Bongo drums are deceptively simple percussion instruments that are essential if you want to produce an Afro-Cuban beat.
While many people think of them as “kids’ drums” — and they are in fact a great introduction to drumming for children — for someone who knows what they are doing, a set of bongos can be a serious piece of kit.
Read on to learn more about bongo drums and why you might want a set. We’ll also share with you our recommendations for the five best, relatively affordable bongo drum sets that you can buy today, as well as go through the essential things to consider when choosing the right set of bongo drums.
Product Quick Links
- Eastar Bongo Drums 6” and 7”
- RockJam 7” and 8” Bongo Drum Set
- Musicube Bongo Drum Set 6” and 7”
- Meinl Bongos with Durable Synthetic Shells
- Pyle Handcrafted Bongo Drums
What Are Bongo Drums?
Bongo drums originated in Cuba based on ideas and practices brought to the region by West Africans who were transported as slaves.
While they produce a similar sound to many other hand drums, the bongos are always two small drums that have been connected together. One is slightly larger than the other so that the drummer can create variations in rhythm with the two drums and also the method of beating or slapping the surface. The smaller drum, the macho, is traditionally between six and eight inches in size, while the larger drum, the hembra, is between six and 10 inches in diameter.
Bongos are ideal for Afro-Cuban music, which focuses not on the beat, like most European music, but rather on the offbeat and syncopation.
Bongos are traditionally made from wood and animal skins, but today you can also get bongos made from plastic, fiberglass, and other modern materials, which sound just as good though are less traditional.
Bongos should be played with the fingers and palms, normally in a repeating eighth-note pattern.
Bongos are related to Cajons, and you can read our article on Cajons here.
5 Best Bongo Drum Sets
While professional bongo players will want to pay more for top-end instruments, we are looking at bongos for novices or other percussionists with an interest in bongos. So, all of our options cost less than $100 but promise to produce authentic sounds that will have you falling in love with the bongos.
These Easter Bongo Drums are a traditional six- and seven-inch pair made from wood, with authentic natural skin heads that produce a crisp, bright sound. The wood has a smooth, polished finish that feels good in the hands and will protect you from scratches and splinters.
The drums are available in four color finishes including natural, black, red, and antique. The kit comes with a tuning key and protective carry case.
RockJam produces a highly transportable bongo set that is slightly larger than usual with one seven-inch and one eight-inch drum. The drums are made from natural wood with a gloss finish with authentic skin heads. Everything is held in place with durable chrome hardware.
Choose from natural or red stripe finishes, and they come with a padded carry case and tuning key to let you maintain your instrument.
This bongo set from Musicube will appeal to those who are environmentally conscious. The wood used in the instruments has Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification that guarantees the wood is grown and harvested in an environmentally and socially responsible way.
The kit is a six-inch and a seven-inch drum made from natural hide and comes with a tuning wrench for maintenance. You get a one-year guarantee when you buy this bongo set.
This Meinl bongo set is a six- and seven-inch pair made with buffalo skin heads. These are mounted on synthetic shells available in seven high-gloss finishes including black, sunburst, transparent, and vintage wine barrel.
Everything is held in place with 8mm, chrome-plated steel lugs that are durable enough that the instrument comes with a two-year warranty.
These handcrafted bongo drums from Pyle are made from birchwood and true animal hide. They are 6.5 inches and 7.5 inches, respectively. It has turnable, chrome-plated tuning heads that are easy to adjust.
These bongos have a sturdy frame that is ideal if you prefer to play on a stable surface rather than your lap.
Bongo Buying Guide
If you aren’t a professional bongo player, they may look more or less the same to you. So, how do you know which set to buy? Consider the following features.
Bongo drums come in a variety of sizes, with the smaller drum, the macho, traditionally between 6-8 inches in size, while the larger drum, the hembra, is between 7-10 inches in diameter.
Smaller drums will have a lighter, brighter sound, while larger drums will have a slightly deeper sound. The right size for you comes down to personal preference, but a set with 6-inch and 7-inch drums are the most popular, partially because their small size means they are easy to transport.
Traditional bongo drums are made with a wooden frame and animal skins, usually oakwood with rawhide. The type of wood and skin will make a difference in the sound of the drums, and it is a good idea to prioritize hardwoods such as oak and mahogany.
You can also get bongos made from synthetic materials such as fiberglass and plastic, and they do often produce a nice sound. Generally speaking, natural heads produce a warmer sound but are more difficult to keep in tune. Synthetic heads are easier to maintain but tend to have a tinnier sound. Whether you prefer a traditional or modern look depends on you.
Modern bongo drum sets have a ring that holds the percussion surface in place. This ring will have nuts that you can tighten to adjust the sound of the drum. Regular tuning is often necessary with skins made from natural animal hides as they can be affected by the weather.
Most bongo sets will include a tuning key for this purpose. It is important to tighten each nut gradually in a circular pattern rather than tighten one side and then the other, or the sound will be uneven.
If you find no-rim bongos, unless they are a traditional handmade kit, they are probably designed for children and are not tunable.
Bongos will have other features beyond the essential for producing music. For example, many options come with a padded carry bag for safe transport. Some will also have non-slip feet that lets you play the bongos on a flat surface if you prefer that to playing on your lap. These features are, of course, of secondary importance.
Looking to learn drumming at home? Find our online courses here.
What should bongos be tuned to?
The macho and the hembra should be tuned one octave apart. The macho should be tuned to a note between B and D, or about two octaves above middle C. The hembra should be tuned at an A octave or two octaves above middle C.
Do you have to detune bongos?
You should detune bongos and leave them to rest on a regular basis. This is because the wood or fiberglass frames can crack if they are subjected to too much pressure.
Who is a famous Bongo player?
Many famous musicians have had a passion for bongos. Players include Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee, Tony Curtis, Betty Grable, Xavier Cugat, and Eddie Fisher, who is also credited with introducing bongos to American jazz music. Bongo players are called bongoceros.
How do you position bongo drums?
While there are no strict rules, traditionally the hembra, the larger of the two drums, is positioned on the dominant side of the player.
A set of bongo drums is a great instrument if you enjoy Afro-Cuban drumming, if you want to learn hand-drumming, or you are looking for an accessible percussion kit for kids.
Finding the right set of bongos isn’t difficult as long as you choose something made of the right materials. This could be either traditional wood and animal hide, or something synthetic such as fiberglass. Both can produce an authentic and appealing sound if they are made in the right way and you know how to play them.
Do you like to play the bongos? Do you have any playing or buying tips? Share them with the community in the comments section below.