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Drums and Other Instruments
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"Taiko" simply means "big drum", and has come to mean any small or large drum used to make taiko music. As such, it is not surprising that the term "taiko" encompasses a very large group of percussion instruments. There is no one source for all the drums used in modern taiko.

The Taiko drums have many forerunners spread out over a broad tract of geography and history -- the truth is that taiko's earliest ancestors were born wherever and whenever a new drum was first struck.

Over the centuries, as taiko music developed into a uniquely Japanese form of expression, it was nourished by many musical forms both foreign to Japan and domestic. And, as taiko evolved, a larger and larger stable of drums came into its domain.

In our own time, when taiko is on its way to becoming a truly international art form, it is likely to incorporate even more stylistic influences and instruments. In addition to drums, there is a vast assortment of flutes, bells, gongs, rattles, and string instruments that have been incorporated into taiko performance practice. These instruments balance the thunderous roar of the drums and fill out the sound with high, delicate, and luminous tones.

Some taiko are native to Japan, others are descendants of those imported from places like Korea and China. Some are rustic, others ornate and sophisticated. Some have a fixed sound, while others are tuned. Among taiko's array of instruments are found both small hand drums as well as some of the largest drums on earth. What follows is a sampling of some of the most common drum types and instruments used by contemporary taiko artists.

The variety of drums used in taiko is vast. Yet, as bewildering as their number may seem, most roughly can be divided into two categories: those with drumheads tacked to their rims, called "byou-daiko", and those with drumheads at either end and held tight with tension cords, called "shime-daiko."

The Drums

Note the word "daiko," a variant of "taiko," which means "drum," is used as the latter part of a compound word that designate a particular type of drum, such as a "shime-daiko" or "o-daiko."

Byou-daiko is the name for a major category of drums that are carved from a single log. "Byou" means "tacks." As the name implies, their drumheads are tacked to their rims. Thus, they produce one fixed tone, unlike the other main category of drums, the shime-daiko, which can be tuned. Among the byou-daiko category of drums is the nagado-daiko family (which contain the most commonly known taiko), the ko-daiko, shaku-daiko, and the o-daiko.

Chu-daiko are medium-sized members of the Nagado-daiko family of drums, with the diameter of their drumheads ranging in size from roughly 1.6 shaku to 2.8 shaku (approximately 19" to 33.5" or 48.5 cm to 85 cm).

Daibyoshi are short-bodied drums of the oke-daiko style. Their relatively high-pitched voice was used widely in Kabuki Theater.

Gaku-daiko is an ornately decorated version of the hira-daiko. It was originally used in ancient Gagaku Theater, from which it derives its name. Suspended in a frame, the instrument is played vertically while the musician is seated.

Hira-daiko is a term used to describe a type of drum that is wider than it is long, the literal meaning of "hira" being stout or flat. They are of the byou-daiko category of taiko in that they are carved from a single piece of wood and have drumheads that are tacked to their rims. Like the drums of the more elongated nagado-daiko family, their sizes vary greatly, some being as large as the great o-daiko. These larger sized hira-daiko are often used by modern taiko groups in place of an o-daiko.

Ko-daiko are the smaller members of the Nagado-daiko family of drums, with the diameter of their drumheads ranging from one shaku to one-and-one-half shaku (a shaku measures about one foot or 30 cm).

Kotsuzumi are small, hand-held drums of the tsuzumi family. Kotsuzumi have two drumheads at either end of its hourglass-shaped body. These drumheads are made of calfskin stitched to supporting loops. The loops are held in place over each of the drum's openings by a suspension cord laced around the drum's body. The instrument's pitch can vary during a performance by the player tensing a second cord, which is wrapped around the first cord and the drum's body.

Kotsuzumi are customarily made of fine cherry wood, decorated with gild designs. This drum, as with similar drums in the tsuzumi family, comes from traditional Japanese Theater and only occasionally is used in modern taiko.


Nagado-daiko, which means "elongated drum," is perhaps the most popular type of taiko used by modern groups. Their bodies have a barrel-shaped appearance, with a maximum diameter roughly equivalent to their head-to-head length.

Their drumheads are made of cowhide and set on either side of the midsection of their bodies are handles composed of a ring and plate, which are called "Kanagu." A marvelously versatile instrument, nagado-daiko can be positioned and played a number of ways on a variety of stands or "dai," and more than one musician can play on them simultaneously. Their distinctively deep and resonant voice is familiar to everyone who loves taiko music.

The nagado-daiko, like all members of the "byou-daiko" to which it belongs, is carved from a single piece of wood. It comes in a wide range of sizes, from one shaku (about one foot or 30 cm) to over six shaku (about six feet or 180 cm.) There are three main types of nagado drums, all designated by their relative sizes: the small ko-daiko, the medium sized chu-daiko, and the giant o-daiko.

O-daiko are the largest members of the nagado-daiko family of drums. The "O" syllable in Japanese signifies exactly what the shape of its character in the Roman alphabet visually suggests, something "big" or "fat."

And these drums are among the biggest and fattest in the world, with their drumhead's diameters ranging from about three shaku to over six shaku (approximately between three to over six feet or 88 cm to over 180 cm). Their great size robs them of much of the versatility that other nagado-daiko possess and they are usually played horizontally. Some are so large that they are not often moved, but have an established place of residence in a temple or shrine.

Because an o-daiko is made from a single tree trunk, the trees from which they come can be hundreds of years old and the largest of them come from trees over a thousand years old. Understandably, they are also the most expensive of taiko drums with prices that can reach into hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Today, the term "o-daiko" sometimes is applied broadly to any taiko of mammoth size, such as the largest of the okedo-daiko.

Okedo-daiko is a term for all shime-daiko that are made with stave construction as opposed to being carved out of a single block of wood. As with all shime style drums, the okedo-daiko can be tuned. (Please see "Shime-daiko" below) Their drumheads are usually stitched over metal hoops and laced to the drum's body with tension cords, by which the tone of the drum is adjusted.

There are many types of okedo-daiko but generally, these drums are more elongated than those of the nagado-daiko family (although okedo-daiko with short bodies are becoming increasingly popular). Among the long-bodied okedo-daiko are ojime, nambu-yoo, and nebuta drums (which are usually placed on a stand and played horizontally). Among the short-bodied okedo-daiko are daibyoshi, nenbutsu, tsuchibyoshi, and the eitetsu-gata drums.

The terms okedo-daiko and oke-daiko are interchangeable and sometimes are used to simply describe drums of stave construction that are not necessarily of the shime-daiko family. This term often is used to designate all drums that resemble the shape and construction of traditional Japanese barrels, whether the drumheads are attached by cords or tacked to the drum's body. (Please see "Barrel Drums" below)

Paranku are small, thin, hand-held drums. They have one drumhead and greatly resemble tambourines.

Shime-daiko is a major category of drums that have their drumheads pulled taut over a hoop by a lace of tension cords.

The word "shime" comes from the verb "shimeru", meaning to bind or make tight. Adjustments to their tone are made by pulling the cords. Shime-daiko are drums that can be tuned, as opposed to drums in the Byou-daiko category that have a fixed drumhead and therefore a fixed tone.

Tsukeshime-daiko constitute a large variety of the shime-daiko. They are slung from the neck and shoulders, allowing the performer to dance while playing.

Tsuzumi are all the various hourglass-shaped drums. Among the many drums of the tsuzumi family are the ikko and its larger brother the sanko, which come from traditional Japanese theater. Both are elaborately decorated, with two drumheads at either end that are supported and tuned by tension cords. The kotsuzumi are also a tsuzumi.

Barrel Drums

Although making drums from empty barrels is a very old practice (a practice even found in ancient myth, see Taiko: Myth and History), it has become particularly popular today. Because of the expense of the fine woods required to build traditional taiko and the highly skilled craftsmanship involved in producing these exquisite instruments, many of today's taiko artists have turned to making drums from barrels as well as other cylindrical objects. This practice especially is widespread in North America where the art of taiko is becoming very popular.

These staved drums can be divided into two categories: oke and taru.

Oke describes the conventional Japanese barrel drums. These drums are constructed of narrow staves and have a straight cylindrical shape. They look like the traditional containers for miso soup stock.

Taru describes wooden barrel drums with a bulging, tapered body, constructed of wide staves. The word refers to the wine and whiskey barrels from which many American taiko are made.

The Woods Used

Modern taiko is not a purely musical form but also is a performance art -- it is as much theater as it is music. As such, the appearance of the performers (with their costumes and the grace of their movements) is as important as the sounds they create.

Not least in the total aesthetic experience of taiko is the visual beauty of the instruments. Therefore, the greatest care and skill is exercised in choosing the woods used in the making of the drums. Master craftsmen look as much for the beauty of a grain pattern as for a wood's strength, hardness, and the tone it might produce.

Even the lacquer used to finish the drums has a long history. Urushi, taiko's traditional lacquer is tapped from trees related to poison oak, and when wet can cause serious skin damage. It can be tinted in a wide range of hues and tones, from clear to opaque, and its application requires a great deal of skill.

The most sought-after material for making taiko is keyaki, the wood that comes from the zelkovia tree (a relative of the elm that is native to mountainous areas of Japan). The fame of this wood is in great part responsible for the decline of many of the forested areas from which it comes. Due to its great expense and attempts to conserve natural resources, alternative woods and some unorthodox construction techniques are now employed by taiko makers.

"Meari," a word meaning "with grain," is a term for any wood used to make taiko that is not keyaki. Among the meari woods are Bubinga from Africa, Toboku from Cameroon, Horse Chestnut, and Champhor.

To use the more available woods that have qualities close to those used in traditional taiko making but come from trees that do not produce trunks big enough to make a single drum, manufacturers have turned to stave construction and lamination.

Although most taiko made today is still carved from one piece of wood, some manufacturers now are producing taiko bodies made of synthetic material. Terms such as "eco-taiko" and "hi-tech taiko" are used to describe the modern taiko manufacturers' efforts to make instruments using unorthodox techniques that are ecologically sound and economically feasible, yet deliver a sound similar to drums produced by traditional methods.

While its roots run deep into tradition, taiko manufacturing is still an evolving and innovational process. In that respect, it is very much like the art of taiko music.

Other Instruments Used in Taiko

Biwa. A three-stringed lute with four frets and a distinctive rounded back. It is played with a large pick or "bachi."

Hyooshigi: Wooden clappers.

Ita-sasara: A rattle constructed of several wooden slats anchored to the instrument’s main shaft by cords. When repeatedly flicked by its two handles, the slats strike each other making a distinctive rasping sound.

Kagura suzu: A hand-held bell tree with three tiers of pellet bells.


Kane: A gong used to keep musical beat. Either hand-held or hung by a cord, it is struck with a mallet.


Koto:A stringed instrument resembling the zither. It usually has thirteen strings.

Shakuhachi:This traditional bamboo flute is often used by the Shumei Taiko Ensemble during performances, and the refined sonic balance between drums and flutes is a signature of the Ensemble's performance style. Shakuhachi come in a variety of sizes and have four holes at their front and one at their back. Their evocative sound is delicately nuanced and breathy.

Shamisen:One of a number of Japanese stringed instruments that resembles the banjo. It has three strings and is played with a pick or "Bachi."

Yotsutake: Bamboo clappers.