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How to Play the Bongos

How to Play the Bongos

  1. Know your instrument.
  2. Practice stroke 1; the open tone.
  3. Perfect stroke 2; the slap.
  4. Master stroke 3; the heel-tip movement.
  5. Work on stroke 4; the basic muted tone.
  6. Establish which hands you prefer to do which strokes.


A decent pair of bongos are, of course, essential to your playing. Music stores tend to have a heavy mark-up and so it’s highly recommended that you purchase online. Although it’s a little sneaky, it’s a good idea to try out different brands and models in store, but then purchasing the ones you like over the internet.
A pair of bongos

How to Play the Bongos

Knowing how to play the bongos properly can mean the difference between receiving unpleasant looks from all those around you, or providing a well-received rhythmic beat for the group. The following ‘how to’ talks you through the essentials of how to play the bongos, it’s then up to you to practice.

Photo Credit: Designlazy.com


1- Know your instrument. The bongos come from Cuba and were created for the Son style of music in the mid-1800s. The bongos are a pair of small drums that are connected and played as a unit. Traditionally, you hold the bongos between your legs with the smaller drum on your left.

2- Practice stroke 1; the open tone: Hit the edge of the drum with the knuckly part of your palm and let your fingers bounce off the head. Experiment by moving your fingers about 4 inches in from the centre of the drum and see how the sound changes. You want a rich, clear sound without any overtones (those annoying ringing sounds that get in the way of a clear tone).

3- Perfect stroke 2; the slap: Cup your fingers slightly as you strike the head to create an accent (louder) note that adds color to your drumming. After your hand contacts the drum, relax your fingers and let them bounce off the head. The slap stroke makes a “pop” sound of a higher pitch than the open tone stroke.

4- Master stroke 3; the heel-tip movement: Rest your hand on the head and rock from the heel of your palm to the tip of your fingers. Remember to always keep your hand in contact with the head when you play this stroke.

5- Work on stroke 4; the basic muted tone: Strike the drum in the open tone fashion, but allow your fingers to rest on the head after you strike it. Keep your hands relaxed and barely move them. All you really hear with a muted tone is a light touch of your fingers against the head.

6- Establish which hands you prefer to do which strokes. Traditionally your left hand does a heel-tip rocking movement, but most modern players choose the basic muted tone instead.


The Son bongo rhythm, called the Martillo, has an improvisational quality to it. Check out how this sounds on youtube and then practice replicating it.

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