How to Play Bongo: Everything You Need to Know to Get It Started

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Last updatedLast updated: February 12, 2021
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Chances are that like most people right now, you have a lot of free time. If you’re ready to move on from puzzles, playing the bongo might be an exciting new hobby. How to play bongo is an interesting topic and we’ll walk you through the steps you need to take. This is a fun instrument and the beauty is that it isn’t very expensive. There are plenty of basic rhythms to learn, and more advanced ones you can move on to when you’re ready. Playing the bongo drums is a great, entertaining way to pass the time and pretty soon you’ll be able to free-style like a professional.

The origins of bongo

While it’s unclear exactly how the bongo came to be as a musical instrument. It does seem to have its origins in Cuba while also derived from African traditions. Appearance-wise, bongs drums are 8 inches high and have diameters of 8 inches and 10 inches.

Choose your bongo set wisely

How to Play Bongo: Everything You Need to Know to Get It StartedAt first glance, it might seem like all bongo sets looks the same. However, once you start shopping for the perfect set of bongos, you will realize that there are different sizes, makes, and qualities.

Bongos come in different sizes, which is great if you have a child interested in the instrument, or if you just have petite hands. You can find bongo drums in different materials, ranging from rawhide to synthetic materials for the head, or drum covering.

The most suitable size for beginners is the 6/7-inch. Such sets won’t cost a fortune (take a look at this set from MUSICUBE, for instance), yet they are ideal for mastering your first rhythms with ease.

If you have some bong playing experience under your belt, then you might be ready to upgrade. Moreover, you may have experience playing the drums, which will give you a sense of rhythm you can start with.

Thankfully, there are some premium versions available also. This bongo set from Meinl Percussion is made with rubberwood and natural buffalo skin for unique, incomparably warm sound.

Start with right positioning

When learning how to play bongo drums, comfort is key. Therefore, start by sitting on a comfortable but firm chair. It should not have any arms, so a kitchen table chair is perfect. Make sure you can place your feet flat on the ground.

You will need to place your bongos on your lap, so your legs should be at a 90-degree angle. Take a look at your bongos. One will be smaller than the other. The small drum should be placed on your left knee. However, if you are left-handed, then you will need to switch to the right knee, and unfortunately, reverse any subsequent instructions.

The large drum should not be placed on your right knee. It might take a bit of time getting used to, but the bongos should sit firmly on your knees so they don’t fall off. If you have a young child trying to play, you can always prop the bongos on a table or even purchase a set of mounting bongos for easier play. Similar to drum sets, there are stands that make the bongs easier to play.

Once you feel comfortable, it’s time to get started!

Basic strokes

When starting to learn how to play bongo drums, there are some basic strokes to master. While they may seem simple, they will help you get used to the rhythm of the bongos and allow you to eventually move on to more masterful strokes.

The open tone

The open tome stroke is a good, basic place to start. You want to hit the edge part of the bong drum by using the top part of your palm. Your fingers should bounce off the head of the bongo. As you get used to the motion, you can start moving your hand around until eventually it is about 4 inches from the center of the drum. Listen to how the sound fluctuates. Ideally, as you hit the bongo, you should hear a clear, rich sound without any ringing.

The slap

Start by positioning your hand. It should be flat with the fingers curled slightly inwards. Hit the bongo with your fingertips and as you move off the bongo, relax them as they lift into the air. You should hear a popping sound that is higher in pitch than an open tone strike.

The heel-tip movement

Once you’ve mastered the open tone and the slap, it’s time to move onto a bit more movement. With the heel-tip movement, you’re essentially moving your hand to produce a rich sound. Hit the head of the bongo with the heel of your palm and then rock forwards so that your fingertips also hit the drum. Don’t take your hand off the bongo as it should be a nice, fluid motion.

The basic muted tone

The last fundamental stroke to learn is called the basic muted tone. Start as you would with the open tone, where your palm hits the drum. However, instead of moving your hand away from the drum afterwards, keep your fingers on the drum. Because your fingers are lightly touching the head of the drum, you will produce a muted tone that is light and subtle.

Basic rhythms

How to Play Bongo: Everything You Need to Know to Get It StartedDrum rhythms can become a bit complicated, especially if you are a beginner. However, once you get going, they will become a lot easier to understand.

Martillo

For those that love salsa music, the Martillo rhythm is king. This is a basic beat that most salsa music, and even other bongo music employs. If you’re only going to master one rhythm, this is the one to choose.

  • Start with the index finger of your right hand. It will work on the small bongo drum. Place it along the rim of the drum. Drum out a rhythm of 1, 2, and 3.
  • Take the fingers on your left hand and place them on the small drum. Your left hand will fill in the “and” beat after 1 and 3.
  • The thumb on your left hand will produce the beats for the “and” beat after 2 and 4.
  • Finally, produce an open tone beat with the fingers on your right hand for the 4 rhythm.
  • Start slowly and then as you gain confidence bring everything together as fast as possible.

Calypso beat

A calypso beat is another fun way of using the bongos. It takes everything you know about tones, which are formed on the edge of the drum, and touches, with is a light tap in the middle of the drum.

  • Start by placing both of your hands on the little drum. On the 1, and, 3, and beats, tap out a tone. For 2, and, 4, and beats, use touches. Essentially, you should create the pattern of tone, tone, touch, touch, tone, tone.
  • Practice this way until you have the rhythm memorized. Then it’s time to add a little twist. Up until now, all of the beats have been on the left drum. Once you’re ready, change the “4 and” of two beats into one beat on the big drum.
  • Once finished, your calypso beat will be tone, tone, touch, touch, tone, tone, tone (on big drum).

Funky drumset groove

There comes a time when every beginner is ready for the next step. While it may take some time, you are capable of getting to the funky drumset groove. And hey, with a name like that, why wouldn’t you want to try it out?

The nice thing about the funky drumset groove is that it is an alternating patter between your right and left hands. It has a different count then other beats, and goes one and a two and a three and a four.

  • Beat 1 is a bass stroke, which means you hit the drum on the furthest edge from you with your left hand.
  • The “and a” after Beat 1 uses your right hand with a light touch on the right drum followed by a light touch on the left drum with your left hand.
  • Beat 2 uses your right hand on the left drum for a tone.
  • The second “and a” are both on the left drum, but uses your left hand and then right hand for light touches.
  • Beat 3 uses your right hand on the right drum for a tone. Then, “and” is done on the left drum with your left hand for a touch.
  • Finally, you end with “a 4” which uses your right hand on the left drum for a touch and then a tone on the left drum from your right hand.

Final thoughts

It’s always fun to learn a new instrument. However, most musical instruments are confusing, let along expensive. With bongos, you can easily purchase an affordable set. Then, you can sit down and play around, slowly becoming familiar with the different rhythms you can produce. It might seem intimidating to learn how to play bong on your own. But by following our steps and watching some online videos, this is a skill you will soon be able to master.

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