This page offers a brief introduction to the main different types of Japanese taiko drums and other percussion instruments collectively called narimono.
Taiko drums are traditionally hand-made by artisans who have developed their tradition over generations. The creation of these instruments used to be, and still is to some extent, a closely guarded secret among families and companies making taiko drums. The description of the drums on this page describes the instruments in general as they have been traditionally made in Japan. Modern instruments, especially those made outside of Japan, may be produced with different materials and manufacturing methods.
NAGADO DAIKO （長胴太鼓）
Nagado (also referred to as miya daiko) literally means ‘long body’ and is thus a drum of which the body is longer in contrast to the diameter of its heads. Different types of nagado daiko are often referred to by their size. The largest nagado daiko is known as odaiko, literally ‘big, fat drum’.
The body of these drums is carved in a beer barrel shape from a single giant log of hard wood. Cowhide skins are affixed to both ends, nailed with heavy duty tacks in two rows. The type of wood used for the body is mainly keyaki or meari.
Keyaki (zelkova) is the most highly prized for its sound and the dynamic beauty of its grain. Meari is a broad term referring to a number of types of wood including camphor, horse chestnut, sen (Japanese ash) and bubinga (African rosewood).
The craftsmen first hollow out the log roughly and then dry it for 3 to 5 years. When the body is dried enough, the craftsmen plane it to perfection and tack the skin on the drumheads.
HIRA DAIKO （平太鼓）
Hira daiko literally means ‘flat drum’ and is therefore appropriately named after its flat body. The hira daiko is constructed such that the head diameter is greater than the length of the body. Hira daiko drums are manufactured in the same way as the nagado daiko. When compared to a nagado daiko of the same diameter, hira daiko are easier to transport and can fit through smaller doors than the traditional nagado-shaped odaiko drums.
The tone of the drum is deep and reverberant with a short decay.
TSUKESHIME DAIKO （附締太鼓）
The tsukeshime daiko is a small, high-pitched drum with a one-piece wood body and two heads stretched over iron rings and tightened with either ropes or bolts. The word shime comes from the Japanese verb shimeru, which means to bind or tighten-up. The drums must be tightened and tuned before the performance and loosened afterwards.
There are 5 different kinds of heads depending on the thickness of the skin, from the smallest namitsuke (no. 1) to the largest and heaviest gocho-gakke (no.5). The tsukeshime daiko has a tremendous dynamic range if tied/tightened properly.
SHIME DAIKO （締太鼓）
Shime daiko is a rope-tensioned drum that has the same structure as the tsukeshime daiko but is less heavier with thinner skins. It is typically used as a metronome but can be used in musical pieces as a main drum as well. Shime daiko are widely used for festivals, traditional Japanese theater like Noh and Kabuki, classical Japanese music as well as modern taiko group performances.
The body is one piece of hardwood, typically keyaki, which is often lacquered and beautifully decorated.
Tsuzumi is a Japanese drum that consists of a wooden body shaped like an hourglass. It is tightened with two drum heads with cords that can be squeezed or released to increase or decrease the tension of the heads respectively.
Tsuzumi drums are found in the music of traditional Japanese theater Noh, dance music and folk music.
The two most commonly used tsuzumi are the kotsuzumi (小鼓) and the otsuzumi (大鼓). These two types are quite similar in appearance but the manner in which they are played and the sound and tone they produce are quite distinct.
The smaller kotsuzumi is held on the player’s right shoulder and hit with fingers of the right hand, while the bigger otsuzumi is held in the left hand on the left thigh with the right hand striking the head.
The horsehide skins of the larger otsuzumi , which is supposed to be higher in pitch, must be kept dry by the player in contrast to the heads of kotsuzumi that must always be moist. For this reason the kotsuzumi player breaths over it –even in his musical intervals- and also uses his saliva to keep the skins moistened.
OKEDO DAIKO （桶胴太鼓）
The body of an okedo daiko (meaning ‘barrel drum’) has the shape of a stave, crafted from quarter-sawn Japanese cedar. The leather head is stretched across an iron ring, and attached to the body by ropes. Because of this construction, the pitch of an okedo daiko can be tuned relatively easily by adjusting the tension on the rope.
Okedo daiko drums are generally cheaper and lighter than a comparative nagado daiko and therefore often used in a set of varying sizes.
Okedo daiko are placed vertically on stands. The smaller ones can be carried on a strap hanging across the player’s shoulder, allowing the performer to move around freely. This so-called katsugi okedo daiko gives the performer much room for creativity to incorporate dance movements into the musical performance and are very suitable for parades.
NARIMONO (Percussion instruments)
The term narimono has its origin in Japanese Kabuki theater, in which the musical instruments other than shamisen and performances created with them were called narimono.
Narimono refer to the various rattles, shakers, bells and other noise-making percussion instruments. They are often used to accompany the taiko as well as for producing sound effects.
UCHIWA DAIKO （団扇太鼓）
Uchiwa means ‘a fan’ in Japanese. Uchiwa daiko is a type of fan or racket-shaped Japanese drum, once developed by a Buddhist sect to aid in chanting. It has only one skin, stretched over an iron frame, stitched down and attached to a wooden handle. Uchiwa daiko can be as small as a ping-pong paddle or nearly 90 cm across. It is held in one hand and played with one stick (bachi). The drum makes a percussive burst, and movement of the hand holding the drum gives a vibrato sound to the decay.
Nowadays stands holding a set of uchiwa daiko are also used, played with two bachi or even by two people.
The atarigane (or kane) is a brass hand-held instrument that comes in different sizes and tones and is played with a special mallet (shumoku) made from bamboo and deer horn.
It can be often found in traditional Japanese music or Japanese folk singing (minyo) as well as in Buddhist and Shinto ceremonies.
Chappa is a Japanese hand cymbal, also referred to as jangara, tebira, tebiragane and tebyoshi. It comes in various sizes and often has decorative red colored tassels which are strung from the ring handles.
Chappa is originally used as an accompanying rhythmic instrument in festivals or ritual dances, but nowadays more and more taiko players use it as a solo instrument as well.
Hyoshigi is a simple wooden clapper made of two pieces of hardwood, often used in festivals, traditional performing arts and ceremonies. The cracking sound draws the attention of people at the beginning of an event.
The two wooden pieces are often connected by a thin, ornamental rope.
Binzasara is a traditional Japanese hand percussion instrument used in folk songs, rural dances and Kabuki theatre. The instrument consists of 108 oblong blocks of soft wood, tied together in a string. With handles at both ends, the stack of wooden plates are played by moving them like a wave. When played, it is considered to represent and dissipate what Buddhists think of as the 108 sins of man. Binzasara produces a sound similar to rhythmic card shuffling or the sound of cascading dominos.
Mokugyo is a wooden percussion instrument that often has the shape of a fish. It finds its origin in Buddhist temples. In Buddhism the fish, which never sleeps, symbolizes wakefulness. Therefore, it is to remind the chanting monks to concentrate on their sutra. The sound of the mokugyo can differ depending on the size, type of wood used and how hollow the wooden fish is.
A Japanese gong is called dora. It takes the form of a flat, circular metal disc hanging in a frame and hit with a mallet. The size of a Japanese gong varies from small to very large. Dora are made mainly form bronze or brass but there are many other alleys in use.
Dora are used in traditional Japanese theater, tea ceremonies, Buddhist rituals as well as in modern taiko or other music performances.