A Quick and Dirty Guide to Doumbek Rythms

by Mas'ud al-Sha'ir

(Also known as Maredudd ap Cynan)

(Visit Maredudd's Other Sites.)

Mas'ud's Introduction


The Rhythm Guide

What's New at this Site


How to read the Rhythm Guide

Links/Resources for Learning

Hints and Tips



This guide started out as a rather simple cheat sheet I pulled together to use as a handout for an 'Intro to Doumbek' class which I taught at a local Trimarian event. It has since grown into something much more than I had originally intended, but I believe that it at last does what I wished it to do. This guide provides a basic set of hints and tips for the beginning drummer, as well as a list of basic Middle Eastern rhythms and a few of their different variations. The seed from which this has grown was an article which I pulled off of the Internet, specifically from the newsgroup called The Rialto, or in Usenet terminology, rec.org.sca. The original article was posted by Earl Bryce MacLaren, the founder of the Meridies Guild of Middle-Eastern Drummers, who wished to share his knowledge of a few Middle-Eastern rhythms. I have gone through his rhythms and cleaned up the notations to show them as I learned them. I also tried to improve the overall presentation of the rhythms. I have eliminated a couple of rhythms that Earl Bryce included, and have added a couple of others which he did not. By far the most significant change I have made was in the addition of other variations to Syr Bryce's rhythms.

Earl Bryce also included a few suggestions to the beginning drummer, which of course I am including as part of this guide. Hey, I'm not proud. I'm Welsh, uh . . . Bedouin. When are you folks going to learn? We'll take anything that's not nailed down, and even then, we have been know to carry pry bars. I have modified Bryce's suggestions and added a few of my own insights. I have also recieved many messages from folk who have visited this page and have incorporated some of the suggestions. I hope this guide helps in your efforts to learn and your overall enjoyment of, the art of playing the doumbek.

I have been playing the Doumbek for a few years and there is much I have yet to learn. I invite questions and commentary from all. Questions and comments may be sent to the address listed at the bottom of this page. I especially would appreciate any comments from other experienced drummers concerning the info presented herein. Questions and comments can be sent to me via e-mail at the address listed at the bottom of this page

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Reading the Rhythm Guide

To successfully play the Doumbek, all it takes are three things;

    A Doumbek
    A knowledge of the basic strokes
    A sense of timing

The first item I can't help you with except to say that there are several merchants with web sites who sell doumbeks at very reasonable prices and I urge you to look them up. If you use your favorite Web Search utility, I am certain you can find these sites. For the second and third items, I have pulled together a cheat-sheet where you will find all of the knowledge and tools necessary to help you learn and play ten different Middle-Eastern rhythms.

The Timing Chart

Just like in traditional music styles, the notations used for doumbek rhythms utilize the standard musical notations representing the whole, half, quarter, eighth and sixteenth notes, but trying to show these on my rhythm guide presented a problem. Specifically, I don't have access to an easy to use graphical representation of the notes of interest, and if I did, they would likely use up too much space to allow for all of the rhythms I wanted to include on my cheat sheet. Fortunately, there was a simple solution to this problem.

Each rhythm on the Rhythm Guide starts off with a timing chart with which you can get a feel for the timing that is so crucial to the development of all rhythms. The timing chart consists of a string of numbers (i.e. 1, 2, 3, 4, etc.) counting out each major beat, with an '&' and an 'e' to represent the intermediary, or minor, beats. The proper timing can be determined by reading the timing chart and playing the appropriate note on the appropriate beat. To understand how to read the timing chart, simply follow the example below and chant the phrase as shown:

 The Chart Reads  -  1  e   &  a   2  e   &  a    3   e   &  a   4   e   &  a
 You Say          - one ee and ah two ee and ah three ee and ah four ee and ah

The Variations

Following the timing chart, I have noted the 'Open' (or simple) version of the rhythm. Please note that the open rhythm is the simplest version that I play and may not be the simplest root for each individual rhythm. The open rhythm is followed by successively more complicated rhythms until you get to the 'Closed' rhythm, which is the most complicated that I am willing to play. Most of the rhythms vary from their perspective 'Open' rhythm only by the 'fillers' which are included in what would otherwise be the quiet periods of the rhythm.

The Notes

A 'D' on the chart below represents a 'Doum' which is played by striking the center of the drum head with the four fingers on your primary hand. One way the strike has been described by several of my past instructors is to imagine striking the bottom of a very hot iron. One particular instructor told me to 'imagine drawing your hand out, away from the head', and then to exaggerate the motion as I did exactly that. In the end, the sound quality of the Doum will vary depending on the type of doumbek you are using and what type of head you have (i.e. Goat Skin vs Mylar). You should strive for a deep and resonating tone.

A 'T' on the chart below represents a 'Tek' struck with the primary hand. You should strike the rim of the head, just where the head leaves the rim, using the tips of either one or two fingers. (I use the middle and the ring fingers.) When I strike a 'Tek', I imagine striking through the rim so that as I strike the rim, my fingers pull off from the edge quickly, allowing the 'Tek' sound to fully develop as the drums head resonates. The sound quality you are looking for is a high pitched, almost metallic sounding, ringing note.

A 'K' on the chart represents a 'Tek' struck with the secondary hand. Theoretically, you should strike the 'K' the same way as you strike the 'T'. I say theoretically because the 'Ka', as many people mistakenly call it (including me, see 'The Tek vs the Ka' below), can be much more difficult to achieve for the new drummer. I find that I must angle my left arm, as I am right handed, across the drum, my elbow lying upon the side of the drum away from my body, so that my left hand strikes the head at the top of the drum as it lies across my left leg. As in the 'T', you should aim for the edge of the rim where the head and the rim meet. The sound quality of the 'Ka' is similar to that of the 'Tek'.

Accents are shown on the Rhythm Guide through the use of Upper-Case and Lower-Case letters. A 'D', 'T', and 'K' indicate an accented note, while a 'd', 't', and 'k' indicate an unaccented note.

There are several other types of strikes which are used such as the Snap, the Roll, and the Slap, but I will not include those on this page as I consider them advanced techniques, and am only marginally familiar with their use myself. I do want to describe one particular accent which I use on Chiftatelli though. I'm not certain what it is called, though I have always thought of it as a 'Slide'. If you look at the fourth Chiftatelli rhythm below, you will see a series of Teks enclosed in square brackets like so, [T T T T T]. This series of notes are played, with the primary hand, while the edge of the secondary hand is pulled across the head of the drum. The secondary hand starts out at the bottom of the head, with the 'knife edge' of the hand pressing down on the head. As each successive Tek strikes the head, you draw the secondary hand up, across the head, towards the primary hand, causing the timber of the Tek to go up. It makes for a really nice accent to the basic Chiftatelli.

The Tek vs the Ka

The actual difference between the Tek and the Ka, which according to traditional doumbek playing style may be played by either hand, is the accent that is given to the note. A Tek is essentially an accented Ka, the two notes are otherwise played the same way. Despite this, I find it easier to teach the appropriate rhythms using the improper reference. It has always seemed easier to differentiate the two Teks, primary and secondary, with two completely separate verbal designations of 'Tek' and 'Ka', especially since I teach rhythms by the 'chant' method. (see below) Trying to explain to someone that a particular Tek should be played by the secondary hand instead of the primary hand gets real confusing and the problem only becomes more difficult when using the written media, the Internet and the WWW for instance, to teach. One of these days I may figure out a way to teach the rhythms using the appropriate references. Until then, please forgive me this failing.

The Bridge

The Bridge is simply a filler which is used to tie one measure to the next. I have included the timing for each bridge sequence to assist in the correct placement of the bridge within the rhythm pattern. In all cases, the bridge is used in place of the final counts, whether major or minor, of the previous measure.

The Chant

When I teach the doumbek, I urge my students to chant the rhythm as they go. At first, when they are first learning a rhythm, it seems to help when they recite the chant out loud. After they have mastered that rhythm, they can refrain from doing the chant out loud, but I still encourage them to think the chant to themselves. Unfortunately, many people feel foolish 'Doing the Chant' and so they refrain from the beginning. My opinion is that they probably look even more foolish stumbling over and over again on the rhythm, simply because they refuse to use all tools at hand. As an example of how the chant can be used, the chant for a Standard Baladi is as follows:

                Timing - 1e&a2e&a3e&a4e&a|1e&a2e&a3e&a4e&a
       Rhythm Notation - D D tkT D tkT   |D D tkT D tkT
  Chant - doum doum tekatek doum tekatek |doum doum tekatek doum tekatek

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Hints and Tips

1. If you are going to play for dancers, and face it, we are here to play for the dancers, learn the basic rhythms listed on the attached Rhythm Guide. Baladi is the most commonly know rhythm, at least in Trimaris, but it gets real old, real fast. By knowing the basic rhythms listed below, your dancers will appreciate your drumming more and will, in the end, seek you out to play for them.

2. Watch the dancers and try to learn their signals. The dancers will let you know when they want to speed up or slow down, when they want to change rhythms, and when they need a break. For me, watching the dancers can be one of the most difficult parts of drumming as I have been known to loose my concentration, becoming distracted by the dancers evocative movements.

3. If you start a rhythm, stick with it for at least sixteen measures. This allows the dancers to fully develop their routine before they have to switch to a new one. For this same reason, it is also a good idea to keep all of your variations to a multiple of four measures.

4. Remember to 'Do the Chant'. For me, chanting the rhythm helps me learn new rhythms as well as remember the old ones.

5. When playing within a group of drummers, at least two-thirds of the drummers, and preferably more, should play the base rhythm, while the other drummers provide the accents for the dancers. If less than two-thirds play the foundation rhythm, the basic rhythm gets lost with the end result being the dancers inability to follow, and thus dance to, the rhythm, and as stated earlier, we are after all here to drum for the dancers.

6. The traditional position for holding the doumbek while playing is to hold it across your left leg if you are right handed, and across your right leg if you are left handed. This does not on the other hand mean it is the only way to hold the drum. There are many accomplished drummers who will play the drum while holding it between their knees. Playing the doumbek in this position allows for a different sound quality to be produced. In the end, it all depends on what you are comfortable with and what sound you want to get out of the doumbek.

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Syr Brendan MacAngus who tried to teach me my first rhythm, even though I wasn't listening.

Mistress Genevieve LaRousse who suffered through my first six months of mutilating the Doumbek.

Sir Daveed and Master Silvanus, who don't know me, but through their tapes have taught me much.

Mid-East Manufacturing for just existing.

Earl Bryce MacLaren of Meridies, once King of Meridies, who was very gracious when he discovered that I copied most of one of his postings to the Rialto to use as the seed for this site and has so far consented to let me live:-).(Boy, when I take stuff, at least I take it from quality people:-)

Zena and Elizabeth and all other dancers who have encouraged me to drum for them.

Apple Computer for providing (for the usual fee, of course:-) the machine upon which this site was designed and built.

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Last Update:1/10/99

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