We recently did a large review of the best djembe drums available online. If you would prefer to buy your drum at a store or second-hand, here's a crash course in buying a djembe that should help you get a great drum.
When assessing a djembe, there are several things to look at:
1. The wood should be in good condition
This is one of the most important tips for buying a djembe. Traditional jembes are usually carved from a single piece of hardwood. Examine the shell carefully and avoid buying a drum with any major cracks or chips.
2. The rope should be in good condition
Restringing a jembe is a hard job, so check for freyed rope. Mild fraying is not serious, but anything less that ¾ of the original string width is cause for concern.
3. Check the drum skin for weak spots
Genuine goat drum skins are mostly shaved with a razor. This can damage the skin if not done carefully. Check for damage to the skin. Again, a few shallow nicks aren't serious, but if there's a flap of the skin sticking up, you may want to reconsider.
Weak spots come in the form of cuts, scars, pockmarks, warts, flay cuts or holes in the skin. Try this nifty little trick: Turn the drum upside down so you can look inside it. Now, hold it up towards the light. Look inside it and swivel it around to check the drum skin for potential problems. A thinner part of the skin will let more light through i.e. appear lighter. If the skin looks dangerously thin anywhere, it may eventually tear under pressure. Synthetic drumheads available at some music stores are much better in this department.
4. No wood lice or termites
You'd better believe it! These little suckers can turn your drum into a cardboard condo, so check for tiny holes in the wood. Give the drum a bit of a knock to see if it's shedding sawdust. Fiberglass or machine made djembes won't have this problem.
5. Is the drum skin tight enough?
Newly skinned drums can't be tightened too much at first for risk of breaking but a 'played-in' (older) skin should be close to rock hard. If you press your thumb into the middle of the face, you should get no more than a few millimeters in movement. If you have more, it could probably be tightened.
This is explained in tuning a djembe and you can do it yourself if you have a good back and about an hour. If you're buying though, it may be worth asking them to do it for you or knock a few bucks off the price.
6. Good sound
It's difficult to assess sound quality if you're a beginner, but take time to listen carefully before you buy. If you think you'll like a bass-ier (lower) sounding drum look for a drum with one or more of the following: heavy wood, a large face and a thick drum skin (>1mm). Treble (higher) sounding drums tend to be smaller, lighter or have thinner drum skin. Either way, the drum should have a strong even resonance, but not ring for too long after being struck.
7. Cosmetic Considerations
Check that it stands straight and is symmetrical when resting on flat ground. Check that the metal rings are on straight. It's important to me also for the wood to have a pleasing color and grain.
Most full size djembes are around 8-12 kgs. You might regret buying a very heavy or large drum if you want to take it places. Similarly, if you buy a small 'curio shop' djembe, you might find it harder to play and won't get the full range of sounds.
9. Buy A Strap
Many fancy straps are available but 3m of 30mm wide nylon or canvas belt will do.
10. Buy a Bag
We've done a complete review of the best djembe bags that will help you.
You can buy bags for drums of all sizes, and there are plenty of online stores. Some sturdy designs are made of multiple layers of canvas, padded linings with shoulder straps, zips and pouches and others are made of simple cloth. Double-stitching is important to withstand the weight of the drum on the straps.
There they all are - 10 tips for buying a djembe. Good luck! We hope you find a soul mate in your drum.