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Tabla Drum Bols continued

Production of tabla bols is a trying art. It is not difficult, once you see how its done.

If you don’t ever buy another book/cassette/video, you should think seriously about my Tabla Video Tutor #2 – Production of Tabla bols. It has one of the biggest collections of tabla bols including 2, 3, and 4 beat combinations. Also included are combination bols where the tabla / dagga drums are struck simultaneously to produce sounds.

I have seen so many students falter in their tabla studies because they just couldn’t “get it”. Not for lack of trying but more because their instruction in bol production was either hindered due to poor class schedule, poor instructions from their teacher, or perhaps they simply ran out of money to take more lessons. Sometimes you have to take 3 – 4 lessons to get this information properly ingrained. I received a call from a user of my tutor who expressed his delight at learning in a couple of weeks what he had had trouble learning in the last five years from his tabla teacher!

No amount of self teaching or gazing at photographs is going to help you play the tabla bols properly, no matter how good the writing of any work. This applies also to learning via audio cassettes although the audio medium is better than learning from a photo. Still, it leaves too much to your imagination. You will end up acquiring very bad habits that will be difficult to undo. This is an art that has to be seen to be played properly. So don’t hesitate in this decision! The beauty of a video tutor is the luxury of the rewind and the freeze frame buttons 🙂

Proper Sitting Position

Before doing anything, you must get your sitting position, and your hand positions in good form. I cover this in detail in my Tabla Tutor #1.

The most common method is to sit squating on the floor with the dagga to your left and the tabla to your right. The drums are tilted slightly forward so as to afford a comfortable resting place fro your hands.

  • Remember to sit straight: Many students get a habit of sitting with one shoulder higher than the other. For a right handed player, it is usually their left shoulder that’s higher. Perhaps due to the effort necessary for playing the dagga. Whatever the case, practice playing with your shoulders square. This not only provides good visuals but also ensures that certain passages and bols will play without the need to re-configure your position while you’re performing.
  • Keep your drums together and touching each other: This is a good practice as the hands and mind get trained in locating the set in a specified position and hence produces a more stable environment for learning. This also helps in allowing a tabla technique of the left or the right hand crossing over towards its adjoining drum for two handed playing thus giving a certain speedy rolls similar to a bongo type drum roll technique. I’ll talk about this at a latter date.
  • Keep the drums close to you: I recommend having the drums touching your shin area as you squat. This not only relaxes your hands as they don’t have to stretch out as far but it also keeps the drums from slipping forward while playing. I was sitting on a bare wooden gym floor once and the tabla would start moving forward as I played. Boy I had a lot of fun controling it. To minimize this, always have a carpet underneath or even a piece of cloth.
  • Have a little talcum powder handy: Usually I have a little powder that I keep to the right of my tabla drum. I then dab my right hand’s ring finger on the powder and gently apply it to the tabla head and also to my left wrist. This is all the powder that you should use. Excessive “pouring” of the talcum will create a buildup and dull the sound of your drum. A lot of performers also don’t appreciate being accompanied by a tabla player that has a tendency to use too much talcum. I’ve had instances where the tabla player will literally have a puff of powdery smoke all over the performing area enough to make the rest of the players choke :)The other less obvious problem with excessive use of talcum powder is that it’ll make your fingers too slippery. This has a detrimental effect on your practice and performance. Basicly, it will reduce the crispness of your shots and that’s not good.
  • A proper tabla tuning hammer should always be available to you while playing. I keep mine to the left or between the two drums. This way I can grab it with my left hand at an instant’s notice and proceed with tuning.
  • As a precautionary step, try keeping your heads covered with the cloth pads when not playing. This not only stops passerbys from fingering with the drums but it also protects them from fluctuations in its tuning.

Let’s look at some of the important tabla sounds that you must know.


This bol is produced on the chanti of the tabal. Some tabla players call this area “kinar”. Chanti meant a sharp bell type of a sound and “kinar” literally means “edge”. In either case, this bol is produced by striking the rim of the tabla with your index finger.

Upcoming Lessons

How to Tune your Tabla drums
Some basic Tabla Bols
Left and right hand placement
Tabla Paraphenalia

And much more! So come on back…..

Some basic tabla bols (sounds)

In this lesson, let’s look at some of the basic tabla bols (sounds). For all my students learning from my Tabla Video Tutors, this is your next exercise. Isn’t the Net great!

Here is an example of a tabla phrase.

Dhaa-TiTa KiTaDhaa- Ge-Naa- TiTaKiTa | Dha-Ge- TiTaKiTa DhiNaaGiNaa
Taa-TiTa KiTeTaa- Ke-Naa- TiTaKiTa | Dha-Ge- TiTaKiTa DhiNaaGiNaa

Hear how I recite this phrase. Please click here

Now click here to hear how it would sound when played on the tabla.

Notice how the vocalization weaves the rythmic passages in forming a pleasant and expressive display that imitates how a tabla would sound. This technique can be applied to any drum set. But the tabla/voice match is absolutely the best and perhaps the most well thought out than in any other drum set.

The bols can be compared to your learning the alphabets (the bols), forming from these words (bol combinations of 2, 3, 4 beats etc.), then with these words making sentences (tukadas, mukhadas, tihais etc.), weaving these into paragraphs and stories (Kaidas, Kaida prakars, gats, parans, etc). I will deal with all these and give examples in lessons to come 🙂 but the analogy will give you the idea that the vocalization of the tabla bols is very important. Your learning will be stunted if you don’t master this process. So, I will try to concentrate on this in the next few lessons.

First, let me list all the possible individual bols of each drum followed by combination sounds.

One thing to note is that the tabla bols set listed below might have variation in spellings depending who you are learning from. Being from Panjab and having learned the tabla from my father, I would place my style as a mixture of Panjab, Delhi with a touch of Banarsi. And since I had to accompany my father on numerous occasions in concerts and recordings of classical, folk, and filmi nature, I have actually boiled the tabla learning experience into a precise combination of bols that, if learned properly, will give you what I call “What you say is what you get” tabla learning.

Each bol you learn to say has a proper place for you to play it on hence giving you a no-nonsense sort of learning experience. I explain this fully in my video tutors. I highly recommend you get atleast the first three of these as your time and finances permit as it will initiate you into the technique I’m about to unleash in these lessons.

The other issue is that, as the popularity of the tabla grew, it migrated to the various parts of India giving rise to tabla bols and terminology pronuciations conforming to the various dialects. For example in Bengal the tabla bols have taken on the Bengali dialect. GhiDaNaGa might be taught as Ghedonago etc. So it is that books written by tabla teachers or students of these teacher will reflect these spellings in their publications. And this is fine but keep this in mind. Be ready and not confused, when you find a bol combination that at first glance might look alien. Upon a closer look, it should make sense. Remember there are only so many sounds you can make from this drum set so the secret is in deciphering it into a lingo more familiar to you 🙂

Tabla Bols


Dagga Bols

Ga, Gaa, Gi, Ge, Ghe, Gha, Ghe

Ka, Kaa, Ki, Ke


Combination Bols


Questions & Answers

Before I continue with this lesson, I had a good question from one of our readers. I’d like to address his concerns here.


Hi. I am trying to learn the tabla at the relatively advanced age of 53. I have a good teacher and everything is going well except that I have trouble sitting on the floor for any length of time without pain. In your experience, will this get better with time, or should I save myself a lot of trouble and move to a table. This might be a good note for your excellent lesson series.


Thank you for your question. I’ll be putting this info up on my next Tabla Lesson in RagaNet.First let me say that the following suggestions are given with my utmost respects to your teacher and his view point. His recommendations are what’s normal to any tabla training. But your situation calls for different measures. So here’s what you might like to look into….

Many Western students have this problem and it can be distracting from the learning process.

In India, this habit is adopted for no other reason but because our life style is such that everything is floor level. This is viewed upon as a tradition and hence students find themselves under pressure to conform. Not that I’m against this way of sitting. It is my prefered position of playing the tabla. But I like to think that if there is phisical limitation and there is another way that’s more comfortable and does not hinder your learning process…. go for it! Since tradition in the West is towards sitting up on chairs and platforms this also conforms well to performance and practice.

There are different floor level positions for playing Tabla. Let me try covering the most popular.

Many women tabla players are actually encouraged to sit with both legs turned to one side or kneeling as the Japanese do. This probably has something to do with cultural norms. Men are encouraged to sit cross legged or on their knees as the Japanese. As an alternate, I recommend this kneeling position. It also tends to give you some height over the Tabla hence allowing you to strike more boldly. You might try putting a pillow between your heels and your buttocks. This will allow you to sit for extended lengths of time. If you have knee problems, you might look into knee pads. A lot of builders use these for relief.

The issue is, if you are planning to play with another musician, how are they seated? Because, it can be a visual distraction to not be at the same level as other artists you are accompanying.

I have often seen tabla players, especially in recording studios, in India, place their drums on a platform (sometimes this would simply be a pair or chairs) and play sitting on another chair. This works in this situation because all the musicians are being recorded, so visuals are not an issue. But this can be designed to look pleasing in a concert situation.

I am currently working on designing my own tabla holders made out of cast iron. The Tablas fits perfectly on the rings and you can play your drums standing up! Boy that’s going to give some traditionalists nightmares!

Tabla Accessories and Care

In the last lesson, I left off on the issue of Tabla Paraphenelia. To continue…. If you didn’t already get the following goodies with your tabla set, you need to go out and acquire them or make them yourself.

Here’s that list again

  1. Tabla Hammer
  2. Talcum Powder
  3. Covers for the Tabla/Dagga heads
  4. Rings to rest the drums on
  5. Carrying bag or Case for your set
  6. Credit card or similar rectangular plastic piece

Tabla Hammer

A good quality hammer is a must. The type of metal used is very important. Stay away from steel hammers. They are hard on the skins. You need a brass or copper hammer. They have better weight distribution and are easy to file into shape (if for some reason they are not shapped properly when you bought them).

A good hammer will balance well in your hand. Some hammers, especially the newer designs I’ve seen coming out of India, have a much shorter stem. Perhaps they are trying to save on the metal or whatever. Make sure your hammer is atleast 8-9 inches long. The flat side should have a slight curvature.

The other side of the hammer should be shapped like a blunt flat chissel. The blunt edge is atleast 1/8th of an inch thick and about 1/2 inch wide. This end has special use.

The Flat edge

Check to make sure if the head of your hammer has a curvature. If not, you might want to file it.

This curvature is usuallly found in a well designed hammer, although a good tabla player will be able to use any hammer to get results. But I want to tell you the logic behind this. A beginner to tuning will appreciate this.

In many instances, when the tuning of the tabla requires you to hit the edge of the rim (gajara) to tune the head to a higher pitch, a shaky hand can slip and hit very close to the head. If the hammer is curved, chances are you wont hit the head accidently. I have seen many heads get chewed up and eventually split as the head sustains more and more of these hits. On a side issue, try to tune your tablas in good lighting. You might like to turn the lights down and practice your tabla by candle light. I would. But Some of my students have tried to tune their drums in this light only to discover next morning the hits taken by the drum heads. It was a war zone last night. So if you have to tune, be alert and have the lights on.

The other end of the hammer should also taper to a flat chisel type of finish. This end is used for lifting the leather straps over the dowels as the straps get loose through constant use. By putting it under the strap you need to raise, gently lift the strap, leveraging over the other straps or the wooden dowel. This beats having to lift each strap manually.

Talcum Powder

Everyone has their preference for what type of powder to use. I like Johnson’s baby powder. It has a nice slip to it. Don’t over do its application on your hands. I’ve often seen students drenching themselves with this stuff as a cloud covers them where they sit 🙂 It’s really funny to see.

What I like to do is pour a little puff of this powder on my Tabla cover. Then I touch the powder with the ring finger of my right hand. Then just touch the heel of your left hand with the ring finger. That’s it! This can be done even while you are performing the Tabla. Just don’t loose the tempo. The problem with using too much powder is that as your hand sweats, it will start to cake over the Tabla heads. This will happen no matter what. The idea is to prolong the inevitable head cleaning task. That’s where you need your credit card!

Tabla Covers

The covers perform a vital function. They not only protect the heads from dust, but they can help negate the harmful effects of atmospheric moisture and temprature variations. Besides this, a well designed cover can protect the heads from some major accidents. The cloth covers are very easy to make. But the really good ones take time. They need to be made out of a good quality quilted cloth and should be covered with plywood for added protection. If you didn’t get covers with your set, make them as soon as possible. Till you have them, cover your drums with some warm cloth wrap. Whatever you do, don’t keep the drums in direct sunlight or where there is excessive moisture, like near a shower. The Syahi (black spots) of the Tabla is made out of water soluble glue. It will disolve if it comes into contact with water. If by chance you spill any liquid on it…. say good bye to the head.

Our institute can custom design these covers for your drum set. Please call 1-800-RAG-MALA for more information.

Tabla Rings

These are what the drums rest on. They are large donut shaped pair of rings. Different size drums take different diameter rings. The acid test is that when the drums rest on these rings the lower area of the drum should not touch the floor or it will kill the resonance epecially in the Dagga, the bass drum.

Carrying bag or Case for your set

A good carrying bag can usually be found in sports departments. Duffle bags work well. I use a soft airline bag to carry my Tablas in. If I’m travelling to concerts, I’ve converted a sea chest to hold the drums. Bascily anything will work. Get whatever option suits your personal situation.

Credit Card

Cleaning dirt and accumulated talcum powder from your tabla heads is a constant affair. You will notice a dullness in the sound. But there will be a visual sign. The caked powder will be visible. This is the time to get your credit card out of your wallet.

Actually anything flat, rigid and thin will work. Just make sure there aren’t any sharp edges. We don’t want a scratch or a hole in the head. A plastic credit card works the best for me. Just put one of the edges on the head and scrape away.

Buying a good Tabla Set

So you are ready to spend your money on the best Tabla set this side of the Ganges 😉 …. well, here are some tips to help you in your decision.

The Dagga Choices

clay, brass/copper (standard weight), brass/copper heavy weight.

Clay drums, although still around in certain parts of India, are more a novelty nowadays for the obvious reason that they are hard to care for. Therefore I will not delve further into this. If you own one and have a specific question email me and I’ll try and help.

If you find a shopkeeper trying to sell you an expensive tabla set chances are that the Dagga of this set will be the extra heavy type. Many of my students have bought into this, some over my objections, but then they find out the why I’m against buying these.

What I’m trying to say here is that an expensive set may seem to justify a heavier instrument if weight is what you were buying. The mis-conception here is that …..

  • Heavier is better for the sound…. on the contrary… heavier translates into lower volume! The heavier chasis kills the resonance gained from the drum walls. The skilled maker of this drum will melt lead on the bottom of a thin wall tabla. This gives you the weight and keeps the resonance intact! But these are increasingly hard to find. Indeed you might have to special order one.
  • Heavier is sturdier…..or “heavy dagga drums are more stable to play.” This is true but technique is more important. The dagga tends to rock more as your hand moves over it. Especially if you try to make sliding bass sounds on the drum. With practice you can do this without problems and to reduce friction (often the cause of the rocking) use talcum powder.

Tabla Choices

Today the tabla can be purchased in many varieties of woods. Some of these are not even worth mentioning. Just remember if it looks bad it probably is. A good tabla will have a clean looking skin. Its straps will look smooth and even. Its dowels will look uniform. The general feel of the drum will hint of quality!

The most common types of materials used for a tabla are clay, sheesham wood, tun wood, and mango wood.

I see clay tablas every now and then and they sound pretty good too but I cannot see myself trying to tune one lest my hammer finds an unintended mark 🙂

The sheesham wood tablas are probably the best. The wood is heavy and the sound of the tabla is crisp and vibrant. I have played tablas made out of tun and mango wood. They don’t sound that bad. Whatever you do stay away from drums that have oval looking heads this is a sign of warping or just bad design. These are also very hard to tune properly. Also make sure there are no surface cracks on the wood as this could be a “growing” crack. I’ve seen tablas where the crack looked superficial but after six months the crack became substantial. This is usually caused by the drying factor of the wood. If you do somehow end up with a crack on the side of the wood, fill it immediately with a good quality wood filler and varnish the drum. Don’t delay this because contact of raw wood with air opens the crack up further. Another thing that you can check is the weight. A lighter weight tabla will not sound very good and will not be too stable while playing.

Tabla Pudi

Finally, a good tabla pudi is the heart and soul of that inimmitable tabla sound. Healthy, ringing, and resonant tones are only possible with a very good quality pudi. Pudis are made from goat skin and deer skin. They are both good although the deer skin ones look very white and are soft to the touch. They are also very delicate and tear easily. So you need to care for them. Goat skin pudis are tougher but the skin may have superficial blemishes and/or dis-coloration. This should not affect the tone.

Good tabla pudis are assembled with great skill. The maker hails from a generation of Tabla walas (family business). I have seen a whole family clan from the youngest children to the oldest members doing the necessary proceedures. The art of pudi making is indeed one of great endurance and skill.

First they have to find the right piece of skin. The thickness is very important. The under-belly of the goat is used as this is the softest and the most uniform in thickness. Then it is cured, cleaned off and de-haired. Flat pieces of the best quality skins are seperated to be used as the main head material. Smaller pieces are isolated to be used as secondary “chanti” (edge) and backing material. Some of the thicker skin material is made into threading material for the “gajara” (braiding) around the pudi and the thickest and toughest material is cut into continuous strap material. This is used for the final assembly of the pudi to the tabla and dagga.

The actual making of the pudi is quite amazing to watch but it is beyond the scope of this article so I’ll talk about this another time. But it is important to know that the process of applying syahi is the most crucial point to the creation of really good pudis. The syahi material is composed of hide glue, india ink, and iron filings rolled into a doughy ball and it is applied with a rolling action.

If you look at your tabla’s syahi, you’ll notice concentric circles. The smallest circle (about the size of a nickle) is the final one in the center of the syahi. Notice also that the syahi gets thicker as it comes towards the center. Know then that tablas that have more circles (between 5-6 plus) have had more syahi work done on them and will, in most instances, sound better than the ones with only a few such circles (2 – 3). I call these the rush job!

The syahi is put on the pudi in layers. This causes it to gradually build as each layer is rolled on. The process is as follows: The ball of syahi is held in the palm of the hand and as it rolls the syahi dries on the pudi. New material is deposited on the dried areas as the tablawala patiently continues this process. when one area is finished, he starts on the next circle which is about an eighth of an inch inwards. This continues until he reaches the very center of the pudi.

Again, it is facinating to watch and probably has no replacement. After the syahi dries, the syahi actually cracks into very little mosaic pieces. This is normal. Many of my students have a worried look when they receive their first tabla set. This mosaic cracks on the syahi is important as it helps in the resonance of the drum head. But sometimes a piece of the syahi comes loose and created an obnoxious buzz in the tone. The reasons for this are varied. If the tabla set is new it could that the head is too old and the syahi has dried out. There is a way to fix this problem and I’ll talk about this in another article.


Tabla paraphanelia is crucial to proper tabla tuning, cleaning, and playing. Some of this should come with the Tabla set. Some you’ll have to gather. Here it is….

  • Tabla Hammer
  • Talcum Powder
  • Covers for the Tabla/Dagga heads
  • Rings to rest the drums on
  • Carrying bag or Case for your set
  • Credit card or similar rectangular plastic piece

    1. Tabla Hammer

    You need a good hammer! This is very important. The best ones are made out of brass or copper. One side is flat and square the other shapped like a blunt flat chissel. The blunt edge is atleast 1/8th of an inch thick and about 1/2 nan inch wide. The other end of the hammer should tapper to a flat wide finish as this end has special use. I’ll talk about this latter.

    2. Talcum Powder – very important!

    This servers muliple purposes. Powder is good for reducing friction. So when you really get going on the tabla, your heel will slide better on the dagga taking out smooth sounding glides. The powder also dries swaeat; a mortal enemy of the syahi. Finally, it smells really good 🙂 Some people are allergic to talcum. In this case, try and get corn starch based powder. While playing the tabla, apply little amounts only. Too much of this can start to cake up on the tabla heads and then you will need to remove this very carefully.

    3 Carrying bag or Case for your set

    A proper case or gig bag is a must when you are dealing with a set that can change tuning at a moments notice. It’s funny how you will drop a bunch of money on a good quality set and often times hesitate in buying a good case or padded bag to protect it. We all think of such extras as an un-necessary expense. But I high;ly recommend you get one when you get your tabla set. There are a number of options. Fiberglass case, padded nylon fabric case, duffle bags, hat cases, etc. whichever one you decide on, it is better than nothing. I would get one with pockets so you can put your hammer, powder, and other extras organized. Finally it is simply easier to carry the set in one container rather than lugging them seperately.
    A tabla case secures the deal and gives you the aded peace of mind that your investment is protected. It is also handy to control the humidityor the temperature variations that can easily change and in some cases damage the instrument.

    4. Tabla Covers – also very important!

    A cover is always a good idea when you want to protect a valuable investment. For a tabla, this can really be a life saver. A well made cover can not only keep dust and dirt away from your tabla heads but they can protect against accidents, discourage others from playing on it improperly, protect it from temperature extremes. The thing to remember thatthe rings are well made and are the right size for your tabla. many times, they are made a certain diameter and the tabla or the Dagga drum might be too big or too small relative to the size of the Dagga or the tabla. This will result in the drums either rocking excessively on the rings or simply bottoming out. If the Bass drum bottoms out and touches the floor some unwanted tones result.


Origins of the Tabla

Ever since the vedic period, drums have been very much in vogue in India. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata both make mention of a variety of such instruments.

According to an ancient saying, Brahma, the lord of the Universe, invented the drums for the purpose of playing on the occasion when Shiva, the lord of destruction, in a mood of happiness, danced his eternal Tandava Nritya dance.

The Mridanga, Pakhavaj, Dhol, Duff, Dholak, are also some of the ancient names of drums.

It is also said that the present day Tabla is an improved form of a very old drum called Durdur.

According to another saying, the Tabla was born when the Pakhavaj drum was cut into two equal pieces thus isolating the bass and the treble.

Today, there are various “Gharanas” (meaning households) of Tabla. Each has a distinctive style developed by different families at different times. One of the first known performers who succeeded in popularising this drum was Kallu Khan of Delhi.

From the study of the history of music and social developments in Arabia, we find that the tabla style of instrument were widely used in the Middle East. With the coming of Muslims to India, the instrument called the “Tabl” was introduced. By deriving technical skills from the highly evolved Indian drums such as the Mridangam and Pakhavaj, a new stylistically evolved instrument called the Tabla has become the precussion instrument of choice in North India.

Perhaps the Tabla gets its name from that Arabic drum called Tabl. The story of whether the ancient Tabl and the modern day Tabla are of the same design is a topic for research to be dealt with latter. But the addition of the Dagga (bass drum) sets this drum apart from the ancient Tabl and to a certain degree from the Mridangam and the Pakhawaj.

The Tabla drum set has become the staple percussion diet of the Indian music scene. Although today it has found a permanent home in the classical music tradition of North India, it has also been the rhythm instrument of choice in folk and film music. But as trends change, today’s film music is lessening its use of traditional Indian instruments giving rise to a more “Western” sound. Indian timbres are being relegated to movies stereocasting olden times. This is breeding a new generation of young Indians who are shying away from their heritage. Interestingly enough, there is a revival of sorts. The classical community is keeping the torch alive as every now and then I will come across a recording of a young 17 year old that is totally awesome and then I relax ….

The tabla drum set consists of the treble drum called Dayan and a bass drum called Bayan. Translated, “Dayan” means right hand and “Bayan” means left hand. This name classification falls apart if you are left handed. This is why I personally prefer to call these drums by the names “Dagga” (bass) and “Tabla” (treble). In Bombay, my father recalls musicians calling the hand that is playing the Tabla drum as “Siddha” – meaning correct, and “Davan” (nasal n) – meaning incorrect. This scheme would apply equally to left and right handed Tabla players.