Basic Strokes of Tombak (Zarb)

Matt Hannafin


The tombak (also called zarb) is the principle percussion instrument of Persian classical music. Its technique involves innumerable strokes and techniques employing all the fingers of both hands, alone and in combination. Strokes on the tombak and strokes on the doumbek (Arabic/Turkish-style goblet drum) are related, but they're very, very different.

The aim of this article is to explain the basic strokes of the tombak as taught in the style of Ostad Hossein Teherani -- though this is a difficult subject to tackle in print, without visual aid. Photos of the hand/arm positions for these strokes can be found in the liner notes of the CD Iran: L'Art du Tombak (Zarb) by Madjid Khaladj (Buddah Records no. 92594).


Begin with posture. Whether sitting cross-legged on the floor or in a chair, keep the back and neck straight and the shoulders level. If you're playing in a chair, and if you're right-handed, your left foot should ideally be raised slightly higher than your right (through use of a short stand such as classical guitarists use, or anything else that will raise the foot and leg about three inches) so that the tombak sits very stable in your lap. The drum should be perfectly horizontal to the floor or tipped just slightly down so that the head is either straight up and down or tilted slightly downward.

Your body will turn very slightly toward the drum while playing. Lay your left arm along the length of the drum's body, with the rim of the drum sitting just under your knuckles. Your right arm should be crooked at an approximate right angle, and both arms should be held out away from the body, at approximately the angle they'd be if you joined your fingers and held them at the center of your belly, with your wrists unbent. Both arms should be very relaxed, so that your strength will flow gracefully down from your shoulders to your wrists, which are the locus of most motion for tombak strokes.

Basic Strokes

Tom (otherwise known as ton, doum, or simply "bass"): Unlike the doumbek doum, which is played with the flat of the fingers, tom on the tombak is struck with the four fingertips of the right hand (assuming you're right-handed). In order to play this stroke in the style of Ostad Teherani, you cup your hand, fingertips together -- if you hold your hand palm-up, it will be in exactly the same position it would if you were holding water in your hand. Now turn your hand sideways, palm toward you. Hold the back of your hand perfectly even in relation to your forearm, in an uninterrupted line, and swing your entire forearm toward the drumhead from about three inches (75cm) out, simultaneously striking the heel of your hand on the drum's rim and your fingertips on its head, approximately a third of the way in toward the center, where they bounce off lightly, though with a good amount of force (a consequence of the added torque produced by the heel striking simultaneously). Were you to allow your hand to stay in the position in which it falls when the stroke is completed, the heel of your hand would remain against the rim and your fingertips would be approximately one centimeter above the drumhead.

Bak (otherwise known simply as "kenar" or just "the rim stroke"): There are two basic ways of playing this. I'll describe the right hand first. Type 1: Anchor your thumb at about 10 o'clock on the drum's body and swing your hand like a pendulum toward the drum, striking right on the edge with your ring finger (the one next to the pinkie). Type 2: With your thumb NOT on the drum's body, start with your hand relatively flat and swing your fingers down toward the drum, striking with your ring finger (or, for a fuller sound, with your middle [or "second"] finger).

With the left hand, when playing open (not snapping), begin by laying your arm flat on the drum, and think about playing all the notes from the wrist, not through motion of the fingers. (Again, this is very important: On the tombak, your fingers play the notes, but it's the wrists that provide the propulsion.) Raise your hand off the drum at the wrist, and then drop it down, with your ring finger (and sometimes second finger as well) striking the rim.

Meyaneh (otherwise known as the "middle" stroke, or, to use a drum-kit metaphor, the "tom tom"): This stroke is produced in essentially the same manner as the Type-1 bak stroke described above, except that your ring finger strikes approximately two to three inches (50-75cm) toward the center of the head (midway between where you play the tom and the bak), bouncing off as it hits. The "sweet spot" of the head at which this stroke sounds best and fullest will be in a slightly different location on each drum, depending on its diameter.

Note that this is the same stroke used when playing the third-finger riz, described below.

Pelang (otherwise known as "the snap"): With the left hand, start with your arm in the same position as for the left-hand bak (flat on the drum's body) and simply snap onto the rim of the head with your ring finger, against your thumb. You can also snap with any of your other left-hand fingers, depending on the effect you're trying to achieve. Whichever finger you use, try not to twist the palm too far in toward your body, as is natural when trying this stroke for the first time. Instead, try to keep the back of the hand as flat and level as possible on the drum body, snapping more or less straight down onto the rim. (Some twisting is inevitable, but thinking about keeping the hand flat will prevent you from bending it too much.)

Some tombak players snap occasionally with the right hand, but I do not, as I believe this puts your hand and arm out of position for easily accessing other strokes.

Riz (or "the roll"): There are two basic types: The nine-finger riz (which is called "riz-e-por") and the third-finger (ring finger) riz.

First, the nine-finger riz (riz-e-por): Ideally, the riz-e-por should sound perfectly smooth, without individual finger strokes being heard -- like a cat purring. Rule #1: When playing this most distinctive tombak stroke, you should not think about your individual fingers playing in a certain sequence. Your fingers should be so loose that you don't even know they're there; it's your wrists that propel them, producing the sound. It's almost impossible to explain this stroke in words alone, but to begin, start with your left hand in the same position as for the bak and pelang, described above -- laying flat on the drum's body -- then raise your hand from the wrist, relax your fingers completely, and simply drop them onto the drum. The sound you'll get will be a light "Flup." Very loose. As loose as you can get it - strength will come later, with practice. Your fingers don't matter much here - they're just flung gently onto the drumhead, where they make the sound. Now, try the same thing with your right hand, swinging your fingers into the head gently from the wrist. Now try playing with both hands together.

It typically takes several months of intense practice before the classical riz-e-por sound is approached, and several more (possibly up to six or eight or more) before it's truly achieved, though of course this depends on the individual player. The point is: Keep at it! Don't get discouraged if you don't get the correct sound overnight. No one does.

The third-finger riz is easier to explain. You simply do what you do to sound the mayaneh or third-finger bak, with both the right and left hands, and do it fast, over and over. You can play near (or even on) the rim or up to about 2 to 3 inches (50-75cm) toward the center of the drumhead, depending on the sound you need. In practice, I find this riz much harder, physically, than the riz-e-por, which is primarily about grace and suppleness. The third-finger riz requires much more strength to play for extended periods.

Eshareh (which means, in Farsi, "allusion"; sometimes known as "taazin," or "decoration"): This is another one of the signature strokes on the tombak. What it is essentially a pickup note before many of the main strokes, or a fill that adds ornamental beauty elsewhere in the rhythm. For the basic eshareh described here, you're playing a tight triplet that ends on the one (or whatever beat you're leading into).

To play an eshareh before the bass, you strike the drum lightly with your left middle finger. While that finger is traveling toward the head, you're simultaneously bringing your index finger leftward onto the top of your middle finger (about a third of the way across), so that when the middle finger hits the drum, the index finger snaps lightly off onto the drumhead, a microsecond before you hit the bass with your right hand. It sounds as a triplet, but as Ostad Rajabi has said, the eshareh should be solved in the rhythm. In other words, don't think in terms of the exact note value of the eshareh. Instead, think that you're in one place, and you know that you need to get to another place (say, the one beat) at a certain time. In between those two places is where the eshareh takes place. This metaphor is also very applicable to the riz.

After mastering these strokes, there are many others that the player can use to expand his or her expressive range, including different kinds of rolls, multi-finger snaps, muffled strokes and snaps, slaps, strokes and scrapes on the drum body, and many others, but the strokes described above are the basics from which all others derive.

Thanks to my teacher of Iranian music, Kavous Shirzadian, for passing on his great knowledge. Thanks also to Peyman Nasehpour for the quote from Ostad Bahman Rajabi.