Congas and bongos are two types of drums that very commonly get mistaken for each other. They have several similarities, so it’s justifiable for people who aren’t clued up to make mistakes when identifying them.
However, you should know about all the differences so that you can understand the value of each drum.
In this guide, we’re going to give you an elaborate breakdown of congas and bongos. We’ll explain how the drums differ in areas like size, design, playing technique, and cost.
After reading through all our points, you should be able to identify each type of drum a lot easier when you see and hear them.
- 1 Where Do Congas and Bongos Come From?
- 2 Differences Between Congas and Bongos
- 3 Other Drums That People Confuse for Congas and Bongos
- 4 Final Thoughts on Differences Between Congas and Bongos
Where Do Congas and Bongos Come From?
One of the biggest reasons that bongos and congas are often grouped together is that they have similar origins. Both types of drums originate from Cuba, and they’ve been used in Cuban dance music for countless years.
However, the congas came a lot later than the bongos, making the bongos the older drum type of the two.
Both have made their way into popular music over the years, so they’re regularly used as percussion instruments in orchestras, jazz bands, and various pop groups.
A lot of Latin-style music is based around rhythms that are played on congas and bongos, including the salsa and the mambo. This makes them essential drums for various styles of Latin dancing.
Differences Between Congas and Bongos
The biggest and most obvious difference between the two drums is their size. Bongos are much smaller, while congas are always big and bulky.
With bongos being so small, they’re a lot easier to set up. You just need to rest them on your legs, and you’ll be good to go.
Congas have a more in-depth setup process. Depending on how many congas you’re playing, you need to set up a sturdy stand that can hold their weight. Some congas rest in pairs on a stand, while others are used with individual stands for each conga in a setup.
Bongo sizes range from 7” to 9”, while conga sizes range from 11” to 13”. Congas also have much deeper shells than bongos, with the depths being anywhere from 20” to 24”.
Bongos will always come in pairs. They’re connected by a center block that people often refer to as the bridge, and you can’t get bongos that are separate. The one bongo drum is referred to as the hembre, while the other is referred to as the macho.
Every pair of bongos that you get has this same design with very similar sizes.
The design of congas is a bit different. You can get single congas to play on their own, and you’ll just need to get a single stand for them. You can also rest them on the ground, but you won’t get as much resonance.
On the flip side, you can also purchase congas in pairs, with one being larger than the other. However, you can still separate them to move them around individually. You can’t do that with bongos.
Congas have very deep sounds that are similar to what you get from bass drums and floor toms. However, they don’t have as much attack as those drums from drum sets. The sounds you get from congas are a lot warmer.
You can strike the edge of a conga to get sharper attacking sounds, but they’re still warmer than they are sharp, and they’re still quite deep.
Bongos have much higher-pitched sounds, and they have more attack and punch than congas. The sounds from bongos will cut through a mix, while the sounds from congas will sit within it.
You can play bongos on the edges to get sounds that are even sharper and more piercing.
When you play a set of bongos, you’ll primarily play them using your fingers. You get tones out of the drums by striking various parts of the drumheads with your fingers. You can play them with your entire hands, but you don’t get articulated notes. So, using your fingers is the correct way of playing bongos.
With congas, you use a combination of your fingers and the palms of your hands. Since the congas make warm sounds, you can make those sound even warmer by striking the center of the congas with cupped hands.
You can then strike the edges of the congas with your fingers bunched solidly together to get a stronger sound that is similar to a rim shot.
Portability is another huge differentiating factor between congas and bongos. With bongos being much smaller, they’re a lot easier to move around. They’re much lighter and easier to take with you to different places.
It can be a real struggle to move congas around. Fitting two of them in a small car will be challenging. Fitting three or more of them will be almost impossible.
Their long bodies are also awkward to carry around if you don’t have them in bags. That’s why conga players will always have bags with straps for the congas to carry them around when they’re gigging.
If portability is something you’re worried about, we wouldn’t suggest getting a set of congas unless you’re willing to lug them around in heavy bags.
Role in Ensembles
The various sounds that bongos and congas make cause them to have fairly different roles and ensembles.
With bongos producing quick and articulate sounds, they’re typically used to play very fast rhythms that fill in subdivisions the same way that hi-hats do.
People who play bongos will regularly play 16th and 32nd notes, and you’ll hear those notes very distinctly over all the other instruments.
Congas play more of a supportive role with their bass tones. The rhythms you play on congas have more space in between them, and they sit underneath all the other instruments in the group.
The clear winner when it comes to popularity between bongos and congas are bongos by a mile. This has a lot to do with bongos being an easier instrument to purchase and play.
It’s also due to there being multiple occasions in history where bongos have been highlighted in pop culture. The classic stereotype of college boys having a pair of bongos in their dorm room has seen their sales boost significantly over the years.
It’s a lot easier to put a pair of bongos in your music room than it is to have a pair of congas, so that has also helped in boosting the popularity of bongos.
The final thing to mention here is that drum circle communities have been steadily growing around the world, and bongos are one of the best instruments to get when joining one of those.
A good pair of bongos will always be way more affordable than a good pair of congas. The smaller design of bongos is what makes them cost less, and that’s something else that has boosted their popularity over congas.
You can purchase a set of bongos for anywhere between $50 and $300. A set of two congas will cost you anywhere from $200 to $1500. That’s a significant price difference.
Keep in mind that you also need to purchase stands for your congas, and that boosts the cost even more.
Other Drums That People Confuse for Congas and Bongos
Cajons are also regularly referred to as box drums. They’re rectangular boxes that you sit on and play with your hands.
Most cajons have rivets around the edges that give a similar sound to a snare drum when you strike them on the edge. They then produce a deep sound like a bass drum when you strike them in the center.
These drums aren’t commonly used for Latin music like congas and bongos. They’re used in acoustic settings as replacements for drum kits when there are noise limits.
Djembes are drums that come from Africa. They have a very distinct body shape that resembles an hourglass.
These drums have deep tones when you strike them in the middle, and they have cracking tones when you strike them on the edge.
You’ll hear them being played in a lot of African music. They’re commonly mistaken as bongos by a lot of people who don’t know what they are.
Timbales are metallic drums that also have Cuban origin. They usually come in pairs mounted on a hardware stand.
The big difference between these and congas is that you use sticks to play them. They have high-pitched tones that are very sharp, and they’re the most similar Latin instrument to drums that you’ll find on a drum set.
They’re typically used in the same type of music where you’ll hear bongos and congas being played.
Final Thoughts on Differences Between Congas and Bongos
It’s quite easy to see how people mistake congas and bongos. They’re used in the same styles of music, and they have very similar origins. However, they sound very different, and they both have unique playing styles.
You’ll find that percussionists who can play one type are very good at playing the other. You’ll also regularly find bongos and congas being used in the same percussion setup. You can get a stand for a pair of bongos to position them in front of your congas.
If you want to learn how to play these instruments, know that they’re a lot easier to play than many others. You just need to work on the playing techniques and learn a few basic rhythms.