How to Play Bongos: A Guide for Novices
Bongo drums are musical instruments that trace their origins to Cuban and African cultures. The bongo comprises a set of two drums of different sizes with open bottoms. This gives them a distinct percussion sound. In Spanish, the smaller drum is called the macho (male) while the larger drum is known as the bembra (female).
The bongos gained its popularity when the Son style of music was a hit in the mid-1800s. The bongos are essential in the Cuban Son style of music, which fuses African and Spanish themes and styles. The bongos were the only drums played in Son music because they had a high-pitched yet soft sound. They were mainly played when introducing a song’s stanza. Today the bongos are some of the most common and recognizable of all Latin drums.
Choosing the Right Pair of Bongos
Before you learn to play the bongos, you will need to identify the appropriate pair. Some of the factors to consider include:
For beginners, it is best to start with a smaller set of bongos, which give off a higher-pitched sound. As you improve your playing, you can consider getting larger bongos that will give you a wider range of sounds and notes.
The material used in making the bongos will affect the length of the note, the sound, and the timbre. Before buying, try several materials, which include wood, fiberglass, or metal. The heads are mostly made from rawhide, but you will find some that use synthetic materials.
Currently, a pair of bongo drums can go for between $50 and $400, and the quality of sound will differ. They will have different personalities, and I recommend that you try several before settling.
Basic Strokes of Bongo Playing
The bongos are a pair of small playing drums that are connected and played as one unit. The player holds the bongos between their legs with the smaller drum, macho, being on the left. The bongocero, the bongo drums player, must learn the four basic strokes, which are:
The Open Tone
To play the open tone, hit the edge of the drum with the finger part of your palm, and let the fingers bounce off the head. Try hitting the head of the drums four inches in from the center of the drum and note the change in sound. The open tone should be rich and clear without overtones, which are the annoying sounds that mute a clear tone.
With the bongos firmly between your legs, cup your fingers slightly as you strike the head to create a louder tone, also known as an accent. As soon as your hand makes contact with the drum, relax your fingers and let them bounce off the skin. You will make a pop sound that is of a higher pitch than an open hand stroke.
The Heel-Tip Movement
For this stroke, rest your hand on the bongo’s head and rock from the heel of your palm to the tip of your fingers. Always keep your hand in contact with the head when you play this stroke.
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A Basic Muted Tone
For this tone, strike the drum as you would in the open tone method, but rest your fingers to shortly rest on the head after you strike it. You should keep your hands relaxed without moving them much and let the fingers do the playing. You will hear a muted tone as your fingers lightly hit against the head.
Traditionally, the bongocero’s left hand would do a heel-rocking movement, but modern bongoceros prefer the basic-muted tone when playing the bongos.
Source: Sound Adventurer
Find the Pulse
The pulse is different from the beat, and it is what you feel innately when listening to music. It is what makes you sway when dancing, yet it is a basic feeling. As soon as you are ready to start playing the positions outlined above, play some music via headphones. This will help you find the beats you need to play on the bongos.
Start With the Left Drum with Your Left Hand
The left drum is the male drum, and you should establish a familiar rhythm that you can follow along. For example, a basic 1-2-3-4 or any other simple musical signature will do. This will represent the tone and will represent the base of the beat you will be creating.
For the best sound, tap the head with the top two-thirds of your fingers without using a lot of force. Let your fingers be nimble, which means that they should come up from the head as soon as you strike it to avoid tainting the clarity of the note.
Play a Note on the Right Hand
Once you get the hang of playing the left drum, which will act as the beat, start-practicing playing a tone on the right-hand side drum. This is the offbeat. While playing the 1-2-3-4 on the left drum, play between beats 4 and 1 and beats 2 and 3.
Experiment with Variations
Once you get the hang of the basic strokes, keeping up with the beat and off beats, you can then start adding variations to your routine. However, this will call for you to practice when to incorporate off beats to the basic strokes and from where you can develop your variations.
Bongos are one of the most exhilarating percussion instruments today. Moreover, as the world becomes a global village, we are seeing musicians sample different genres and incorporating instruments from all over the world to change the face of world music.
With the above procedures, you will have a basic understanding of how to play the bongos. However, it will be upon you to practice the bongos and develop new techniques to stand out from the crowd. Make it a habit to practice playing the bongos, and you will be good enough in no time. For example, you could use the 21-day rule. It simply states that you can learn or break a habit in 21 days. With consistent practice, you can become a proper bongo drums player.