What Are The Differences Between Tom Drums & Tablas?

The drum family of instruments is one of the most diverse in existence, with the longest-standing presence worldwide. Two drums attest to this; The tablas and the tom drums. These have a very rich history and come from divergent backgrounds.

What are the differences between tom drums and tablas? The differences are as follows:

  • The tom drums and the tablas have dissimilar shell and drumhead designs.
  • The tablas have a wider tonal range than the tom drums.
  • The tom drums are played with beaters. The tablas are played with the hands.

In this article, we'll elaborate on the differences between tom drums and tablas. But, first, let's unveil some of their historical backgrounds.

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The Backgrounds Of Tom Drums And Tablas

The drum originated around the Neolithic era in China and quickly spread to India, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Africa. In approximately 200 B.C., the drum made its first appearance in Europe (specifically in Greece and Rome).

Throughout all those years, a wide assortment of drum variants were created, each with a starkly distinct design concept and use.

The Background Of Tom Drums

The tom drums are reminiscent of ancient hand drums used for signalling and religious rituals across East Asia. The earliest versions of the modern tom drum (or tom-tom, as it's often called) were handcrafted and rough around the edges. Their drumheads contained heavy East Asian artwork with religious connotations.

The first tom drums that arrived in North America were brought in by Chinese immigrants during the second half of the 19th century. These drums would draw the attention of many renowned jazz musicians in the 1920s, such as Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson, due to their initially “exotic” sound (at least judging from the standards of the time).

Companies like Ludwig and Slingerland capitalized on the sudden success of the tom drum by including them as standard drums in their sets. They also made various improvements, such as including a sophisticated tuning system.

Ludwig is featured in several top drum brand articles at My New Microphone. Check out these articles here!

The Background Of Tablas

The tablas were derived from an ancient North Indian drum called the pakhawaj, a double-headed drum with a barrel-shaped shell that came from the Mughal era to India during the 14th century. It was played alongside singers, as well as sitar and bansuri flute players.

According to some sources, the tablas would not appear as they are until the 1730s. Their design was entrusted to drummer Amir Kushru, who was tasked with finding a sound that may complement a new musical style around that period, called the Khayal. These tablas would feature a similar shell to the one in pakhawaj but with a single drumhead. In addition, these drums would always be played in pairs.

What Are The Differences Between Tom Drums And Tablas?

Next, we'll be ruminating on the differences between tom drums and tablas that we summarized in the initial part of this article:

Difference 1: Design

The very first observation I made was the following:

“The tom drums and the tablas have dissimilar shell and drumhead designs.”

This distinction is readily apparent upon first examination.

Starting with the drumhead, the tom drum consists of a film or disk made of plastic or other synthetic materials such as Mylar or polyester. It's rare to find tom drums with a skin drumhead.

Also, with the exception of the concert tom, tom drums feature one drumhead on each side: The “batter head” (which is struck) and the “resonate head” that vibrates via the interaction of air particles in the inner chamber as the batter is hit.

The shell in tom drums is perfectly cylindrical and short. It's packed with a myriad of metal hardware pieces like lug casings and tension rods for tuning purposes, as well as mounts for affixing the drum to a stand. The head is fixed in place through a hoop installed at the edge of the shell.

Meanwhile, the tablas have a very peculiar drumhead design consisting of three concentric circles:

  • An outer ring called the “Keenar”.
  • A middle ring called the “Lao” or “Lava”.
  • An inner disk called the “Syahi” or “Karani” of a much darker colour.

The outer rings are made of goatskin, while the inner disk is made of a concoction of various materials such as iron fillings, charcoal, and soot.

Furthermore, the shells of both tablas are made with slightly different outlines. The smaller drum (called dayan) retains a narrow barrel-style shape, while the larger dagga has a bulkier appearance reminiscent of the fatter end of the pakhawaj.

The materials used nowadays for the shells are mostly made of a type of metal (either copper, steel, or brass) though it's not strange to find them in clay or wooden versions.

The tuning system is composed of a net of leather strips called “Baar” by which drummers may control the drumhead's tension.

Difference 2: Sound

Next, I stressed that:

“The tablas have a wider tonal range than the tom drums.”

The tom drums are essentially tuned in one specific pitch, and while you may get some nuance depending on the area of the head you hit, it doesn't compare to the wide range of tones you'll get with only one tabla. Similarly, with the tablas, you're capable of inserting aggiornamenti such as glissandos, something that can't be efficiently done on a tom-tom.

Nevertheless, the tom drum can deliver more intense beats with a punchier attack. The tablas render a sweeter tone with a more melodic tinge to it, particularly around the center of the drumhead.

Difference 3: Playing Method

Finally, I affirmed that:

The tom drums are played with beaters. The tablas are played with the hands.”

Tom drums are very inconvenient to play with the hand because of how the area around the rim is designed, with a relatively sharp ridge at the edge.

Meanwhile, tablas are supposed to be played with the hands, and each stroke is associated with a specific syllable. In fact, tabla notations are not normally set in ordinary sheet music but in these written syllables that make up what is known as the “tabla language”.

Read How Tom Drums Compare To Other Instruments

Read How Tablas 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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