What drum should I buy?
We get a lot of questions about “what drum do you recommend I buy”?
Buy this drum
TOCA Freestyle II Mechanically Tuned Djembe $170.00.
On the Oregon coast, the drum circle drum of choice has a 12-inch head, synthetic head, and a synthetic shell. Smaller than a 12-inch head does not sound deep enough for most people. Larger than a 12-inch head and the drum starts to get unwieldy and can pick up unwanted overtone ringing. Animal skin heads fall out of tune when the humidity goes up. Animal skin heads also break in our climate when they get soft. So all that considered, look for a 12-inch djembe with a synthetic head. We have drum options ranging from $30.00 to $600.00 in this review. The one drum we single out as a favorite prices out at $170.00.
If you are looking for a single recommendation, we like the Freestyle II from TOCA costing around $170.00. (These come in several different color designs.) You can learn more about this drum below.
Let’s break this down some more for those who want more information than a single “buy this” recommendation. There are hundreds of djembes for sale from a half a dozen significant manufactures. But the field of candidates starts to narrow down quickly once you take out all the animal skin head drums.
Entry level drums. ($30.00 to $126.00
Remo 14″ frame drum $30.00
All the drums in this review are Djembes, except this first one. If you want to test the waters and buy an inexpensive, but playable drum, get a recreational synthetic 14-inch frame drum. Remo makes a non-tunable 14” drum that sells for around $30.00. Frame drums are used in most cultures around the world. They are at home in a drum circle. You can use your hand, or use a beater. If you want to step up to a djembe or some other kind of drum latter, you can lend this to a friend when they come to the drum circle with you.
The other entry-level drum circle drums have the following in common. They are all 10-inch or 12-inch head djembes. They all have synthetic heads. All of the heads are not tunable. But all of the heads are replaceable. All of the shells are some kind of plastic or resin. These drums are used in grammar school music classes. They can sound ok. On the benefit side, they are lightweight. And they are low cost.
Meinl Viva Rhythm 12” djembe $100.00
What is nice about this entry level djembe is that it is a full 12-inch size. The size is correct for a djembe. Most of the djembes that have removable heads that are not adjustable have 10-inch heads. The 12-inch size and replaceable head moves this drum into the realm of a “real drum”.
10″ Remo Festival Djembe Drum $126.00
The 10″ Remo Festival Djembe drum sounds a bit weak because it is only has a 10-inch head. But as an entry level djembe, it is a real drum and not a toy. Remo is the king of synthetic drum heads. So the head on this drum is the real thing. It weighs around 5 pounds. You could strap this on your shoulder if you wanted to take it to a political rally, or even dance around a fire on the beach. The head slides on to the shell. The shell made from recycled materials. When you pick up the drum you can feel that the shell is thin but strong. The head is also special in the world of Remo drumheads. The head material is a new design called black suede. Only a few top end Remo djembes have this black suede head. Interesting drum overall. This drum is absolutely carefree. Grab it and start playing. If you want to drum and dance at the same time, this is YOUR drum.
Mid-tier synthetic head Djembe’s ($126.00 – $225.00)
Mid-tier djembes are perfect for drum circles. Not a toy, not a professional drum. These drums that sit comfortably in the middle of the recreational drum market. Substantial enough to last decades. Well designed to sound good. In short, perfect for recreational drummers and drum circles.
Toca Freestyle Rope tuned $126.00
On the less expensive end of the mid-tier djembe, offerings is a unique drum made by TOCA. Like the “buy this” drum above, this drum is also called the Freestyle II. Ok, it is confusing. This drum has rope tuning. The “buy this drum” Toca Freestyle II is mechanically tuned. The rope tuned Freestyle II has a “traditional” vibe to them. Well, as traditional as a plastic djembe can be. Since the drum is tuned with rope, the drums cost less than the TOCA Freestyle II that come with all that hardware. Tuning a Djembe with rope tuning is difficult. However, these drums may never need to be tuned. One added bonus, with no hardware this drum sits well on your lap. No hardware to dig into your legs. Another price reducing aspect is there is no graphics on this drum. The reddish brown tone is the actual color of the plastic shell. For the price, this drum sounds remarkably good. A good mid-tier choice for entering the world of drum circles.
TOCA Freestyle II Mechanically Tuned Djembe $170.00. (Same as the “buy this” drum above)
This drum is the most popular drum being purchased by our drum circle members. It has the synthetic head we need in this climate. Comes in several designs. Sounds great. Has a not to heavy, not to light feel to it. The drum sports a plastic shell that you can play on the beach. You can replace the head if you break the head. You can play around with tuning the drum if you like. You don’t need to worry if you are outside and get caught in the rain. The TOCA Freestyle II is not cheap, but not expensive either. This drum hits the sweet spot on about any way you could evaluate a drum to be used at drum circles. If pushed to recommend a single drum to first-time drum circle drum buyers, this one gets the nod. And as mentioned, many of the Whale Spirit Drummers bought this drum as their first time drum.
Black Remo Apex $190.00
Remo is the drum company that invented the synthetic drum head. They did so at the start of the rock and roll in the early 1950s. Since then they totally dominated the drum head market. Then they started making hand drums around 25 years ago. Remo has a full line of djembes. We will look at a couple.
The Remo Apex is a 12 inch PVC plastic mechanically tuned djembe. The Remo Apex has nicer hardware than the TOCA freestyle II. This is a great recreational drum. The drum has a substantial feel. It sounds wonderful. But the $190.00 price tag is just for the black colored drum. So if black is not your thing, you will need to pay more to get a Remo Apex with a colorful design on the shell. If you are looking seriously at the TOCA Freestyle II mechanically tuned drum for $170, and like the color black, this may be your drum. The extra $20 bucks will be well spent. But if you want color in you djembe, you need to look to the upgraded Remo Apex listed just below.
The Remo Apex cloth covered $225.00
These Remo Apex djembes have the same thick plastic PVC shell as the $190.00 black Remo Apex shown above. But the $225.00 version comes with a cloth finish on the outside of the plastic shell. This adds $35.00 to the cost. So while the $190.00 black Remo Apex is a nice step up from the $170.00 TOCA Freestyle II (The buy this drum model) the $225.00 colorful Remo Apex is quite a bit more than the $170.00 TOCA Freestyle II. Also if you are comfortable with paying $225.00 for the Remo Apex, you should consider the Professional Remo Mondo below for the same money.
Professional and serious amateur drums. ($225.00 – $600.00)
12” Remo Mondo $225.00 for standard models. (More for special editions.)
The undisputed king of djembes used in professional recordings is the 12” Remo Mondo. This is the first successful synthetic head, synthetic shell, mechanically tuned Djembe. The Remo Mondo come in sizes from 10 inches to a whopping 18-inch head. But more is not better in this regard. The sweet spot for the Remo Mondo is (you guessed it) 12 inches. The 14 inch Remo Mondo also sells well, but has a more pronounced high pitch overtone ring than the 12 incher. The more massive drums 16 inches and up sound bad. Deep tone yes, good sound no.
The Remo Mondo drum has a proprietary shell. It is wood fibers suspended in resin, then cast into shape. The inside of the shell is then coated with an acoustic coating. These shells are substantial like wood, but won’t split like wood. They hold up well. There are 25-year-old Remo Mondos still going strong. The outside of the shell is covered in cloth. This takes the beating for the drum when moving it around. The heads are of course made by REMO. It only takes a few minutes to change a head. Though a head may last decades and may never need to be replaced. These are serious professional musical instruments that will last a lifetime (or two). You can find them used, but they still command a high price. There is a musician in Seattle who sits on top of a 12 inch Mondo while performing on the sidewalk. Hour after hour, day after day the artist grinds this poor Remo Mondo into the concrete. But the drum lives on to play the next day and sounds wonderful.
13” Remo Flareout $275.00
This is a new drum from Remo. The hardware is the same as the Remo Mondo. The shape of the drum is unique though. Also, the head is made from a new material. The top of the drum bowl is flared out. The drum comes in one size only, 13 inches. This gives the drum a deeper sound than the 12 inch Remo Mondo, without adding any additional height to the drum. The bottom section is also larger in diameter than the 12-inch Mondo. It looks odd compared to traditional djembes but sounds like a synthetic head djembe should. Remo also put a new type of head on the drum. Something they call “Black Suede.” Remo markets the head as sounding “more focused.” The head does have a slightly different sound than the other Mondo style heads. This new “black suede” djembe head only comes on a few of the Remo hand drums. If you don’t mind getting close to the $300.00 mark for a drum, consider the new Remo Flareout. It comes in three different cloth shell color designs. In person, the drum is a work of art.
12.5 inch LP 720 $445.00 Plus synthetic head $70.00 total $515.00
12.5 inch LP Galaxy $530 Plus synthetic head $70.00 total $600.00
Ok, on the top end of the professional and serious amateur djembe market are the LP 720 and the LP Galaxy. There is a reason these drums cost between $500 and $600. The shells are made like a barrel. Strips of wood are glued together then turned on a lathe. The head size is 12.5 inches. The individual pieces of wood form an incredibly strong shell. Far stronger than a single piece of wood. The drums come with a goatskin head but professionals don’t want the natural skin head going limp when the weather changes. Remo came to the rescue of LP percussion and created a synthetic replacement drum head just or this drum. The model number for the synthetic head is [M5-1250-FD]-DJEMBE DRUMHEAD, 12.5″, FIBERSKYN, LIGHT. If you buy this drum, order the head when you order the drum. The hardware on this drum is amazing! The top ring is contoured so you can slap this drum as hard as you want and you won’t hurt your hand. Replacing heads take only a couple of minutes, but you may never need to change the head. You can tweak the tone to exactly where you want if Charley Watts asks you to sit in with the Rolling Stones in their next recording session. The drum will last a lifetime. A professional instrument to be sure. It will also look like a work of art sitting in your living room.
We don’t recommend:
“Authentic” wood shell, goat head, rope tuned, African djembes. I know, I know, these drums are beautiful. When everything is just right they also sound amazing. But they don’t work for us on the Oregon Coast. These drums fall out of tune in our climate. They are difficult to tune even in the best of climates. It is common to see a drummer with one of these djembes off to the side of the drum circle pulling in the ropes to try and bring the drum back in to tune. You also see these players moving the drums close to the fire to try and dry out the drum head to get it to shrink back into shape. It costs at least $120.00 to replace the head on one of these drums. This is important as the heads do break. Online you will read how these are the only “real” djembes. But look, we are not playing authentic African music at a cultural center. We are playing at drum circles and around beach fires in a climate that borders on being a rain forest.
ANY drum with an animal skin.Animal skin drums don’t work for us in our climate. It is sad to see someone move to the Oregon Coast with a beautiful elk skin frame drum they bought in Taos. These drums fall out of tune as soon as they arrive to our shores. Even if they are re-stretched the skin head goes limp every time the humidity goes up, or a few drops of rain falls on the drum. If you want this style of drum, pick up a synthetic head frame drum. It does not need to be a $30.00 entry level frame drum. There are plenty of nicely made frame drums that come with synthetic heads and professional models are even tunable.
“Festival” Djembes. These are usually 8 or 10 inch small djembes with glued on heads. If the head breaks you just throw out the drum. They can’t be fixed. Every major drum maker has an entry level festival drum. Think of them as expensive toys, not inexpensive musical instruments.
Anything Electronic. Drum circles are all about creating music with something that you hit with your hand or a stick. Not something that has computer chips and plugs in.