How to Play the Bongo Drums? – Tips for Beginners

Not every experienced drummer knows how to play the bongo drums. While they look simpler than the traditional 5-piece drum set, bongo drums are different. They came from the family of Latin musical instruments and are widely used in salsa and merengue rhythms. Although the bongo technique can be learned by any amateur at any age, you still have to put in a lot of effort to achieve advanced results. While these drums still look like foreigners and newcomers in our country, they have a rich and long history in South America, Puerto Rico, and Cuba. If you are good with rhythm and want to play unique dancing melodies, you can learn to play bongo.

Guide to Your First Bongo Drums


Check out this brief but helpful guide. Hopefully, you will learn how to play the bongo drum with this information. If you want to go further, you can subscribe to online classes or watch tutorials available on YouTube. Nevertheless, spend some time learning the basics here.

About bongos

The simple answer to the question “what are bongos?” is that they are drums. They are hand drums that came from Cuba, to be specific. Music experts believe that they are a derivative of African drums. Bongos normally look like traditional percussion instruments. They have a circular frame of wood with a drum head. The drum head is covered with animal skin or, in some cases, with a substitute made of synthetic.

There is also a set of bongo drums, which consists of two pieces: a big drum also known as the hembra, and a small drum called macho. You can rarely hear them solely, without other musical instruments. The average Cuban melody contains conga drums, clave, and timbales, apart from the bongo set. Sometimes musicians add djembe, tambourine, and Cajon to diversify the music. Usually, musicians learn how to play standard drums before playing the bongo. Many percussionists who play Latin music can easily switch between the drums.

Rhythms of bongo

Bongo rhythms were born in eastern Cuba at the beginning of the 1900-s. The region was populated with descendants of Angola and Congo. African-Cubans lived with their families in tight communities, listening to the native rhythms of Africa. After some time, African melodies mixed with new motives from Cuba. This is when bongo drums were created. They might have similarities with traditional African drums, but they were invented in Cuba. The musical genre that appeared quickly became well-known around the world. The international community called it son Cubano. Bongos significantly enriched the rhythms of salsa and Latin jazz. You can hear them in a wide range of music nowadays. They became a part of the world’s music heritage. They are common ensembles of drums.

Bongo techniques & tips for beginners

These hand drums might be easier for those who don’t like using drumsticks. You have to strike drum heads with fingers, switching them for open palms from time to time. There are different accents you can achieve by learning how to hold bongos. The most important things to know when you are playing bongos:

Learn how to switch the drums from macho to hembra. If you are using the large drum, which is the hembra, you receive a steady but limited range of sounds. This is why it is important to switch to macho, creating new patterns. Whenever you need to make an accent, strike the macho drum.

Learn how to drum with different fingers. Depending on the number of fingers you use, bongo beats can be more or less intensified. If you usually play bongos with by striking two fingers, switch them for three to make the sound louder. You can also use one finger for a quieter sound. Drumming by switching the finger will create a unique pattern of sounds. You can go from really faint tones to heavier ones.

Change the area of strikes. Drum heads can produce different tones depending on the area you hit. You can change the placement of your fingers whenever you need a different sound. The closer you get to the middle, the sharper the sound; the farther you get, the duller it is. You can create different accents by moving your hands around the drum as much as you need. Don’t forget to change the number of fingers.

Learn the basics. You have to start with learning primal melodies. For example, Martillo, the Afro-Cuban rhythm, is the 8-note pattern. It is also known as a “hammer,” and you can create numerous songs out of it.

Bongo Drums FAQ


Check out these questions I’ve found around the Web. Perhaps, they are similar to those you have. Read my answers to learn more about bongos.

Are bongo drums easy to play?

The basics are usually the easiest to learn. In one month, players can perform at least several primal rhythms. Bongos are considered to be highly accessible. If you already play drums, you might understand the mechanics. After you learn how to play bongos using your fingers, you will be able to move to the advanced level. Nevertheless, you have to practice a lot to master your skills.

Any musical instrument requires at least an hour a day.

How do you play bongos and congas?

Bongos and congas have similar techniques. You play using your hands, following the rhythm. Yet, their roles are different in Afro-Cuban jazz and modern salsa ensembles. Bongo is all about improvisation with Martillo and accents, while congas stand in the middle of the whole ensemble of drums.

How do you play bongos salsa?

To play salsa, you have to learn the basics. Usually, it does not take much time. After one month of active practicing, you will be able to play several melodies. Salsa is considered a traditional rhythm for bongos. You can find the lessons on YouTube. Meanwhile, after you learn the basics, you can create your own patterns by improvising with rhythms.

How do you adjust bongos?

Bongo drums might not need adjusting for a long time. If you hear that your instrument plays differently, you might need to tune bongos. To do it, just make sure that lugs are tuned properly, find the perfect pitch for the macho, and determine the interval you need between both drums. You can tighten the drum as much as you need it.

Playing Bongo Drums Professionally

Although you can master your drumming skills and become a professional musician playing bongo drums, I believe it is all about fun in the first place. You have to keep in mind that bongos were created as a part of a cultural legacy, filled with love for the African-Cuban mixed culture. It is all about excitement and the heated rhythms of salsa. Practice your skills day after day and don’t forget to dance following the rhythm. If you have tried these drums before, share your opinion about them in the comments. Do you still play bongos? How long did it take you to learn the basic melodies? Do you play other types of drums?

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