Introduction: Make a Talking Drum Out of Funnels

About: I am a multimedia maker and STEAM educator living in Los Angeles. There are few things more satisfying to me than acquiring and exploring a new skillset, so you'll find a wide variety of materials in my projec…

Talking drums are these cool West African percussion instruments where you squeeze the strings around the middle to change the tension on the drum heads and change the pitch. Go look at this amazing video. Do it. Didn't realize a drum could sound like that, huh?

I've done a lot of kids' workshops on homemade musical instruments, including rainsticks, ocarinas, and motorized panpipes, made from everyday items, and I thought I'd share this one. Making a nicer talking drum from wood or coconuts is great, but this simple one is perfect when you're looking to work with upcycled or inexpensive materials.

Step 1: Materials

You'll need:

  • Two plastic funnels - I got mine in a set of three from a dollar store
  • A couple square feet of a stiff fabric - canvas, duck cloth, leather
  • Heavy cord
  • Lighter cord
  • Tape
  • Glue - I used tacky glue
  • Hot glue gun
  • Craft knife
  • Clips
  • Lighter

Step 2: Preparing Heads

I used different sized funnels for either side, so each head was a different size.

Trace the opening of the funnel onto your fabric, then take your larger rope and create a circle that is about an inch larger in diameter than the circle you drew onto the fabric. My rope was nylon, so I melted the ends down with a lighter to keep them from fraying, and then put a glob of hot glue to hold the circle. This joint isn't going to be holding any weight, it just needs a little help staying together.

A little bit of tacky glue will help the rope circle stay in place on the fabric while you finish preparing the drum head. Sketch another circle around the glued-down rope, about two inches larger in diameter than the rope circle. Your measurements may vary, you want enough extra fabric around the outside to wrap back around the rope.

Cut along this outer circle, then make little slits about 2 inches apart all the way around the circle that go in almost to the rope. (See the pictures) This will make it easier to wrap the fabric around the rope.

I have a bunch of these clips from another dollar store trip, binder clips or clothespins work fine too. Put a bit of glue on the rope and on the fabric just inside the rope circle, then wrap the flaps over and clip them in place while they dry.

Step 3: Threading Heads

In order to thread the heads on either side of the drum together, you'll need to make a number of slits in the fabric, just on the inside of the wrapped rope. I used a craft knife and made 16 holes all around (I drew lines on the inside of the head as guides, you'll notice in the pictures, but the holes are closer to the folded over rope), in the areas where the fabric is doubled over. Putting them where the fabric is glued to itself makes them a bit sturdier.

Take some household cord or twine, or whatever you have on hand, and make cow hitches through each of your slits as shown in the photos. You want to have consistently tight loops between each hole. Tie it off when you get back to the beginning.

Repeat the last two steps to make the other head of your drum.

Step 4: The Funnel Body

My big funnel had a handle on it, so I cut it out and filled in the space with hot glue. If I'd had some, Sugru or InstaMorph would have worked a little better, but this did the job.

I then slipped the necks of the funnels together and hot glued them just to give them a little support. Duct tape followed. This is obviously a very quick and easy version. Let me know in the comments what your ideas are for other ways of doing it.

Step 5: Assemble

Now you'll use those string loops to attach the drumheads together. Place them on either side of some tall object (I used a Bandu box) so you can easily get at the loops, then thread your string through a loop on the top, then on the bottom, back to the next loop on the top, etc, all the way around. When it's about half closed, you'll want to put your funnel body inside. It's difficult to get it in there if you lace it all up first.

The lacing will be super loose at first, so tie a slip knot when the ends meet, then start tightening from the opposite side of the drum, passing the slack along until it gets to the ends and then retying the knot. Repeat until you like the sound of the drum heads.

Step 6: Fin

Place your talking drum under your arm and squeeze the strings against your body to change the pitch. Try using different materials for this, like coconut halves, or leather for the membranes, or whatever else you can come up with. Have fun, and make sure to share what you've made!

Let me know if there are other instruments you think would be neat from reused materials.

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