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Bongo Basics

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Other than those percussionists wanting to specialise in hand drums, if any of you drummers out there are considering adding hand percussion to your set up then I’d strongly recommend bongos. They’re easily affordable, very portable and have a lot of possible applications be it with sticks or hands. Set yourself up with a pair of bongos on a stand and some shakers / general hand percussion on the hi hat side of your kit, and invest in a double bass drum pedal. Now by turning to your left, you can get some bongo shaker grooves going and still include the meat of your bass drum by using the double bass pedal.

If you’re thinking about what drums to buy, I would strongly recommend that you spend at least £150. It’s simply not worth compromising because you’ll only lose out when you want to replace them with something better. Make sure you get a pair that has the proper four-bolt hoop–to-hoop tuning mechanism (IE. free-floating and with no lugs attached to the shell.) You will also need to consider whether to go for Calf heads or synthetic heads. For a number of reasons I choose the latter.

It is most common for the bongos to be played sitting down, although it’s perfectly admissible to stand-mount them. If we look at the picture below, we can see the way the drums are held between the legs. This really is a case of finding the most comfortable position.


Playing position sitting

They’re not necessarily comfortable drums rel="shadowbox" to play and the bolts can dig into your legs. I get around this by loosening the whole tuning carriage and positioning the bolts and whole tuning mechanism so that the bolts fall in the crease of the leg behind the knee. This is not possible on Bongos where the bottom rims of the drums are joined to create a free floating system which avoids the shell being drilled to accommodate the bolts that would normally join the drums.


Repositioning of tuning mechanism for more comfort

You will also see from the photos that the drums are angled slightly downwards. All these points are subjective, but one thing that is absolutely necessary is that the playing surface doesn’t fall below the knees. The heads have to be proud. This makes access to the playing surface easier and helps to avoid the player resting his arms on his legs which must be avoided. For right-handed players the larger drum should be on the right and the drums should also not be held too tight. This can cause the bolts to dig into your legs, cut off circulation and be generally uncomfortable. However, when playing harder and particularly for the louder strokes such as the slap stroke, the drums do need to be held firmly.

When tuning the drums, the small drum should be cranked up as high as you dare whilst the larger drum should be tuned somewhat lower than this (personal preference). Listen for the tones of each drum and the interval between them to decide this and don’t forget to detune them when you’re not using them if you are using calf heads. I have come to prefer the Remo bongos with heads that you can leave tuned up when you have finished playing and rely on even in a very humid environment.

Strokes on the drums

The high-pitched sound is articulated by striking with the tip of the finger for quieter playing or with the tips of all the fingers for louder playing. The fingers should strike as near the edge of the drum as possible and should create a very high pitched tone. The small drum should be cranked up as high as you dare. Try this simple single stroke pattern with both hands on the hi Bongo. R L R L R L R L Try to make the strokes as even as possible and try a few different speeds. (R = Right and L = Left)


Open tone hi bongo, Right hand single finger


Open tone hi bongo, Right hand all fingers


Open tone hi bongo, Left hand single finger


Open tone hi bongo, Left hand all fingers

Next we have the open tone on the larger drum. This is articulated with the first finger played slightly more towards the centre of the drum than on the small drum. This helps accentuate the bass tone by bringing out some of the lower harmonics. Experiment by hitting the bass drum near the edge as with the high drum and see how different the sound is. Again, it is possible to use all four fingers for louder situations, although I still prefer to stay with the single finger on the larger Bongo.


Open tone Lo bongo, Right hand one finger


Open tone lo bongo, Right hand all fingers

Bongo strokes VIDEO video.gif

Simple Martillo

Now we'll move on to some simple rhythmic motifs and some grooves based on the simplified form of the Cuban Martillo (mah-tea-oh). We will move on to some more intricate Bongo techniques a little later. These four rhythms are a simple extension of the R L R L pattern we were looking at earlier. Example one is articulated by adding a few accents and one single strike on the low bongo on beat four of the bar. Accents are articulated by striking harder than the non accents which are played slightly softer. For all notation the hi Bongo is written on the upper line and the lo Bongo on the lower line.

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Simple Martillo

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Simple Martillo Variation 1

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Simple Martillo Variation 2

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Simple Martillo Variation 3


Muted strokes

Now we’re going to look at the more intricate method of the Martillo technique utilising the left-hand finger tips and thumb to mute the sounds. The basis rhythm spans one bar of eighth notes. We need two new strokes for this rhythm. These are the left hand finger tip stroke and the left hand thumb stroke.


Left hand finger tip stroke


Left hand thumb stroke

By using these strokes, different pitches can be created when the finger tip and thumb strokes are left on the head whilst striking with the other hand.

Muted strokes VIDEO video.gif

Basic Martillo Technique

To begin with, place the edge of the thumb flat on the head of the small bongo as in fig (a). The whole of the side of the thumb right up to its base should be in contact with the head and should apply a gentle degree of pressure. Notice the exact position of the hand on the head allowing room for the right hand to strike the drum without the thumb getting in the way.


Fig A


With the thumb in this position strike the small drum at the edge with the first finger of the right hand. Hit as near the edge as possible as in fig b. The sound should be sharp and almost woodblock-like. Experiment with the position of the thumb and vary the degree of pressure to find the sharpest sound possible. This is the first beat of the bar.


Fig B (Eighth note #1 of the bar)

The next stroke of the bar is played with the fingertips. Pivot the hand up from the first thumb position to create a cup-like hollow as the fingers strike the head. Only the tips of the fingers should strike and then remain in contact with the head. The sound should be muted with the fingers not bouncing off after impact.


Fig C (Eighth note #2 of the bar)

The third stroke of the rhythm is with the right hand. With the left hand remaining in this position with the finger tips on the skin. This takes the high edge off the mute as the right hand strikes.


Fig D (Eighth note #3 of the bar)


The fourth stroke of the rhythm sees the left hand thumb returning to the head with a sharp action. The thumb should remain in contact with the head after striking and not bounce off. The sound should be slightly sharper in tone than the left-hand fingertip stroke. The thumb should remain in position to create the mute for the next right-hand stroke.


Fig E (Eighth note #4 of the bar)

The next 2 strokes of the rhythm are identical to the first 2 strokes of the rhythm.


Fig F (Eighth note #5 of the bar)


Fig G (Eighth note #6 of the bar)

The seventh stroke of the rhythm involves an open tone on the larger bongo with the right hand.


Fig H (Eighth note #7 of the bar)

The final stroke of the rhythm sees the left-hand thumb returning to the head with a sharp action. The thumb should remain in contact with the head after striking and should not bounce off. The sound should be slightly sharper in tone than left-hand fingertip stroke.


Fig I (Eighth note #8 of the bar)

Basic Martillo variations

Here is the basic Martillo rhythm, followed by two variations.


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Here are some Martillo style rhythms loosely based on the traditional technique. The variations use the techniques from the simple Martillo we looked at earlier combined with the more intricate fingerings of the traditional rhythm. You can get some interesting variations by switching between these two styles within one groove.


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Slap stroke

Now we can move on to the slap stroke. The slap stroke is the sharp cutting sound we often associate with Conga/Djembe playing. It is one of those things that you can be shown and practice for months and still have trouble executing, then one day it just happens. Spend time analysing the video of the slap stroke grooves. Notice how it is a sort of 'cup the hand' and 'grab' type motion. After you have struck the head you leave the finger tips on the head and grab slightly, like you were pulling some string in towards yourself. It is not a stroke that necessarily needs to be articulated violently, even though it sounds accented and aggressive. It is a knack and if you try for long enough you will get it, believe me. It's not rocket science!


Right hand slap stroke


Left hand slap stroke slightly further into the drum

Now lets incorporate the slap stroke and it's combination within some grooves.


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© Pete Lockett

  • Written by: Pete Lockett
  • Sunday, 26 February 2012
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  • Posted in: South American

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