The bongo drums are an instrument that originated in West Africa, but it became popular across the world, especially in Latin music. They are not only fun instruments, but they are also relatively easy to play.
The bongos are usually placed between your knees and played by hitting the drum’s head with your palm and fingers, with different ways of strokes producing different sounds.
If you’ve ever wondered how to play bongo drums or whether they were worth the investment in time and money, read on!
Beginner’s guide to bongos
They come in pairs and are made out of a large wooden drum shell on top and a thin drum head, which is stretched over the shell and can be loosened or tightened with pegs to fine-tune the sound.
The larger drum is called the hembra (female), and the smaller one is called the macho (male). You can learn how to play bongo drums with a little bit of practice and some simple instructions.
Play bongo drums in a comfortable position.
Sit upright on a chair or stool with your feet flat on the floor and your arms hanging loosely at your sides.
The bongos should be resting on top of your knees, with the larger drum on the outside and the smaller drum on the inside.
Position your hands over the bongos.
Your left hand should be over the macho, and your right hand should be over the hembra.
Your palms should face each other, and your fingertips should rest lightly on top of each drumhead.
Strike each drumhead using a different part of your hand. Strike both drumheads at once by pressing down hard on each head with your fingers spread apart so that they all make contact with the head at once.
You can hit the drum in the middle of the head or on the edge. It all depends on the sound that you want from it. If you want a more open and resonating sound, you should use the middle part of your hand and place it in the middle of the drumhead.
If you want a more soft and articulate sound, then you should use more of the side of your hand and hit closer to the edge of the drumhead.
Begin to incorporate all these different things—the way you strike, where you strike, and how quickly or slowly—into a regular pattern. Don’t worry too much about making mistakes here—just have fun!
Bongo drums notation
If you want to learn how to play bongo drums, you need to understand the tone notation.
The notation is pretty simple, and it represents the basic strokes that produce different sounds:
- Mute strike: slapping the edge of the drum with one hand while deadening the slap with the other.
- Open strike: striking the bongo drum’s edge to produce an open resonating tone.
- Heel: striking the drum with your thumb, driving into the drum.
- Toe: rocking your hand to strike the drum with the fingers on the opposite side of your hand.
Let’s learn more about the basic strokes you can use to hit your bongos.
Basic strokes on bongo drums
When you learn how to play bongo drums, you can experiment with basic strokes.
Open tone stroke
- Hit the edge of the drum with your palm.
- Let your fingers bounce off the drum’s head.
- Move your fingers back and forth, four inches from the drum’s center, experimenting with different sounds.
Basic muted tone
- This stroke is similar to the open tone stroke, but you leave your fingers on the drum’s head after you strike the drum.
- Keep your hands relaxed, and move them as little as possible.
- You should hear a very light sound of your fingers striking the head.
- Cup your fingers slightly and hit the head of the drum, creating a louder note with more color and flair.
- Relax your fingers after the contact with the drum and allow them to bounce off the head, creating a popping sound with a higher pitch.
- Put your hand on the drum’s head.
- Rock back and forth, switching the stroke between the heel of your palm and the tip of your fingers.
- Keep your hand in contact with the drum’s head constantly during this stroke.
The Martillo pattern is a rhythmic pattern used in many different kinds of music, particularly in music that involves bongos.
This can be Latin music, jazz, rock, and so on. This pattern is called the “Martillo” or “hammer” because it sounds like a hammer hitting an anvil.
It is a very common groove that both beginners and experts can use to get into the feel of playing bongos. It has eight separate strokes and is a one-bar pattern that is repeated.
The right hand highlights the first and third beats, with a crisp, muted sound performed on the high bongo.
The left hand fills in the rhythm by swinging sideways with the thumb and fingers (heel-toe movement); the thumb muffles the right-hand strokes. Open sounds are played respectively on two and four on the high and low bongo.
Striking your bongo directly in the center (instead of near the edges) will allow you to capture a rich sound that makes it easy to play with power and precision.
If you came here to learn how to play bongo drums, we hope you are now armed with the basics. To wrap up, holding the bongos between your knees as you sit on a chair is usually a good place to start.
Next, try hitting the drum with your palm and fingers in various ways—you’ll be amazed at how many different sounds you can create.
The basic strokes on bongos are open tone stroke, basic muted tone, slap, and heel-toe movement. Try out the Martillo pattern, which is popular among “bongoceros” (bongo drum players.) And finally, let your creativity flow, and enjoy the rich rhythms of this amazing instrument.