Conga Tuning Guide/Discussion

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Conga Tuning Guide/Discussion

Postby drbongo42 » Wed Mar 16, 2022 5:49 pm

Some thoughts on Conga Tunings...

The Covid 19 pandemic gave me plenty of time to experiment with different conga tunings and I thought I would share my thoughts/findings for anyone who is interested in the topic and/or has their own approach to tuning Congas and Bongos. There is a great article written by Alex Pertout which discusses tuning in detail and gives an extensive list of tunings used by famous conga players which I would recommend reading –

There are basically three different approaches to tuning congas:

Tuning each individual drum to its most resonant pitch

Tuning the drums to recognisable musical intervals but not to specific notes

Tuning the drums to specific musical notes

1. is the approach most beginners take and it can produce very good results if you have drums of different sizes and/or with different types/thicknesses of head - as this will produce a range of distinctive sounds/pitches. This won’t work so well if you have drums of the same size and skin type/thickness as they will sound too similar. It also means that unless you get very lucky the actual intervals between the drums will not match those commonly used by professional conga players on recordings or at live events and thus you will struggle to emulate the rhythms/melodies they play.

2. Is probably the most common method used by more experienced conga players. This involves tuning the drums so that the musical interval between them is e.g. a perfect fourth or a fifth apart. This is often done by singing a familiar tune or matching the pitch of the drums to notes played on a piano. In most scenarios this works well and makes sense if you are using traditional rawhide heads, because the pitch of the drums may well change during your performance if the temperature and/or humidity levels change. In theory if the heads are of a similar type and thickness they should expand or contract at a similar rate so that although the actual pitches are changing the intervals between the drums should stay roughly the same. The downside to this is that the way your drums sound will change from session to session and it won’t be easy to reproduce a specific pitch/sound if required.

3. Is the method used by most professional congas players. This has been true for many years, however with the development of synthetic conga heads it makes a lot more sense for all players to consider. Tuning to a specific set of notes allows you to reproduce the same pitches/sounds every time you play and if you are using synthetic heads they will generally stay in tune once they are worn in, as they are generally unaffected by temperature and humidity. Rawhide heads do sound better in my opinion, but with each new generation of synthetic heads the difference gets smaller and in combination with their tuning stability I think they are the best choice, although they are still ridiculously expensive because of the smaller turnover compared to drumkit heads. Most professional have their own preferred set of notes and if you read the article I referenced above you will see there is no standard tuning which the majority of players use. They each have their own preferences which gives their playing a unique pitch and sound.

However, tuning a drum, like a conga or bongo is not as straight forward as tuning a string on a guitar. Most professionals will tune their congas by ear to their preferred pitches using a piano or pitch pipe. Because the sound of a drum decays quickly it is harder to match the pitch than with sounds that last longer – so for this reason they often strike the drum then sing the note it makes and then compare that to the piano. Traditional guitar tuners do not work very well with such short sounds but there are now tuners and apps designed to measure the pitch of drums. If you have ever analysed the waveform of a conga drum recording you will have seen that it in fact produces a range of pitches, the one we generally hear is the fundamental note – the deepest and loudest note. But depending on the drum shell and the thickness/tightness of the skin one of the higher overtones might be the loudest and this can throw you off quite easily. I generally use the Drum Bot tuner and/or the Drumtune Pro app on my phone and I find both of these give reliable results, especially if there are other noises going on around you.

I find that one of the best ways to experiment with new tunings without having to constantly get your spanner out and start cranking is to record all of your drums individually using open tones, heel, toe and slaps etc and then to import them as samples into a digital instrument like the Roland HPD20 or any keyboard/sample player. You can then change the pitches electronically to try out different combinations of notes to see what works best for you. There are limits on what pitches you can realistically get from your drums depending on its diameter and the thickness of the head, but most drums have a tuning range of at least a fifth between the lowest and highest notes it can produce a nice resonant tone at. The pitches you ultimately decide on will depend on the number of drums you have and the style of music you play. I generally find that lower tunings work well with older more traditional styles of latin music and higher tunings work well with more modern dynamic styles. This is probably because of the limitations of tuning lugs/rims and rawhide heads used back in the day as well as the relatively lower volume of the music.

Although for gigs I generally only use two or three drums at home I have room for a six drum setup in my music room. They are all made by Tycoon: I use two quintos, two congas, two tumbas and a set of bongos all with Remo Fiberskyn/NuSkyn heads. Remo conga and bongo heads are about twice as expensive as Rawhide/Evans and they are constructed with one thick piece of mylar, as opposed to two thin pieces of mylar with a centre patch sandwiched in middle on the Evans heads. Remo also produce a much wider variety of sizes although it can still be hard to find the correct sizes if your congas are not made by one of the major suppliers like LP, Toca, Pearl or Meinl etc. If you are a beginner, I would try to avoid buying a new 10’ & 11” set, for the same price you can probably buy two used full size 11”, 11¾” or 12½” drums from ebay, it doesn’t matter if they are different colours – they will sound better and be easier to play. You can also often find Remo conga heads on ebay used or just opened and they are a lot cheaper than buying them new. But be sure to check the sizes before ordering. Anyway let’s get onto some actual tunings for different numbers of drums.

6 Drum & Bongos Tunings:
6 Drum Setup & Bongos.png

These are the tunings of my 6 drum & bongos setup. These pitches work well for the individual drums in terms of pitch and resonance, and they provide a variety of useful intervals which are vital for reproducing common rhythms and voicings. This setup provides three perfect 4th intervals between different pairs of congas as well as on the bongos. There are also two 5th intervals and two minor 3rds. This allows me to play traditional latin rhythms as well a jazz/fusion and pop/rock music using different combinations of drums. It is important to point out that I would rarely use more than three drums whilst playing an individual tune, but this setup allows me to switch to a different set of three for each tune depending which pitches/notes work best. In reality it isn’t practical to take this many drums to a gig or recording session in terms of transport and/or room on the stage/recording studio unless you are a top line professional with the relevant transport/support. I have found that for smaller gigs and/or jam sessions just taking the Roland HPD20 and plugging it into the PA system gives me access to six drums & bongos, without the mic’ing/feedback issues and the added advantage of being small, portable and giving me the ability to shift the pitch of all of the drums up or down a semi-tone or two between songs. But it isn’t as much fun to play. So here are some smaller combinations to try...

Five Drums:
5 Drum Setup.png

Four Drums:
4 Drum Setup.png

Three Drums:
3 Drum Setup.png

Two Drums:
2 Drum Setup.png

I would love to hear any feedback on this guide as well as other peoples’ approaches and preferred tuning combinations etc. There is no right way to tune your drums and much of this is very subjective in terms of taste as well as the specific dimensions of your drum the type of rims, lugs and heads etc. But I wish someone had explained all of this to me years ago so I at least had a starting point to explore from instead of stabbing in the dark for many years...

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Re: Conga Tuning Guide/Discussion

Postby Thomas Altmann » Thu Mar 17, 2022 11:44 am

Hi drbongo,

thanks a lot for your effort and for sharing your insights, first of all. Great diagrams! Which graphic program did you use for them?

As you expressively encouraged forum members to comment on your post, I feel free to do so from my side.

1. I have known Alex Pertout's thesis for long, but never really studied it thoroughly. Referring to his tuning chapter, I dare to maintain that his tonal concept of hearing the low conga as the tonic and the high conga as a perfect fourth above is not very appealing. If you tune the drums in a two-conga setup a fourth apart, then to me the high piched drum sounds like the tonic, while the low one acts as a dominant, hence a guide note, to this tonic. From what I have heard so far, the tuning in a fourth is very popular, and is the one that I use generally.
When playing with 3 drums, I just add a middle sized (and -pitched) drum on my left, forming a wide V, with the high pitched drum at the center. I generally tune it a major second below the center drum, so I obtain another guide note: the minor 7 of a (dominant) 7 chord. You listed this tuning in one of your diagrams. I use the melody of the trumpet riff from "Manteca" as a reference.
However, I recently tried the tuning of the lower fourth for the left middle-sized drum and the lower fifth for the right or low drum, making the low drum sound as the tonic. That was nice, too. What I try to avoid are thirds and sixths, because that would suggest a harmonic (major or minor) chord.

2. You listed three approaches for tuning:
a) Tuning each individual drum to its most resonant pitch;
b) Tuning the drums to recognisable musical intervals but not to specific notes;
c) Tuning the drums to specific musical notes.

However, I do not share your classification of these approaches. Here is why:

Compared to the violin, the piano, or even the timpani, the conga drum is a primitive instrument, originally made from thick wood and thick membranes of often uneven finish, which are tuned by means of a rough, often five-point, tensioning system. Precise tuning to a required pitch is often a challenge. In traditional musicological literature, the conga drum, as well as the bongos, are classified as membranophones of indefinite pitch. A rather modern approach maintains that un-pitched instruments do not exist; you can always identify a dominant or overriding note in any wild blend of interfering waves. That's why we are able to tune even a conga drum to a definite pitch, even if this sensation is blurred by a mass of overtones.

On the other hand, it is exactly this largely multi-tonal sound property of the conga drum that allows us to treat it as an instrument of indefinite pitch, regardless of the tonality that the rest of the ensemble sets up for a given arrangement. This means that the raw pitches of the instruments in the Latin percussion section are con- and perceived separately from the tonal context of the orchestra and arrangement.
Tuning conga drums to definite notes is problematic, because you will suffer a hard time staying in tune with the other instruments, at least if you are using natural hides. A tympanist who is using calf or goat skins has generally enough time in his rest passages to control his tuning; a conga player is constantly in action, however. There wouldn't be time enough to guarantee for a clean tuning at any moment in a performance. Another reason is that you cannot change your tuning quickly between numbers, so if one tuning in C and G works fine in the context of an arrangement in F, Bb or Eb, within the next one in Ab, the low G would clash with the tonic in the bass, for one example.
On the other hand, if you are playing the Lion King every day for twenty years, and if you are using synthetic heads (and shells), it might be more practical to settle for one fixed tuning once forever.
The only occasions where I tuned my drums to definite notes, was in recording sessions. But often I even forgot it, because I was more focusing on form structure or timing, and nobody ever complained about me being out of tune.

Consequently, the sound quality of any individual drum firstly, the conga setup secondly (intervals), and thirdly the entire percussion section, is what finally counts. Each drum has its own appropriate tuning range. If you tune it higher, the drum will sound thin and shallow; if you go below it, the sound becomes "thumpy", which can be a nice effect, similar to a bass drum or an iyá batá. Using intervals considering the natural ranges of all of your drums is certainly reasonable.

When working in a typical Salsa percussion section, I tune my center drum in harmony (not necessarily in unison) with the campana of the bongocero and the bongó hembra. For my other drum(s), I go from there. In a dance or Salsa setting, I get along fine with two drums. For a Latin Jazz band, I might use three. I never use more than four. The stage situation (in a jazz club f.i.) or my laziness often tell me to bring only what's necessary.

No one ever required I should reproduce the exact same tuning on each gig. But I never played with Palmieri, Michel Camilo, Chucho or Rubalcaba. I'm not in that league. Maybe people like these would demand a consistent or specific conga tuning from me. Maybe not. I don't know. What brings me to the next point:

When you are saying that tuning the drums to specific notes "is the method used by most professional conga players", where does "professional" begin for you? And how many "professional" players did you include in your survey in order to make such a statement? I doubt there is truly a musical consideration that might cause a conga drummer to tune his drums to definite pitches, for the reasons I mentioned. I suppose that congueros who are doing this, simply go by their practical experience that their drums sound and feel best at a specific tuning.

Thomas Altmann
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Re: Conga Tuning Guide/Discussion

Postby drbongo42 » Thu Mar 17, 2022 1:31 pm

Hi Thomas, thanks for your reply - and yes I posted this guide so there could be a discussion of the issue and different people can share their own views etc. I am by no means trying to argue that my approach is the correct approach or the only way to interpret conga tunings or percussion tunings in general.

When I refer to professional players I am of course referring to the most famous players who you are likely to hear on records and movie scores - and I don't remember finding one in the last 20 years or so who didn't tune their drums to specific pitches - at least at the start of the session. Of course the development of synthetic heads has greatly improved the stability of tunings and this makes it much more viable for everyone. I suspect their drum-tech tunes the drums to the required pitches before the gig/recording session - the player then knows how the drums are going to sound when he/she sits down - there are plenty of videos online of this process e.g. ! Or maybe you have heard of this guy: ! If I can't persuade you, maybe he can... :lol: Here is a good video of some different tunings: !

I agree that traditionally congas and other drums were perceived as untuned instruments and this is largely because of the primitive unstable technology they employed as you have pointed out - but it still persists today mainly because of a lack of understanding of tunings by many percussionists and drummers who don't read music and have little or no understanding of scales, chords and melodies etc (this is just based on personal experience - maybe I only hang around with the Neanderthals? No offence meant to Neanderthals :lol: ).

Most drummers/percussionist I meet do not tune their drums to notes (or even intervals) and even when they use intervals they don't use a tuner - it is just approximate. Their usual reaction is very defensive, implying they don't tune to notes because tuning to the most resonant sound or rough interval is better in some magical way than tuning to specific notes. But as they have never actually tried tuning to specific notes they have nothing meaningful to compare it to. Unfortunately I get a lot more compliments about how my drums sound than I do about my playing :lol: which says a lot. Once you have tried tuning to specific notes and through experimentation identified which combinations work best for you I think the improvement is significant and although you have to learn a whole new set of skills etc, I think it is worth the extra effort.

Ever since the introduction of synthetic heads on drumkits in the 1950's drum and studio techs have been tuning them to specific notes - not for each song, but so that there are recognisable musical intervals between the drums, and so that these sounds could be reproduced whenever the drums were moved or the heads replaced. It also allowed them to avoid pitches on the toms that would resonate the snare, or choose pitches that would be heard clearly over the bass guitar etc. Synthetic conga heads came a lot later - maybe 1990's? For many years I took the same approach as you - I tuned to intervals rather than specific notes because I was using rawhide heads. But since moving to synthetic heads I have found that they stay in tune and by tuning to specific notes - there are lots of variations to try - my playing is more melodic, and I am able to reproduce the sound/melodic patterns that I hear on records etc. I have even started using my conga tuning notes on my drumkits and my fills are certainly a lot more melodic than they used to be.

So the idea isn't that you tune your conga/bongos to specific notes for a specific song or scale. Because as you said you can't re-tune the drums between songs - but you are not trying to play in the key of each song - just use consistent musical intervals. Yes a conga tuned to C might clash with a tune played in C#, but congas not tuned to any specific note are just as likely to clash in that way. People still listen to percussion as untuned, so they don't hear them as being out of tune, but to my ear when they are tuned to recognised musical pitches they fit into the music more harmoniously than pitches in between standard notes used in modern western music. This would not apply if you were playing for example traditional african music which did not use western diatonic scales - although in my experience they still tune their drums to specific pitches by ear using fire to tension the heads - when it matches the pitch they sing, the drum is in tune...

But as I said this is just one approach to tuning drums and is probably only practised by recording professionals, drum/studio techs and a minority of amateur players with OCD like myself :lol: I would say the biggest advantage is that I can reproduce the sound and tones I want when I change my heads, or use someone else's drums - previously I would often find a great sound or interval, but because I had no way to reproduce it they were often lost forever when I changed the heads or the weather changed. Even if you don't want to tune to specific notes - surely it would make sense to record the pitches/frequencies you liked them at so you could reproduce them? One other advantage for beginners is that it gives them a clear target note/range to aim for which helps prevent over-tightening and damage to heads etc - and removes much of the mystery involved in getting decent sounding drums when you are starting out. But all of this relies on the use of synthetic heads - if you use rawhide heads then many of the advantages are lost if the temperature or humidity changes. :(

Lets hope other people get involved in the discussion and it all stays friendly and academic, instead of degenerating into a massive flame war. I really appreciate the feedback and the exchange of different perspectives - you have obviously put a great deal of thought into this but come to some different conclusions which will make me reflect again on my own ideas... :D


Diagrams were made using Powerpoint then screen-shotted :)
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Re: Conga Tuning Guide/Discussion

Postby Thomas Altmann » Sat Mar 19, 2022 9:45 am

Hi drbongo,

When I refer to professional players I am of course referring to the most famous players who you are likely to hear on records and movie scores - and I don't remember finding one in the last 20 years or so who didn't tune their drums to specific pitches - at least at the start of the session.

Accepted. I never had that amount of communication with this class of percussionists.

Of course the development of synthetic heads has greatly improved the stability of tunings and this makes it much more viable for everyone.

I guess the increasing practice of using synthetic conga heads is a key argument in this discussion. The Paoli Mejias video exemplifies that; if you are on tour with Santana, playing almost every day or night for several weeks or months, and you happen to prefer plastic heads, you can have your drum tech tune them by means of a tuning device. Then you can storm out onto any stage you might never have entered before and kick off the show.

My own experience with synthetic conga heads is limited, so I cannot really contribute anything worthwhile. All I can say is that they work better than I thought, and that I will stick to animal hides nevertheless. I don't believe that anyone will ever hire me under the premise that I use pre-tuned plastic heads. Only once in my career I had been fortunate to have roadies setting up my gear, but I made sure they didn't mess with tuning my congas. That was in the 1980's, and of course I had cow hides on them.

Now, Giovanni clearly referred to natural heads /cowhide in his interview with Flatischler. He accords perfectly to the Afro-American etiquette of honoring the tradition, paying homage to the elders first, and then making his own contribution. As far as music theory is concerned, let me put it cautiously: I am mostly impressed by Giovanni as a performer. Going by the videos he made for DCI, and remembering a clinic of his that I once attended, I have gained the impression that he is a "maker" first and foremost, while I'm not sure how much he has really understood of the underlying principles of his artistry.

As an anecdote, Giovanni held his clinic at the Schalloch store in Hamburg the same day that Paquito D'Rivera had a concert here at the Fabrik, and neither he nor Paquito's band did know of each other's activities. Paquito actually had the same band that had recorded the famous "Reunion" record with Arturo Sandoval for Messidor, except for Arturo and Giovanni. So we arranged a surprise for the night, where Giovanni ended up playing the entire Paquito gig as a guest star. I don't know who provided the congas for him. It was just two drums sounding almost the same, and I can't remember whether he even had a tuning wrench. No doubt he made this setup sound great (It's the Indian, not the arrow). Talking about tuning guidelines ...

One of my worst experiences with untuned congas was in a local club where I should appear as a special feature at the end of a set. I tuned my drums before the show, then took to the bar and had a good time until I was introduced. Proudly and in best spirits I sat behind my drums and started to play, only to realize that all of a sudden I was playing a completely different instrument! I doubt that I handled the situation as well as Giovanni had; I'm afraid it was rather embarrassing, at least I was feeling very, very uncomfortable. That was learning the hard way.

Their usual reaction is very defensive, implying they don't tune to notes because tuning to the most resonant sound or rough interval is better in some magical way than tuning to specific notes.

I don't think it's about magic. It is in fact a pretty physical affair that any drum sounds optimal within its proper range of what Changuito called afinación central. I want to produce a slap comfortably, without a lot of pressure, I want a certain overtone spectrum from my open tones, and a bass tone that is deep, but not too boomy. It also depends a lot on the thickness and vibration properties of the skin that I use. But be it magic ... I am absolutely sure that no art that is supposed to be meaningful could ever be produced solely on scientific or "academic" principles.

I think that's all I can add to the subject. Let's see what others will say - apart from the fact that it doesn't seem to be the right time to discuss music, presently ... at least not for those living in Europe!

Thomas Altmann
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Re: Conga Tuning Guide/Discussion

Postby Chtimulato » Tue Mar 22, 2022 3:41 pm

Hello everybody.

drbongo42, this is an interesting approach. And a good research.

I jump in a little late, and I’ll give a short answer.

Here are my 2 centimes :) :

There are basically three different approaches to tuning congas:

Tuning each individual drum to its most resonant pitch

Tuning the drums to recognisable musical intervals but not to specific notes

Tuning the drums to specific musical notes

I don’t see any opposition nor contradiction in these 3 approaches. I’ve been tuning my drums by ear for some 35 years or so, and nobody complained about my tuning – sometimes about my playing, but that’s another story :lol: .
Assuming the drums have different diameters (which seems logical, but you never can tell : I saw recently an ad for a so-called « Cuban » bongó where both shells had the same diameter), you have to tune them to a "correct" note, and in relationship to the other drum(s).
Out of curiousity, I bought a tuning app 1 or 2 years ago, which I installed on my phone. I discovered this way my by-ear-tuning was not so bad. And that I used the Patato tuning, almost inadvertently. And that 1/4’’ less on a drum’s diameter means it has to be tuned 1/2 tone higher, etc.

So here’s my tuning for 4 drums (it can be corrected, nothing is etched in stone so far) :

a 12,5’’ LP tumbadora : G
a 12’’ Sonoc tumbadora : A
a 11 3/4’’ LP conga : Bb
a 11’’ Sonoc conga : C (it could logically be C#, but I wanted to keep the Patato G-Bb-C tuning, and I mostly use 2 or 3 drums).

And since I put better skins on them at the same time, I have now a very smooth and melodic sound, which could be compared to African bougarabous/bingbas/ashikos, but with the deepness of a conga. And I’m quite satisfied with this tuning, so far.

There would be more to say, but I'm currently pressed by time.

Stay safe, folks.
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Re: Conga Tuning Guide/Discussion

Postby drbongo42 » Wed Mar 23, 2022 9:31 pm

Thanks for the replies Thomas and Chtimulato, it is nice to have pleasant discussion about conga tunings for a change - last time I posted about this topic on a Facebook Conga/Percussion group I got a fairly hostile response from some people, one of whom insisted it wasn't possible to tune a drum (of any description) to a specific note as that is determined by the shell and room acoustics - the lugs only being there to make the head playable... :lol:

Interestingly I saw a video the other day of Hidalgo playing at the LP 45th Anniversary concert - when he got on stage the first thing he did was move the congas around, then get his spanner out and started tuning the drums by ear as he played... :lol: I suspect many conga players already tune to specific notes by ear - either copying other players notes, or tuning to the notes of a famous tune like Manteca etc - so they may not think about it as tuning to specific notes - but they are trying to get a specific sound - which in all probability is a specific note or pitch. The only difference nowadays is that you can tuners specifically for drums and the synthetic heads. I have never been very good at tuning any instrument by ear - especially drums as the sound decays so fast I can't hear the vibrations between the sounds like I can with a guitar or bass etc. So for me this made my life so much easier...

I agree completely that synthetic heads are a crucial factor in making tuning choices and they have improved so much over the last 20 years I think it would be hard to tell the difference on a well tuned/played set of congas. There are basically three different types of Remo conga head and they all sound and feel very different. The original Fyberskyns are quite thin, but work well on bongos and highly tuned quintos, NuSkyn are much thicker and generally sound more like rawhide heads working well on larger lower tuned congas. Then there are Skyndeep which are somewhere between the two in terms of thickness and their main selling point seems to be the graphics that can be applied to it. I agree that they don't sound as good as a high quality rawhide head up close - but once recorded or put through a PA etc I think the differences are minimal. But they do have the advantage of staying in tune longer and don't require de-tuning between playing. For practising at home, recording or performing while miked up I would definitely go with synthetic heads. I would go for rawhide if I was playing an acoustic set with a steady temperature/humidity. I don't think the Evans heads are comparable, although they are much cheaper - I have ordered a set for my travel congas and will report back when I have had a chance to try them out.

EDIT: I have now received the Evans head and had a chance to try them out for a few hours. First thing to note is that although the 11.75" and 12.5" heads fitted the travel congas perfectly, the 11" was just about the same diameter as the inner edge of the rim which meant it tended to slip inside on one side as you tensioned the rods. I fixed this by cutting a ring from an old 12" tom head, split it with a hacksaw, taped in a bit of rubber in the gap so it fitted inside the rim perfectly then this pressed down on the Evans rim and kept it straight as I tuned it. I was pleasantly surprised by the tone. In some of the videos I had seen they didn't sound great and some had broken at high tension. They are a lot softer and thinner that rawhide or the Remo heads. They are made of two thin layers of mylar with a central dampening disk between them. They produce a nice warm tone when tuned up, without too much ring - the only downside is that because they are softer and thinner they do not produce as much skin attack - so the heel/toe and slaps are not as crisp or loud as they are on rawhide or Remo heads. So I probably wouldn't use one on my quinto live, but they would sound ok on other drums used to play open tones or bass notes. I suspect some people with like them because they do produce a nice smooth tone/sound without too much attack - possibly good in a recording studio, acoustic gig or for practising at home when you don't want to disturb the neighbours. They were also very easy to tune and didn't seem to stretch after the initial tensioning. Given they are half the price of Remo heads I would definitely think about buying them for recording and playing at home - not sure I would try them live as I suspect the lack of attack would make it difficult to be heard.



I think the most significant advantage of there being a standard set of tuning notes for congas/bongos (or at least a small range) would be in terms of education. One of the hardest things for someone starting out playing bongos or congas etc is not knowing how to tune the drums which often come from the factory or shop in a pretty much unplayable state. They have no idea how tight to tune them or how to make them sound like the ones they hear on records etc. It took me several years and many broken bongo heads before I got a sound anywhere near a professional sound - and once you get the right tension/pitch your technique and performance improves massively because it is almost impossible to get good heel/toe and slap sounds out of a poorly tuned conga. I hate having to play anyone else hand drums - because even if they have a reasonable amount of tension the intervals between the drums are often fairly random and the rhythms/melodies just don't sound right. The only manufacturer I know who publishes tuning notes are Toca - which at least gives customers an idea of what to aim for. So I think the adoption of a standard tuning would be a great step forward for music educators. It is possible to find tuning notes and tips online, but it isn't easy. They should give some suggested tunings in the box - possibly based on the tunings of a few famous players - and each drum should have a recommended range e.g. from Bb3-D4 etc so they have some target notes to try. Obviously people would make different choices about which notes to use as they gained experience. It is amazing though just how many conga players seem to settle on the G3, Bb3 & C4 combination though - those are my go to notes for three congas - when I add more there are then more options to consider.

Enjoying the discussion :)

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Re: Conga Tuning Guide/Discussion

Postby vxla » Fri May 20, 2022 6:06 pm

drbongo42 wrote:When I refer to professional players I am of course referring to the most famous players who you are likely to hear on records and movie scores - and I don't remember finding one in the last 20 years or so who didn't tune their drums to specific pitches - at least at the start of the session.

Can you give us your background? How many sessions have you worked on to make this empirical judgement?
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