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Playing the Congas

Updated on October 16, 2014
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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.

Conga Drum Construction
Conga Drum Construction | Source

It's Conga Time!

Derived from hollow log drums of Africa, Conga drums of today were developed in Cuba for Afro-Cuban music. Conga drums have a drum head made of skin or hide, though synthetic heads are available which are less prone to the effects of temperature and humidity. Conga players slap the head of the drum with the palms of their hands and fingers producing a wide variety of sounds. Playing conga drums is fun and can fit with many styles of music.

Look carefully at the photo above. That is what a Conga drum looks like looking up through the bottom end, which is open. Conga drums are built with sections called staves, similar to the way barrels are made. Congas may or may not have bands of metal around the drum shell because many today are glued and then painted or decorated.

Congas are tall (about 30 inches average) and the top and bottom are smaller than the center. The bottom of a Conga drum is open so Conga drums must be elevated off the floor for the sound to spread around the room. For this reason they usually are sold with stands, either a tripod metal rack the drum slides into or stand which holds several Conga drums around a vertical metal tube.

Conga drums come in six sizes from around 9 inches up to 14 inches across the head of the drum. Here are the names of each size from small to large. The Ricardo is often played strapped to the body hanging at an angle across the midsection.







Conga Drum Head Lugs
Conga Drum Head Lugs | Source

Congas are Tunable Drums!

One of the advantages of Conga drums is that they are tunable. A matal ring or collar fits over the skin drum head and threaded metal hooks or rods attach to the collar (usually 4). These hooks/rods then slip through metal lugs attached to the body of the Conga (the shell) and nuts screw onto the threads on the ends of the hooks/rods. This way the player can tighten each rod so that the collar pulls down on the drum head evenly to get a musical "note" for that drum.

The player can tighten or loosen the nuts on the hook/rods to adjust the tension of the drum head for changes in temperature and humidity, which can make drum heads go out of tune. Cold will make the head shrink and rise in pitch while heat will loosen the head causing it to go lower in pitch.

Players usually "tune" drums to the tension that results in the best tone and comfort. Conga drums however, are sometimes tuned to specific notes - especially when there several drums played together as a set. Players might tune these to different notes that blend well together.

Some types of Conga drums are not tunable as the head is attached permanently, without adjusters. These are "Pre-tuned" at the factory. These Congas would be great for kids and many kid sized hand drums come with pre-tuned heads. One advantage of this is that there are no metal lugs or rods sticking out that could harm their small hands.

Congas are sold individually, or in sets, often with a metal stand included.

Tools of the Trade!

As I mentioned, many different sizes of Conga drums have been made but modern Conga drums fall into several standard sizes (measured across the drum head). These sizes are not fixed, but modern Congas need to be close to these sizes because drum head manufacturers like standarization and so do the Conga players!

Often professional Conga Players will have more than one Conga Drum so they can have several notes available any time. Sometimes Conga players have two drums of the same size but tune them to different notes. Just like other musicians, Conga players find instruments that work best for them and the music they play.

Professional percussionists will often be able to play the Congas (and other hand drums) but someone who specializes in the Congas only will be "in demand" for studio and live concert work. They will be more able to play just the right groove for any type of music.

Conga grooves or patterns are like other musical styles in that there are "classic" patterns that players know plus they will create or modify patterns for their own "signature" patterns.

Learning to Play Congas

Like any other musical instrument, mastering the Conga drums can take many years. The good news is that hand drums are easy to get started with and fun to play with other musicians, at parties, and by yourself!

Like any other musical instrument, if you start slow and work on the basics your skill will develop with regular practice. You can practice the Conga drum on your own by palying along with an instructional DVD. When you have the basic grooves down, then turn on your favorite music and play along! Next, check around and see if any of your friends play the guitar and play along with them. The Congas can fit with any style of music. Well, maybe not Mozart, but I bet someone has tried!

Today there are community social events called Drum Circles, and there might be one near you happening regularly. A Drum Circle is a friendly event where people of all ages gather in a circle and play drums and other instruments together. The person who leads the Drum Circle is called the Facilitator and that person ensures that new people have as much fun as the regulars.

A Ricardo Conga with a strap would be a great first hand drum for participating in a Drum Circle because you can play it stting or standing and you can even dance around while playing!

Conga Instruction DVD's

BIG Drum Circle!

Conga Drums For Kids!

Include your children in the musical fun! Kids love to play the drums, and hand drums are a great way to get them started playing a musical instrument!

Musical instruments for kids can be an important addition to your child's education. Playing a musical instrument with others teaches cooperation, focus, listening skills and how to be a team player! Hand drums, like the Congas, are a great way to expand your child's love of music.

Remo makes a fantastic line of Kid's Percussion instruments and one is called the Kid's Konga. The shell is made of a special fiberglass that resonates like wood and the head is pre-tuned. It even includes the strap!

Hand drumming is a fun and educational way to expand a child's horizons. Participatory music engages the child's body, mind and spirit in ways other activities cannot. Playing with others teaches cooperation and respect but overall it is FUN!

Your Comments!

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    • ladyguitarpicker profile image

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

      Sounds like fun, I would like to try them with my grand kids.

    • srsddn lm profile image

      srsddn lm 5 years ago

      Quite interesting. Did not know much about Congas. Thanks for sharing.

    • robertzimmerman2 profile image

      Robert Zimmerman 5 years ago from SE Florida, USA

      @jdwheeler: You're welcome, thanks for visiting!

    • jdwheeler profile image

      jdwheeler 5 years ago

      Learned something about the congas. Thanks.