History & Culture

Frame Drums: Exploring the Rich History of Handheld Drums

The frame drum is a unique percussion instrument that has been the musical backbone of many cultures worldwide. 

From the Middle East to Ireland to Native American communities, frame drums have played an essential role in music, ceremony, and cultural expression. In recent years, the frame drum has gained popularity among drummers looking to expand their arsenals, thanks partly to its versatility, unique sound, and accessibility. 

Whether you’re a seasoned percussionist or a complete frame drum beginner, this guide to frame drums will provide you with everything you need to know about this fascinating instrument!

What Is A Frame Drum?

Ratomir Wilkowski, www.RKP.org.pl, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Frame drums come in all shapes and sizes, so it’s nearly impossible to define them as a single thing. 

However, as an overarching definition, a frame drum is a type of percussion instrument played by striking the surface of a circular frame with a hand or a drumstick. The drum frame is typically made of wood or metal, while the head is made of animal skin or synthetic materials. 

Frame drums come in various sizes and shapes and are found in many different cultures worldwide, including the Middle East, Ireland, and Native American communities. The sound of the frame drum comes from the vibration of the drumhead, which produces a deep, resonant, and expressive tone.

Types of Frame Drums

From the bodhrán of Ireland to the riq of the Middle East, frame drums have played an essential role in music and culture for centuries. Let’s look at a few of the different types of frame drums around the world!

Middle Eastern Frame Drums 

Looking to Middle Eastern percussion, and you’ll find several types of frame drums.

One of the most popular is the riq, a small, tambourine-like frame drum commonly used in Arabic music. This drum is easy to pick out thanks to its jingles, or zils, attached to the frame. As with many frame drums, you play this with the fingers.

Taking it a step up in terms of size, you have the daf. The daf is a large frame drum that is very popular in Persian and Kurdish music. It has a deep, resonant sound and is played with the hands. Many people new to Middle Eastern percussion will confuse the daf with the tar, which has a narrower frame and a tighter drumhead. However, what truly separates the two is that the tar is often played with a drumstick.

Native American Frame Drums

The frame drum has been used by Native American cultures for centuries and remains a vital instrument today.

From the large, powerful powwow drum to the small, intricate tabor drum, Native American frame drums come in many different sizes and styles, each with its unique history and significance.

Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA. Close up of a drum used during The Gathering of Nations - The Biggest Powwow in the World
Danita Delimont / Alamy Stock Photo

The powwow drum might be one of the most well-known Native American frame drums. This large, single-sided frame drum is used in powwow ceremonies and other Native American musical traditions. It’s made with a wooden frame and a rawhide drumhead and is often played by a group of drummers who sit around it and play together.

A little lesser-known but equally remarkable is the water drum. This traditional frame drum is used by several Native American cultures, though many experts say the Yaqui and Tohono O’odham people of Arizona popularized it. It is often made from a gourd with a rawhide drumhead stretched over the top. The drum is then filled with water to create a unique, resonant sound.

Spanish and African Frame Drums

Growing up in Los Angeles, surrounded by a diverse Hispanic population, I was enamored with flamenco music as a young boy. Pretty early on, I was introduced to the Pandero, which is a Spanish frame drum that is similar in size and shape to the tambourine. 

Aitzinerat, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

However, it has a single drumhead and is often played in traditional flamenco music. The drumhead is often tightened with metal tacks or screws, and the frames are sometimes decorated with ornate designs, making them genuine pieces of art. 

Traveling out to North Africa, you’ll find the Bendir. This North African frame drum uses a shallow frame and a snare stretched across the back of the drumhead. Listen to most Moroccan, Algerian, and Tunisian music, and you’ll likely hear a Bendir in the ensemble. 

Irish Bodhrán

Listen to just about any traditional Irish recording, and you’ll likely hear the bodhrán in action. 

The bodhrán is a traditional Irish frame drum played with a wooden stick called a tipper or beater. It has a circular wooden frame with a goatskin (often made with synthetic materials today) drumhead stretched over one side. 

Similar to a drum you’re likely used to, the drumhead on the bodhrán is usually tightened with a metal rod, allowing the player to adjust the drum pitch.

The beauty of the bodhrán lies in its versatility. It provides a unique, driving rhythm that can support other instruments or be played as a solo instrument. 

Some players will play the drum with both hands, holding the tipper with one hand and damping the drumhead with the other to create different tones and effects. 

Anatomy of a Frame Drum

Now that you have a basic understanding of frame drums let’s look at the versatile materials and designs you can expect to find.


The frame on a frame drum can be made of various materials, depending on the specific type and style of the drum. Traditionally, the frame was made from wood, such as ash, oak, or maple, chosen for its durability and resonant properties. 

Depending on the manufacturer, the wood can be treated or carved to create decorative patterns or designs on the surface. Like the drums you know and love, frame drums are just as customizable. 

However, in modern times, many frame drums are made with frames constructed from synthetic materials such as fiberglass or carbon fiber, which offer better durability and lightweight portability, perfect for gigging players. 


The head on a frame drum, also known as the drumhead, is traditionally made of animal skin. However, synthetic materials have become quite popular in some modern drums. 

The type of animal skin used can vary depending on the desired sound and the traditions associated with a specific kind of frame drum.

For example, goat, calf, or sheepskin are commonly used for Middle Eastern and North African frame drums such as the daf or riq, while Native American frame drums may be made with deer or buffalo hide.

Frame drum makers will then stretch the drumhead over the drum frame and secure it in place using metal tacks or screws, which can be tightened or loosened to adjust the tension and sound of the drum. 

The type of drumhead and its tension play a critical role in shaping the tone and character of the instrument. As with a standard drum set, tighter drumheads produce a higher-pitched sound, and looser drumheads produce a deeper, more resonant sound.


The rim or hoop on a frame drum is typically made of wood, such as ash, oak, maple, or other durable, resonating hardwoods. 

As with any other instrument, the type of wood used can significantly affect the overall tone and character of the drum. For example, some woods produce a brighter, resonant sound, while others create a deeper, warmer tone.

In some cases, drum makers will reinforce the rim with metal or other materials to provide extra support for the drumhead. 

Additional Materials Used to Construct Frame Drums

Beyond wood for the frame and animal skin for the drumhead, frame drums also often feature a variety of other materials, either for decorative or functional purposes. Here are some examples:

Beads or Shells: Beads or shells can be woven into the drumhead or attached to the rim to create a rattling sound when the drum is played.

Feathers: Feathers may be attached to the rim or woven into the drumhead for decorative purposes or as a symbol of spiritual significance in some Native American traditions.

Paint: The frame or drumhead may be painted with decorative designs or symbols, which can vary depending on the cultural or personal preferences of the drummer.

Final Thoughts

Frame drums are an ancient and diverse family of percussion instruments with a rich cultural and musical history. From the Middle Eastern riq to the Irish bodhrán to the Native American powwow drum, these types of drums come in various shapes, sizes, and materials, each with its own unique sound and character. 

Whether used for spiritual ceremonies, traditional folk music, or modern live performances, there’s no doubt that frame drums can captivate audiences with their expressive sounds and rhythms. So if you want to add a global aspect to your percussion arsenal, I highly recommend getting your hands on a frame drum!

Tyler Connaghan

Tyler is a music producer and multi-instrumentalist from Los Angeles, CA. When not producing music for TV and film or playing in various projects, he enjoys writing about the gear he loves most.

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