How to play  djembe – the three sounds

How to play djembe – Bass, Tone,and Slap: Aim for quality of sound rather than speed to master these three djembe sounds.

Most drummers know there are three fundamental sounds when playing the djembe but every-so-often we come across people who don’t realise the djembe has three fundamental and very distinct sounds.  A clear distinction between the bass, tone and slap is vital when playing the djembe. So, here goes:


The bass is the most simple and easy to master and is played in the centre of the djembe with the full flat of the palm and relaxed hand. You are using the hollowed out space of the drum shell to create the bass sound. TIPS: Not so relaxed that it rests on the drum though. Your hand only needs to touch the drum for a moment and needs to bounce off the drum as quick as it hit it. This is true for all three sounds – unless you are playing muffled sounds that is but more on that later …

how to play djembeTONE

The tone is played with the strong pads of the palm where the fingers join the palm.  If you rest your hands on the djembe and slide them back and forward over the rim of the djembe you will feel how there is a point where the rim of the djembe fits comfortable into the pads of the palm under the fingers (see purple diagram).

TIPS: You will need to turn your hands in slightly so your palm follows the rim of the djembe and your thumbs miss the rim, ring and rope on the djembe. Keep your hands relaxed but with your fingers off the skin. Hit into the wood of the djembe as the tone sound comes from the wood of the djembe shell.

how to play djembe


The hand position for the slap is the same as the tone so feel into the drum to find that comfortable position where you get the most sound for least amount of effort. Look at the orange diagram. The difference with the slap is that you need to totally relax your fingers so that when you hit the top of the palm (see the orange line) on the rim of the drum instead of the woody tone sound  that force flicks your fingers out onto the skin. It isn’t something you do consciously as it happens so fast. The tips of the fingers (orange dots) strike the skin creating a high-attack slap sound.

TIPS:  Don’t try and make your hand curl up. It will happen naturally as you hit the rim of the drum with the pads of the palm (orange line).


Once you’re comfortable with the bass, tone and slap, move on to playing flams. With a flam, one hand hits the drum just before the other, so you get both sounds on the same beat.  Take time to learn to play a flam by alternating your hands and playing different combinations. For example bass-tone, bass-slap, tone-slap, bass-bass, etc…


A djembe roll is when the player plays many sounds in quick succession. On the bass it sounds like thunder, on the tone like purring, and on the slap like fire!


  • Relax! Keep your entire body and especially your hands, arms and shoulders relaxed.  If your shoulders start to climb up by your ears then bring them back down and tell them to relax!
  •  Breath! Your muscles need oxygen! You might catch yourself holding your breath when you start learning djembe so remember to breath.
  •  Playing power for djembe comes from your core muscles as much as our arms and shoulders so sitting up straight helps. Find your rhythm and keep the movement smooth and flowing from core to finger tips.
  • Play, play, play! Find some friends who love drumming and play together at a park or on the beach. Aim for quality of sound rather than speed to master these  fundamental techniques.
  • Alternate your hands, playing four basses, four tones, and  four slaps – then make up your own combinations! Get used to the difference in your hand position and also familiar yourself with the difference in sound.
  • There is no need to hit the drum harder to get a slap. Master the technique and no extra force is needed to get a perfect slap.

This is a guide only. At Rhythm Culture we encourage drummers to find what is comfortable for them. . . and we also know that getting the basics right is vital if you want to have the most fun while playing djembe!


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