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Inevitably the question comes up--perhaps your friend told you not to play bongos with sticks or maybe you saw a concert where someone was wailing on the bongo drums from their drumset and you asked yourself… can you do that? Can you play the Bongo Drums with drumsticks?
Although Bongo Drums are designed to be hand percussion they can be played with sticks if special care is taken to avoid striking the bearing edge. Additionally, the bongo drumhead longevity can be extended with lighter drumsticks such as timbale sticks.
I’ll make sure this super clear in the guide ahead so you can know how to play the bongos safely without ruining them prematurely.
Can You Play the Bongos With Sticks?
I remember being chided by someone when I tried to play the bongos with sticks when I was in jazz band in high school--I recall even passing on that chiding to someone else because I thought it was a rule. No playing bongos with sticks!
As I’ve wondered about this question, I decided to do some research and found that a lot of drummers and percussionists play bongos with sticks, and a lot of bongoseros (bongo players) say never to do that.
So who’s right? Well, both of course. You can absolutely play the bongos with sticks! Also, this is controversial, but sticks on the bongos have a distinct sound that can be really awesome and fit in your song, perfectly.
Here are some reasons why someone would want to play the bongos with sticks:
- You want to mount them in your drumkit: This is fair--you are trying to build the variety of sound in your drumkit and you are thinking of putting your bongos into the mix.
- Filling in for Rototoms: if you already have bongo drums and you don’t want to buy another piece of equipment, then bongos are an excellent option. Particularly because you can find a cheap pair of bongos for $50-100 and even less if you buy used. You probably don’t want to buy an expensive custom-made pair of bongos ($300 to $1000) if you are planning on using them in a drumkit.
- You are short on percussionists and you’ll be fielding other mallet instruments all by yourself
In my book, there is no real reason that prevents you from playing the bongos with sticks. However, one of the biggest reasons why people tell others to not play bongos with sticks is that you can damage them.
Read on to find out how to minimize the damage you make to the bongos while playing.
How to (Safely) Play Bongos With Sticks
Let’s face it--no matter what, sticks are going to burn through a drumhead faster than playing with your hands. However, there’s a certain region of the bongos that are particularly sensitive. If you avoid striking the bongos incorrectly, you can expect good longevity of your bongo drumheads even while playing with sticks.
Avoiding the Bearing Edge
The most important thing to remember is to not strike the bearing edge with your sticks.
What is the bearing edge? The bearing edge is the top of the drum cylinder that the skin is stretched over. Here’s a diagram of the bongos so you can get an idea of what the bearing edge looks like and the bongo anatomy. If you want to learn more about the anatomy of the bongo drums I wrote a whole post about it that explains each part.
So in other words, direct your playing to the center of the bongo drums and make sure you do not strike the bearing edge. For convenience I’ve even made a quick diagram that shows you what I mean.
Why Avoid the Bearing Edge?
Bongo drums are hand drums, and part of the design of the bongo drum allows for your hands to strike the bearing edge. This allows for a more resonant tone and is pivotal to making the distinct and characteristic sound of the bongo drums. This is a completely different design than drums designed for sticks like the snare drum.
In the case of a snare drum, the drumhead edge is safely tucked away under the protective rim of the drum.
For a bongo drum, the edge of the drumhead is exposed. Bongos are made of wood or other soft materials. If you strike the bearing edge you risk denting the underlying wood, which means that your bongo drums will never be the same and will be irreparably damaged.
Many of us like to live dangerously--and that’s totally cool. 🙂 Just be careful.
Avoid the Rimshot Temptation
Why do drummers rimshot (strike the rim of the drum as they strike the drumhead)? Well, it’s because rimshots are awesome. They cause a snapping sound that is super resonant and powerful--they provide accents and dynamics to your song. The difficult thing is that rimshots are almost 2nd nature to many drummers when they want to accent something.
To overcome this, it might be your best option to angle the bongo drums in such a way to make it difficult to rimshot.
Alternatively, if you are going to be playing the bongos with sticks without anything else, you can gently play exactly parallel to the bearing edge for rimshots. You should only do this if you are not planning to hit the bongo drums very hard.
Are Some Sticks Better Suited To Bongos?
As I was researching the answer to this question among various communities, it came up that some percussionists want to use different sticks than normal drumsticks to play the bongo drums.
Normal drumsticks will work, of course, but you may not be satisfied with the sound--additionally, you have a fair amount of risk of damaging the bongos with normal drumsticks. There are some options, however.
Mallets on The Bongos
Mallets can fit perfectly if you want a different sound--and with a felt tip you get a much gentler impact than other drumstick heads. There’s some extra weight with a mallet, but there’s also a different bounce.
Mallets are the one of the gentler ways to play the bongos with sticks while still maintaining good volume.
Furthermore, rimshots with a mallet isn’t really a thing so that takes some of that risk away.
Mallets may not have the same level of volume (depending on the mallet), so you may have to experiment if necessary.
One interesting option if you are playing a drumkit or any other drum with normal drumsticks is to use double-sided drumsticks, like the Vic Firth’s Swizzle sticks (Musician’s Friend).
This gives you the flexibility to play with the normal drumheads, but allowing you to switch instantly to mallets, so you can play bongos, or even tom toms and other drums with the mallets to change up your sound.
One very sensible stick option to play the drums with are timbale sticks.
Timbale sticks can vary in size and shape, but in general, the sticks are much different than normal drumsticks because they are very lightweight and do not have a bead tip (like normal drumsticks), but instead are simply a cylinder of wood.
Timbale sticks, because of their lighter weight and their broader and more rounded ends are more ideal for bongos. Care should still be taken on the bearing edge to avoid a slanted strike that can dent the wood.
Vic Firth Rutes
Vic Firth makes Rute drumsticks which are essentially a bundle of thin dowels. Again, these types of sticks work well for the bongos since the impact is not as harsh, but still allowing for a sharp sound. Vic Firth also sells plastic versions which are even more flexible and gentle on your bongo drumheads.
There are a few drumsticks out there that are actually made to replicate the sound of a hand striking the drum. Regaltip makes some of these called Conga Sticks available at Steve Weiss Music--but there are several others out there.
Improvise from the Kitchen
You don’t have to go buy another set of drum sticks – you can use what’s around your house! You can try using a silicone basting brush, or even an especially floppy spatula, and you’ll get a great sound that sounds similar to your hands striking the drum.
Are Some Drumheads Better For Playing Bongos With Sticks?
Bongo drums traditionally have animal skin drumheads, but there are several bongo drums with synthetic heads as well. Furthermore you can replace your existing bongo drumheads with either animal skin or synthetic heads.
Which type of drumhead is better for playing with sticks?
Let’s learn about the two options and we’ll figure out if there’s an advantage to a particular skin if you’re planning on playing your bongo drums with sticks.
Characteristics of Animal Skins
Animals skins are the goto for bongo drums and for bongoseros. Many people have the opinion that the natural animal skins have a warmer sound. In my own experience, if there is a difference, it’s likely to be mostly imperceptible for most listeners.
Animals skins may be traditional, but are they the best kind of drumhead for being struck with sticks?
The answer is--it depends. Calfskin or other animal skins are still being used for other types of drums designed to be hit with sticks--the fact that it’s an animal skin doesn’t mean that you can’t use drumsticks.
The key difference between animal skins and synthetic skins is that animal skins are not as consistent. The thickness of the drumhead will vary from skin to skin, and even will vary within the same drumhead! In other words, one section of the drumhead will be thinner or thicker than the other.
This is usually not a huge problem when playing with your hands (although many bongoseros prefer an even drumhead), this could be a problem if you’re playing with sticks.
Sticks are much sharper than your hands, and if you hit a weak spot on your animal skins, or if you hit the drumhead at too obtuse an angle than you risk tearing through your drumhead.
Animal skins are notoriously sensitive to weather conditions, as well. Because the skin is porous, humidity affects the skins noticabley.
Are Synthetic Drumheads Tougher Than Animal Skins?
It’s been touted for ages that synthetic heads are strong--this makes them a good option for being played with sticks because that’s one of the key characteristics you want if you are playing the bongos with sticks.
Perhaps more importantly, synthetic drumheads are very even--wherever you hit the drumhead the drumhead will be the same thickness throughout.
While I’ve not done a strength test on mylar vs. animal skin with different weights (although maybe I will just to find out this conun-drum… hah!), synthetic heads also have the advantage of being impervious to water. Whether you’re playing humid or arid conditions, you won’t have to worry about your drumheads.
Ultimately, synthetic heads are a good option if you’re playing with sticks since they are tough and can withstand the greater impact--the only thing that may stop you is the tone difference of the bongo drums which is probably negligible. It’s definitely up to you, though and your own sound preferences.
Examples of Drummers Playing Bongos With Drumsticks
If you’re still feeling apprehensive about playing drums with sticks, I looked for several examples of professional drummers and percussionists playing bongos with sticks. Many talented and famous drummers use bongos in their setup and play with sticks. Check out the following:
Dave Weckl talks about his bongos that he uses on his webpage here--the Remo Valencia Bongos.
The drummer in Alice in Chains plays bongos that you can hear and see mounted on the drummers left here:
Famous percussionist Evelyn Glennie plays the bongos and congas with sticks here in this video:
Walfredo Reyes has his bongos on the left side of his kit here
Reasons You Shouldn’t Play Bongo Drums With Sticks
This post wouldn’t be complete unless I told you some of the reasons why bongoseros cringe and shift uncomfortably during the discussion about playing bongos with sticks. I want to be clear that I for one won’t judge you--I think it’s completely valid to play with sticks, but I did want to represent the other side a bit.
Damaging the Bongo Drums
I’ve already talked about this a fair bit--the biggest danger to playing the bongo drums with sticks is that you’ll damage the bearing edge of the bongos.
Even if you’re super careful--your drumheads will not last as long with sticks striking them rather than your hands.
The worst case scenario is that you’ll strike the bearing edge at an angle and dent the drumheads, essentially making the bongos useless.
Losing Out On Bongo Techniques
Perhaps the most exciting aspect of playing the bongos is utilizing the techniques that are unique to the instrument. If you’re playing bongos with sticks, it’s likely you are playing other instruments as well in an ensemble, and the bongos lose some of their individuality and charm.
Bongos with sticks are now just a drum.
However, there are techniques that you can do with your hands that make the bongos come to life and give a huge variety of dynamic sounds.
I made a video talking about some of the techniques you can make with the bongos:
This list isn’t even comprehensive, there are other techniques to change the timbre and feel of the bongo drums.
Bottom line: when you play with sticks, you won’t be able to get the same unique sound that only the bongos provide.
How Do You Hit Bongos? (With Your Hands)
This sounds like an over simple question--but there really is a lot to it.
The traditional method of playing the bongos is with your hands, and over the years many techniques have been developed that change the sound of the bongo drums as you’re playing, allowing for a dynamic and exciting sound.
The bongo techniques are what make bongo drums bongo drums.
As a primer, I’ll share some of the techniques here with some pictures so you can get an idea of what types of sounds you can get from the bongos when playing with your hands.
As an alternative, I made a quick video that demonstrates these same techniques:
The Muted Strike
The left thumb is pressed into near the center of the macho (the smaller drum)--this mutes the drum but also drives up the pitch. Then, you strike near the bearing edge (but not directly) with your right hand’s index finger to create a high-pitched pop. The muted strike is one of my favorite bongo techniques and is fundamental to the Martillo rhythm.
What’s cool about the muted strike is that you can vary the sound so much by how hard you are pressing into the drum with your left thumb and also where exactly you strike with your right hand. This is really where the voice of the bongos come out
The left hand in traditional bongo playing rocks back and forth from the left thumb to the tips of the fingers of the left hand. This motion is called the manoteo and is used to create an even rhythm in the Martillo.
The Heel is the thumb being pressed into the drum--the heel actually is used to set up the muted strike but it is a tone all of its own.
The toe is the other part of the manoteo.
The Open Tone
The open tone is one of the simpler tones to perform:
It’s played by simple striking near the bearing edge of the bongo drum and releasing quickly to create an open sound.
These are just a few examples of bongo techniques out there. There are also slaps and flicks and other techniques that give an impressive dynamic and sound to the bongo drums. These really can’t be replicated by playing with sticks.
Which, to me, is amazing. These drums have an impressive variety of sounds that can be unlocked with sticks/mallets or with your hands and they all work!
If you’re looking for some guidance on getting started with the bongos and are wondering what are some good rhythms to get started with, I’ve made some free resources that could be of some use to you.
I’ve created a comprehensive getting started guide that walks you through how to hold and how to play the bongos as well as some simple rhythms you can get started with. You can check out my getting started with the bongos guide here.
Once you’ve gone through the basics, I’ve also put together a list of 40 bongo drum rhythms from various styles of music. This is a great way to cut your teeth on different rhythms that you can use in many different songs.
If you are wondering about how to read bongo notation, I’ve also made a reference here on some examples of what bongo notation would look like as well as some of the techniques that they represent.
If you’re unsure about what bongos to buy, whether you’re playing with sticks or your hands, I’ve put some resources together for you here as well.
Hope that helps! There are lots of reasons to play bongos with sticks and hopefully this gives some helpful pointers on how to avoid damaging them and enjoy the bongos you have for as long as possible. Make sure and check out our other resources so you can explore the depth of the bongo drums!