This is the second article we have had the joy of writing on Indian drums, the first being the Dhol. Perhaps slightly less versatile then the dhol in our opinion, it is still a wonderful membranophone percussion instrument that shouldn’t be overlooked.
Table of Contents
The tabla is a classical Indian instrument made up of two separate drums. The ‘Bhaya’ is the larger and should be played by your weaker hand. The smaller one, the ‘Tabla’, is played by your dominant hand. They together are also known as ‘Tabla’ (slightly confusing right?). Strokes are noted by what is known as ‘bhols’. For example, ‘Tha’ stands for striking the index finger on the outermost ring on the tabla. ‘Ghe’ is striking the middle finger on the bhaya with your hand and wrist in an arch shape. The beats are organized into ‘Taals’ which have a varying amount of beats and are arranged in a cyclic pattern. The traditional cycle ‘Tin Taal’ is 16 beats. The tabla normally accompanies the Indian flute (Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia) but it can be played solo like so:
The traditional tabla used rawhide for the skins however modern ones can use nylon. A traditional player may recommend the former but nylon is more than fine to learn on and more weather resistant.
Whilst they look quite easy to pick up and sample a beat or rhythm, they are notoriously difficult to play well. Unfortunately you cannot just start jamming on a tabla, it takes months and even years of practice to get the sound right. A seasoned player could say that it took them 2-3 years to be comfortable and 5-6 years to be proficient, so if you are really looking to start a long tabla journey, you should be prepared. If you are already having second thoughts then check out the dhol (LINK). It’s not easy to master but the learning curve is not as steep. If you remain undeterred then it is imperative that you get a teacher and have lessons as this is not an instrument you would want to teach yourself. If you do try it is likely that you will pick up bad habits and techniques that will hamper you down the line. If however, you would like to have a go, we would suggest you look on Youtube for the videos by Tabla Works – this is the first. It is a good starting lesson.
Before buying a tabla you should consider why you are buying them. It may be that you want to add an extra element to your band and diversify your sound and instruments. If this is the case then it is an expensive and painstaking way to do so given the learning curve. As well as this, the cheaper tablas tend to slip out of tune quite easily which defeats the point of their delicacy. If you are playing acoustic or lower volume rooms and don’t want to shell out for a decent Tabla, then you may want to look at another hand drum like a djembe or a cajon. Whilst we appreciate they are radically different instruments, the may suit your purposes better. The doumbek or darbuka are also useful handheld drums that would be a lot easier to pick up bits and pieces on.
We have tried to take into account that as a beginner you may not wish to pay too much for your first instrument, but chances are that if you are here you are in it for the long haul in which case it is worth investing a bit more for a great quality tabla. The tablas we have reviewed are all by Indian drum makers Maharaja Musicals, who also populated our list for the best dholaks. These are 3 variations of the same set of drums but are priced at just under $200, $250 and just over $300. Hopefully between them you should be able to buy a pair that suits your budget. They are all handcrafted and high-quality products. As they are hand-crafted they will differ from pair to pair so yours will be unique! The company that produces them are efficient and dedicated, so the pair will be of good quality. None of these are professional or concert level tablas, as to buy them you will have to look upwards of $500. So when buying these you should have the right expectations of what you are getting. For a pair of very specialized authentic drums shipped from India, you will be paying less than $300 or even $200. If you look around, the tabla in the same price range do not compare on sound or quality. For our 3 reviews we will be pointing out the main differences between the 3 sets and will be starting at the cheapest and working our way up.
So for under $200 you are getting the tabla (Bayan and Dayan), a teaching book, the tuning hammer, cushions to play them on, covers and a gig/travel bag and it is being shipped from India, the home of the tabla. This is an astounding price it really is and you would be forgiven for thinking that they would compromise on quality in return but they don’t. They are well constructed, durable and they sound pretty good. The Dayan is made from Sheesham wood which is great quality and not the cheaper amb (dried mango) wood. The steel is the cheapest of the Bayan materials and it is reflected in the sound which is not as full-bodied as copper or brass and so it will be a bit hollow but it still sounds good. Whilst the design is fairly basic since they are solely for practice that won’t be a problem. These are not intermediate or advanced level and won’t be played in any concerts, but for a beginner student, these are the best tabla available and fantastically priced.
This Tabla set is exactly the same as the one above except for $50 you get a brass Bayan that is painted black. Not only does it look better but the difference in sound between the brass and steel is fairly pronounced. The brass tones have a warmer depth to them and their resonance is a lot sweeter. If you are not on a strict budget we would highly recommend paying a little extra for the brass drum as it will make a big difference to its playability and so ultimately how much you will want to practice.
As we said the rest is the same and so the Dayan is the exact drum as above and the size of the Bayan remains the same. The gig bag is also padded for this model which is nice.
Again this is the same as the other two, the only difference being is that this is a heavier pure copper Bayan. Instead of 3kg, it is 4.5kg. Ultimately the material and weight give it a fuller-sound and a deeper resonance but given the higher price tag it is not necessary for a beginner but we have included it as an option as stylistically it may be your preference and you don’t mind spending the extra money for that added oomph.
So if you have made it through all that and are still as passionate as ever in learning this beautifully complex instrument then good job. Whilst it may seem like we were trying to deter you, it should really inspire, you as any instrument you pick up should be with the purpose of being incredible and if you master this then that’s what you will truly be. The steep curve means that when you get to the top you are really flying.
When played well it is one of the most impressive percussion instruments due to the range of sounds and emotions you can draw from it. As some inspiration and a bit of a breather, here is as always a cover of Shape Of You, this time played on the tablas. About from how perfectly this fits the music, look at the joy on his face!