The dhol is played using two wooden sticks, usually made out of wood, cane, or also known as wickers cane. The stick used to play the bass side of the instrument, known as the dagga in Punjabi. Traditionally the Dhol player would go and look for a branch from a hardwood tree known as Tali (oak or mahogany) that was naturally curved at that angle and use this as the Dagga (Bass Stick). The reason for the bend stick is because of the goat skin. This is thin like 80-100gsm paper, so the stick has to be bent to avoid piercing the skin. The bass stick or Dagga is the thicker of the two, and is bent in an eighth- or quarter-circular arc on the end that strikes the instrument. The other stick, known as the tihli, is much thinner and flexible and used to play the higher note end of the instrument.
The dhol is slung over the shoulder or, more rarely, around the neck of the player with a strap usually made up of woven cotton. The surface of the wooden barrel is in some cases decorated with engraved patterns and sometimes paint.
In the pre-Partition era, dozens of rhythms were played on the Punjabi dhol, which corresponded to specific functions. However, with the decline or disappearance of some cultural practices, recent generations of dhol-players have become unfamiliar with many of these. At the same time, the growth of folkloric staged bhangra dance in Punjab inspired the creation of many new rhythms particular to that dance.
Some of the most common Punjabi dhol rhythms are bhangra (originating with the old, community bhangra dance), dhamaal (associated with many cultural functions, including worship at Sufi shrines), and kaharva, a dance and song rhythm. The staged “bhangra” dance, originating in the 1950s, gave special prominence to kaharva, for the performance of actions called luddi. In the 1970s, many more actions were added to staged bhangra to go with the kaharva rhythm, which started to become one of the most prominent rhythms associated with the dance. At the same time, this type of rhythm would be played on the dholki drum to accompany Punjabi songs. So when, in the 1990s, Punjabi pop songs began to evoke bhangra dance, they used the kaharva rhythm. It is known now by various names. Some dhol-players call it kaharva, its technical name, while other players in Punjab call it luddi to refer to the dance of that name. With the style of dhol-playing that developed in the U.K., the name chaal was adopted—probably in reference to the “chaal” movements it accompanies in modern bhangra—however, that term is not used elsewhere. Johnny Kalsi is a UK Dhol player that established a syllabus to teach the art of playing this instrument. Although there is no official syllabus or phrasing for the learning process, he took the North Indian language of Tabla to visualise the beats as phonetic phrases to make the learning easier.