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.
Anatomy of the Bongos
The structure of the bongo consists of 3 main elements:
- Shell/centerblock materials – which can be made out of wood or fiberglass
- Hardware – which includes rims, lugs, (and a stand) as well as steel-reinforced bearing edges on some high end models
- Drum head – which can either be made of animal hide or synthetic material.
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…
1. Shell Materials
The shell can be made out of two materials :
Now, let’s see how these materials compare…
- If you’re looking for the original instrument, that’s the one
- An organic material, wood is weather sensitive, which means it might suffer slight structural changes from extreme humidity or brutal changes in weather.
- It has a warm and deep sound (especially when paired with a rawhide head)
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.
Watch the video below and compare it to the next one to get a better idea of how different wood and fiberglass bongos sound:
- Bright and resonant sound, which is ideal for live performances and for playing with amplified instruments
- They are lighter than wood bongos…
- …And also tougher as they’re not weather sensitive and are resistant to scratch
Again, check out this video to compare the sound of this type of bongos with wooden ones:
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:
- The “no-rim” bongos – which is obviously not their official name but since they really don’t have any rim, let’s call them that way for the sake of this article.
- The “single-rim” bongos – which you might have owned when you were a kid.
- The regular bongos (with 2 rims)
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 :
- Not fully tunable
- Not durable
- Not really playable, because of the screws sticking out
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 :
- Rawhide – which is made from animal hides
- Synthetic material – which is made out of various plastic derivatives
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:
- An overall warmer and wider tone.
- A Less stable tuning – sudden weather changes or extreme humidity will affect their tuning.
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:
- They require less maintanence
- They allow to create a unique high end hit sound on the rim.
- They are more durable and are not affected by weather changes
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
- 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)
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:
- Tycoon Master Series – (Amazon)
- Gon Bops Alex Acuna Series – (Amazon)
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 :