Tabla and Baya  Re-heading

Tablas are North Indian Classical Music drums. The smaller right hand treble drum is called the Tabla or Dayan, and the left hand chrome-plated pot-shaped drum is called the Baya, or Bayan. Collectively they are known as a Set of Tablas. The heads or Puri are several layers of goat skin with a woven tensioning braid around the perimeter. The head is laced to the drum with a 35' length of cowhide, which acts as a tensioning spring. Both the Tabla and the Baya have a black spot called the Gob (or Shaye), which is composed of iron smelter slag (iron oxide) and rice paste, and other carefully guarded secret ingredients. This paste is applied in 10 to 12 thin circular layers decreasing in size. It is polished as it dries with a smooth river stone. The polishing stone and the drying process causes the Gob to craze and create hundreds of separate segments that are attached to the skin, without touching each other. The small space between each segment, allows the head to vibrate freely. The Gob is very heavy and it's function is to lower the resonant frequency, without inhibiting the sustain. Without the Gobs, a set of Tablas will sound like bongos. With the Gob, the Baya sounds like a bass, and the Tabla rings like a bell. To avoid confusing the reader, I am going to refer to the parts of these drums and heads in English terms where possible, and I will use the Indian names when there is no alternative. There are many areas of India and Pakistan that use different words to describe the same items. Please refer to the glossary at the bottom of this page. See Figures 1 and 2 below, for the parts of a Tabla and head.

Figure 1
Parts of a Tabla
and head


Figure 2
Binding the head and
Gudri in place with
twine, ready for lacing.


Figure 3

Re-heading of these drums is a physically demanding task. It helps to be strong and have powerful hands. I know many people who successfully head their own drums, and don't seem to look the part. Technique can over come the need for brute strength. I am 6 foot 6 inches tall and weigh 275lb, so I fall into the brute strength category. I prefer to re-head while sitting in a chair with drum in my lap. When pulling the straps, I hold the drum under my thighs and pull up. In India the Tablawalas sit on the floor and use their feet, many westerners do this as well. I have found sitting on the floor to be a strain on my lower back. It depends on the individual. When tensioning a drum, I use a Tabla hook to get under the straps. The hook helps to keep an even pressure during the pull. The Tabla hook in Figure 3 is one I made from a 6 inch Eye bolt, and the head from a broken Tamboura peg. The eye bolt is heated with a propane torch until it is red hot. Using a vise and heavy pliers, the eye is partially straightened out, and then filed into shape. A big screw driver works fine as a strap lifter, but not as a puller. Some people use their Tabla hammer, but they are made from brass and will bend and eventually break.

The Tabla is a delicately balanced, high tension drum. It uses 8 tuning blocks to tension and balance the skin and maintain an exact tuning. Tabla sizes are between 4.5 inches and 7 inches. The smaller sizes are tuned up to high F, and the larger sizes to low C. The average instrumental Tabla size is about 5.5 inches and tunes to C, or C sharp. This is the usual pitch for Sitar and Sarod. The average vocal Tabla is 6 inches and tunes to G or A.

There are many variables that make for a good or bad Tabla or Baya. The finest quality Tablas are made from heavy rose wood or shisham wood. The cheaper softer timbers such as mango wood, do not not make good sounding tablas, although there are exceptions. The top of the drum has to be round and not egg shaped. It is very hard to get a good sound when re-heading an egg shaped drum. If the drum is more than 3/32 of an inch out of round, we will refuse to head it and tell the customer to find a new drum. The Baya can be made from clay, wood, aluminum, brass, or copper. The heavier copper Bayas sound the best.

The quality of the skins is equally important. The clarity, the ability to stay in tune, the sustain, and the longevity of the head, depend on the quality of the head, and the skill of the installer. A good head can be destroyed by poor installation. There are many companies making cheap tabla heads, but the cheaper heads are just not worth the effort to put them on.

There are many styles of Tabla. The two main ones are Bombay and Calcutta. Bombay Tablas have heavy thick skins, thick straps, large tuning blocks, and they produce a loud full sound. Calcutta Tablas are lighter in all respects, and they have a correspondingly sharper and crisper tone. Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri is one of the greatest Tabla players in the Calcutta style, and Ustad Zakir Hussein is the wizard of the Bombay style. They accompany all the great Indian Classical Maestros, they write film scores, and both give concerts with their own East/West fusion ensembles. Both of these great performers have solo CDs on the market where you can hear their contrasting styles of Tabla playing, and the differences between Calcutta and Bombay Tabla sounds.
Tools needed: Sharp knife,Tabla hammer, strap hook (optional), twine, pliers, large screw driver, smaller screw driver, work gloves.Heading the Tabla and Baya

Removing the old head.

1: Put on your gloves, this process is very hard on bare hands. To begin the job of heading a Tabla or Baya, you must first remove the old head and lacing. The head can be discarded, but we will reuse the strap, and the ring at the bottom of the drum. This strap ring (Gudri) anchors the lacing. Note how the lacing is knotted to the Gudri at the bottom. You will be using the same type of knots when tying the strap back on with the new head. The strap needs to be inspected for damage caused by improper use of the tuning hammer. When tuning, some beginning tabla students hammer on the strap instead of the Braid. This can weaken the strap to the point that it needs to be replaced. If the strap is in good shape, we can proceed.

2: Place the new head on the shell, and check it for fit. It should be snug and have no side-to-side slip. If the strap is heavy a little side-to-side slip is OK. Place the Gudri on the bottom of the Tabla. You can wet the inner skirt of the head with water, or smear it lightly with mutton fat. Wetting the head must be confined to the inner skirt only. If you get the main skin (maidan) wet around the gob you will destroy the head.

3:Temporarily tie the head and Gudri in place with twine. Use plenty of twine to make sure the head and Gudri won't slide off during lacing. Do not put the twine through the holes in the head, over the top is fine. Do not clump the twine up on the center of the Gob. This can depress and damage the Gob. See Illustration B.

Lacing the new head

4: Fold the strap in half to find the middle point. Mark the mid-point with a pencil on both sides of the strap. Check both ends of the strap and make sure that they have a 2inches long taper. If they don't, you will have to use your sharp knife to cut the tapers.

5: Thread the strap through any of the 16 construction holes in the head as a starting point. The holes are between the the Braid and the goat skin head surface. The layers of goat skin have 48 vertical slits through which the Braid is woven. There has to be 3 vertical Braid slits between each hole for the strap. Make sure that you count the slits as you thread the strap. This starting point becomes hole #1. (We will number them #1 through #16.) When you have reached the pencil-marked center point on the strap, coil the strap end which is on top of the Braid .

6: Take the strap which is hanging down from UNDER the Braid, and run it through you hand it so that you are sure that it has no twists. The key phrase here is OVER BY OVER . The end of the strap will then go OVER the Gudri at the bottom of the drum, and come back up and go OVER the Braid into the next hole #2 in the head. You may have to carefully poke the smaller screwdriver through the holes to open them up enough for the strap to pass through.

7:Check that there are no twists in the strap between the first hole and the second hole.

8: Pull 3 feet of strap through the second hole and check that it is twist free. Feed it OVER the Gudri, and then OVER the Braid, and down through the #3 hole in the head. Leave all the slack, don't pull any tension. Then go back to the second hole in the head and pull the remainder of working half of the strap through the second hole, making sure to leave at least 6 inches of slack. The reason for pulling 3 feet through a hole, and then going back to pull the remaining strap, is so you wont have to continually check for twists.

9: Double check for twists. If you are observing the 3 feet at a time principal, this should be the last time you will have to check for twists in this half of the strap.

10: keep repeating the STEP 6 through STEP 8 until all of that half of the strap is used up. You have just completed the section known as OVER by OVER -- OVER the Braid, and OVER the Gudri.

UNDER by UNDER section.

11: Unroll the remaining half of the strap on top of the head, and run it through your hands to remove all twists. Feed the strap end UNDER the Gudri and then UNDER the Braid up through the #16 hole. Pull through about 3 feet of strap. Feed this 3 feet of strap UNDER the Gudri again, and up through the #15 hole UNDER the Braid. You can use a big screw driver to lift the Gudri up a little. This will make it easier to poke the strap underneath the Gudri, and give you some room between the Gudri and the heel of the drum to lift the strap taper out.

12: Check for twists, pull the remainder of the strap through the #16 hole, leaving 6 inches of slack.

13: Pull another 3 feet of slack through #15 hole, and thread the end UNDER the Braid through hole #14. Go back and pull the remainder of the strap through hole #15. Repeat this UNDER by UNDER procedure until all of the strap is used up.

14: Tie off the UNDER by UNDER strap end onto the Gudri. Use a single hitch like the knots you removed when taking the old head off. The drum is now ready for the tensioning procedure. Cut away the temporary twine binding.

15: Starting at the knot you just tied, gently pull the slack through each hole in the head from UNDER the Braid, and from UNDER the Gudri. You must observe the correct direction for tensioning, as the strap can only be tensioned by pulling from UNDER the Braid and the Gudri. If you try to pull from over the Braid and Gudri, it will seize and lock down of the strap, and you will not be able to tension the drum at all. Do not pull too much strap through, it must still be slack and applying no tension to the head. If you pull too much at this point, you can drag the head out of center and end up with a drum can't be balanced, and will buzz and sound dead.

16: After the first round of slack removal, tie of the tail end onto the Gudri.

17: Then go back to the first knot and start the second of round of slack removal. Remember this has to be pulling from UNDER the Braid and UNDER the Gudri, always in the same direction. This time you will start with no tension and gradually increase tension as you go around the drum. To maintain the balance, the Gudri must remain centered on the bottom of the drum, and not lean on the heel. If the Gudri is leaning on the heel, the drum may be out of balance and you won't be able to tell. Keeping the Gudri centered is a way of making sure that the tension is increasing with the necessary balance. If the Gudri remains centered, then the head is centered also. This is a spring loaded situation and balance is crucial. Repeat STEP 17 two or three times until the drum reaches a point where is in making a basic sound. Do not over tension.

18: Place the drum on the floor, and using your feet to hold it in place, grab the tail of the strap with your pliers, pull the correct tension, and tie the last knot. Click to see Tail Knot Whew -- what a workout, and It's not over yet.

19: Using the Tabla hammer, lift a strap which goes UNDER the Braid (not the UNDER strap with knot tied onto the Gudri, this will make the knot slip), and place a block under it. Repeat this procedure on every fourth strap until all 8 blocks are in place with one under strap on top. If the drum still does not come to pitch, then lift the next Over the Braid strap up onto the blocks. if it is still below pitch, then you have to remove the blocks and repeat repeat STEP 17. A new head will stretch out for a month or so, and you may have to pull the straps again using STEP 17.

20: Tune the drum to pitch. It will drift down in pitch over night, but will stabilize within a week or so. A tabla head has two main sustaining tones, the Fundamental and the Secondary. The Secondary tone, is produced when the half closed strokes Na or Tin are struck. When playing Na or Tin, the gob in lightly held at its edge by the 3rd and 4th fingers, and the Khina or Sur are struck with the index finger. This Secondary tone is the Sa, which is tuned to the instrumentalist or tamboura.
The Fundamental tone is produced by the tun stoke which sets the god is in full swing. The Fundamental tone has a pitch of Re in the octave below. The Sa and Re intervals must be in harmonic tune with each other. These intervals are a critical componant in the clarity and sweetness of the Tabla tone. If the head is the wrong size for the tabla, such as, one size too big, the drum will produce an unpleasant harmonic series and have a sour sound.
If the re-headed tabla doesn't sound clean and have a long sustain, this can often be remedied by installing a thread under the Khina. This thread pinches the bottom layer of skin onto the wooden lip of the tabla shell, and lifts the Khina up enough for the head to ring better. This thread is a heavy linen sewing thread. I use a credit card to slip the thread under the Khina. See Figure 4. This must be done with great care. The thread has to be placed just onto the edge of the wooden lip, to form a near perfect circle. If the thread is pushed too far onto the lip of the Tabla shell, it will be ineffective and may only deaden the sound.

Using the corner of a credit card,
carefully slide a thread under the Khina and onto the lip of the tabla shell.
Try to form a perfect circle.