The 9 Best Bongo Drums

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This wiki has been updated 28 times since it was first published in February of 2016. Whenever you're grooving to a sweet Caribbean melody, you're likely to hear the classic sound of bongos in the background. Traditionally heard in Afro-Cuban and salsa music, this simple set of two small drums of different pitches is a dynamic way to add percussion to any song. We've included models suitable as a child's first instrument and some good enough for professional performances. When users buy our independently chosen editorial choices, we may earn commissions to help fund the Wiki.

1. LP Aspire

2. Toca Synergy

3. Meinl Headliner

Editor's Notes

October 08, 2020:

We kept high-quality contenders like the LP Aspire and Meinl Headliner around, as well as solid mid-tier options like the Tycoon Percussion Ritmo and Toca Synergy, and the beginner-friendly Pyle Tunable. The popular Latin Percussion Matador had been suffering from availability issues, so we brought on the equally reliable Latin Percussion City, which sport the same professional-grade components with an attractive vintage sunburst finish. The Remo Rhythm Club should keep musically-inclined little ones busy, but for more percussion instruments geared toward youngsters, you'll want to look at our list of drum sets for kids.

We felt it would be prudent to bring another entry-level option into the fold, so you'll find the Remo Festival joining the ranks today. These can serve both children and casual adult players well thanks to a lightweight construction that eschews heavy hardware in favor of wood fiber shells and synthetic heads. The benefit to synthetic heads is that they won't fluctuate in pitch due to temperature or humidity, which is a must if they're going to be pre-tuned as these ones are.

Then, we said goodbye to the RockJam 100300 in favor of the Eastar EBO-21. While the RockJam come in at a rock-bottom price that would naturally appeal to those just starting out, many complain they lack the sound and build quality necessary to make them worth it in the end. While decidedly more expensive, (but still reasonably priced if you're a novice), the Eastar are made well, deliver bright tone, use quality components, and showcase knowledgeable craftsmanship. Plus they come with a padded case and tuning wrench.

March 09, 2019:

Bongos are among the more well-known of the various types of hand drums, because while they're often seen on stage with professional bands, they're also, generally, small and inexpensive for most people to own a pair. They're great for kids just learning to put together rhythm, as well as adults who want to make their modest contribution to a jam session or drum circle. If you get a decent pair, they sound great when played with sticks, as well as just your hands. LP makes a couple sets that are well-constructed enough for nearly any situation, as does Meinl. Toca is particularly popular in all forms of hand drums, especially djembes and doumbeks, and their bongos are just as good. The Pyle and Rockjam sets are good for beginners, because they're particularly less costly than most others, but they still offer all the functionality of real drums; unlike some other cheap knock-off models, they are tuneable, so they'll actually work in a beginner's band, and they can likely stand up to a couple head changes. Finally, Remo makes a number of entry-level musical instruments, and their set here is a good, colorful choice for younger kids, which may help them to develop a rhythmic identity, and after all, having fun is one of the most important parts of learning how to play music.

Special Honors

Latin Percussion Galaxy Giovanni Signature Made in collaboration with percussionist Giovanni Hidalgo, this premium set is ideal for professionals. They feature North American ash and natural rawhide heads with an elegant gold finish that provides a high shine. The wood is kiln-dried and plantation-grown for lasting strength and environmental sustainability, and it can withstand diverse climates and vigorous playing conditions. Finally, they're fitted with heat-treated lugs with precision-cut threads for smooth, reliable tuning.

Pearl Elite Series PBW300DXG535 With a satin black finish, polished gold hardware, and Thai oak shells, this model from Pearl's handcrafted Elite Series is made to serve serious musicians well for years. They feature the company's exclusive “Spline-Joint” technology for added strength and offer up a warm, traditional tone. An oversized 9-inch hembra provides excellent bass response, and the genuine buffalo heads on each drum feel responsive and snappy.

4. Latin Percussion City

5. Tycoon Percussion Ritmo

6. Eastar EBO-21

7. Remo Festival

8. Pyle Tunable

9. Remo Rhythm Club

A Brief History Of Drums Up To The Bongo

Like a doctor's reflex-hammer to your knee, your eyes jolt open.

You're in a quiet place — a library, church, wherever — enjoying the tranquility of silence. You can hear the hum of an air conditioner, the distant rumble of trucks transporting cargo, perhaps even your own breathing. It's not too often you get to appreciate the stillness of a moment like this. You close your eyes and sink into it ...

Tap. Tip tap. Tip tap tap tap. Like a doctor's reflex-hammer to your knee, your eyes jolt open. You hear the tapping again. The sound is sharp, rhythmic, resonant. What, is there a woodpecker in this building? The bliss from a moment ago has vanished, and in its wake, you feel the dull flame of irritation building in your chest. You glance around, scanning for the culprit, and you spot it: a hand, much like any other hand, attached to an arm, itself connected to a person. But it's not the person you're interested in, because as far as you can tell, the hand — tapping out a continuous triplet rhythm now — has a mind of its own. It's this godforsaken hand that sends your blood pressure through the roof. How dare it.

Don't blame the hand, though. Rhythm is an innate part of who we are, and here's testament to it: we've been drumming, in one form or another, for millennia. In fact, drumming is so ubiquitous that even certain primates utilize it as a form of social communication, though scientists have yet to find a macaque who can lay it down like Bonham. Experts believe that before there were guitars, lutes, flutes, lyres, and whatever other instruments you can think of, there were drums — although it's worth noting that the oldest instrument archaeologists have found stretches back to as far as 40000 B.C.E, and is, in fact, a flute.

Currently, we can trace the earliest known drums to somewhere around 5500 B.C.E., when people from the area we now know as China created drums with alligator skins. They probably would have played these with their hands, though later, drums sticks were used. Word about this clever creation slowly got out, and over the next 3,000 years, similar drums were made all across Asia.

By 1000 B.C.E., drums were being utilized in Sri Lanka and Africa for their ability to communicate over large distances. As various peoples came in contact with foreign groups, whether by means of migration, war, or trade, cultures cross-pollinated. Subsequently, the musical potential of various drum-models was recognized by different groups at different times.

Around 1200 C.E., Mediterranean trading routes opened as a result of the Crusades, and cultures who had never before communicated began to do so. During this period and straight through the Medieval era, different kinds of drums evolved into the prototypes of our modern percussive instruments. In the 1500s, the slave trade brought drums to the Americas. This planted the seed for the bongos, which would develop out of African Congo-style drums in the 1800s.

The Bongo: Then And Now

When we talk about bongos in the plural, what we're describing is a pair of open-bottomed drums that are conjoined by a thick piece of wood in the middle. The larger drum is called the hembra (which roughly translates to female in Spanish) and the smaller one is called the macho (male).

When we talk about bongos in the plural, what we're describing is a pair of open-bottomed drums that are conjoined by a thick piece of wood in the middle.

While specifics on the bongo's exact origins are murky, its first documented appearances come from late 19th century Cuba, in the eastern region called the Oriente Province. This area was home to many Africans from the historical Kingdom of Kongo. Since the bongo's design is so similar to many from that region, many scholars believe that the bongo was derived from drum models that originated from the African mainland and were brought to Cuba as a result of the Atlantic slave trade.

In the late 1800s, the bongo became popular in some of the prominent Cuban genres of the day, including son cubano. A few decades later, as early recordings were created and released, the bongo sensation took full force and swept the nation, influencing other genres both domestically and, shortly after, internationally as bongoseros brought their music to places like New York and Chicago. From there, the bongo's use has spread to cultures across the world. Whether it's folk, world music, jazz, salsa, or any of the other genres that utilize it, it's clear that the bongo has staying power.

Marching To The Beat Of Your Own Bongo

Like any art, music is a constant cycle of innovation and reinvention, of old forms merging with new ones. The bongo is an instrument of great versatility, both thanks to its portability and its ability to fit into an impressive array of genres. Whether you're interested in finding novel applications for the bongo in modern genres, or you're looking to use it in a more traditional context, you'll find it an immensely adaptable instrument.

Not only is it tonally suited for wide-ranging applications, but its physical dimensions make it so that you can use it in vastly different settings. For example, setting aside its obvious traditional applications, you can use it while on a road trip, at an open mic, at a drum circle in the park, at a shamanic drumming gathering, or during your band's stripped down acoustic set. It's often the go-to percussion instrument choice for buskers. Kids love the tactile response that drums give, so if you're hoping to usher a little one into the musical realm, your instrument may be one of the best to help facilitate it. Further, bongos are used in often used in musical therapy.

No matter where your interest lies, be warned: once you've fallen in love with drumming, you're doomed. Your loved ones will spend many an hour in a state of consternation, trying to understand how you could possibly find meaning in the act of hitting a drum over and over again, sometimes for hours at a time. But they won't know the joy like you will.

Gia Vescovi-Chiordi
Last updated by Gia Vescovi-Chiordi

Born in Arizona, Gia is a writer and autodidact who fled the heat of the desert for California, where she enjoys drinking beer, overanalyzing the minutiae of life, and channeling Rick Steves. After arriving in Los Angeles a decade ago, she quickly nabbed a copywriting job at a major clothing company and derived years of editing and proofreading experience from her tenure there, all while sharpening her skills further with myriad freelance projects. In her spare time, she teaches herself French and Italian, has earned an ESL teaching certificate, traveled extensively throughout Europe and the United States, and unashamedly devours television shows and books. The result of these pursuits is expertise in fashion, travel, beauty, literature, textbooks, and pop culture, in addition to whatever obsession consumes her next.

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