What’s the Difference Between Bongo Drums and a Djembe?


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You may have seen pictures of bongo drums and djembes and thought “those look really similar”. Now you’re here looking for the differences between the two. Are they exactly the same with a different shape? Read on to find out!

Bongo drums and djembe drums are both designed to be played with your hands and are often made from wood, but they have several key differences:

  • Djembes have a much deeper tone
  • Djembe drumheads are much looser than bongo drumheads allowing for different techniques
  • Bongo drums are much more compact than most djembes
  • Bongo drums are made to be easily tunable with a tuning wrench, while djembes can be tuned by tightening ropes
  • Although similar in concept, bongo drums and djembes are held quite differently
  • Bongo drums feature a bottom ring used for tuning
  • Bongo drums come in attached pairs
  • Djembes are a completely different shape than bongo drums

Wow, that’s a lot of differences, but do they matter? Do the drums sound the same? Let’s keep going and find out.

Differences Between Bongo Drums and the Djembe

There’s a lot of differences between the two drums–Let’s take a look at the more obvious ones first.

Drum Shape

The Djembe drum has an hourglass shape with a flared bottom so it can stand on its own as well as give better projection.

Djembe Hourglass Shape

Bongo drums have a much more cylindrical shape–although it’s not uncommon for them to be slightly cone shaped.

Bongo drum shape

The bongo drums are made up of a larger drum (called the hembra) joined with a smaller drum (called the macho). Most often, these bongos are joined by wood.

Size of Drums

Djembes range in height anywhere from 18 inches to 28 inches, but full-size djembes often are around 24 inches tall.

The drumhead size varies mainly from around 10 to 16 inches, but full-size djembe drumheads are often around 14 inches.

Bongos are only around 10 inches tall and around 18 inches across both bongos

Bongo drumheads vary from 6 to around 9 inches at the largest.

Tone: Do Bongos and Djembes Sound Different?

Djembes and bongos sound very different. Here, take a listen to the djembe:

This sample is from Freesound.org by user Owl (https://freesound.org/s/187651/)

Here is the sound of my bongo drums:

The bongos have much higher pitch in comparison to the djembe. Even my bongos are not tuned as tightly as many other bongo players play.

Drumhead Tightness

Since you can easily change the tuning of bongos, they can be tuned loosely if desired. However, in general, most bongo players tune their bongos very tightly so they can get the distinctive pop from a muted strike.

So, in general, the bongo drumhead is much tighter than a djembe.

Technique

This is where there are some major differences between playing the djembe or the bongos:

Djembe Techniques:

Djembes have three main tones.

  1. Slap (high): Striking the drum on the bearing edge of the drum
  2. Tone (mid): Striking the drum towards the center of the drum but still with your palm on the bearing edge.
  3. Bass (low): Striking the djembe in the center of the drum and releasing to create a low base tone

Bongo Techniques:

The bongos, on the other hand have their own techniques that are similar in nature but have a very different sound.

  1. Muted Strike: Made by pressing into the bongo drumhead and striking the drumhead with the opposite hand. This creates a high-pitched pop. (I personally think this sound is super awesome)
  2. Manoteo: The manoteo is performed by rocking your left hand back and forth in a walking motion with the “heel” being your left thumb and the “toe” being the last few fingers of the same hand.
  3. Slap: Similar to other hand drums where you cup your hand and strike the edge of the drum so you are hitting towards the center of the drumhead and your hand is cupping the edge.
  4. Open Tone: By hitting near the edge (but not the edge) and releasing quickly it gives a nice open tone
  5. Finger rolls: Bongos are more subtle instruments and you are definitely using more of your fingers than you do the djembe or conga drums. Because of this, a popular technique is to roll your fingers to produce a bunch of strikes in quick succession.

Tuning

Perhaps one of the biggest functional differences between the bongo drum and the djembe is that the bongo drum is more easily tunable.

The bongo drum is tightened by a rim being pulled by tuning lugs towards the bottom rim of the bongo drum. A wrench is used to tighten the tuning lug nuts.

Djembe drums are tightened with rope, so in order to tune you use additional rope to pass through the existing verticals (the ropes that are being used to tension the drum). By tightening these verticals with additional rope twisted through you can raise the pitch of the drum.

Tuning for djembe drums is much more time consuming and labor intensive, although it’s not hard once you get going.

How You Hold The Drums

The two drums are fairly different in how you hold them because the primary method of holding the djembe is actually to rest it on the ground with the thinnest part of the drum between your knees.

If you are playing a smaller djembe then you grip the drum between your knees in the same location but suspended in the air.

Bongo drums are held between your knees under the rim of the drum with your feet perpendicular for stability:

Me holding the bongos with those awesome socks

Additionally, there are stands for both djembes and for bongo drums so you do not have to hold them.

Hardware

The bongo drums have significantly different hardware than the djembe.

Djembe profile

Djembes have one or two metal hoops around the top of the drumhead, and a smaller ring at the thinnest part of the djembe. The skins are held in place with the top hoop(s) and tightened by ropes in between the smaller hoop and the large top hoop(s).

Bongos are a little different.

Check out the anatomy of the bongo drums here:

The bongo drumheads are tucked through a metal ring called a flesh hoop (you can’t see it, normally) to keep the drumhead in place, and then the drumhead is tightened by a rim that goes around the edge of the drumhead which is tightened by the 4 tuning lugs on each drum.

Two for One

Bongo drums were designed to come in pairs–there really isn’t a notion of a bongo drum all by itself. While a djembe is a singular drum on its one.

Construction

Bongos and djembes are built in entirely different ways:

Djembes

As I was doing research for this article I learned that traditional djembe drums are primarily carved in one piece out of a tree trunk. The highest quality djembes are carved from dense hardwoods, while less expensive djembes are carved from softer woods. A popular inexpensive material is the rubbertree which you see in a lot of djembes these days

Furthermore, traditional djembes made in West Africa are carved by hand. Which blows your mind to think about. It’s really hard to understand how much time and effort it takes to carve a single djembe.

Not all djembes are made from wood–several contemporary designs are made from fiberglass, and even some wood djembes are machine cut. Furthermore, some djembes are also made from gluing together staves as I talk about later.

Bongos

Premium Bongos can be constructed very similarly: carved out of a solid piece of wood. These bongos are much heavier and solid then their less expensive counterparts.

However, one extremely construction method for most bongos under $200 (and many over $200) is “stave construction“. Instead of being carved from a big block of wood, several small pieces of wood are glued together to form a cylinder.

If you look closely at this image of the bottom of a bongo drum you can see the lines of glue between each “stave”:

Bongos made from stave construction

Difference Between the Conga and the Djembe

You maybe have been wondering about the difference between the conga drum and the djembe since they are more similarly sized.

This is an excellent demonstration of the two drums and you can hear a distinct difference between the two.

The conga drum has a fuller tone while the djembe has a more complicated sound. The conga drum is tuned with similar hardware to a bongo drum although the tuning lugs attach in the body of the drum rather than at the bottom.

Differences Between Bongo Drums and Regular Drums

There are actually many difference between bongo drums (even though tehy are more similar in size and shape) to regular drums that you’d see in a marching band, an orchestra, or on a drumset:

  • Bongo drums are designed to be played with your hands
  • Bongos have an exposed bearing edge
  • Bongo drums have an open bottom, but are tightened by a top and bottom rim
  • Bongo drums are more commonly used with animal skins than drum skins
  • Bongo shells are usually made from wood as opposed to metal or fiberglass
  • Bongo drumheads are often thicker than regular drumheads

Perhaps the most important difference is how rim of the drum differs from the rim of a bongo drum:

The exposed bearing edge of a bongo drumhead.

With bongo drums, the bearing edge (as shown above) is exposed, so that your hands can strike edge of the drum and create those resonant tones.

This design means that the edges of the bongo drums are sensitive and should not be struck with anything except your hands and very particular types of drumsticks (check out our post about playing the bongos with sticks for more information)

The protected bearing edge of a snare drum

The snare drum, on the other hand, it’s bearing edge is hidden and tucked into the edges of the drum. This protects the bearing edge, and consequently, these drums are intended to be used with sticks.

You can see the difference in material as well from these drums–often bongos are made from wood and sometimes other synthetic materials, while regular drums are made from metal or wood.

Peter Mitchell

Founder of this website. Lover of sound, music, hot sauce, and technology.

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