They might go unnoticed many times, but pay attention and you’ll hear bongos in almost all musical genres.
From the most obvious ones, like latin music, to the ones you wouldn’t even suspect, like mainstream pop, bongos always manage to add a unique touch to the rhythm section of a song.
And whether you’re a drummer looking to try out a new percussion instrument or just a curious newbie attracted by its exhilarating pitch…
Bongos are a great way to start playing afro cuban rhythms.
Yet, they’re sometimes not regarded as “serious” instruments, and that’s probably because so many badly made models are sold.
But if you’re looking to sort between the good and the bad, you’ve come to the right place…
Because for today’s post I created a guide to help you understand the differences between bongos and find the right one for you.
Sounds good? Then let’s start.
The structure of the bongo consists of 3 main elements:
The big drum is called the “hembra” (female in Spanish) and the small one the “macho” (male).
You’d have guessed the opposite? Don’t worry, me too.
And up next we will examine each of these parts in more detail.
Starting off with…
The shell can be made out of two materials :
Now, let’s see how these materials compare…
Any hardwood (like oak) will do, but most good and high end models seem to be made out of Siam Oak, sometimes refered to as rubber tree.
Stay away from softwoods (like pine) as they don’t project as much sound.
Freeride System :
Freeride system is the name given by Meinl to a new type of centerblock.
This centerblock avoids drilling holes in the shell, thus “maximizing the amount of resonance and warm tones“
And according to customers reviews, these bongos really sound better than “regular centerblock” bongos.
Users qualify the sound as overall more powerful.
Now, after watching videos and trying to compare the sound of Freeride bongos and regular bongos, I have to admit I couldn’t really hear much of a difference.
The fact is that by avoiding drilling holes in the shell, you don’t loose any sound while playing, which can only be beneficial.
In this section I wanted to talk about the types of bongos you should avoid if you want a decently playable instrument.
Here are the three options:
Take the first model, for instance…
The “no-rim” bongo is what the very first bongos looked like. In fact, they have no hardware whatsoever and the only way to tune them was to hold them over a fire, so that the heat would loosen the head.
So as you can guess they’re not a very practical option.
They can be a good choice for kids.
These bongos do have “tuning screws” so you’d think you’d be able to tune them…
In fact, this type of bongos is :
And let me explain you why exactly…
While a regular tuning lug can handle a great deal of tension in order to offer a wide range of sound, the lugs on this type of bongos are much smaller, meaning they can’t bear as much tension.
Another inconvenient of these screws is that they’re sticking EXACTLY where your hands play, meaning you’ll end up hurting your hands while playing.
As for the rims, they are made of stamped metal which will bend after some use. The centerblock is often made of plastic.
All in all, I do not recommend this type of bongos.
These are the “real” bongos. Their rims are joined together by tuning lugs which guarantee a fully tunable instrument.
You’ll also notice that the edges of the head don’t have anything sticking out that might hurt your hands while playing, since the tuning keys aren’t on the upper rim, but on the lower one.
One feature you’ll sometimes see on some LP high-end fiberglass models is reinforced bearing edges, molded into the fiberglass to provide added strength and durability to the heads.
Bongos heads can be made out of two materials :
Now, after taking a look at this image… You’ll probably wonder, just like I did :
Hold on a second, didn’t they swap these?
Well the answer is no, and my guess is that bongo heads manufacturers tried to replicate the look of rawhide heads on their synthetic heads.
So, anyway, let’s see how these two materials compare, starting with…
This was the material used for manufacturing all percussion instruments drumheads up until the year 1957, when the brand Remo developed the first polymer drumhead.
History aside, what you’ll get with a rawhide drumhead is:
Synthetic drumheads might be disregarded by many purist players, but the fact is…
They were a major breakthrough when they first appeared on the market back in the 50’s because they offered the following advantages:
Moreover, they’ve come a long way and the technology used today is so convenient that nowadays, most professional musicians use synthetic heads.
So it’s now time to see my…
Let’s now see which are the best models available on each of the categories we just covered.
I don’t recomend no-rim and single-rim bongos because they are of significantly lower quality than dual-rim bongos for almost the same price
Compared to rawhide heads, synthetic heads are much less popular, but if you still care to check them out, here are a few great examples:
The most common tuning are to either tune the Macho and the Hembra an octave apart, or to tune the Macho a perfect fourth above the Hembra…
But as you’ll see in the video down below, there aren’t really any rules apart from you liking the final sound.
There ARE however some basic rules to follow as to HOW to tune the bongos:
Some online sources will recommend that you detune your bongos every time you finish playing them…which in theory is probably ideal…
However…I don’t personally know anyone who actually does that. So don’t feel like you have to if you’re too lazy.
If you do want to detune your bongos, make sure to do so in a circular, counterclockwise direction.
If you use synthetic heads, no maintenance is required… however, if you use rawhide heads, you will need to apply some oil on them from time to time, like almond oil or lanolin.
Keep in mind you will likely not do it every week or even month, but rather when you’re able to feel your head is really dry.
By doing so, you will allow the skin to vibrate better, thus increasing its volume and tonality.
You can use standard almond or lanolin oils like these ones :