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Taiko Drums

By Rolling Thunder

There is a vast variety of taiko drums that are used in Japan. Some have been based on drums imported from other cultures, and some have been developed natively. Some have tacked heads, others have head that are laced to the body. There are ornate taiko used in gagaku (imperial court music) and rustic drums for folk music. In short, there is a rich and diverse tradition of percussion in Japan. This page will give you an overview of the various taiko types. Also take a look at the Taiko Glossary for detailed descriptions of the various taiko as well as Japanese non-percussion instruments.


Taiko Drum Overview

"Taiko" in general is often used to mean the relatively modern art of Japanese drum performances (kumi-daiko), but the word actually refers to the taiko drums themselves. Literally, taiko means "big/fat drum," although there are many shapes and sizes of taiko. People are sometimes confused by the frequent usage of the word "daiko", which is a suffix used to indicate a type of drum, a taiko group, or a style of taiko playing in a compound word. When used in a compound word, the "T" sound in "taiko" changes to a "D" sound. Thus, a taiko in the nagado style is a nagado-daiko, for example.


Although traditionally, taiko have been used in very specific ways and in certain combinations of instruments, modern kumi-daiko groups do not suffer such restrictions. Taiko selection is based on the style of taiko music you are playing as well as personal style. However, the nagado-daiko is overwhelmingly the most common style of taiko used. Most taiko groups will also have one or more shime-daiko as well. Other taiko styles such as hira-daiko, oke-daiko are also freely used.


A variety of other instruments are also used in kumi-daiko to fill out the sound. Small hand cymbols (called chappa or tebyoushi), small hand held gongs (call atarigane or chanchiki), flutes (fue or shakuhachi), gongs, and various clappers and rattles are all used to wonderful effect. The high, bright sounds of these instruments add great contrast to the sound and are easily heard above the roar of the big drums.

As a general rule, all taiko are struck with some sort of stick called bachi. The only hand drums in Japan seems to be the kotsuzumi and ootsuzumi used in Japanese classical music. All other taiko are hit with bachi, and there is a tremendous variety of bachi to choose from. Hard oak bachi are typically used for nagado-daiko. Larger bachi made of softwood are used for odaiko, and smaller, lighter bachi are used for shime-daiko. Beyond that, there are bachi made from bamboo, bachi with shiny decorations and tassels, and bachi with jingles and rattles.


The proper selection of bachi can add great aural and visual interest to a performance.

Most taiko are measured in the traditional Japanese measure of shaku and sun. One shaku is 30.3 cm (about twelve inches), and is divided into ten sun. Usually only the diameter of the head is measured.

There are many kinds of Taiko drums in Japan, but they can be broadly divided into two catagories: Taiko with a nailed head (byou-daiko), and Taiko with heads stretched over a hoop and tensioned with ropes (shime-daiko).



Byou-daiko (also called byou uchi-daiko) have bodies that are traditionally carved from a single log, and heads that are stretched onto the taiko and tacked in place. This style of taiko cannot be tuned after the head is stretched. The nagado-daiko (long bodied taiko) is the most representative style of byou-daiko. It seems very likely that this style of taiko has its roots in Chinese or Korean antecedents.

The favored wood for byou-daiko is keyaki (zelkova, a Japanese relative of the elm) which possesses all the qualities a taiko maker looks for: hardness; good tone; and a beautiful grain pattern. Other woods such as sen, tochi (horse chestnut), kusu (camphor) and toboku (from Camaroon) are also used on less expensive taiko. Since the bodies of byou-daiko are carved from a single log, making a large taiko typically requires a large tree that has grown for a minimum of two hundred years; the largest odaiko ever produced required a tree that was 1,200 years old. However, with proper care, a body can last for hundreds of years.

The increasing scarcity of old growth forests has driven prices up and spurred some taiko makers to use modern, unorthadox construction techniques. These makers can now stack-laminate several pieces of wood together, or use a stave construction to save wood and lower prices. Several varieties of plastic bodied taiko are also available, although the vast majority of taiko being made are still carved from one piece of wood.


The heads are made from cowhide, and it is said that three to four year old black Japanese cows produce the best hides. Proper preperations of the hide and the process to stretch the heads are typically considered trade secrets are guarded carefully. Very large odaiko requires the full hide hide from a holstein bull.



The nagado-daiko (long-bodied taiko) is by far the most popular taiko used in the modern kumi-daiko style of playing. They are also very common in festivals and in temples and shrines (where they are often called miya-daiko). They have a characteristically deep, reverberant sound. These drums are often refered to by their size: ko-daiko is are roughly from 1.0 shaku to 1.5 shaku; chu-daiko translates as medium drum (roughly 1.6 shaku to 2.8 shaku); and odaiko (big fat drum) range from 2.9 shaku on up to 6 shaku or more. There are many styles of playing this taiko, with a wonderful selection of different stands that hold the nagado-daiko in various positions.



Odaiko literally means "big fat drum" and can refer to any large taiko drum. However, the term is usually reserved for nagado-daiko that have a head over three feet in diameter. Odaiko are typically placed on a stand and played horizontally, often by two people at once. Typically, one player will beat out a basic rhythm while the second player solos.

Odaiko can reach huge proportions, sometimes weighing in at over three tons and spanning six feet in diameter. These Mammoth Odaiko are often built for shrines or temples, and their cost can run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.



The hira-daiko tends to be a small drum, but they can reach extremely large proportions as well. The big versions are popular among many taiko groups who can buy an odaiko sized hira-daiko for much less than an equivilent nagado-daiko. Smaller hira-daiko are not used much in kumi-daiko, but have a place as an orchestral instrument, used in Hayashi music. They have a boomy, reverberant sound like the nagado-daiko, but it decays much faster due to the shallow body.



Shime-daiko is a general term for a rope-tensioned drum (now sometimes bolt, or turnbuckle tensioned as well). The term includes the okedo style taiko, as well as specifically refering to the small rope tuned drum often used used in Noh, Kabuki, Hayashi, Kumi-daiko, etc. The word "shime" comes from the Japanese verb "shimeru", which means to bind or tighten up. It seems likely that the shime-daiko is a native Japanese invention, unlike the byou-daiko.


Shime-daiko have two heads which are sewn over steel rings and laced to a body with a rope or cord. They are tensioned with another rope or cord that is wound around the lacings of the first rope. The pitch can be changed by adjusting the tightness of this second rope.

Used specifically, the term shime-daiko means a small drum used in Japanese classical music. It has a one piece body carved out of a hardwood, typically keyaki. The body is often beautifully lacquered and decorated. Heavier, undecorated versions for folk music are used by almost every taiko group. This heavier versions is properly called a tsukeshime-daiko, but most people just call it a shime. The tsukeshime daiko has a thicker, stronger body and uses much thicker leather for the heads than a classical shime. This allows the tsukeshime to be tensioned to remarkably high pitches.


Using the term broadly, shime-daiko can range in size from the small, hand held kotsuzumi to titanic okedo style drums over ten feet in diameter. Small shime tend to have bodies carved from a single piece of wood similar to byou-daiko. Larger shime such as Oke-daiko have lightweight bodies made from made staves of a softwood such as Hinoki (Japanese cypress).



Shime-daiko used for classical Japanese music such as Noh, Kabuki and Nagauta are sometime called "taiko" or "wadaiko," and have relatively lightweight bodies and thin heads, often with a circular patch of deer skin in the middle of the head. Shime-daiko used for folk music and kumi-daiko (left) are called tsukeshime-daiko; they are much heavier, have thicker skin, and are capable of being tensioned to a very high pitch.

In taiko groups, the shime is often used to keep the basic rhythm and establish time, but they are a versatile solo instrument as well.


The oke-daiko, or okedo, is made with a stave construction - not carved from a single piece of wood as is the case with the nagado-daiko. They tend to be larger than a typical nagado-daiko, often around six feet in length and three feet in diameter. They are usually played horizontally, raised up on a high stand. There are also short bodied styles which are becomming increasingly popular. They have a loud, flat, booming sound, and are often played with slats of bamboo which produces a sharp, slapping sound.


Glossary of Taiko Terms

The Taiko Glossary contains detailed descriptions of virtually every style of taiko, as well as many other instruments and terms related to taiko drumming.

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