What is Taiko?

‘Taiko’ is the Japanese word for drum. It includes a broad range of Japanese drums. “Wadaiko” (or “kumi-daiko”) refers to the form of ensemble taiko drumming. Although now very much associated with Japan, there are many sources and historical accounts, of which the earliest date from 588 AD/CE, noting that young Japanese men traveled to Korea to study the kakko, a drum that originated in South China.

Taiko as a  performance art is a relatively recent development, created by Daihachi Oguchi, a jazz drummer by trade, in the early 1950’s.  Oguchi was asked to decipher an old taiko score (a traditional piece of music for the Osuwa Shinto shrine) that a relative had found.  Feeling the music to be rather monotonous he rewrote it as an ensemble piece, creating the kumi-daiko movement by assembling a collection of taiko drums –traditionally played individually– and playing in 20th-century jazz style.

Taiko include a broad range of percussion instruments that are used in both Japanese folk and classical musical traditions. There are several drums that make up a taiko ensemble:



A small drum, often used in taiko groups to keep the basic rhythm and establish time, but is a versatile solo instrument as well.



The nagado-daiko (long-bodied taiko) is by far the most popular taiko used in the modern kumi-daiko style of playing.  They are also very common in festivals and in temples and shrines (where they are often called miya-daiko).  There are many styles of playing this taiko, with a wonderful selection of different stands that hold the nagado-daiko in various positions.

Oke-daiko or Okedo


The short bodied styles of okedo which are becoming increasingly popular have a loud, flat, booming sound, and are often played with slats of bamboo which produces a sharp, slapping sound.  The larger form of okedo tend to be bigger than a typical nagado-daiko, often around six feet in length and three feet in diameter.  They are usually played horizontally, raised up on a high stand.

As well as drums, several other instruments can be found in the ensemble including:



The chappa are small cymbals with a bright tone.  They are usually played as accompaniment to the drums.

Atari-gane or chan-chiki


The atari-gane is a small metal gong that is usually played in a straight rhythm directly on the beat with a small mallet.  It functions as the ‘timekeeper’ for taiko pieces.

Japanese flute or fue


Frequently the only non-percussion instrument in a taiko ensemble is the Japanese transverse flute or fue.  It is normally made from bamboo and has a clear, high voice. The fue provides the melody accompaniment to the drum rhythms.