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Instructions for how to head an
African Djembe Drum with Goat skin

Page Five - Tuning the Djembe

You can use this page as a guide to tune any djembe. Assuming it was roped traditionally, all you need do is determine which pairs are being crossed and apply the Mali weave. This drum we've been working on, and it is just ready to start, so we get to make it right from the start! If your drum rope looks all messed up, I recommend taking all the weave out and you can begin with us by tightening the vertical ropes.

Want more information before you start?
See Drum repair and What to look for in an African Djembe !

Let's get Started!

here is where we left the drum to dry. I let this one dry for two days atop my furnace. It takes a lot to thoroughly dry that hair that is completely wrapped between the rings. You can take off the ace bandage now, If you don't have a great tool like the Rope Wizard you need a round piece of wood about 1-2" thick and 16 inches long. I sometimes use the removable handle from my rubber mallet, or a piece of closet pole, or you can by a replacement hammer handle at the hardware store. To see how the stick is used go back to the Head Mounting Page.
Ready to tune
I like to clean up the head at this point. The Goat skin is dry and pretty taught. You can do it all with sandpaper from this point. I find it faster, and frankly satisfying to do a bit of "dry shaving" to remove any hair fuzz that is left. Use a very sharp knife with a nice curved blade, and keep a honing stone handy to keep it sharp! Note the outline of the exact edge is fairly visible, even through the fuzz. Fuzz left on Skin
I like to hold the knife tip and blade in each hand for stability. As with the razor, the blade is always scraped along perpendicular and is moving before it hits the hide, not pressed and then moved. For fine control I hold the top line of the blade fairly still and kind of sweep the blade in a scraping arc toward me. The blade then comes off the skin as the arc comes toward me. I can practically pick off a few hair in this way. Often I turn the knife parallel to the edge and use that sweeping motion (like the arrow), so the blade lifts just as it reaches the edge. Hold the knife on the tip.
Once any fuzz is removed, some broad sideways scrapes can clear any remaining stubble quickly. When properly done, this method of wet shaving and then dry cleanup will produce a goat skin perfectly clean in about ten minutes total time. It also leaves the fine top skin layer with the color. You can use chemical hair removal, but I believe it affects the sound quality, if not the skin life.
A little light sanding finishes the job. Always take care at the edges, then broad passes in the middle. Don't sand away the beautiful color! Some blemishes, scars, or weak spots may have been revealed after shaving. Now is the time to do any head repair. Light sanding finishes the job
Here is the finished djembe head. Take a minute and admire the fine job you did! It was a little scary but the best part of the job. Admire your work!
Time to tune up the djembe. Find your vertical rope end knot, and verify which direction you need to pull from to take all the slack AWAY from the loop. In our case it means work slack out to the left. I start with the second "down rope". That is the left of the pair of ropes through the first cradle knot to the left of the one with the loop knot on the top ring. I use the Rope Wizard but you can use a wooden stick, see Mounting the Goat Skin Head . Begin tightening the vertical ropes
I use a needle nose vise grip with either some duct tape on the teeth, or the teeth dulled with a grinder. Be careful to not scar the rope, or damage the skin at the hide ring. Pinch the cradle rope and the vertical down rope together to lock them against slip. Use the vise grips to prevent back slipping
Put just enough tool on to grab the rope. You hold tension on the rope until you get it locked with the vise grips. I often lean forward as I am stradling the trumpet, and tuck the end of the rope wizard under my arm pit. That way I keep tension on the down rope and have two hands free to move the locking pliers. A good quality pliers makes the process much easier. I've tried angle needle nose and stub nose and for me regular needle nose works best. detail
I then leave the pliers on while I move my pry bar, and don't move the locking pliers till I've got tension on the next down rope. Using this method you NO back slip of the rope at all. The ropes should have been pulled pretty tight when the head was mounted so with the rope wizard you can pull pretty firmly. I can drop the skin about a 1/4 inch with a pull like this. I try to be just darn firm pulling about the first third of the drum so I don't skew the head too much with this powerful tool. the last half I am pulling against already tight rope so I pull about as hard as I can. By the time I am half done this drum sounds good already, a good sign. move pry tool
I get these vertical ropes tight in one round. That takes judgment, experience, and this tool. Using a stick you may need to go round twice, and it is easier to keep the head level that way. Now I am back to the end loop and the last pull tightens the rope through that loop knot. tighten the rope at the last loop
Even though I have leverage on my side at this last pull I still use the pliers and lock the rope as it leaves the loop knot. Even starting with tight vertical ropes, I have taken out about 18 inches of slack rope in one round. That saves me a row and a half of tuning diamonds in the Mali weave process. Pinch off the loop knot
Now I re-tie the half hitch at the bottom and remove the pliers. This drum sounds great right now. If I'll be traveling I leave it like this till someone wants to really hear it. If you pluck these vertical ropes they sound like harp strings. Note how the extra rope is right at the very bottom ready to start the Mali weave process. I start moving right with the first pair of ropes away from the loop knot pair. Just a personal preference, left would work too. I save the loop knot for the last in the row to weave. It can be the most stubborn to pull, so hey, put it off to the end! tighten the last half hitch
Look at rope pairs here. I always cross the ropes that almost touch as the pass through the same loop of the bottom cradle as pairs for the first row. It does very little tightening, but the row goes fast and easy and stays very low to the bottom cradle. When you are FINDING the pair of ropes you are using ALWAYS look at the top ring. Once you get started the ropes cross here and there on the way down and finding the two ropes of a pair can be confusing. Here the pairs of the whole first row of weave are the two ropes that pass through one cradle knot on the top ring. This makes a wide space up top to weave the rope. getting started with Mali Weave and rope
Now you need to learn this tuning mantra:
- Under Pair
- Dive back between
- Over top
- Under next pair At far left see the vertical rope end half hitch, Next the first pair have been crossed. and the second pair are threaded and ready to be pulled. Always do each mantra part by itself and up near the top ring where there is more room, then slide each part all the way down the pairs as far as it will go as you remove slack and snug up. Always pull down toward the trumpet slightly, at an angle tangent to the drum. This way it pulls easiest and stays neatly as low as possible. Low allows more rows of weave, though if your drum is cranked like this one, you will never finish the second row!
the weave mantra.
Now a brief break for a rant.

Always pull diamonds safely. These first ones you can just grab the rope and pull, they aren't that hard. As they get harder you can hurt yourself! First protect your hands. Either use a rope gripping tool or gloves, or wrap the rope around a stick and then pull on that as a handle. Rope can really damage hands! Always pull angling down and tangent to the drum. It simply is easier. To protect your arms and back from injury do this: Put the drum on some carpet and sideways against your couch. Rotate the weave you are pulling so the rope is slightly away from you sitting on the floor, and the rope comes right at you on a tangent. Put one bare foot near the top ring, and one on the trumpet, pinning the drum so it can't move. Get a hold of the rope as near the weave as possible. You are probably leaning forward, knees bent to do this, like trying to grab your ankles. Now just like rowing a boat you push back with your thigh muscles, lean back with your back, and help out with your arms. Using this method I have seen 100 pound teenage girls with no upper body strength fully tune the largest djembe....and without injury! I have pulled arm muscles that can take weeks to heal being careless or in a hurry, please be careful !

Now some of you are saying, wait what is with this weave mantra, he has it all backwards! Yes if you search the net you will find many references to the opposite mantra (I don't even want to say it, but it begins with "over two"). It is true that that method has one advantage. The knots of the weave are harder to pull out or open. That is also a disadvantage! Most traditional drum builders I have met use "my" mantra, and here is why. By going under first, you are pulling one rope OVER another, this is both physically easier(see 100 LB girl), and damages the bowl finish less. It is easier to keep the rows low and tidy, using this method. If you finish the mantra with "under the next pair" that pressure by the next pair to be crossed keeps these weave knots locked just as well. A major reason for me to use my mantra is I end up working on your drum, and with this method I can easily pop a few weaves out and then grab the weave rope and just pull it backwards unlocking multiple weaves at a time. This makes drum repair or re-heading much faster and easier. Some will argue and say, no, the other way is best. I figure they do it in Africa that way for a reason, and after using the "wrong", American mantra, and then trying this method, the advantages are great. Maybe indigeoness wisdom? Well anyway, you can't tell "nobudy nuttin", so either try this method, or work from the opposite mantra....ok, ok back to work!

Ok, I work fast. I am all the way around the first row, and have just crossed the loop knot pair (note, I made this easier because I kept the loop up high toward the top ring, and because it has a minimum of knot in the vertical. Where it doubles back to the half hitch at bottom, no worries just treat that double rope as one rope.) Time to start the next row. Ever seen those drums where the weave just spirals up to infinity? avoid that by finishing the row. Follow across and under the first pair you crossed to make a nice finishing horizontal line (red) all the way around, and finish
Now I find a rope to tuck under back to the left and this finishes and "locks" down the row. Now when I start the second row, I can keep it nice and low, too! lock down the first row of weave
Ok, remember those rope pairs for the Weave? Now we use the ropes that adjoin each other in separate adjoining upper cradle knots for the pair to weave, This row is a little harder as you are threading the rope through and back out of the gaps now narrowed by the first pairs crossing in row one. A needle nose pliers may help here in the threading. Second row rope pairs.
Here the "under two" part is snugged down and the rest of the weave mantra is threaded ready to snug down. Second row Mali Weave
Now the first weave of the second row is ready to pull. Follow the red path... Note how the "under the next pair" looks a little confusing with the far right ropes crossed. If you follow the rope up, you see it is correct. ALWAYS find your pair at the top ring ! ready to pull
The first "Diamond" of the second row is now pulled and the rope is crossed. Look straight down from the crossed ropes and the shape made by the rope below is like a diamond (point up and point down). This is why tuning is called "pulling diamonds". First one done
I have threaded the second diamond. Another trick for rope handling is to use a loop in the middle of your working length for your "needle" instead of the end. It makes for less rope handling. Keep going!
Second diamond, row two, ready to pull! ready to pull
Third weave threaded, ready to pull... But you know what? This drum sings! As I mentioned, with the verticals pulled tight on a perfectly dry drum, it should sound great. I usually put in the first row of weave <basically on principal. I like to get the next row started, so a buyer is started the right way. I also leave a weave threaded like this so you can see the pattern. I'm done!
This drum is cranked enough right now to play in performance. Maybe two weeks later I might add a diamond or two to keep that performance level of tuning. Many people don't tune their drums nearly high enough. With a new head, put on with care and skill, this is it's strongest point in time. TUNE IT UP! Remember to protect your tuned drum with a case or head cover, or in a pinch use a towel over the head with a bundgey cord holding it around the bowl. A bump on a door jam on the playing edge of a well tuned drum can be enough to send you back to work re-heading! I like to hear a note or two above octave between bass and tone. Besides your instrument having its full sound potential, you will find you can play it with less effort and force, and less injuries to your hands. Until your drum is fully tuned it is really hard to judge if it has basic design flaws. See What to look for in an African Djembe !

You may have to finish this row, or even start the next to get your drum tuned. It all depends on how tight you got those verticals, and the quality of your rope (how much it stretches). Row three has the same pairs as row 1, if you get that far. Don't forget to finish the row with a straight line to the first pair in the row and then double back down to lock the row before starting. Most people stop here, wrap their extra rope around the trumpet just below the bowl, and cut off those annoying cradle rope ends. I have tried to include each bit of wisdom I have picked up over the years djembe building. It may seem picky but it is ALL THESE DETAILS that make the difference between a level, well fit beautifully headed drum, that you can keep fully tuned, and one that you ship off to me to do it "right" later.

If you want to add a few Final touches, click here!

or go to:
  • Preparing the Drum
  • Roping the Djembe
  • Mounting the Goat Skin Head
  • Shaving the Head

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    This page was last modified on 09/25/13 01:14:51 PM