The Historical Tambourine




Introduction: The Historical Tambourine

Welcome to a project that occupied much of my research in late 2018 - an investigation into the practice of tambourine playing in Western Europe in the 15th-16th Century.

The tambourine has a fascinating history. It can be seen depicted in sculptures from the 2nd Century in Rome, and it remains virtually unchanged for many centuries - even seemingly unchanged until today, in some cultures. Today, it exists in many forms around the world: the rock tambourine, the orchestral tambourine, the Italian 'tamburello', the Middle-Eastern 'riq', the Latin American 'pandeiro', and so on. In Western Europe, at one point, the tambourine was depicted as a heavenly instrument of the angels, seen in artworks (search for 'Fra Angelico musical angels' or 'Montagna three angel musicians'). Later, it was an instrument of the peasants, used in their uncouth dances, as described by Cervantes, Aprosio, and Marino. The turning point? Circa the 15th-16th Century.

I'll spare you the rest of the research paper (feel free to message me if you're interested), but in this Instructable I would like to document my construction of a replica tambourine from this time period based off historic iconography, descriptions, and other research.

Meanwhile, here's a little of how it sounds. (Note - I'm am using modern riq technique to play this demo, which is unlikely to be the way it was played in the 1500s. It is likely a style of playing more akin to modern tamburello saltarello technique was used, which I am not as proficient in)

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Step 1: Materials

I focussed on making the sound-producing elements of the tambourine to be as close to historically accurate as possible, i.e. the skin and the jingles. Hence my plan was to take a cheap tambourine, strip its jingles and skin, and replace them with other materials. I took much advice from the pictured book by the legendary Jeremy Montagu. I used:

- a cheap tambourine, 10" diameter, double row of jingles

- brass discs, 2.5" diameter, 1mm thick

- natural cowskin rawhide

- brass tacks

By the way, there are obviously no recordings of tambourine playing fom the 1400s, and unfortunately, no intact tambourines from that time and place have ever been found - hence, to best reproduce what it may have sounded like, we rely on making it look close to how it looked.

Step 2: Strip the Tambourine

I began by stripping the tambourine to bits. Jingles came out easily with pliers, the tacks came off with a little prying... and it turned out there were staples under the banding! With a staple remover and a lot of scraping was required to remove the staples and adhesive. I made a point to keep the pins that held the jingles in - I will reuse those later.

Of all of these, the only component I really wanted was the frame. Traditionally this would likely have been made of a solid piece of wood, steam-bent into a circle and scarfe-jointed. However, I had not the means to do this, and I didn't think that it would make a huge impact on the sound (see Evaluation), so this frame would suffice for this project.

Step 3: Planning for the New Zils

The new, large brass jingles (known as 'zils' in riq terminology) would need wider slots than those given in the frame. As I wanted to space my 5 sets of jingles around the tambourine, rather than having 8 sets around the instrument, I would need to cut more slot space, and drill some new holes for the pins that hold the zils.

To plan this, I called upon the once-thought-useless primary school geometry lesson of constructing a pentagon - and it was the most satisfyingly useful construction I've ever made.

Step 4: Bearing Edge

One part of the tambourine that is never visible in the paintings is what's called the 'bearing edge'. This is the edge of the tambourine on which the skin sits. On the 'long drums' and 'tabors' (larger drums) of the era, inward bevels were found on the bearing edges, so I chose to extend that practice to the tambourine.

Using a file and four grades of sandpaper (for a rough bearing edge may break the skin), I cleaned up the frame and created the beveled edge. To my knowledge, this type of edge allows for maximum resonance for the drum head, as there is minimal contact with the frame.

Step 5: Fixing Cracks

As I was filing and sanding, I noticed that in the cheap laminated wooden frame, there were cracks between the layers of wood. This would cause big problems later if I tried to saw or drill through the wood, so I filled these cracks with glue and clamped them to dry.

As I continued with the project, more cracks continued to appear, so I fixed them as they came (see Evaluation).

Step 6: Pinholes

Using the pentagon construction, I marked out where to drill the holes for the zil pins, and very carefully drilled vertical holes in the new locations using a 1.5mm bit. At the time, I did not own a drill press, but with patience and care, you can still get a very passable result!

Step 7: Extend the Slots

As mentioned earlier, I needed wider slots to accommodate the zils. Now was time to carve them out. Using the very makeshift setup pictured, I drilled out most of the material to lengthen the slots with an 8mm bit (the original slots were 10mm wide), then came back with a hacksaw and file to clean it up.

This was more work than expected, as the wood seemed to contain some varnish that resisted filing, and I found an embedded staple in the wood at one point (see Evaluation).

Step 8: Drill the Zils

With more compass work, I found the centre of the brass discs and marked them in pencil and sharpie. I used a hole punch to mark the centre with a small dent, then drilled a 5mm hole (matching the hole size in the original jingles).

Disappointment! After installing these jingles in the frame with the pins, the slid right up to one another and barely made a sound!

But it was okay - it is difficult to see whether the zils in the old artworks are flat or concave. Often, they appear flat, so I was testing that hypothesis. It seems that the zils require curvature after all.

Step 9: Hammering the Zils

Historically, it seems the zils would most likely have been cast into shape rather than being cut out of sheet metal. In the world of cymbals, cast cymbals are certainly prized items compared to those that are press-cut out of sheet alloys, and it seems likely there would be a sonic difference in zils prepared in this way.

Unfortunately, this would be one area I had to make a concession, as I wasn't yet ready to build a brass-casting forge at home. Instead, I adopted the option of hammering - still a legitimate form of cymbal/zil preparation both today and historically. Using the end of a dumbbell as a slightly curved anvil surface, I used a regular hammer (see Evaluation) to strike in a radial pattern around the zil. I expected it to conform to the curvature of the dumbbell, but instead it hammered concave (the edges rose). That ended up working out just fine.

Step 10: Preparing the Skin

Now to work on the skin, or the 'head', of the tambourine. I cut out a circle of rawhide 12" in diameter to overlap the frame 1" all around (see Evaluation). The hide was of uneven thickness, so I carefully sanded down some of the thickest sections to create a more uniform surface. You can see that a sanding attachment like this can gouge out more material than you might want, so take it slowly.

Warning - sanding hide is a messy and potentially hazardous process, creating a lot of organic debris. Wear the appropriate safety equipment and work in a well ventilated area.

I then soaked the skin in water for around an hour to make it loose and supple, ready for applying to the frame.

Step 11: Applying the Skin

I live in Australia, and made this drum in the middle of summer. As such, skin like this dries out quickly, so I had to work fast!

I removed the zils from the frame, and prepared a chain of zipties to hold the skin in place for tacking. I then removed the skin from the bath, placed it on the head, looped the chain over it and tightened the ties until it was taut. In the absence of another helping hand, I used a book (Mersenne's Harmonie Universelle, a 1600s book on instrument construction - would recommend!) to hold the whole lot in place while I tightened the zipties.

Before the skin dries out, it needs to be tightened and tacked. I hammered in many brass tacks as shown to hold the skin in place, starting at a random spot, and always tacking the opposite side immediately after. Before each tack was hammered in, the skin was pulled taut in that direction. The skin will shrink as it dries, also tightening the head, but once in place, it can no longer be mechanically adjusted (although water can be applied to the head to loosen it, and it can be heated to tighten it further).

Note: I learned that it will not sound like a drum when it's wet. When I completed this step, I was severely disappointed, thinking that it was so loose it would never work, even hours later when it felt dry. However, the next morning, it suddenly sounded resonant and tight!

Step 12: Tidying Up

Hammering the tacks through left a sharp point on the inside of the frame. At Montagu's suggestion, I used pliers to bend these ends sideways to avoid injury. I have still scratched myself on them before, but certainly they are safer.

I then used a craft knife, while the skin was still damp, to trim the excess skin off, clearing way for the top row of zils. Don't let the skin dry before doing this, as it is much easier to cut when wet.

Step 13: Play!

After many days of planning and labour, it was finished! This was the first instrument I had built of this level of detail, complexity, and refinement, and I think it fulfilled its aim well. It is larger than a riq, has larger and thicker jingles than a modern tambourine, is smaller than a tamburello... it has no identical modern equivalent, and hence it taught me a lot about how the instrument from the 1400s could and would have been played.

Step 14: Evaluation

However, it is not perfect. If I made another instrument of this sort, there are a host of things I would do differently.


Primarily, the frame's material is simply not suitable. The cracks, varnish and general poor quality inhibited the construction process significantly enough to warrant more effort or money to be spent on making or buying a solid wooden frame. I was also lucky - rawhide creates a tremendous amount of force on the frame. Having restored some drums since making this project, I've witnessed rawhide bend nails and pull out tacks. I think if I had not sanded the skin thinner, the entire frame would have given way.

I was also fortunate enough to meet Matt Stonehouse, a professional frame drum builder and a wicked hand drummer, in Melbourne in 2019. I showed him the tambourine and talked to him about construction, and he demonstrated the difference that using solid tone-woods for the frame makes. It does in fact impact the sound - subtly, but present.


In applying the rawhide skin, in future I would allow a greater tolerance around the edge of the cutout - 1" was technically sufficient, but it was difficult to grip to tighten, and tacking was subsequently a more stressful process, and a greater race against the clock. Making the project in winter may also have helped.

I have also since learned that when frame drums are skinned, makers try to have the spine of the animal running through the centre, as that configuration allows for more uniform tension as the skin dries. I do not know if this is a historical practice that would have been employed by 16th Century peasants, and I have not seen historic iconography that depicts any central line or marking on the skin that would indicate it - however, it is certainly not impossible.

I used cowhide for this project, but it seems that goatskin may have been more widely used. The thinner skin of goats seems to be used in the frame drums of other cultures. It is a thinner material, and would yield richer bass and a fuller tone.


Of course, given the opportunity to cast brass zils, that would be the ideal crafting technique. However, I was overall the happiest with the quality of the zils - they produce a brilliant, resonant sound. Montagu suggests greater deformation and more hammering, and the change of shape and the work hardening would result in a drier, crisper sound, with less resonance. However, in the iconography I focussed on, as often the zils appeared flat and fairly uniform, I believe more lightly worked zils may have been in use too.

I would, however, use the ball of a ball-peen hammer rather than a regular flat headed hammer. Trying to curve the metal with a flat hammer face was tricky, and striking at a slight angle meant the edge of the hammer impacted the surface, creating an unsightly gouge. A ball face would yield a more uniform deformation and likely be more controllable.


Despite the above, overall I am still very happy with the outcome of this project. The project and the product have worked hand-in-hand with the academic process, and a lot has been learned. Also, it's just wicked fun to play (and yes, I did make a case for it - that's another story). Thanks for joining me on this journey, and happy tambourining!

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    4 days ago

    That looks super cool! You're good at playing, too!