It may have traditional cotton rope lacing, screw-turnbuckle tensioning or both combined: in the first case steel rings are used for tuning or pegs are twisted inside the laces.
The dholak is mainly a folk instrument, lacking the exact tuning and playing techniques of the tabla or the pakhawaj. The drum is pitched, depending on size, with an interval of perhaps a perfect fourth or perfect fifth between the two heads.
It is related to the larger Punjabi dhol and the smaller dholki.
The smaller surface of the dholak is made of goat skin for sharp notes and the bigger surface is made of buffalo skin for low pitches, which allows a combination of bass and treble with rhythmic high and low pitches.
The shell is sometimes made from sheesham wood (dalbergia sissoo) but cheaper dholaks may be made from any wood, such as mango. Sri Lankan dholaks and dholkis are made from hollowed coconut palm stems.
It is widely used in qawwali, kirtan, lavani and bhangra. It was formerly used in classical dance. Indian children sing and dance to it during pre-wedding festivities. It is often used in Filmi Sangeet (Indian film music), in chutney music, chutney-soca, baitak gana, taan singing, bhajans, and the local Indian folk music of Jamaica, Suriname, Guyana, Caribbean, South Africa, Mauritius, and Trinidad and Tobago, where it was brought by indentured immigrants. In the Fiji Islands the dholak is widely used for Indian folk music, bhajan and kirtan. It is mostly used in India.
The dholak's higher-pitched head is a simple membrane while the bass head, played usually with the left hand, has a compound syahi to lower the pitch and enable the typical Dholak sliding sound ("giss" or "gissa"), often the caked residue of mustard oil pressing, to which some sand and oil or tar may be added. The Sri Lankan version uses a large fixed tabla-style syahi on the middle of the bass skin.
In Pakistan, it is used during weddings by family members to sing folk and wedding songs at events known as dholkis.
The drum is either played on the player's lap or, while standing, slung from the shoulder or waist or pressed down with one knee while sitting on the floor.
Dholak masters are often adept at singing or chanting and may provide a primary entertainment or lead drumming for a dance troupe. Perhaps[according to whom?] the most characteristic rhythm played on the dhol is a quick double-dotted figure that may be counted in rhythmic solfege as "ONE -tah and -tah TWO -tah and -tah THREE-E -TAH, FOUR AND" (rest on "and") or simply a long string of double-dotted notes, over which the bass side is used for improvisation.
On large dholaks, known as dhols, the high-pitched head may be played using a thin (1/4" / 6 mm or less) long (over 14" / 30 cm) stick of rattan or bamboo (rattan is preferred for its flexibility) and the low-pitched drum head using a somewhat thicker, angled stick.
The dholki (Hindi/Urdu: pipe or tube) is often a bit narrower in diameter and uses tabla-style syahi masala on its treble skin. This instrument is also known as the naal. Its treble skin is stitched onto an iron ring, similarly to East Asian Janggu or Shime-daiko drums, which tenses the head before it is fitted. The bass skin often has the same structure as in ordinary dholak, being fitted on to a bamboo ring, but sometimes they have a kinar and pleated Gajra, as seen in tabla, to withstand the extra tension. Sri Lankan dholkis have high quality skins with syahi on both sides, producing a sound like a very high-pitched tabla and using a simplified tabla fingering. Steel tuning rings are not used - instead, wooden pegs are twisted to create a very high tension. The heads are created with triple stitching to withstand tension. Similar dholkis are in use in Maharashtra and elsewhere. Heavy hardwood dholaks are said[by whom?] to produce better sound than those carved of cheap unseasoned sapwood.
Similar drums with similar names are found elsewhere in western Asia.