Learning how to tune bongos is fun and straightforward. The same tuning principles apply to bongos as regular drums, and you will want to evenly stretch out the drumheads smoothly and evenly as you tune them.
Bongo drums typically feature rawhide heads, because they are resilient and deliver articulate sounds. These rawhide heads are highly responsive and they can be tuned up tight without breaking or cracking easily.
In this guide, I’ll show you how to tune your bongo drums to deliver expressive and bright sounds with the correct pitch interval between the Macho and Hembra bongos.
How to Tune Bongos – The Fundamentals
When tuning bongos, the most important thing you want to do is tune the lugs so that the head stretches evenly. Tune each lug on the drum with the same number of rotations to help ensure the pressure around the drum.
Bongos should all be tuned with a specific bongo tuning wrench. This is a universal tool that will come included with a new set of bongos, to help you keep your new instrument in tune.
The tool is known as a ½ inch crescent wrench, and some hardware shops may sell it if you need one.
People generally like to have their bongos sounding bright, lively and with a higher pitch. This means you should aim to tune your bongos fairly tight, whilst tuning evenly around the drum.
The Macho and the Hembra
The two individual drums that make up a set of bongos are known as the Macho and the Hembra respectively. The hembra is the female, and this is the larger drum, whilst the macho is the male and this is the smaller drum.
The macho and the hembra are connected by a sturdy piece of wood within the construction of the bongos, and the hembra is usually placed to the right of the player, in between his or her legs.
Getting the right sound is fairly straightforward. You will want to tune the macho higher than the hembra, and aim to tune them an octave apart.
So let’s get right to it with how to tune bongos. Place the bongos upside down on your lap, or on a flat surface such as a table or on the floor. Tune each lug a little at a time with the wrench, in a clockwise fashion around the drum. Each drum has 4 screws and lugs that holds the rim drumhead in place. Ensure you have completed the same rotations around each lug.
Once you have tuned the lugs, flip the bongos over and check the pitch of each lug to see if they are cohesive around the drum. If there are any fluctuations or discrepancies, you might have to fine-tune each lug to ensure a smooth and even pitch.
Top Tips for Tuning Bongos
- The weather will affect the tuning of rawhide bongo heads, so be sure not to leave your bongos in a car overnight or in a cold garage.
- Don’t be afraid to tune up the drums high! You will want the bongos to articulate a dry, crisp and bright sound!
- When learning how to tune bongos, work around the bongos in a clockwise motion, no need to use a ‘cross pattern’ like on a snare drum with 10 lugs!
- Tune the bongos evenly and apply the same number of rotations across each lug.
- To protect the skins from cracking, you can apply almond oil or lanolin on the drumhead to prevent dryness.
- An important thing to remember when learning how to tune bongos is to detune your bongos after playing to relieve pressure. Begin the detuning process on the same lug you started, and give each lug a couple of turns.
- Always keep your bongos in a protective case to keep them safe from damage during transportation!
- Never use a set of pliers, or anything other than a bongo wrench for tuning bongos.
- Natural rawhide heads are favoured by purists, but artificial skins work great too. Even professional bongo plays can use synthetic heads, as they are a vegan alternative to animal skins.
- You may hear some cracking or crunching as you tune up your bongos high, but don’t worry about this! That’s completely normal.