The Lambeg Drum of Ireland

© 2002 Paul Marshall


There are two main ‘traditional’ drums in Ireland. The first is the Bodhran which is found throughout Ireland and in contemporary terms is associated generally, but not exclusively, with Irish traditional music and the Nationalist traditions. The second is the Lambeg and has its strongest associations with the North of Ireland and particularly with Unionist traditions. There is a lot of interest in the Bodhran in frame drumming circles around the world, however the Lambeg drum is much less talked about. As an 'ethnic' or 'world' instrument, the Lambeg is an awesome drum.

The name 'Lambeg drum' is a generic name such as 'Hoover' for vacuum cleaners or 'Tipp-Ex' for correction fluid, they are also known as Sslashers, Batteries, Tibbies and other names varying from region to region. Lambeg is an area near Lisburn, a few miles southwest of Belfast.

Physical description

The Lambeg drum is a large instrument measuring around 3’ across the head and 2’ deep, it weighs 35-40lbs. The shells are made either from oak in a stave construction, or in brass.

It is carried by the drummer using a shoulder harness and lies against his belly It can be used in a stationary position or when marching, when marching a second person may be employed to support the front of the drum as the walk progresses. It is played using whip-like canes with one hand on each side of the drum. The drums are either plain or elaborately decorated with regimental, memorial, religious or Orange insignia.

Drum head

The Lambeg is skinned with goatskin on both sides, It is recommended that the skin is taken from a she-goat because they grow quickly and the skin is thin and strong. From what I have seen, the skins are de-fleshed, shaved, washed and covered in a chalky substance until ready for mounting when they are washed again, stretched over a wooden hoop and nailed into place. It is said that the “24” of timber is purely there to keep the two goats from fighting” :). When prepared for playing, the skins are tensioned to the point of breaking, pretty similar to the African djembe. It is important that the two heads are tuned exactly to the same pitch.

Tensioning mechanism

The tensioning mechanism is straightforward with rope being laced in a zig zag manner between holes in the two hoops. On the ‘V’ of the zig zag there is a leather sleeve that is slid towards the widest part of the ‘V’ to apply tension, or toward the thinnest part to loosen. The tensioning process is done over a period of days before playing and it is said that it takes more hours to get a drum to playing condition than it takes to do a week’s work.


The tuning of the drum is carried out by pulling slack out of the rope around the drum, similar to placing tension on the verticals of a djembe. Because of the scale of the drum and because you are tensioning the huge skins to their maximum, this is a job for at least two men. Finer tuning is carried out by the adjustment of the leather sleeves on the ‘V’ and the finest tuning is done by mallet, tapping gently on the rim. The act of ensuring that the drum is evenly tuned on both sides is known as levelling and is carried out, unsurprisingly, by a leveller, who spends his time darting around the drum listening for nuances in the overtone relationships and striving to bring out a strong, clear fundamental. This fine tuning is done even during playing during 'Stick-Ins' (competitions).


When played, the cane gives a 'whippy staccato' over the top of the head's fundamental wash tone, which builds up within the drum when playing. Some say it is like having a swarm of bees inside the drum. Others describe it as a fizzing sound. It emits volume at a decibel level similar to a pneumatic drill and has a high pitched sound. On a Stick-In day, they can be heard maybe a mile or more away

Origin of the drum

There are conflicting stories regarding the history of this drum, but the most consistent is that it was brought over to Ireland from Holland by William’s Dutch blues as a smaller drum of similar construction, sometime at the end of the 17th century or early 18th century. At this time it was smaller maybe 16”-18” and was partnered with the fife, a transverse flute type instrument, this was consistent with the European military music tradition of that time. Around a century and a half later, about 1840-1850, the drum had grown in size because of competitiveness between players. The Lambeg is defined by its size. The drum quickly got to such a scale that the fifers became drowned out and eventually the association between the two instruments was all but lost. Today the fife and Lambeg together (Fife and Rattlies) is the exception rather than the norm and appears to be confined largely to North Antrim.

In contemporary usage, the drum is mostly associated with the Unionist ‘Orange Order’ tradition. What is not so well known is that the drum also has tradition within the Nationalist comminuty, particularly with the ‘Ancient Order of Hibernians’ and in fact it would not have been uncommon a few decades ago for one of the communities to lend the other a drummer and a drum for their own particular parade or march, the Orange order marches in July and the Hibernians march in August. It was also not uncommon to find one side stealing a drum from the other only to find it stolen back again after the parade but in time for their own parade.


The rhythms (also known as the ‘time’) seem to be localised for the most part and are based around traditional reels, jigs and hornpipes. Because the fifes are no longer associated with most of the drums, the drummers are required to re-play the tune in their heads to make sure that the entourage stays together. 50 years ago, the only music really that was played outside of cities in villages of both cultural backgrounds was 'irish traditional’ music, which we normally associate today in terms of the Bodhran. 50 years before that, it was the only music in the whole country. Throughout history the Lambeg was used by both the Orange and Green traditions with Hibernian and Orange members having largely the same repertoire. Naturally there was politically oriented music on either side as well, but there was a large pool of common ground. Now there is no common ground because of polarisation and unfortunately that is projected back to the past. Future generations and much of the young generation of today will lose or will have already lost that detail and sense of perspective.

I have no scored examples of the rhythms played, but I will endeavour to gather some.

When are they played?

It is traditional for the drums to be played on and around the 12th of July, the Orange marching season, it is apparently rare for the Hibernians to play the Lambeg nowdays. The largest gathering is a ‘stick in’ (competition) and takes place in a town called Markethill in County Armagh on the last Saturday of July. Here you can see many drummers vying for the titles of best drum and drummer. Competitions occur all year round with the men standing facing each other, hoop to hoop and playing until they drop. It is common to see blood on the skins from the rubbing of the wrists on the hoops over the playing period which can be several hours.

Belfast step – the beggar man

O I am a little beggar man
and begging I have been
for three score years and ten
in this little isle of green
I begged for my supper
I had nothing else to do
But to slip around the corner
With my old ring-a-doo

Purely for the sake of clarification, I wish to state that although I am a multi-ethno-percussionist, I play neither of these drums. This decision was taken many years ago solely because it is nearly impossible to play either without being associated with the community from which it comes and therefore incurring the suspicion of the other community . This saddens me but is a reflection of the state of where I call home. As you will have read in the body of this piece, the either/or view of Irish drums was not always this way.

This substance of this piece originates from a BBC television programme from a couple of years ago and from recent internet research. Thank you to the BBC for covering this subject and thereby for supplying me with most of my research material.

Paul Marshall


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