was so thick, stiff, and tight on the drum frame. The onlydiscernable sound when playing that bodhrán was that of the attack, but the tones were thin and
weak. Break in time for that drum could be measured with annual calendars. Fortunately, that drum skin has yielded a bit over the years
enough to be used and tuned year round. It now has the right sound for a number of songs I perform onstage.
The proper bodhrán skin texture should be supple enough to allow for a variety of tones. The surface should be smooth and have the original outer skin layer to withstand the constant beatings with an assortment of tippers, brushes, and rod sets. The skin on the inside of the drum should be comfortable enough to slide your skin across without getting a “rug burn” type feeling.
Thickness: This seems a very touchy subject for people, based on the love for their favorite bodhrán, so keep in mind that this is offered due to my personal preferences. The skin thickness plays a strong role in the resulting tones a drum may achieve, given the additional element of the curing process used. Skin curing is an area in which I am least schooled, so I’ll not take up that argument for the sake of this paper. Suffice it to say that it, too, is an important step in producing the correct tone range. Whether the hide being used is thin or thick plays a strong role in the resulting bodhrán sound.
Thin skins are often easy to tune, yet hard to hold the tuning. Additionally, the greater the width of the drum, the tougher it is to hold the tuning with a thin skin. With many of my 16” and greater circumference “thin” skin bodhráns, I have found that no matter what the humidity level there seems to be a dead note zone that does not take place with similar size drums with a bit thicker skin. No matter how much I tune it, I can’t quite get rid of that problem. Conversely, a bodhrán with too thick a skin holds its tuning quite well at differing humidity levels. However, if the humidity is low, it is often hard to tune a thick skinned drum to the deeper tones you may wish to achieve.
Some bodhrán makers have addressed skin thickness issues by layering double and even triple skins together using a laminating process.
In these cases the artisans stay with their chosen skin thickness, but offer multiple layers of that skin depending on the preferences of their client. It is simply an alternative to acquiring thicker skins. My experience has shown that the downside of laminating skins together becomes evident when the lamination adhesive breaks down and “bubbles” begin to appear between the skin layers. The bubbles potentially create dead spots in the drum. Also, the break-in time for a multi-layer laminated drum can be longer.
Placement: Many bodhrán makers like to use the part of the hide around the spine of the animal. Take a close look at your bodhrán. If
you see a bit of a dark color variation in the form of a line going from one edge to the opposite edge on your drum, that marks the part of the hide that covered the spine (spine line). Many bodhrán makers will place the spine line a bit off center from the drum circumference. This often results in getting the benefit of having two drums. If you play on one side of the spine you get one set of tones, and playing on the
other side will render a bit different set of notes. It is not axiomatic, but it is worth a try on your drum if the spine line is evident.
In regards to tuneable bodhráns, another placement issue involves the position of the tuner when the skin is first placed on the drum. I have some tuneable drums that were not adjustable in the beginning because the maker did not allow for a bit of tuning when stretching the skin on the drum initially. In those cases I had to thoroughly wet the skin, set the tuner out a bit and then let it dry. Once that process was done one or more times, the skin stretched enough to allow tuning at any humidity/dryness level.
Durability: Due to the fact that both the front and back sides of the skin are constantly being used, durability plays a key role in the life of and satisfaction with the hide used. If you are simply using a solid wooden tipper then this is less of an issue. However, many are using split tip wooden tippers, rod sets, or a variety of synthetic brushes, many of which can mar the skin surface through time. Once the natural outer skin surface is scratched, there is a great potential for further and maybe accelerated deterioration. If such problems arise, experience has shown that a sparing rubdown with 600 to maybe 800 grit sandpaper can prove helpful.
After years of passionately playing one particular drum every week in shows with a variety of tippers, the skin started to scratch and “shred” a bit on the outside. I used 800-grit sandpaper to smooth the surface, which worked well until I would play in a few more shows. I would need to repeat the smoothing process about every other week. Finally, after smoothing the surface again, I sprayed a small amount of hair spray on the affected area. Thankfully it did not change the sound of the drum, and it served to significantly protect the playing surface. This is not a recommended procedure, but it certainly saved my bacon.
The skin surface inside the drum may also get worn as a result of moving your hand back and forth and digging in to achieve the notes you seek. Let’s face it, friction causes abrasion, which ultimately effects the skin surface. Again, if the inside skin area starts to get rough, use some 600 to maybe 800 grit sandpaper to smooth it out. It will ultimately be more comfortable to play and will increase the life of the skin.
Conclusion and Personal Preferences: Due to the fact that I play in a band that primarily performs Celtic rock music, I bring two very different drums with me to every show. The idea, in my estimation, is to always try to match the drum/tipper combination to the song
being played. For 90-something percent of a show I play a 14” x 5¾” deep Michael Vignoles Pro-Style drum that I acquired about 5 years ago. This bodhrán design has since been replaced with his newer Angler design. I use this as my primary drum due to the fact that it has the best tone range of any drum I own and it projects the sound so very well. The goatskin on this drum has a wonderful smooth playing surface, excellent skin thickness to hold the tuning without having any dead spots, and has been a durable and trusted friend for years. To Michael Vignoles I say, “Give me some skin.” Indeed, he has.