In praise of the Lambeg…

The sound on this is not great, probably because it’s recorded indoors and Willie Drennan’s Lambeg drum is testing the microphone almost to destruction. But if you ever thought (like me) that playing it was just a matter of blattering a goatskin to kingdom come, you can see how the rythyms he uses adhere to old Irish dance steps from the dancer who comes on during the performance. I’m told (by Willie himself) that the only instrument that can effectively be heard above it is the higher pitched fife. As short example of its more natural environment, this Loughbrickland parade appears to be the best example I can find on YouTube.

  • Rory

    The sound on this is not great

    Well, Mick, you certainly won’t have many arguments on that score.

  • Slugger O’Toole Admin

    Indeed, but there is a documentary there waiting to be made!!

  • Rory

    Yes, it is a largely unexplored part of Irish culture that deserves attention and perhaps in a new climate as the community in which the tradition flourishes feel able to be less defensive a good sensitive film maker would have a fascinating and worthwhile subject.

    Still I can’t imagine that I might buy the soundtrack cd. I’m rather more into Willie Nelson myself and Ry Cooder is about as far as I can stretch this time around.

  • McGrath

    Geordie Bush shoulda had yer man come over to Guantanamo and bait the crap outta that thing up and down the prison camp. Them feckers in the orange jump suits would have started talking inside 5 minutes, and those that didn’t know anything would have started making stuff up.

  • Belfast Gonzo

    Anyone who has heard a Lambeg in full effect at the side of the road on the Twelfth (a largely rural phenomenon these days?) will know the sheer volume of the thing being blattered to kingdom come will make your eyes water, and your bones shudder… never mind what it does to yer ears!

  • Mick Fealty

    It’s not only that Gonzo, but when I heard Willie play last year, he played both in jig time and reel time. One felt uplifting, and the other slightly menancing and war like, though I’m not sure which was which.

    We must have someone reading who’s more familiar with the instrument?

  • Rory

    Perhaps Ringo Starr who, back in the 60’s was voted by readers of Playboy magazine as the “Greatest Drummer in the World” might be able to shed some light. Shall we ask him?

    P.s. Mick,

    Do you know why since last evening my name, e-mail, location and URL boxes are blank and now require manual input with each post? Heretofore they were entered automatically.

  • T.Ruth

    In Glenavy one summer evening I visited a man who had seven Lambeg drums in his living room.His wife was unhappy at the loss of her room. It was magic to hear him play and to talk about the skill required to make a drum-how each drum had a separate and unique personality and sound recognisable to those who could hear it at a distance. Those with an experienced ear could identify drum and drummer. I enjoyed listening to the piper and WD and the dancer.It is an important part of our culture and we could do more to preserve and support this great tradition.
    I love the Mickey McConnell song “The Lambeg Drummer” and hope someone could post it for general listening.

  • wowee

    RORY- Perhaps u’v unticked the ‘remember my personal info’ box….

  • wowee

    Completely unrelated I know but just tryin 2 b helpful!

    I love the lambeg drum, it ignites things in me that no other instrument possibly could.

  • Miss Fitz

    It seems to be a disappearing instrument now on Parade. I think I have only seen a Lambeg in Newry 3 years ago, and perhaps in Ballycastle 5 years ago. You’ll find they may still be brought to a field and played there, but I imagine the carrying and handling is too difficult on a long walk.

    Has anyone mentioned ‘Different Drums’,, a very innovative and brave combination of lambeg and bodhran?

  • Rory

    Thanks, Wowee. You got it in one. I am a silly old fool really.

  • Droch_Bhuachaill

    TG4 did a very good documentary some years back on the drum and its traditions- i’ll keep an eye out for a rerun of it.

    The only drum more impressive than the lambeg for me is the ones used by the Kodo Drummers of Japan- they were on tour here last summer and raised the roof some major concert halls. Mind you i wouldn’t want to march around with their drum hanging from me- its the size of a gable

  • Rory

    I love the lambeg drum, it ignites things in me that no other instrument possibly could.

    Holy Moley! Take it easy there, Wowee. A fellow could get arrested for such public displays of flagrant eroticism.

    Or, worse still, he could be obliged to take up politics for a living.

  • jr

    What a load of load bollix!!
    You could say a Paisley drum!!!

  • AudacesFortunaJuvat

    The Lambeg drum is an instrument unique to Ulster, and is the largest portable drum in the world. It is usually comprised of a single piece wooden shell (although stave built and brass shells have been used) and two goatskin heads: the diameter of over 3 feet meaning that a separate goatskin is required for each. It is played with malacca canes, producing a distinctive sound that is deep, yet sharp, and extremely loud!

    Originally played with fifes and rattlys primarily by parading organisations such as the Orange Order and Hibernians, it was later expelled from most parades due to the slow speed at which the drummers could walk, the fife and drum ensembles being largely replaced by flute and accordion bands.

    The Lambeg then found a new context, in ‘stick-ins’ in which drummers attempted to out-do each other – drumming face to face until one lost the beat. These developed into more formal drumming competitions in which most drumming today takes place. The older drum and fife style is currently undergoing a revival, however, and it is on this tradition that the orchestra primarily draw in their use of the Lambeg.

    There are many stories as to the origin of the Lambeg, the best known being that it was brought to Ireland by King William’s army in 1690. It has also been claimed that it was invented in the late 19th Century and took its name from the village where it was first played with canes, at a meeting in 1871. Belfast Lambeg maker William Hewitt claimed that it was his grandfather that built the drum played at Lambeg.

    It is also clear that the Lambeg did not always have its present massive proportions, but has grown considerably in size over the years, in response to stick-ins and competition drumming. This probably contributed to the decline in the fifing tradition, as it made the drums less practical for long parades. The USFO uses full size drums, but has also gone back to a smaller size, which is more suitable for indoor venues, and also allows more movement in a parading context – important in a culture where marching and dancing are never far seperated.

    The way in which the Lambeg is played in the Drum and Fife tradition is quite different both to the use of the bodhran in Irish traditional music, and to military styles of percussion such as Pipe-band drumming. In both of these traditions, the percussive element is used primarily to emphasise the accented beats of the melody. In the Lambeg and Fife tradition, the drum is used in a different manner, playing a rhythm that is independent of the melody, and on which the accents normally fall on different beats, whilst still fitting into the framework of 8-bar sections which is the basis of most traditional fifing tunes.

    The effect of this drumming style is to set up a kind of rhythmic counterpoint, the shrill sound of the fifes holding a different but complementary rhythm to the rattle of the drums. This style of playing also appears to have influenced flute-band styles in areas where Lambegs are widely played, and is drawn on by the USFO, contributing much to the distinctive sound of Ulster-Scots music.


    For anyone with an interest in Lambegs and fifing I would highly recommend Ulster Scots Folk Orchestra albums.

    There is some more information on the
    The following site, which a guide to Lambeg drumming and fifing, complete with video tutorials:

  • BarringtonBlue

    My grandfather made and played Lambegs and my father played them as well, I’ve started attending drumming classes to keep the tradition going in my family.

  • Donnacha

    As far as the Lambeg goes, I’m with piper Seamus Ennis who, when asked the ebst way to play the bodhran, replied: “With a f*ckin penknife.”
    I don’t dislike it for any political reasons, it’s just shite. And don’t get me started on accordions….

  • Rory

    important in a culture where marching and dancing are never far seperated.

    Lordy, lordy, lordy. Everybody know honkeys cain’t dance but Orange men? Hee – haw! hee-haw! ‘Nuff to make me choke on ma watermelon.

  • Southern Observer

    [i]As far as the Lambeg goes, I’m with piper Seamus Ennis who, when asked the ebst way to play the bodhran, replied: “With a f*ckin penknife.” [/i]
    The lambeg ,which is a derivation of the Irish words lanh beag (small hand), has been described as ‘a bodhran on steroids’.

  • Donnacha

    ANd yet, it soudns like a big effing drum being battered by someone who has all the rhythm of a skeleton falling dow a set of steel steps. I’m sorry, but as a musician, I can just about tolerate the bodhran, but the Lambeg…

  • POL


    My grandfather made and played Lambegs and my father played them as well, I’ve started attending drumming classes to keep the tradition going in my family.
    Posted by BarringtonBlue on Sep 12, 2006 @ 12:07 A

    Classes to learn!!!

    And theres me thinking you just had to bang it as hard as possible and even more so when passing nationalist areas or places of worship.

  • Give these a try:

    Gloonan from Ahoghill (fife and drumming in 6/8 time)

    Bannside Club in Londonderry’s Fountain Estate

    A promo video from us, fifed to Boys of Belfast and drummed in double time.

    or our main site and blog

    Nice to see the lambeg getting a mention!
    Many fifers are also very accomplished musicians, and play hornpipes from England, Ireland and Scotland. Most are excellent tin whistle players as well.