How to Tune the Bongo Drum

Bongo drums or bongos are popular drums used in the playing of Latin American music. These drums, which come in sets of two, are represented by a hembra (a larger drum, which means 'female' in the Spanish language) and a macho, a smaller drum, which means 'male' in Spanish. Tuning bongos is important as the beat made by the drums is fast and vibrant, thereby making tuning a practice that should be consistently followed.

History of the Bongo Drum

bongo drum

Bongos, which are a part of the South American musical culture, originated in Africa. They were brought to South America by African slaves who played three drums they called bonko drums in their homelands of Cameroon and Nigeria. The Abakua, a musical fraternity formed by a group of Afro-Cuban males, made use of the bonko drums. These bonkos, it is believed, influenced the creation and playing of the bongos on the South American continent. Bonkos are still played in Cuba by the Abakua and, needless to say, look very similar to bongos.

The sound of the bongo carries a high pitch, and, as noted, employs a fast, if not rapid, beat. Drums are played between the user's knees with the hembra usually placed to the right. The tune of the bongo is created in a number of ways with brushes, sticks, the palms, or the fingers. Indeed, the rhythm of the bongo is strongly emphasized in Latin American music as it is used heavily in such dance moves as the conga, mambo, and salsa.

Bongos Today Can Readily be Tuned

The hembra and macho bongo drums are typically joined by a sturdy piece of wood and the heads are generally made of animal skins. The bodies of the bongos themselves are made of composite materials, metal, or wood. Heads of the drums can also be made of synthetics by drum makers as well. Drums are manufactured so they can be readily tuned with metal lugs - again, important, as the drums contribute to the distinct sounds utilized by Latin musical percussionists.

Maintaining Drum Heads Made of Animal Skins

Because the bongo heads are two different sizes, the sounds that are produced by the each of the drums will, in turn, be different too. As a result, players must have a good ear for combining the tones and pitches produced by the drums. In addition, tapping the drum head in different spots will create different sounds too. To protect drum heads made with cowhide or animal skins from cracking, players can use almond oil or lanolin. However, this measure should not be taken unless the drum head feels particularly dry. If the drum head is dry, rub a small amount (about the size of a quarter) of oil on the palms of your hands before applying it to the skin on the drum.

Synthetic Drum Heads

For anyone with bongos with plastic drum heads, then maintenance is easier. While the sound is not as rich and is usually even more higher pitched, you still don't have to worry about the condition of the drum heads like you do when the drum heads are made with animal skins. The higher pitch of the synthetic heads can be neutralized too where amplification is used.

Tuning - Not a Difficult Process

Tuning the drums, as indicated, is not too difficult. Your goal, when tuning your bongo drums then is to make sure that each head stretches out smoothly. Therefore, while tuning your bongos, make sure you also focus on the head of the drum as well. Start by giving a lug on the drum a specific number of rotations with a ratchet, or by giving each lug approximately two or three turns. Make sure each lug is turned the same number of times so the head is affixed to the drum uniformly.

The macho should be tuned so it has a distinct and sharp tone while the hembra, or larger drum, should be lower pitched. When tuning your bongo, you should tune the hembra and macho an octave apart, with the macho tuned at B through D, or about two octaves above middle C and the hembra (or larger drum) tuned at A octave, or, again, two octaves above middle C. If you have bongos with skins, then the macho should feature a thinner skin while a medium skin should be affixed on the hembra drum. You can obtain the above pitches, tuning your drum using the keyboard of a piano.

Keep in mind a plastic head will stay even when you are tuning your drum while an animal skin will never be ideally even as the skin on one of the bongos will generally be heavier. If you notice any squeaking when you are loosening or tightening the rods, then all you need to do is add a little lug oil between the washers and nuts.

Tune Each Lug a Little at a Time

Tune bongos in a circular, clockwise fashion. Therefore, when turning each lug, go around the drum, using a circular pattern versus turning one lug and then going across the drum head to the next lug. Once the bongos have been tuned, make sure that the heads of the hembra and macho are reasonably level. When tuning the bongos too, you will need to make less turns with the ratchet as the tension for the drum heads becomes tighter. Just make sure, again, that the heads are reasonably level, or you will need to keep fine tuning the instrument.

You will find that each bongo drum has four screws that hold the drum head firmly in place. When you are tuning your bongos, too, you should turn the drums upside down in order to tighten the lugs. While tuning the instrument, or tightening the lugs, again, go in a clockwise direction and when you are detuning the instrument or loosening the screws, then you will need to go in a circular, counterclockwise direction.

Why Detuning is Important

Detuning your bongos, even if they are made with synthetic heads, is essential as it lightens any stress on the shell of the drum. After playing your bongos then, detune your bongos, beginning with the same lug you used to tune your bongo drums. Give each of the lugs approximately two or three turns with the ratchet, once more, following a circular pattern (or going counter-clockwise this time). Afterwards, retune the instrument using the same number of turns that you used for detuning.

Replace the Drum Heads Routinely

Heads on bongos should be replaced regularly every three or four months in order to make sure that your bongo drums always produce vibrant, expressive sounds.

Written by Donna Ryan

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Comments (16)
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Here Comes the Bride

Those notes are a perfect 4th apart - not an octave! An octave would be the first two notes of "Somewhere Over The Rainbow"

by Carl Stephenson on

The idea for the bongos came from Africa. But bongos and congas are strictly Cuban drums.

An octave apart = "here comes" in "here comes the bride"

by Dan Kitzler on

What does the big one go on the right? Ditto for congas. Does anyone know

by BongoMrLee on

Thanks for a little more information specially tuning.

by Jorge on

I like turtles.

by Georgy on

?? replace every three to four months?

"[heads should be]replaced regularly every three or four months"! Seriously? Who can afford that? One head for a small LP Bongo is 40$ minimum. 80$/3 to four months really? 240/year? That doesn't sound right. Do all you folks do that?

by Faizi on

Oye ! Cono ! El bongo es Cubano, El Martillo y monoteo , Cubano.

by Bosco El Gitano on

The history is completely wrong on this.

by Dro on


you say to tune to B and D? an octave apart? Would not an octave of B still be a B? Do you mean to tune somewhere above the next B? How are you measuring your tone? Perhaps a frequency would be more clear?

by Shannon OLeary on

I have just purchased my first bongo. do I have to tune it for the first time? also, I am pretty new to drums in general... how to tune to a specific tone? I tried the tuner on my mobile phone but anywhere i hit the drums I get a different tone :S

by svm on

Started tuning the ole bongos just now! Thanks for the directions:)

by Zelda is a savage on

They also used human skin to make bongo drums. GRISSLEY

by :) on

Im so pleased my bongo is now tuned again

by Olamide on


by Reggie on


by Joel on

I love playing the bongo.

by Justin on
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