Whether you are buying your first set of tablas, or hoping to expand or refine your collection, this article helps you navigate the options available at Old Delhi Music and elsewhere.
If you take to the time to digest the content below, you should be well on your way to buying a good set of tablas. I wrote this to be a practical guide - comprehensive but not exhaustive. There's plenty more that could be covered, but this should be sufficient to get you started.
Founder - Old Delhi Music
Tabla 101: Introduction to the Tabla Set
A tabla set consists of two drums -
- Tabla or Dayan is the smaller wooden drum, playing very high pitched, bell-like tones.
- Bayan or Dugga is the large metal drum known for it's "whooping" sounds and heard first at around :07 seconds into the video above.
The names used to describe the drums in a tabla set will vary by region. In this article we will refer to them broadly as "Tabla / Dayan" and "Bayan / Dugga", but you may also see them referred to elsewhere differently. For example, the larger drum may be identified as a "Baya" or simply a "Dugga", etc. It's all the same.
Tabla 101: Parts Diagram
Like the names of the drums will vary regionally, the names of the parts vary in name and spelling. You certainly don't have to memorize this diagram, but it will serve as a useful reference.
Tabla / Dayan: The Basics
A Tabla / Dayan is notable because of it's bell like pitch, which is tuned to a specific note intentionally. That's an important thing to understand about tabla that differentiates it from most other drums in the world.
How is it tuned?
When in concert with other instruments, a Tabla / Dayan is most often tuned to “Sa,” which is the musical "root note" of the composition. This means if someone says, "We are playing in the key of D," for example, you'd ideally want a drum that tunes to D so you can match everyone else. A 5.25 inch Tabla / Dayan would be an appropriate drum in that case.
If you do not have a drum that tunes to D, you could also tune to an interval such as a musical fifth (a.k.a. the "perfect fifth" or "Pa" in the Indian context). So, if you did not in the example above have a 5.25 inch drum, but rather a 5.75 inch Tabla / Dayan, you could tune that to "A" which is the fifth of "D".
NOTE: If all this music theory up front is bumming you out, please don't fret. You'll be able to learn that along the way. The important thing for now is that you understand tablas are tuned intentionally to a specific pitch. You can learn how that works later.
Tabla / Dayan: In context (the fun stuff)
As an illustration of what is explained above about tuning, check out the video above. In this performance, legendary tabla player Zakir Hussain is using a primary Tabla / Dayan tuned to C and a secondary Tabla / Dayan tuned to E (first introduced around 0:33 seconds). To accompany these, his Bayan / Dugga is tuned to a primary tone of G, the "perfect" musical fifth of C.
Tabla / Dayan: Pitch and Sound Range Examples
Since there's not a "one size fits all" option, your first set of tablas will ideally be the beginning of a nice collection.
The following videos illustrate these size / pitch differences. Note that the tuning references are general ranges. If you are new to tabla, listen for a sound you like and consider if that might be a place to begin -
6 Inch tabla - tunes to F#, G or G#
5.75 Inch tabla - tunes to A, A#, or B
5.5. Inch tabla - tunes to B, C, or C#
5.25 inch tabla - tunes to C#, D, or D#
5 inch tabla - tunes to E or F
Tabla / Dayan: Wood Options (and Controversy)
This is getting into the weeds a bit, but it's relevant. Sheesham, the wood traditionally used to make tablas and other common Indian folk drums, became controversial recently.
In 2017, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species - commonly referred to as CITES - added all rosewood species to it's appendix II endangered species list. That included Sheesham, also known as Indian Rosewood or Dalbergia Sissoo, and all of the rosewood varieties used worldwide for musical instrument production.
Our company, Old Delhi Music, learned about this change fairly immediately when a shipment of our instruments was stopped by U.S. Customs only a month or so after this change in policy took affect. Long story short - our drums were sent back to India, some significant fines were paid to the U.S. Customs Office and the USDA, and we spent the following year researching alternative woods.
This story from NPR focuses on how this ban affected the entire music industry.
In 2019, CITES did enact a "musical instruments exemption" to the rosewood ban. This is great news for anyone currently owning an instrument made of rosewood, because they won't have to worry about traveling and having their instrument confiscated by Customs. As for new instruments, Old Delhi Music is continuing to prioritize less depleted / more sustainable wood options.
Bayan / Dugga: The Basics
Like the Tabla / Dayan, you have options when it comes to your Bayan / Dugga. This drum will primarily be graded based on weight, which influences overall tone and clarity. In general, the heavier the drum, the better.
Brass or Copper alloys are best, and really your only option if you are at all serious about playing. If you're looking for a decoration, painted steel Bayans are cheap, but if you've read this far, that's probably not what you're wanting.
Bayan / Dugga: Different Weights and Sounds
The following sound samples are drums ranging from very good to excellent. All four sample drums are paired with the exact same Tabla / Dayan, which should allow you to focus in and hear the subtle differences in tone between the different size and metal options.
3.5KG Brass Bayan -
3.5KG Copper Bayan -
4KG Copper Bayan -
5KG Copper Bayan -
How does tuning work?
This is a good and important question, because like many instruments, tuning is step one to playing. The main thing to understand is that tablas are tuned based on tension. For your Dayan / Tabla, you need lots of tension on the head in order to achieve that bell-like sound. For your Bayan / Dugga, you need significantly less tension so that you can have a nice low sound.
A tension tuned instrument will naturally and constantly be shifting in pitch. These changes largely stem from weather and environmental variables. For example, a Bayan / Dugga that sounded great all winter and needed little adjustment might become saggy when the temperature rises in the warm months. This is especially true in places with high humidity. When this drum head gets too low and saggy, tension is added by tightening the straps. For that same drum, when the temperature drops and the air gets dry again in the winter, you might be letting tension out again so that the drum is not sounding too high.
These videos show you how that works --
Video 1: Tightening up your tabla
Video 2: Loosening up your tabla
Remember to come back to these videos when you have your set, because they will give you the information you need to get started tuning and maintaining your tablas.
How to choose your set?
Now that you're practically educated, and you know the basics of how tabla works, I recommend watching lots of videos and simply narrowing in on a set that sounds good to you. Consider your budget and the sounds you like, and try to buy something that you won't wish you had spent more or less on later.
Remember that your first set of Tablas can and should be a long term investment. The best instruments to learn on are the ones that can easily be made to sound great by even a beginner - and those are always the better / more expensive instruments. When people under-invest, they often don't learn to play because their instrument wouldn't sound good even if a pro was attempting to play it. In this case, know you're not looking for the equivalent to a guitar that won't hold tune, you are buying a good set of tablas that will be the beginning of a really nice collection of tablas that will serve you well as you begin and well into the future.
Budget: How much do I need to spend for a good set of Tablas?
In North America, $400-700 is a pretty good budget.
Shipping and customs fees drive up the cost of a "cheap tabla" set to a price that is still quite expensive. Keep in mind that these are a "rare import" of sorts, and the cost for someone to send a single set from India to the U.S. or anywhere abroad is going to be high.
A smart shopper will take pause when they see "brand new tablas - quick ship - A+++" on eBay for $200 and shipping direct from Delhi. Breaking down the costs in that scenario, you are paying way more for shipping than you are for the actual drums.
On the other side of the pricing spectrum, you can find some exceptional tablas from boutique brands for up to $1000 or more in the U.S. Some of these are fantastic drums, and if you happen upon them and can afford that, they might serve you well. But if you can't afford that, there are definitely a lot of great options in the middle of that price spectrum, and that's what we focus on at Old Delhi Music.
Old Delhi Music: About our store
Old Delhi Music was established in 2010 and is well known as a reliable importer of Indian folk instruments. We work diligently to curate a collection that is second to none. We appreciate you taking the time to read this article and hope it is both helpful and inspiring.