Beginner Guide: How to Play Congas | Drums

07/02/2020
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When you think of Latin and Afro-Cuban music…

Congas are very often one of the first instruments to come to mind…

And, along with bongos, they are inseparable from the rhythmic foundation of this music.

But why is that?

Well, first of all, one of the main characteristics of Afro-Cuban music is Rhythm.

And without congas, you can bet a Salsaband wouldn’t sound half as good, and would probably be completely lost.

So…

Whether you’re a drummer looking to finally play that awesome Afro-Cuban rhythm on an original, traditional Cuban instrument…

Or whether you just want to learn how to play a hand percussion instrument…

I have in today’s post everything you need to know about Congas.

Sounds good? Then let’s start.

First up…

Anatomy of  the Congas

Congas consist of 3 main parts:

  1. The Shell – which can be made out of wood or fiberglass
  2. The Hardware – which includes the rim, tuning lugs, and “belly bands” on some models.
  3. The Head – which can be made out of rawhide or synthetic material

So let’s now see how each of these parts influence the sound of the instrument…

Starting with…

1. Shell

Congas’ shells can either be made out of:

  • Wood – which has a warm, deepsound, or…
  • Fiberglass – which has a crisp and louder sound

Wood shells are weather sensitive, which means they may slightly bend/change shape under given circumstances, which will make you tune your instrument more frequently than a fiberglass conga.

They are also heavier than fiberglass shells but have a warmer and deeper sound, which is neither better nor worse, just different.

The two most common types of woods are:

  • Siam Oak
  • American Ash

Now, the difference in sound between these two woods is negligible.  But what seems to distinguish them is their durability, as ash is considered a harder type of wood.

2. Hardware

Conga hardware is typically made up of two main components:

  1. The Rim – which holds the head onto the shell
  2. The Tuning Lugs – which are used to tune the conga head

With certain congas there may also be a 3rd hardware component known as “belly bands”…

Which were used to reinforce the shell of the instrument back in the days.

Nowadays though, whith three ply stave, fiberglass reinforced shells, the construction is more resistant than ever and the need for these parts is gone, so they’re there for aesthetic reasons.

So how different can these parts be, from one model to the other? Well, let’s first take a look at…

The Rim

Look at the image on the right. What you see is a flat, upright traditional rim, and a more modern, curved rim.

Many of today’s popular models use rims with rounded edges, to avoid hurting your hands while playing in certain positions, which happens inevitably with traditional, flat rims.

LP’s Comfort Curve II rims have an extended collar (higher distance between the conga’s bearing edge and the rim) which allows for an even greater sound range, thanks to a larger playing surface.

They’re also more comfortable, “moving the major impact point from the palm of the hand to the heel of the hand.”, according to LP.

The Tuning Lugs

Another factor to take into consideration is the thickness of the tuning lugs: usually, the more expensive the congas, the thicker the lugs… And thicker lugs mean a long-lasting tuning, as well as an overall more durable instrument.

Tuning lugs’ thickness ranges from 7 mm to 10 mm.

The brand Meinl created a new way of installing the tuning lugs. The system is called “Floatune” and avoids drilling holes into the shell to fix the side plates.

This results in the hardware being completely isolated from the shell, “reducing the resonant vibration of the shell” according to the brand.

Now…

Very few material is available to compare these shells to a regular one, apart from low quality videos…

But basically, the metal “stripes” are secured to the bottom of the drum, as opposed to sideplates on regular congas.

And while I’m sure they are a breakthrough in conga shell construction, they’re positioned on the high-end…

So I would probably wait until there is a bit more material and reviews available before purchasing them.

3. Head

Conga heads come in two types of materials:

  • Rawhide – which produce a warmer deeper sound, but are more weather sensitive
  • Synthetic – which are not weather sensitive, and produce a brighter, crisper sound.

In general though, the vast majority of congas come with rawhide heads, so you can mostly disregard the synthetic options.

But if one day you feel like trying something new and changing your heads, at least you’ll know what to expect from them.

Besides their weather sensitivity, the other downside of rawhide heads is that they require more maintenance, that is applying almond oil or lanolin when they become very dry.

Next up…

Sizes

The term “conga” actually refers to one particular size of this instrument.

In fact, there are five different sizes:

  • Requinto – 9.75″
  • Quinto – 11″
  • Conga – 11.75″
  • Tumba – 12.5″
  • Retumbadora/Super tumba – 14″

Note that there are a ton of name variations for these sizes, and brands often have their own…

But the three most common are:

  • Quinto
  • Conga
  • Tumba

And the 3 most common setup combos are:

  • Quinto/Conga
  • Conga/Tumba
  • Quinto/Conga/Tumba  

And if you were to buy only one drum, go for a conga, as it’s the size that offers the most versatile sound range.

Got it? Good. Now onto the next part:

Recommended Congas

Currently, the two predominant brands on the market are:

  • Latin Percussion
  • Meinl

And to a lesser extent you’ll also find popular models form GonBops and Toca

As I mentioned earlier, you’ll notice that the vast majority of congas on my list feature rawhide heads…

And only the brand GonBops seems to be currently selling congas with synthetic heads.

Here are my recommendations, from low-end to high-end models:

LP

Meinl

The brand Toca specializes in entry level, affordable instruments, and here are my recommendations:

Finally, the brand Gon Bops is positionned on the higher end, with a more “craftsman” and traditional approach. Also, it’s the only brand that sells congas with synthetic heads.

How to tune your Congas

When tuning congas, it doesn’t really matter if you use a cross pattern tuning (like on drumkits), or just tune one lug after the other.

The only rule is to give each nut the sameamount of turns, so that the head remains perfectly flat.

As for the intervals, many players recommend that you tune your congas with an interval of either a perfect 4th or a major/minor 3rd apart…

In the video below, the conguero tunes his tumba and conga a major 3rd apart, and his conga and quinto a perfect 4th apart.

You can also tune them to the key of the song you’re going to play but, in fact, almost nobody does that as it would be a lot of work to retune your congas before each tune.

How to maintain your congas

There are two parts of the conga that require some level of maintenance:

  • The head – if it’s made of rawhide, apply some almond oil or lanolin when it feels very dry.
  • The tuning lugs – to make tuning even easier, some percussionists lubricate the tuning lugs with some oil, and synthetic oil seem to be a popular choice among them.

Note that some of the recommended congas already come with a tuning wrench AND a bottle of lug oil. Anyway, here are the products I recommend: