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Tabla FAQ


1) What is the difference between Calcutta and Bombay style drums?
2) How much of the sound of a drum is determined by the shell, and how much by the head?
3) How long should the heads last on my tablas?
4) What materials are the tabla and baya made of?
5) There is a small crack in my tabla. Does that matter?
6) There is a buzz in my tabla. What causes this, and is it bad? What can I do about it?
7) What do I do when my heads wear out?
8) The straps on my tabla or baya broke. What should I do?
9) Are there alternatives to the traditional cow or goat strap?
10) How is the nylon strapping for tabla or baya, and how does it compare to the regular strap?
11) What about tablas that use metals hooks to hold the heads on, eliminating the strap altogether?
12) My baya has a dent. Is this a serious problem?
13) I ordered a 5 1/2" tabla head and I received one marked 5 3/4. What gives?

 

1) What is the difference between Calcutta and Bombay style drums?

The main difference is in the heads. Simply put, Calcutta heads are thinner than Bombay (or Delhi or Benares or Hyderbad) heads. Thus Calcutta tablas are easier to play in the sense that you don’t have to strike the drum as hard to get a good sound. At their best, Calcutta tablas produce a sweet bell-like tone that one hears in the playing of Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri. The downside of Calcutta heads is that they tend not to last as long as their thicker counterparts. Bombay heads are thicker, and thus more durable. At their best, they produce an earthy, woody sound that one hears in the playing of Zakir Hussain. These are generalizations, of course. Tabla heads are animal products and thus vary greatly. Some Calcutta heads will last for years and some Bombay heads will wear out quickly.
There is less difference in the shells. If you look inside a Calcutta tabla you will see that it is chiseled out by hand. Bombay tablas are lathed out and smooth inside. The difference this produces in sound is debatable.
Bombay bayas tend to be a little taller and have a wider belly than Calcutta bayas. Again the differene in sound is subtle.
In conclusion, one style is not “better” A lot of one’s preference is based on where in India you or your teacher is from, and what kind of sound you are used to.


2) How much of the sound of a drum is determined by the shell, and how much by the head?

A really bad head is not going to sound much different no matter how nice the shell. On the other hand, a nice shell will enhance the sound of a well made head.


3) How long should the heads last on my tablas? 

The bottom line is your head is going to wear out and need to be replaced after some time. There are so many factors involved it is hard to say how long that period of time will be. It can be months or years. Climate, changes in climate, how much and how hard you play, how well you keep the drum balanced, and how often you change the pitch of the tabla – all are factors that contribute. Most people sweat some when they play, and consequently use powder to save the gob. Using too much powder can be detrimental. The acidic content of some people’s skin will wear heads out faster than others. Hot dry climates, a lot of humidity, and high altitude will contribute to wear. Drastic climate changes will too. Each tabla will have an optimal pitch. For longevity it is best to keep the drum well balanced at that pitch. Trying to keep a C tabla cranked at D# or E is not a good idea.. Nor will consistently changing the pitch of the tabla.


4) What materials are the tabla and baya made of?

Tablas are made from wood (although we have on occasion seen some clay and even cast glass tablas). Most tablas are made of shishum wood. Shishum is a member of the rosewood family, and usually considered “light rosewood”. Some tablas are made of dark rosewood. This is a dense, resonant wood used for all kinds of musical instruments. Unfortunately this wood is getting harder and harder to get. Some tablas are made of lighter wood, like neem or even balsa.
Bayas are mostly made of metal – although we have seen wooden, clay and even glass bayas. Standard bayas are cast from brass. More expensive bayas are copper. Both of these metals are usually coated with chrome, although one occasionally sees an uncoated copper baya. Knowledgeable people say that copper gives a warmer sound than brass.


5) There is a small crack in my tabla. Does that matter?

Small hairline cracks are common in tablas. Especially if they are in the foot of the drum, they shouldn’t be a cause for concern.. Remember that tablas are carved out only about 2/3 of the way down, so a hairline crack in the feet won’t matter. If the crack is in the upper part that is carved out, and it appears to go all the way thru to the soundhole, then you should try to fill it.


6) There is a buzz in my tabla. What causes this, and is it bad? What can I do about it?
It is a matter of taste, but some people want a small amount of buzz in their tabla. This is called jawari – similar to the jawari buzz of a sitar or tanpura. A loud buzz is annoying and can signify that the head is on its way out. The buzz is often caused by a loose section of the gob (black spot). If you hold the drum up to the light and can see a small section that seems to be loose and vibrating on its own, you can try putting a small dab of crazy glue or nail polish right on that spot. If that is the culprit this will kill the buzz. Do not put glue or polish over the entire gob or you will kill the resonance of the entire drum.


7) What do I do when my heads wear out?

You have to replace the heads. In India you can take your shell to the local tabla-wallah and have a new head made right on your shell. Outside of India you will have to put a replacement head that has been made on another shell onto your drum. This is a tricky job – hard on the hands, and requiring a sense of pitch to keep the head balanced as you tighten it. Check out our Tabla Reheading Videos. Kalyan Godden demonstrates all the steps so you can try it yourself. Unfortunately, after this arduous process, there is no guarantee that the replacement heads will sound as good as your original.. …….

 

8) The straps on my tabla or baya broke. What should I do?

It is possible to splice broken strap. We try to get a video up soon of this process.


9) Are there alternatives to the traditional cow or goat strap?

Some people these days are using nylon strap. In our experience, it takes a lot longer to tighten this strap. But once the tension is right for the head, they hold the pitch longer than regular strap.

 

10) How is the nylon strapping for tabla or baya, and how does it compare to the regular strap?

Here is our take on this (having reheaded hundreds if not thousands of tablas over the years) The nylon strapping is good. It has many positive features. Compared with regular strap, it is easier to lace (much easier on the hands) and easier to pull. It doesn't break when you are pulling it up to tension, and it pulls uniformly. It will require more initial pulling, but once it is at the right tension it will stay. (Often after pulling up a new head, it stretches out after a day, and needs to be pulled again.) Another plus is that once on the drum, it is not temperature and climate sensitive.

The downside is that it is not traditional, and may look a little strange to the traditional minded viewer. From a practical point of view, it doesn't grip the blocks as much, so you can't use the blocks as much for tuning as you can traditional strap. But this depends a lot on the shape of your tabla and the size of the blocks.

 

11) What about tablas that use metals hooks to hold the heads on, eliminating the strap altogether?

We have never seen a serious tabla player use such a drum. The hooks get in the way of your strokes.


12) My baya has a dent. Is this a serious problem?

No. Bayas are sometimes dented in shipping or day to day jostling. This has no effect on the sound. When you rehead the baya, you can gently bang out the dents.

13) I ordered a 5 1/2" tabla head and I received one marked 5 3/4. What gives?

In general, never go by what is written on the head. They are often mislabelled in India. Also, heads shrink a little bit over time (if they are not on a drum). So a head that was once 5 1/2 may now be 5 3/8. We carefully measure each head before we ship. To figure out what size head you need, you should measure outer rim to outer rim of the shell, preferably with the head off. Or turn the shell upside down and trace the outline on a piece of paper or cardboard. Send us that cutout and we will match the head exactly. Sending a fax is not a good idea, since faxes tend to be slightly smaller than real life.