Conga Drums – A Guide For Beginner And Intermediate Players

Conga drums are at the center of Afro-Cuban music both on the stage and in the street. It’s an instrument that embodies the mixing of cultures from Africa to the Caribbean, North America, and the World.The conguero, or conga player, is critical in the salsa, timba, and folkloric groups through which the instrument has developed. Patterns are called “marcha” or “tumbao,” depending on how you choose to think about them, and it takes development of specific techniques to learn how to play the conga drums.Reading: how to play the congaThis article discusses the drums, their origins, different sounds, techniques, rhythms, and exercises. It also gets into some of the contributions of the great congueros.

The Drums


Conga drums are single-headed barrel-shaped instruments that drummers play mostly with their hands. They can be played seated or standing and come with either real or synthetic drum heads, depending on the drummer’s preference.

Origins of Conga Drums

These drums were developed in Cuba with heavy influences from African cultures. When slavery was abolished in the late 19th Century in Cuba, new forms of music like rumba developed. This led to the birth of the conga drum among other instruments and styles.Precursors to the conga drums include the makuta, yuka, ngoma, and bembe drums. Some of these drums, like the makuta are reserved for religious music, while drums like bembe and yuka were more open to the non-members of a religious order.In Cuba, and many other Latin American countries, conga drums are called tumbadoras. It wasn’t until Desi Arnaz that the English-speaking world started calling the tumbadoras “conga drums.” This was likely because of the conga de comparsa songs he often played.

Conga Drum Designs

The shells are mostly made of either wood or fiberglass, and the height of the drums are usually either 28 or 30 inches tall. The diameters are as follows, with a few exceptions for entry-level drums.

  • Requinto – 9.75 inches
  • Quinto – 11 inches
  • Conga – 11.75 inches
  • Tumba – 12.5 inches

The LP Original Congas and Salsa Model conga drums, to name a couple, are 28 inches tall, which can be rather nice for seated players. The LP Classic model, among other models, is 30 inches from the ground, while the Giovanni Palladium model is 32 inches.Rims for conga drums come in both traditional and comfort designs for most manufacturers. The traditional rim is a simple steel flat stock formed into a round shape to clamp down the drum head. Manufacturers like LP designed a rim with a rounded stock to reduce discomfort from impact while playing.Hardware has come a long way from heads tied to drums with rope or skins tacked to the shells. Early use of tuning mechanisms became widely used by the 1950s and designs have evolved over the last half century. These mechanisms include hooked rods with threads and nuts for tightening.Related: Conga Drums Buyer’s Guide – Choosing the Right Gear for You

Conga Drum Heads

Conga drum heads are either real animal skin or made of synthetic materials. The real skins sound great yet can become problematic when changes in moisture and temperature impact the tuning.Synthetic conga heads were developed to combat this issue because they aren’t nearly as susceptible to the weather changes. They come in a range of designs by brands like Remo and Evans and sound good on either wood or fiberglass drum shells.Early conga heads were tacked on the drum and tuned near a flame to remove moisture. This raised the pitch of the drum when the head died and tightened.Some bongoceros have been known to use X-ray film on the drums as a sort of synthetic drum head hack.Related: Drum Heads: Conga and Bongo

How to Tune a Conga Drum

The tuning process is much like any drum. Tighten the tension rods to bring down the head as evenly as possible. Each drum shell and head responds differently, so it’s not as simple as it sounds.

  • Turn each nut on the end of the rods about a turn or so all around until the drum is close to the pitch you want to achieve.
  • Tap the head near each rod to match the pitches and fine tune the head.
  • Place your finger in the center of the head to better isolate the pitch near each rod.

Conga heads that are in tune sound clear and powerful. Sometimes it’s easy, and sometimes the room or weather make it almost impossible.Related: Conga Tuning – Tips and Tools for Sounding Great

Tools for Conga Drums

Conga drums with modern tuning mechanisms bring the head down to tighten it when the nuts are turned with a wrench. Most wrenches include two sizes to accommodate the most common nut sizes.The nuts should move easily and quietly on the tension rods. If this isn’t the case, or your threads are squeaking, you can apply lug lube to the threads of the tension rods. Be careful not to overdo it because the oil can be messy, and it can also draw unwanted dirt into the tension rod threads.

Drum Intervals

The drum interval is only important to the degree that the drums sound good together. For example, try tuning the conga and tumba about a perfect fourth apart. If the tumba is around an A, try tuning the conga to a D above the A.Conga drums and heads can vary in terms of which pitch resonates best for a particular drum. This is why it’s important to try different intervals until you find a relative harmony among them.

Detune Your Heads

It’s a great habit to detune your heads when you are done playing, especially if you are about to move the drums to a different location. This practice can increase the life of the head.

Conga Sounds and Techniques

The sounds are the most important starting point. Without good sounds, you will not sound good on the instrument. I know that seems a bit obvious, but this is a serious drum that requires some respect to develop strong techniques.Although the tones and slaps are the sounds listeners often initially focus on, the other sounds you can make on a conga drum are just as important. The mute tone, bass tone, heel stroke, toe stroke, and touch are all integral voices in both traditional and popular music.The common movement for most of these strokes is the wrist turn and arm raise — in that order. The power and control of the stroke comes from the wrist turn, and the volume comes from the acceleration of the hand to the drum.Adding the arm just adds more leverage and mass to amplify what you are already doing with your wrist. But adding your arm too much too soon in the stroke preparation can lead to inaccuracy and loss of clarity in the strokes.

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Open Tone

The open tone is one of the two most recognizable sounds on conga drums. It’s warm resonant sound is critical to the traditional conversations that players make among different drums.Open tones are made by striking the flat surface of the head near the edge of the conga drums. Strike the drum with the part of your hand opposite your knuckles.Since everyone’s hand is a little different, you’ll need to make slight adjustments until the sound has a smooth attack that’s not so “slappy.”The key to integrating your tones into a conga rhythm is relaxing your fingers onto the head after you strike the drum. Your fingers aren’t supposed to choke off any of the sound, but they should go limp to conserve energy and prepare for a movement in preparation for the next stroke.

Closed Tone

A closed tone is like an open tone. The big difference is that your fingers stay on the drum head after striking the surface. This technique cancels out the ring of the tone and adds an important timbre to the conga rhythms and improvisations.Read more: how to score a 180 on the lsatI can’t stress it enough that these muffled strokes are as important as the louder strokes. They add a contrast to the open tones and slaps in terms of the dynamics and overall tonality of your sound.

Open Slap

Playing a slap on a conga drum can be one of the most satisfying sounds. But it can also be the most harmful to your hands if it’s done with poor technique. Paying particular attention to the wrist motion issue explained in the introduction to this section is critical to your success.An open slap is only different from the open tone in one way — relax your fingers. All of the motions are the same. The slap sound comes from the relaxed fingers flopping on head almost like a tight flam where the primary stroke is pads of the hand opposite your knuckles and the fingers are the grace note.The openness of an open slap comes from the hand leaving the drum after the stroke. This lets the head continue to vibrate and the resonance to decay on its own.conga stroke steps shown in two images for slap

Closed Slap

The closed slap is the same motion as an open slap but the hand stays in the drum after the stroke. This stops the head from continuing to ring, closing off the sound.It’s important to let your fingers rest on the head without too much force. If you put too much into choking off the sound, you can hurt your hands.Conga drumming will hurt enough when you play well and often. If it hurts with very little time on the instrument, you’re doing it wrong.

Bass Tone

A bass tone is produced by striking the conga drum with the full surface of the hand close to the center of the drum. Let your hand rebound off the head and listen for the low frequency resonance.If you want more sound out of this stroke, raise the drum off the ground. Grip the shell with your knees, and use your feet to raise the drum by pushing toward the ground with your toes.You could also try striking the head in a slightly different area if the bass tone isn’t producing enough sound. If your stroke is too much in the center of the drum, the waves moving through the head can cancel out some of the frequencies. This would eliminate some sounds altogether.Some conga players play the bass tone with a hammer fist approach. Make a fist and strike the head with the side of the hand that is opposite your thumb.

Heel stroke

The heel stroke is played with the full surface of the hand. Unlike the bass tone, however, the heel stroke is played with the edge of the hand close to the edge of the drum.The best way to play a heel stroke is raise the hand and arm up, keeping the hand parallel to the drum head, and drop the hand on the head. If you accelerate the hand, you will likely tense up more when playing faster tempos.conga stroke steps shown in two images for heelHeel strokes are a critical part of conga drumming technique. Combined with the toe stroke (see below), it accounts for the marcha quality of conga rhythms.Although the heel stroke is sometimes thought of as a filler stroke, many of the best conga players take it very seriously. It adds a contrast to the other strokes and supports them rhythmically by keeping time in between accents strokes like slaps and open tones.

Toe stroke

Toe strokes are full of power. Unlike the heel stroke, which is a drop motion, the toe is an acceleration. This means you’ll build strength through this stroke.The toe stroke is played from the same hand position as the heel stroke. Raise your fingers off the drum by hinging at the wrist. Keep your wrist on the drum, and accelerate the hand toward the conga drum head.conga stroke steps shown in two images for toeThis stroke will help develop the coordination and strength needed to play slaps and open tones with strength. It develops the muscles for the wrist motion and also works with the heel stroke to train your brain to relax at certain points in the movements that produce the conga sounds.

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A touch stroke is the lightest of these strokes. It’s hand position is similar to a closed tone (or mute / muffled tone), but there’s a lot less acceleration. It’s felt more than it is heard.The touch stroke is used to keep time and transition your hands from one stroke to another or from one drum to another. It’s a vital stroke that makes very little sound, especially when playing in a group.Related: Good Sounds on Congas – Developing 5 Basic Techniques

Warm Up Exercises

Conga drumming is very intense on the muscles in the hands and arms. Since the rebound from the conga drum is very limited, the muscles end up doing the majority of the work. That’s why it’s absolutely essential to warm up and develop strength.The following warmups were taught to me via Changuito and Michael Spiro. I don’t know if they developed these warmups, but it’s how I learned them.

Changuito Warm Up

The Changuito warmup is comprised of heel and toe strokes. It can be played one hand at a time or both hands combined. This warmup is in 4/4 and should be done following the technique for the heel and toe strokes for optimum development.conga drum warmup exercise changuitoEither line can be repeated separately or together.

Michael Spiro Warm Up

This warmup is very similar to the Changuito exercise. The main difference is that it’s in 6/8. It also incorporates both hands with a turnaround that switches from right-hand lead to left.conga drum warmup exercise michael spiro

Coordination Exercises

Mastering conga drumming is about how you negotiate the movements necessary to articulate the rhythms and sounds of the instrument. These coordination exercises will provide a foundation that can be built upon as you develop technique and musicality on conga drums.

Permutation – Tone, Slap, Mute, Bass

The following exercise coordinates the different sounds as well as all possible syncopation in 4/4. It’s important to play this exercise only as fast as you can without losing control of the quality of each stroke. In other words, playing it fast without maintaining clarity is a waste of time.Each measure places the pattern — open tone, slap, closed tone (mute), bass tone — on a specific 16th-note subdivision of the beat. From one measure to the next, the pattern is shifted one sixteenth note.One hand plays the four different strokes while the other hand plays heel, toe in an eighth-note rhythm. Concentrate on these heel and toe strokes by relaxing your muscles and focusing your breathing while you hear all of the strokes and accept the movements of the techniques that produce them.conga drum exercise permutation

Mano Secreta Exercises

These exercises are from Changuito. He explains and demonstrates them on Evolution of the Tumbadoras. The concept of mano secreta is about the the heel and toe strokes that can be used to play double strokes for ruffs (or diddles).Play these exercises slowly and with the heel stroke more so in the position of a slap or open tone. The time saved from moving the hand forward and back helps when playing these mano secreta strokes faster.conga drum mano secreta exercise

Conga Rhythms and Patterns

Many genres and styles of music use conga drums to establish a strong rhythm. These rhythms are more or less traditional, adaptations of traditional rhythms, or a new rhythm that’s unique to the groove.The following sections include explanations and examples of traditional rhythms. You’ll also find the pop adaptations of a few rhythms and some funk patterns that work great for a lot of grooves. ???? 10 Conga Patterns FREE Download ????Read more: how to get polymer bundle in warframeRelated: 10 Conga Patterns Every Percussionist Should Know

Traditional Rhythms on Conga Drums

The traditional rhythms for congas are played in salsa, timba, rumba, and other Afro-Caribbean music. These include tumbao (marcha), guaguancó, bembé (and other 6/8 patterns), and bolero, among others.Tumbao (Marcha)Tumbao means to lay down a groove. Pianos, guitar, drums, and other instruments can play tumbaos to establish a foundation for other Afro-Cuban rhythms.tumbao conga rhythm notation basic pattern with two drumsThis is a great pattern to learn for beginners because it incorporates many of the basic strokes for conga drums. Take the opportunity to play the heel and toe strokes properly to achieve a good sound and feel.Related: How to Play Tumbao on Congas – 21 VariationsPlaying With ClaveClave is the key to Afro-Cuban music. Although the layers of rhythms can seem a bit chaotic, it’s much easier to know the parts versus the improvisations when you know the relationship each instrument has with clave.The tumbao parts, for example, play certain rhythms in relation to clave. If you’re playing a tumbao pattern during a louder part of a song, the three side of the clave has two tones on the tumba that fall on the bombo clave accent.son clave notation in 2:3 with arrows pointing to the ponche and bombo accentsThe bombo and ponche are two important phrasing accents that relate to clave.This drum conversation relationship with clave comes from folkloric styles like guanguancó. The drums have parts and improvisations on certain sides of the clave.Related: Conga Solo Tips – 10 Ideas to Develop Your ImprovisationRelated: Clave Rhythm – A Brief History of a Sacred Popular RhythmRumba GuaguancóRumba styles like guanguancó developed in the poor neighborhoods of Havana and Matanzas in the decades following the end of slavery. The styles and approaches to rumba are slightly different from one region to another but they still follow basic principles of playing with clave.conga pattern guaguanco musical notation6/8 Conga RhythmsRumba Columbia is a common 6/8 (or 12/8) traditional conga pattern. The following examples include two different patterns, each for different parts of a song.conga pattern 6_8 afro-cuban musical notationThe bembé patterns are also in 6/8. These patterns can vary from one region to another, and some areas play them with sticks. The following example is played with hands.bembe conga rhythm musical notationThe specific hands chosen to play each drum depend on the drum configuration. For example, if you setup with quinto on the left, conga in the middle, and tumba on the right, you will play the quinto with your left and and the conga and tumba with your right.BoleroThe bolero is a ballad style. It’s slow and patient. The basic pattern includes a two-drum conversation of low-high-low to establish the characteristic bolero conga drum part.bolero conga rhythm music notation

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Pop Song Conga Patterns

Pop music, like funk and rock, use conga drums to establish lots of cool grooves. These patterns are usually adaptations of traditional conga rhythms or a drum set groove.Tumbao AdaptationPop song patterns are often most interested in the slaps and tones. The heel and toe strokes are not as important for pop songs as they are for Afro-Cuban music.The following examples include some variation of the basic tumbao pattern. You can play heel, toe, or touches to keep time in between strokes. Just consider the impact the sounds have on the song.conga pattern pock rock musical notationGuaguancó AdaptationThis adaptation of guanguancó includes a back beat feel in the first half and the traditional havana drum conversation in the second half.conga pattern guaguanco for pop songs musical notationThis rhythm is an extended phrase. The idea came from some of the modern phrasing for guaguancó with the segundo conversation not always landing every two side of every clave.6/8 Pop Conga RhythmThe examples below show two different adaptations of conga pattern concepts. The first one is a 6/8 tumbao approach to 6/8 pop song patterns, while the second example is based on rumba Columbia.six eight pop conga rhythm

Funk Conga Patterns

If you decide to play congas like a drum set or with a drum set, it’s important to play rhythms that don’t make the groove too cluttered in relation to the other instrument parts.BasicThe basic conga funk pattern is different if there is a drum set or not. The first example is more of the approach that mimics the kick and snare of a drum set groove. The second example is designed to avoid the drum set parts by filling in with syncopated rhythms.funk conga rhythmHalf TimeLike any half-time groove, the backbeat emphasis is on beat three, as opposed to beats two and four for a common feel. Most funk beats are a half -time feel.Busier Funk Conga PatternsLike other pop styles, funk conga drum parts are often about the slaps and tones, but this doesn’t mean you can’t fill in with heels, toes, and touches. The following examples fill in around the tones with strokes that add a different energy to the groove.funk conga rhythm

Great Congueros

The great congueros are the gatekeepers to playing conga drums well. This means that anyone who wants to be great, too, needs to study these players by listening, emulating, and trying to figure out what makes their playing so good.The following list of great congueros is short and not complete, but it’s an introduction to the influences that I’ve focused on for the last 20 years.

Carlos “Potato” Valdez

Potato is essentially a bass player laying down highly melodic tumbaos. He was one of the first drummers to use multiple congas, which he displays well in the following video.

Giovanni Hidalgo

Giovanni is the conga virtuoso. He has taken what one can do with the conga drum to the highest level. Whether it’s sick rolls or his ability to play any drum configuration, Giovanni has set the bar high for all other drums to reach.

Mongo Santamaria

Mongo played with Latin jazz greats like Perez Prado, Tito Puente, and Cal Jader. He was part of the music scene in New York during the 1950s and ‘60s that laid the groundwork for boogaloo music.His cover of the Herbie Hancock song “Watermelon Man” is one of the most popular Latin jazz tunes ever recorded.The video below is a version of the song that’s stylistically different than the original recording. This version of “Watermelon Man” is based on a comparsa conga pattern, while the original version is a cha cha.

Poncho Sanchez

I first heard “Watermelon Man” on the Headhunters album but later on a Poncho Sanchez live album. This prompted me to dig deeper, leading me to Mongo Santamaria’s recording of the song.The first thing I noticed about Poncho’s playing was how clear it was. Part of this is because of the recording technology or production quality, but that’s not the only reason.Poncho’s sounds are powerful and clear, and he gets these sounds by playing the drum well and with some strength. Although I don’t recommend beating your hand up, there comes a time when you should trust your technique and give it some power.

Final Thoughts

Playing conga drums is a very physical activity, so it’s important to develop proper technique. The music you can make once you’ve developed goods sounds has a lot of energy and passion.Look to the great players for the rhythms and technique that this instrument demands. The folkloric as well as the modern popular styles hat employ conga drumming are equally important to your success on these drums.Read more: Dragon Age: Inquisition Skyhold Upgrading Guide | Top Q&A

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