If you’re a drummer or percussionist looking to get into bongos, well you’ve come to the right place.
Because in today’s ultimate guide, I’m going to teach you everything a musician would want to know (and nothing they wouldn’t)…
When first starting out on this awesome instrument.
With bongos particularly, since often not regarded as a “serious instrument”…
It’s easy to get tricked into buying a toy, when what you’re really looking for is a tool.
But by the end of this post, you won’t have to worry about that problem anymore. So here we go…
Anatomy of the Bongos
To understand this particular instrument, it’s best to start off by breaking down its components.
And so, the bongos consist of 3 main parts:
- The Shells – connected by a center block
- The Rim – which is used to secure and tune the drumhead
- The Drumhead – either synthetic or rawhide
So right now, let’s take a look at each of these parts in closer detail.
Starting off with…
1. Shells: Wood or Fiberglass?
On the bongos, the big drum is called the “hembra” (female in Spanish) and the small one the “macho” (male).
Most people would guess the opposite, but yes that’s actually how it is.
And they are connected by a centerblock, usually of the same material as the shell.
For a warmer, deeper, organic sound, a wood shell is ideal, typically harder woods such as Oak.
Many higher-end models are made of Siam Oak, (aka the rubber tree).
Fiberglass shells on the other hand, have a bright resonant sound that is ideal for amplification in live performances.
Compared to wood, fiberglass is also lighter, more durable, and more weather resistant…all qualities that are ideal for live performances.
So you could say in summary, that wood is better for the studio, while fiberglass is better for the stage.
2. Rims: SINGLE vs DUAL vs None
Depending on the model, a bongo’s hardware can come in 1 of 3 designs:
- No Rim – which is the common design on cheaper toy bongos
- Single Rim – which drills holes into the side of the shell to secure the lugs
- Dual Rim – which has a rim on both the top and bottom of the shell.
Originally, the “no rim” design was how all bongos were made. The only way to tune them was to hold them over a fire, so that the heat would loosen the head.
These days however, they’re mostly used only on toy models.
While single rim bongos might look like a step up in quality, they’re really not. You can’t really tune them well. The lugs kill the shells resonance. And worst of all, they aren’t even playable because the screws stick out on the rim.
So really, the ONLY option that is actually tunable and playable is dual rim bongos.
3. Drumheads: Rawhide or Synthetic?
Bongos heads are made from 1 of 2 materials :
Originally, rawhide was the only option, not only for bongos, but for all types of drums…
Up until 1957 when Remo developed the first synthetic alternative that quickly became popularized.
Oddly enough, when you examine these two types of heads side by side…
You will almost certainly mistake one for the other. The rawhide looks synthetic, while the synthetic looks natural.
In terms of sound, rawhead has an overall warmer and wider tone. And is the option of choice for purist players.
Synthetic heads on the other hand, allow players to create a unique high-end hit on the rim. They are also much more durable and weather resistant as well.
Our Top Recommended Bongo Models
To sum up what we’ve covered so far…
- Wood vs Fiberglass Shells is a preference.
- Rawhide vs Synthetic Heads is a preference.
- While DUAL RIMs are a necessity
So based on these conclusions, here are the bongo models currently on the market that are most likely to meet your expectations:
- Toca Bongo – (Amazon/Thomann)
- LP Matador – (Amazon/Thomann)
- LP Galaxy Giovanni Series – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Meinl Mini FreeRide – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Meinl FreeRide – (Amazon/Thomann)
- Meinl Radial Ply – (Amazon)
- Tycoon Master Series – (Amazon)
- Gon Bops Alex Acuna Series – (Amazon)
The Meinl “Freeride System” Center Block
While almost all bongo shells are connected by a solid center block (either wood or plastic)…
That is drilled into the shell on both ends….
A new recent design by Meinl is said to improve the overall tone of the instrument by avoiding this connection point…
And maintaining acoustic isolation between each of the drums.
According to customers reviews, they really do sound better than “regular centerblock” bongos.
We already linked to it earlier, but here’s the links one more time:
How to Tune Your Bongos
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:
- Give each nut/screw the same amount of turns
- Start with a nut then go to the next one clockwise, as opposed to cross pattern tuning on a regular drumkit.
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.
But rather than explaining the process with words, check out this very helpful video :
How to Maintain Your Bongos
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 :
The 6 Chapters of E-Home Recording Studio
More Drum/Percussion Posts in this Series:
Drum Sets | Electronic Drums | Snares | Drumheads | Cymbals | Djembe | Bongos | Cajon | Conga | Cowbell | Tambourines | Vibraphones | Xylophones | Marimbas | Glockenspiels | Metronomes | Drum Thrones | Drumsticks | Ride Cymbals