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Playing the Bongos

Updated on October 16, 2014
robertzimmerman2 profile image

Robert is from south-east Florida and serves the world as a reference librarian. Also a musician, Bob plays bass in a Indie cover band.

Bongo Drums
Bongo Drums | Source

Do you Bongo?

Everyone (I hope) loves the sound of Bongo drums. Those portable, easy to play hand drums that make any event "groovy". I've been a percussionist since 1967 so I have enjoyed playing Bongo drums for a long time. I'm not a professional "Bongocero" but I can lay down a hip beat when I need to!

The Bongos simple yet recognizable sound lends itself to not only Latin music but Rock, Jazz, Fusion and many other styles.

Here is some interesting information about Bongo drums and how YOU can easily learn to play them. Playing the Bongos is FUN!

Island of Cuba
Island of Cuba | Source

Where did Bongo Drums Originate?

The Island of Cuba!

Bongo drums are percussion instruments (that means you strike them to get a sound) originally from the Caribbean island of Cuba. Sometime during the 1800's the bongos developed on the eastern end of Cuba. These were simple wooden tubes with skin tacked over one end to form the drum head. Today, better quality Bongo drums are made with staves, like barrels. This gives the drum shell more strength for the tuning hoops.

Bongo drums migrated west along the island of Cuba and became an important part of the music in the capital of Havana just after the 1900s. Many bands used Bongos and other sizes of drums (and percussion instruments), but the Bongos were often a featured instrument as the sound is higher pitched and they are easy to move around.

Bongo drums are actually two separate drums that are connected close together by separate small piece of wood. The connection piece is small so the two drums will be close together for easy playing. One drum is always larger than the other. The smaller, higher pitched drum is known as the male or "macho" and the larger, lower pitched drum the female of "hembra". that is how the Bongo drums produce their recognizable sound.

This Guy can PLAY the Bongos! - Video courtesy of tomasm007

How are the Bongos Played?

So, you are interested in how to play Bongo drums? No problem! The Bongo drums are usually played sitting down. The player holds the Bongos between his/her legs so that each drum is held behind one knee. This way, the drums are at a slight angle tilting down away from the player so the player's hands rest naturally on the drum heads. The Hembra (larger) drum is on the right side and the Macho (smaller) drum on the left.

The player strikes the drum heads near the edge with their fingers, palms or thumbs to get different sounds but basically the Hembra produces a lower pitch than the Macho. Using a combination of one hand on each drum or both hands on one drum, the player can make complicated patterns that form the driving rhythm of the music. The skin of the drum heads are tight enough to make the correct sound but loose enough that the player can press the skin to raise the pitch higher. The player can also run a finger across the skin to make longer notes. The majority of the time the player slaps the skin near the edge of the drum head with their fingers or thumb.

In modern bands, Bongo drums are usually placed on an adjustable stand so they can be played by the drummer (low, beside the drum set), or out in front of the band so members can take turns playing the Bongos while standing. Also, there may be other percussion instruments attached to the Bongo stand such as tambourine, wood block, scratcher and cow bell that the Bongo player can add to the mix anytime.

The great thing about Bongo drums is that anyone can get a great sound the first time they play yet there is so much variety possible that you always have new things to try to learn. Some people use bongos as a form of relaxation. Just focus on creating a steady beat and you will forget about your worries for a time. Just don't do this at 3:00 in the morning or you might be forced to give them up to the Police! You do not want to give the Bongos a bad reputation!

Bongo Instruction

Luckily for new Bongo players there are many quality instructional DVD's available to get you started and keep you growing. You might check around your hometown and see if there are any other Bongo players, Percussionists or any other musicians you can "jam" with. Or, just take your Bongos to the park or the beach and see who follows the sound. You might meet a new friend, but please be courteous, you don't want your "new friend" to be an "Officer-o-da-Law!"

The important thing with any musical instrument is to have fun and keep learning by trying new ideas every week. Playing the Bongo drums can be an inexpensive and satisfying hobby and a great way to entertain your friends at the next party!

Bongo Instruction

If you have Bongo instructors in your area, that is the best way to learn. You might, however, be the only person you know wishing to play the Bongos or you might want to keep your "Bongo Fever" a secret until you feel you are a better player.

An instructional DVD is the answer, BUT, remember that percussion instruments do make noise (Hey, that's the point, right?) so if you are a "Closet Bongoist" you might want to set up a laptop and speakers in a, well, a CLOSET to maintain your identity!

Bongo Grooves

As you advance beyond playing basic Bongo patterns, you should check out an instructional DVD focusing on classic Bongo "Grooves." This way you can not only hear the pattern played by itself but see the instructor as the pattern is played. This really helps as you play and practice along with the instructor!

Bongo Instruction Videos

What I play

I have played drums and percussion for many years and always have various hand percussion around to bring to musical jam sessions. That way, even guests who don't play an instrument can join the fun!

For my Bongos, I selected an instrument called the Bongo Cajon, which is constructed very differently than traditional Bongos but sound and play the same. Cajons are wooden box instruments originally from South America and the Bongo Cajon is a small box that has two compartments, one larger than the other. This creates the classic Macho and Hembra, high and low sounds.

What I mostly like about the Bongo Cajon is it does not need to be tuned and since there is no skin, it is impervious to the South Florida humidity. I "could" play in the rain!

Tell us your dream of being a World Famous Bongo Drummer!

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    • ladyguitarpicker profile image

      stella vadakin 3 years ago from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619

      I always wanted to try these. Who knows maybe someday. Nice hub.