Whether you have an interest in collecting or playing the conga, or the bongos, these rhythmic instruments are essential to some of the most influential music throughout the world. Considered tribal by some or spiritual by others, the bongos and the conga are an instrument that people from all walks of life can enjoy playing, listening to, or simply appreciating from an aesthetic standpoint.
These percussive instruments are used in a variety of applications and have, for many years, been prominently featured in a variety of musical styles, from blues to jazz to rock and roll. The versatility is what makes the conga and the bongos such an interesting instrument.
Rarely does one find an instrument that is capable of being played –and made to sound at least fairly decent to a layman’s ears- by a relative beginner, but the conga and bongos appeal to so many people for this very reason. Just sitting down (or standing up next to the conga), one can begin tapping away at the skin covering of the drum. Moving the hand around to different locations will produce different and unique sounds, from lower tones in the middle to higher tones at the edge.
There are different techniques used to play the bongos and the conga, but the hands are the tool of choice for most professional players. Using open palms and partly closed fingers, as well as the side of the thumb will generate a host of percussive sounds that complement just about any musical style quite nicely.
Conga and bongos are popular among college students as they add some texture to the lifestyle of living in dorms, and can be a centerpiece for parties. A social gathering conversation, so to speak.
For those individuals who don’t have any musical talents whatsoever and can’t keep a beat no matter how hard they try, conga and the bongos can become an artistic statement within the home. Conga can be placed directly on the ground, though this isn’t recommended, as an end table style of décor or be used on a stand. Since the conga and bongos are made from various forms of wood, they can be designed in any color and can even be painted in portraits, landscapes, abstract images, and more.
When you step into the world of the conga or the bongos (or both), you step into a wonderful world of music that connects people at a visceral level. The sound produced from conga and bongos reaches deep into the psyche and the soul and resonates there. There are few musical instruments that can truly be shared by just about everyone at any time and that makes the conga and bongos extremely unique.
The conga, also know as a tumbadora, is a tall, narrow, single-headed Cuban drum with African precursor. Most congas / stand approximately 75 cm from the bottom of the shell to the head.
There are five basic strokes:
• Open tone (or abierto): played with the four fingers near the rim of the head, making a clear resonant tone with a distinct pitch.
• Muffled tone (or tapado): like the open tone, is made by striking the drum with four fingers, but keeping the fingers against the head to muffle the tone
• Bass tone (or bajo de palma): played with the full palm on the head. It makes a low muted sound.
• Slap (or seco): the most difficult technique makes a loud clear "popping" sound
• Touch (or toque de punta): is produced by just touching the fingers or heel of the palm to the drum head.
Bongo or bongos are a Cuban percussion instrument with a pair of single-headed, open-ended drums attached to each other.
Bongo drums produce relatively high-pitched sounds compared to conga drums, and should be held between the knees with the larger drum on the right when right-handed.
Getting Started: What Comes First?
If your interest in the conga or the bongos is to be able to play them, then there are some questions to ask yourself first. Do you wish to excel at this instrument? Do you have any previous musical experience? Or are you simply planning to dabble in it for a while and see what happens?
Perhaps you’re a member of a performing group or band and want to add the element of the bongos or the conga to your routine, especially on a few songs. For the purposes of this How To article, it will be assumed that you are a musical novice and are looking to learn how to play the conga, or the bongos.
You can certainly sign up for musical lessons and, depending on where you live, you may find some professional musicians who have experience enough with the instruments to be able to teach them. Most percussion musicians, from jazz musicians to orchestra percussion performers, have had at least some experience with the conga or the bongos.
Music lessons can be quite expensive, especially for those individuals who have some significant musical experience, training, and education. This might not be reasonable, or even feasible to spend up to a hundred dollars or more per half hour lesson to learn the conga or the bongos. The best bet is to discover whether you have a hidden passion for music and more importantly, for the conga and/or the bongos.
While you don’t need to have the instrument to begin learning, you can certainly use substitute objects in order to get the feel. As far as learning the techniques, there are many wonderful teaching methods available across the Internet. Videos and images are one way to learn the art of playing the conga or the bongos without requiring you to take lessons.
If money is an issue, then conga is probably not the route to take in the beginning, as they are generally far more expensive than bongos. Conga can cost up to and even more than $1,000 US while a cheap set of bongos can cost well under $100 US. There are, of course, many used instruments for sale around the country, but it would be advisable to determine your true level of interest in the instrument before going out and spending a significant sum of money on one.
What You Need: If Not the Instrument
It may sound strange that you don’t really need a pair of conga or bongos in order to begin learning. This is unlike most other instruments that you will find throughout the world and that is one of the features that makes it so appealing to so many people.
If you don’t have access to bongos or a conga and don’t have the money to spend right now on a set, then you can use a number of different items in its place. The most popular happens to be plastic buckets turned upside down. A bucket without a lip on the underside is ideal, though if you use one with a lip, or a ridge, then you will want to be careful not to injure your fingers on it by hitting too hard.
Other items that people have commonly used as substitutes for bongos include pots and pans, especially large sauce pots and sauce pans, and even books. The idea isn’t necessarily the sound, but the rhythm of using your hands to create percussive sounds.
Look around your house and you will likely find a number of items that are ideal for using as a substitute for bongos or the conga. All you really need to get started with the learning to play the bongos or the conga is a surface to hit against.
Tips and Tricks
Learning any musical instrument requires time, patience, and practice. It also requires a little thing called dedication. For those individuals who have no musical abilities or inclination, who can’t tap their foot to the rhythm of a song, it doesn’t mean that your musical life, or journey has come to an end.
Rhythm can be taught and learned. There are simple strategies that you can use to help you develop rhythm and slowly ease into being able to keep tempo with music on the stereo and then eventually with other musicians.
Use a metronome
One of the most important facets to learning and improving in music is by the use of the metronome. Traditional metronomes use a pendulum swinging action to create a click. The tempo can be adjusted to fit any pace or style of play. Modern metronomes are often digital and can produce any type of sound, from simple digital clicks to beeps to instrument sounds, such as a snare drum.
You can find inexpensive metronomes used or new at just about any musical instrument store. When you first start using your metronome, simply tap your foot or your hand (or both) to the rhythm of the beeps, or clicks. Every time the metronome clicks, you should tap your foot or hand.
Start out slow and then work up through the different tempos. In time, you will be able to do this without thinking about it. When you feel comfortable, stop the metronome and attempt to keep a tempo on your own. This separation from the assistance of the metronome may require some practice.
When you can keep time with your foot or hand without a metronome, then listen to your favorite music and follow along with the beat of those songs. Again, this may take some time and getting used to, so be patient. You may have to go back and forth with the metronome and the music until you ‘lock in’ to it.
In time, anyone can manage this and become musically and tempo-rally adept.
Take the conga or the bongos and play along with your favorite songs
Once you have acquired some decent rhythm, then it’s time for you to play along to your favorite music. You do not need to own a set of conga or bongos to get used to playing with the music, as any of the aforementioned items will work nicely for this purpose.
The idea here is to engage in real time performance.
When you are able to do this, and the desire is still there, if you don’t already own bongos or conga, then it’s time to head out and find some.
Buying the Right Conga or Bongos
There will be many different brands and styles of conga and bongos to choose from. When it comes to bongos, it doesn’t have to be aesthetically pleasing because they can be stored out of sight if you have company coming over. However, conga, due to their size, should be something that is almost considered a piece of furniture that you will display in your home.
You don’t want to have to stuff the conga in the closet when you have guests over, so pay attention to the appearance. Some used conga may have considerable wear on them and these may not be the right conga for you at this time. It pays sometimes to spend a little extra and get the right set for you and your home. Unless, of course, you plan on taking your act on the road.
Frequently Asked Questions
I have no musical abilities, but I think conga look nice. Is this wrong?
Many people collect instruments that they have no ability to play. Conga are exceptionally attractive as show pieces, especially under the direction of a qualified interior decorator. Collecting conga and bongos can be a passion for some people and they may go their entire existence without ever being played.
My child wants to learn to play the conga or the bongos. What should I do?
When a child expresses interest in learning a musical instrument, encourage it. Bongos are a great stepping stone into a larger world of music and they are generally inexpensive.
Music is a part of our heritage and it is primordial for millions of people. The sound and rhythm of conga and bongos touched deep within the soul and can bring joy, happiness, and laughter to many people. It isn’t necessary to know anything about music to simply dabble with bongos. Over time, one naturally improves and develops his or her own unique style of playing.
The bongos and the conga are simply one of those unique instruments that crosses genres, styles, and ability levels and is accessible to just about anyone.