When diving into the world of Latin percussion, two of the most famous instruments you’d come across would be congas and bongos. Both are played by a percussionist with his hands. However, there are a few differences between each instrument that makes them unique. The origin, sound, design, and price range vary heavily between the two.
Congas and bongos originate from Cuba. It has been agreed by historians that bongos originated in the early 1800s. Congas originated a bit later around 1880. The congas most likely evolved from instruments used by the slaves in Cuba at the time.
Both drums were used in dance ensembles in Cuba. The bongos were just used for a lot longer before the congas came to be. The designs of these drums have improved over the years with companies developing stronger manufacturing processes. However, their sound and feel have pretty much remained the same.
Size and Sound
The biggest differences between congas and bongos are their size and sound. Bongos are small and easy to carry around while congas are much larger. Congas have a deep depth that gives them a low and warm tone. The diameter of the congas is also larger with the most common sizes being 11” to 12.5”.
The most common diameter of bongos is having the one drum be 7.15” while the other is 8.5”. They have a higher-pitched sound that is more bright and aggressive. Bongos will cut through a mix while congas will blend into it. Bongos have the potential to be slapped to create a sound similar to a rimshot on a snare drum. Congas won’t produce that aggressive sound if you slap them like that.
The biggest design difference is that bongos are joined together while congas are separate from each other. This means that you will always have two bongos to play. Some percussionists will just play on one conga.
Congas can be mounted on a stand to have easy access to two of them. Both congas and bongos will always have one drum that is bigger than the other to give a range of tones. Some percussionists may use even more than two congas, instead choosing to play on three or four.
Both instruments share design qualities in how they’re constructed. The shells are typically made from hardwood and have a leather skin as the drumhead. The skin is attached with the use of lugs, similar to the ones on drum kits. These lugs can be tightened to tune the drums. The heads on congas are always looser than the heads on bongos.
Technique and how you play congas and bongos are seriously important as it can be quite easy to injure yourself. The fact that you play them with just your hands means that there is a high potential for repetitive stress injuries.
Bongos are mostly played with the fingers. You can create different tones by hitting them with either one or three fingers. You can also use parts of the hand. Some expert bongo players will combine fingers and hands to get many notes in a short time. As said previously, you can also create a rimshot sound from the bongos by slapping the edge.
Congas are played with your hands. The best tone is produced when you strike the conga with the part of your hand that connects your palm and fingers. Since the tone of a conga is low, you won’t hear a big difference between playing on the edge and in the middle of the skin. You can play open and closed tones by choking the drum with your palm or hitting it and leaving it open to resonate.
Popularity and Price
Bongos are a lot more popular than congas, especially in Western culture. The biggest reason for this is that they’re more accessible. They’re often used as learning tools in a percussion classroom environment.
A teacher will provide each child with something to play on and because bongos are small, they’re easy to just put on your lap and start playing. Bongo popularity doesn’t just stop in the classroom. We all had a friend in college who had a set of bongos.
Congas are less popular because they’re bigger and more expensive. They’re not something that you can use casually. You’ll see a set of congas in a professional setup or a school band most of the time. In terms of pricing, congas cost about twice as much as a set of bongos.
Something that happens often is that people get confused between the two. Someone will see a set of congas and think that they’re bongos and vice versa. This isn’t unique to just these instruments. Most hand percussion instruments get confused for each other. The easiest way to remember is to just know that congas are big and bongos are small.
Roles in Ensembles
The most common place to see congas and bongos being used is in jazz bands and classical orchestras. These drums can be vital parts of percussion sections and can drive rhythms in effective ways.
Each drum has a popular rhythmic pattern with the bongos using the Martillo while the congas use the Tumbao. These patterns originate from Cuba just like the drums themselves do.
Bongos play a very improvisational role, meaning that the patterns can be sporadic and used to build song sections. Congas have a more rhythmic role, providing steady and driving patterns that anchor the ensemble.
One classic setup that you’ll see a lot of percussionists use is having a set of bongos mounted just in front of a set of congas. This gives you a 4-drum setup that provides varying tone differences and nuances. The bass tones of the congas combined with the striking sounds of the bongos give you a lot of variety to play with.
Overall, both drums originate from Cuba and bongos are small while congas are big. There’s a world of difference between the two if you look at the finer details, but they’re both used to play Latin rhythms and phrases.