What Are The Differences Between Tom Drums & Djembes?

The percussion family of instruments is one of the largest in the world, with a highly diversified catalogue. Both the tom drum and the djembe serve as iconic examples of percussion instruments coming from wholly different backgrounds while sharing many common features.

What are the differences between tom drums and djembes? These are, in summary, the main differences:

  • Tom drums and djembes have starkly different shapes and build.
  • Tom drums tend to render a rounder and more sustained tone than djembes.
  • Tom drums are played with beaters/sticks/mallets, while djembes are primarily played with the hands.

In this article, we'll be going back to these differences between tom drums and djembes that were just outlined. But, first, let's go over a brief historical review of each instrument.

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The Backgrounds Of Tom Drums And Djembes

According to many experts, China produced the first hand drums, using rustic materials such as alligator skin for their construction. It is also said that the art of drum crafting made it to Africa roughly four millennia later, likewise engendering drums of assorted shapes and sizes.

This data is relevant for this comparison, as the tom drums and the djembes stem from each of these divergent musical traditions. Let's now deal with them separately:

The Background Of The Tom Drum

The modern tom drum is reminiscent of some of the oldest membranophones used in East Asia and Pre-British North America. These drums were originally hand drums and were utilized for signalling purposes.

The earliest samples of the modern tom drum were fabricated in China towards the end of the 19th century, but these were made with unsophisticated materials and lacked tuning rods.

They would soon be imported into America and refined. They eventually became very popular, being featured prominently in drum kits during the 1920s.

The Background Of The Djembe

The djembe is a Western African hand drum that appeared during the time of the Mali Empire, roughly around the 1100s. These drums have remained relatively the same throughout their 800-900 years of existence, with some minor improvements down the road.

These drums were largely unknown outside the confines of the African continent until moderately recently, with the popularization of world music in the late 20th century. With time, they would also be incorporated into Latin ensembles as well.

What Are The Differences Between Tom Drums And Djembes?

We'll now proceed to expose the differences between tom drums and djembes in more detail:

Difference 1: Design

In the initial answer of this article, I stated that:

Tom drums and djembes have starkly different shapes and builds.”

A cursory examination of the two drums might already give away their main distinctions in design, especially when viewed side-by-side.

The first notable difference lies in the shell. The djembe's shell has a goblet-style shape and tends to have detailed carvings with religious connotations or for decorative purposes. They're also quite taller than tom drum shells.

Furthermore, the djembe shell is typically made with a type of African hardwood. Alternatively, one may find djembes made with fibreglass, which endows the drum with a much brighter sound.

Shells in tom drums are cylindrical and mainly made out of metal, though wooden and fibreglass shells in tom drums are not uncommon to see.

In terms of drumheads, tom drums may have one or two drumheads inserted. The top drumhead is normally called “batter head,” and the bottom drumhead resonates when the batter head is hit (receiving the moniker “resonate” or “resonant” head). Both heads are tightly fastened by a metallic hoop (also called the “rim”) and several tension rods distributed across the shell.

Djembes and tom drums likewise differ in their tuning mechanisms. While the tom drums can be tuned by simply turning the nuts on the tuning rods, the djembes utilize a system of ropes that stretch from the rings at the top towards the “collar” (the bottom of the bowl-like portion of the goblet).

Tuning a djembe demands skill, as you'll be required to interlace the ropes in a precise manner and tie the knots firmly using a stick or a special device.

The size of the drumheads in tom drums can range broadly depending on the type. The heads on the smallest rack tom can measure down to 6″ in diameter, while the ones in floor toms can easily reach 22″. Meanwhile, standard djembe heads can measure from 12 to 16″.

Difference 2: Sound

Second, I pointed out that:

“Tom drums tend to render a rounder and more sustained tone than djembes.”

This difference in tone and sound quality may rest on the drumheads' disposition and respective diameters.

In the case of tom drums with two drumheads, the resonance capacity is enhanced as the vibrational energy generated from the batter head is transferred towards the bottom head through the excited air particles in the inner chamber (the space between the heads).

In the meantime, djembes lack a bottom head. As a result, less skin vibrates as the instrument is struck. Consequently, you'll experience drier staccato beats with less discernible pitches.

Difference 3: Playing Method

Finally, I affirmed the following:

“Tom drums are played with beaters/sticks/mallets, while djembes are primarily played with the hands.”

This last difference is mostly cultural and doesn't relate much to the instruments' intrinsic properties.

However, playing the tom drums with bare hands might not be the most convenient option, mainly because of the metal rim protruding towards the edge and the injuries that might ensue from repeatedly interacting with it.

For this reason, using beaters for playing the toms feels like the safer option, apart from the rhythmic capabilities you may get with them.

On the other hand, djembes could also, in theory, be played with beaters, though the djembe's goat skin is prone to damaging faster. In some instances, djembe players may use brushes to generate specific results. Nonetheless, the rhythmic pattern devised for the djembe is more optimally produced with the hands.

To conclude, tom drums are more frequently featured on standard drum kits, though you may occasionally find drum sets with djembes and other exotic drums mounted.

Read How Djembes Compare To Other Instruments

Read How Tom Drums Compare To Other Instruments

This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.


Arthur is the owner of Fox Media Tech and the author of My New Microphone. He's an audio engineer by trade and works on contract in his home country of Canada. When not blogging on MNM, he's likely hiking outdoors and blogging at Hikers' Movement (hikersmovement.com) or producing music. For more info, please check out his YouTube channel and his music.

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