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Bongo Tuning Questions & Answers


Q: What are the basics of  tuning?  

When tightening your heads, go about a quarter turn at a time, moving around the lugs clockwise to tighten, and counter-clockwise to loosen after playing.  Keep a close eye on evenness, especially at the beginning, watching to ensure that the lugs are evenly tightened. If you turn the drum upright and place it on a very flat surface, you will be able to tell if one or more lugs are uneven. Tighten the drum up gradually, but rather than listening for a particular pitch, go for a feel. Use your ears; listen carefully and critically.  The macho (male, or smaller) head will start to have a "pop" to it at one point, it sings, the tone seems to emerge effortlessly with a touch. (Note: Use caution if you're not sure. Heads are like strings, they will break if stretched to hard.) The hembra [female head] is approximately a forth below the macho, perhaps not quite as tight. Long ago, before metal tuning lugs, when the heads were tacked on, the drums were played looser, but nowadays, as a solo instrument in a big amplified band, the pitch is much higher to increase projection and volume.   

Q: Should I de-tune after I play?

A: It is ideal to tune your (natural skin) bongos up before playing them, and down again when you're finished.  If you don't de-tune in hot weather then the heads may tighten so much that they will split. Many of us have learned this the hard way - though it's usually the macho head (small) rather than the hembra. 

Q: Should I put anything [oil] on the heads?

Yes, if the head is dry.  If the head is dry, then you can put a bit (about a quarter sized portion) of almond oil or any good lotion with lanolin in the palm of your hand, then rub your hands together, and rub the lotion or oil into the drum heads. You can do this as often as the heads feel dry, to keep the leather supple, and not brittle.

Q: I have those little bongos with the tacked on heads. How do I tune them?

A: The original bongo drums were like this. You can put them in front of an oven or an open fire, taking care not to put them so close that they burn. Players of old also used that canned heat or other heat source, or put the drums in the sun when possible. If you should want the drums tuned a little lower, wet your hands, and rub the moisture gently into the heads until you reach the desired looseness. These tuning techniques will also work with most other fixed tension (real skin) drums, such as tambourines, tars, etc.

Q: Are plastic heads any good?

A: It's a trade off, really. They don't have quite the richness and warmth of a real skin head, but they do require less maintenance, and are playable in all sorts of weather. Even some pros like Karl and Raul of Santana use REMO heads because of the extra projection and durability. The plastic heads have a high pitched overtone, which bothers some folks, but is not noticeable in an amplified situation. It is nice to have a drum that's impervious to the weather, but it's also nice to have the richness and warmth of a real skin head. 

Q: What about using X-ray film for the macho head? I've heard they all do it in Cuba.

A: We have heard about it, but haven't tried it. A kind visitor from Cologne, Germany writes: "It works very well and saves lot of money, no need to change the pitch (as
high as possible is the best). As with the natural skins, two persons are the best to get them on. Then slowly tune up in small steps around, and listen to the sounds from the head. When I experimented with it, I found out, that a small spot from double gaffer-tape (about 2.5 cm) stuck in the middle from the underside, makes the sound a little shorter (dry) and remains of a very strong high pitched skin."  


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Bongo Lessons - Essays & Articles by the Pros