The drum is usually played in a seated position, held vertically on the player's thigh and supported by his or her upper body and arm (usually on the left side, for a right-handed player), with the hand placed on the inside of the skin where it is able to control the tension (and therefore the pitch and timbre) by applying varying amounts of pressure and also the amount of surface area being played, with the back of the hand against the crossbar, if present. The drum is struck with the other arm (usually the right) and is played either with the bare hand or with a lathe-turned piece of wood called a "bone", "tipper", "beater", or "cipín". Tippers were originally fashioned from a double-ended knuckle bone, but are now commonly made from ash, holly or hickory. Brush-ended beaters, and a "rim shot" (striking the rim) technique for contrast, were introduced by Johnny McDonagh. There are numerous playing styles, mostly named after the region of Ireland in which they originated. The most common is Kerry style, which uses a two-headed tipper; the West Limerick style uses only one end of the tipper.
Later players such as Robbie Breathnach, Tommy Hayes, and Damien Quinn have developed sophisticated pitch-varying techniques which allow players to follow the tune being played. This was the birth of the “top-end” style. Their breakthrough in this style has achieved local and international acclaim with many beginners now being educated in this manner. This "top-end" style, is often played on a smaller (14-15 inch) and deeper (4-6 inch) drum with a thinner resonant skin, prepared like the skin of a Lambeg drum. The tipper in this style is usually straight and most of the expressive action is focused on the top end of the drum. The concept involves allowing a greater vs. lesser amount of the skin to resonate, with the "skin hand" acting as a moving bearing edge. To this end, top end players move the skin hand from the bottom of the drum and towards the top to generate increasingly high pitches on the drum. By making a "C" shape with the skin hand, the player can help to enhance and even amplify the sound. The same concept can be employed while playing at the front of the drum (skin hand moving towards and away from the player) or in a "bottom end" style, which is essentially top end, but upside-down, with the majority of tipper strikes at the bottom of the head. In any of these styles, crossbars are most often absent, allowing a more unrestricted access for the left hand to modify the tone. This enables a more melodic approach to this rhythm instrument, with a wide range of tones being employed.
When playing the bodhrán as an accompaniment to Irish music, different beats may be used. For example, reels have a 4/4 time. the bodhrán player must stick to this rhythm but is free to improvise within the structure: most simply, he may annunciate the first beat of four, making a sound like ONE two three four ONE two three four; but he can syncopate, put in double pulses, according to the rhythmic characteristics of the tunes being played. This is the difference between sensitive and insensitive playing, a matter of much concern to other traditional musicians. Because the bodhrán typically plays 16th notes (Kerry style), a great deal of variety can be introduced by these syncopations and the use of rests. Combined with manual pitch changes and naturally occurring tonal variations in an animal skin drumhead, the bodhrán can almost sound as melodically expressive as other non-percussive instruments.