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Picking the Right Tambourine

Today's blog is part five in our percussion series. Resident percussion specialist Alan Compton walks us through how to choose the best tambourine.

At some point, every percussion student will be given a tambourine part to play in their school's concert band or orchestra. While it is essential to teach percussion students the techniques involved in playing tambourine properly, it is also essential to provide a good-quality tambourine with which to perform.

There are a few choices in the makeup of a good-quality tambourine that can affect the sound quite a bit. Here are some tips on how to choose a tambourine for your ensemble.

The Shell

The shell of a standard orchestral tambourine should be 10 inches in diameter and is usually made of wood. Although, there are some synthetic shells available. While the shell's material doesn't change the sound of the instrument much, it does affect the instrument's weight (which can vary the difficulty in playing more intricate parts).

When choosing a concert tambourine, it's best to choose one with a shell made of lightweight wood. The main purpose of the shell is to house the tambourine's jingles, but it also provides a means to hold or mount the tambourine while it is being played. Ideally, a good concert tambourine will have two staggered rows of jingles with jingle slots in two different sizes. The different sizes create a rhythmic overlap, which helps when performing shake rolls on the instrument.

The Head

Concert tambourines are typically a headed instrument. Tambourine heads will usually be tacked or glued on. This means that they cannot be readily tuned, but many of the tambourines that have tuning hardware are heavy enough to hinder playing with proper technique. Most of the higher quality tambourines tend to be made without tuning hardware.

Calfskin vs. Synthetic

Traditionally a tambourine's head would be made of calf skin, although plastic heads are becoming more common. The natural skin sounds great, but the material is very susceptible to changes in temperature and humidity and can be fragile under direct pressure.

The most reputable tambourine manufacturers (such as Grover and Black Swamp) have begun making very high-quality tambourines with synthetic heads that very accurately mimic the sound and feel of a natural skin. This makes them easier to maintain, due to their resistance to outside elements.

The Jingles

Most tambourine jingles are made from one of three metals:

  • bronze
  • copper
  • silver

Some of the budget-friendly tambourines can also have brass jingles, while some of the more expensive tambourines can have jingles made from aged or heat-treated materials. Some tambourines have jingles that have been manipulated physically by machine dimpling or hammering. Any adjustment of this nature adds complexity to the sound of the tambourine.

Budgetary concerns aside, jingle selection basically comes down to personal preference. Your preference could also change depending on the type of music being played, or the type of effect that is desired from the tambourine. For a good starting point, here's a breakdown of the most commonly used metals and their sound characteristics.

German silver

German silver jingles are highly sensitive with a wet, crisp sound and a high pitch that can cut through an ensemble.

Beryllium Copper

Beryllium copper jingles will be lower in pitch than silver with a lush, dry sound and they are very articulate.

Phosphor Bronze

Phosphor bronze jingles are even lower in pitch than copper, with a dark, mellow sound that is dry and articulate.

Brass

Brass jingles have a full-bodied, warm sound. They are commonly found on less expensive tambourines, although that does not necessarily mean that the sound will be undesirable. You could decide that the brass jingles provide the perfect sound for a specific piece or passage.

Heat-Treated

Heat-treated copper or silver jingles provide further complexity and color to the natural sound of the metal, giving percussionists additional options when choosing a tambourine.

To give you an audible reference for the tambourine features that we've just been over, here is a short demonstration of some of the tambourines that we carry here at Amro Music:

  • 3:46 - Grover 10" Double Row, German Silver 
  • 3:54 - Grover 10" Double Row, Beryllium Copper
  • 4:04 - Grover 10" SX Double Row, Silver, and Brass
  • 4:12 - Pearl 10" Orchestral, Beryllium Copper and Brass
  • 4:21 - Pearl 10" Orchestral, German Silver and Beryllium Copper
  • 4:31 - Pearl 10" Orchestral, Beryllium Copper
  • 4:40 - Pearl 10" Orchestral, German Silver
  • 4:48 - Pearl 10" Orchestral, Beryllium Copper and Phosphor Bronze
  • 4:56 - Pearl 10" Elite Concert, Stainless Steel

We hope this has provided some insight into choosing a tambourine for yourself or for your ensemble! The best thing to remember is that it is ultimately a matter of personal preference. Just listen closely with your music in mind and trust your ears to help you make the right decision.

Thanks a lot, and have a musical day!

Posted by Emilee McGee at 4:21 PM
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