Bongos are hand drums that are essential to Afro-Cuban and other Latin music. These drums are extremely versatile and because they are relatively easy to transport, they can add richness to Latin music and acoustic performance alike because they are perfect for improvisation.
About Bongo Drums
Bongo drums are usually held with the smaller drum (called the macho) against one thigh and the larger drum (called the hembra) against the opposite calf. They can also be placed on a stand to play while standing up. Placing them on a stand reduces back strain, which is a definite plus for some players. Perfecting playing technique can take years, but rudimentarily, the drums are played by striking the drum heads with the pads of your fingers.
How to Play the Bongo Drums
There are four basic hand motions involved in playing the bongos. First, the open tone. Begin by hitting the head with the knuckle part of your fingers and letting them bounce off. The sound can change depending on where the head is hit so experiment with placement. Eventually, try to eliminate any ringing sound. Second, the muted tone. Strike the head the same way as with the open tone, but instead of letting your fingers bounce, let them rest on the head. The resulting sound should be just your fingers hitting the drum, no resonance. The third is known as the slap. By slightly cupping your fingers and striking the head, a louder, more accented note is produced. The fourth is likely the trickiest and involves rolling your hand on the head from the heel to your fingertips.
How to Buy Good Bongos
There are a lot of things to consider when buying bongos. First, be sure to get a pair with tuning hardware; those without are more useless accessories than playable instruments. Quality tuning hardware is key. Don’t invest in bongo drums with cheap metal rims that look like they could be easily bent with pliers. Quality rims are welded or die-cast into shape instead of being stamped. Also, note the gap between the tuning ring and the shell—a more snug fit means better tuned bongos. As for the heads, look for hides that are glossy and smooth and not damaged by bleaching. Stay away from heads that are too rough or dry.
The instrument is traditionally made of wood, though fiberglass bongos are becoming more popular and can sound very good. Also, the heads are traditionally rawhide but they can also be made of synthetic materials. There are many excellent, very expensive bongos on the market, though they are not always in the price range of many beginners or even intermediate players. One great set of bongos is the Meinl Freeride Bongos. At a moderate price, these bongos could fit your budget while still being very high-quality. LP Bongos are also very well made and can found for a good price.