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I should say that this is a mammoth piece of work from Benj, A book! This is key information, well presented for aspiring congueros. There is a lot of thought and experience behind those words. It is presented in two blocks currently, that will change because of the size of the second part which deals with rhythms. I'd expect rhythmic divisions, but I'll consult with Ben on that.

Thank you Ben, this is great! - Paul

Introduction to the Conga Drum

Ben F Jacoby April 2001

Part 1


The following is a collection of information and miscellaneous lore that the author has collected from a variety of teachers and sources including "being shown a thing or two" by a couple of authentic Cuban players. However, not being Latino nor raised in the traditions, no claim is made for the authenticity of the information. This is especially true for folkloric traditions since the author's interests tend toward modern Latin dance music.


            The author wishes to dedicate this little work to master drummer and teacher Tony West without whom none of this would have been possible.  As my teacher and a drum teacher to our community Tony chose to pass on freely the knowledge and skills that others had passed on to him. Music is not a static thing. As you read these pages it will become apparent that music and drumming grows and advances with each generation of drummers. But there are also traditions worth preserving that should be passed on unchanged.

            Many reading this may be at present just starting into drumming and music.  But as you learn and advance, one day the time will come when it will be your duty to pass on freely to other beginners the very things which have been passed on to you. Do not forget those of us who shared with you so that you might share with them.  Remember what you owe to those who brought you to where you are, and pay it back not to them, but rather pay it forward into the next generation.  So be it.


            The even rhythm of the Cuban tumbao along with a singing open tone to many nearly defines what are commonly known in English as "conga" drums. In Spanish the name is pronounced KOHN-ga. A conga is a group dance of African roots popular in many Latin American countries. The rhythm for the dance is also called conga and is commonly played and danced during Carnival (Spanish, Carnaval).  We will discuss patterns later.

            The drums played with the dance are commonly referred to as "conga" drums but the actual name for the drums in Spanish is "tumbadora" (toom-bah-DOR-ah). In English we usually just use the term "conga drums". The drums are constructed in various sizes.

            In English, conga drum sizes are usually referred to as "tumba" for the largest, "conga" for the middle size and "quinto" for the smallest. You sometimes find an even smaller solo drum referred to as a "requinto" and the smallest conga of all is called a "Ricardo" conga which is about ashiko size and played to the player's side suspended from a shoulder strap. It was popularized in the band of Desi Arnaz in the 50s from which it more or less gets its name.



            The expressiveness of hand-drums comes from the ability to get a wide variety of sounds according to the manner in which the hands strike the head. The following is no substitute for being shown how to get the various sounds from someone who knows how, but may give the beginner a hint on to how to proceed.  However every person is different and the true test of any drum "note" is the sound you get out of the drum. If the note sounds great, you are doing it "right" no matter what anyone says.  If you hear some other player getting a great tone that you don't, perhaps you'd better ask how he/she is doing it!  The ability to call up the various drum sounds (notes) at will in a pattern is called "tone separation".

            Bass Note: The bass note is the lowest pitched sound you can get from any given drum. The basic move is simulated by having the hand and arm held out and then allowing the hand to fall onto the drumhead. It is the palm of the hand that produces the most bass so that is most important. Some people teach that the whole hand should fall onto the head but a Cuban player told me that he prefers to slightly flex the hand backwards ("as if controlling a, how you say, marionette"). In that technique only the palm tends to produce the bass note with the fingers perhaps touching but not actually hitting the drumhead. In any case, a conga head is quite strong and thick so that the bass note continues to vibrate even when the hand stays on the head after the strike. This is unlike a thin-headed djembe, for example, where the hand must be immediately lifted or the note is damped out.  Since the hand in conga playing is not immediately lifted except in the case of open tones, it is commonly said that one plays "into" a conga drum head.

            Tilting and Lifting: It is most important for the player to understand that the shell of the conga drum forms a low frequency resonant chamber.  In physics this particular device is known as a Helmholtz resonator. [Although the principle was actually discovered and applied in the construction of djembe drums in the Mali Empire of Africa long before Herr Doktor Helmholtz came on the scene]  Because of this structure, the hole in the bottom of the conga drum, which is an essential part of the resonator, must not be obstructed or the drum will not produce a full rich bass tone.  Conga players often recognize three separate bass tones. The first is where the drum is flat on the floor and the hole actually is obstructed. This note tends to sound flat and weak without deep bass. The second is where the drum is tilted slightly either to a side or forward or backward which opens up the bottom hole of the drum slightly. Some people put a 4 ft. cloth-covered bungee cord of the type used to tie luggage etc. around their waist and hook it to the tuning bolts to stabilize the drum when it's played in this tilted position. Since the hole is open but partially blocked, this note is deeper in pitch but somewhat softer than the third note where the hole is unobstructed.  For the third bass note the player uses his/her legs to lift the drum completely off the floor providing a totally open resonator hole. This produces the loudest bass note. This is the bass note the drum sounds when conga stands are used.  We should also mention that the conga shell also forms a high frequency echo chamber, which modifies the character of open tones, slaps and other notes, but is not much of an issue with bass tones.  The shell acoustic properties do however, affect the general sound of the drum such as providing the different sound between wood and fiberglass shells.

            It might be mentioned that lifting modern conga drums with your legs can be something of a trick. The problem is that Americans love to make instruments all glossy and shiny!  If you examine older authentic Cuban congas you will observe that not only are they a somewhat smaller diameter, but also are crappy looking and rough on the outside side as well.  However, these features do make them much easier to lift with the legs than say heavy, glossy, fiberglass modern congas.  Wearing shorts so the bare legs can grab the drum can help in drum lifting.

            Open Tone: The open tone is the characteristic song of the conga. It is the open notes of the conga that most tend to "cut through the mix" and add the conga flavor to the music.  An open tone is produced by keeping the fingers close together and bringing the hand down such that the crease where the fingers join the hand comes down on the bearing edge (bend) of the drumhead. The fat pads on the bottoms of the first and second phalanges (segments) of the fingers strike the head just inside the rim producing a loud clear melodic tone from the drum. Since this is the note that "cuts through" it needs to be practiced until is it loud and strong. In this note, however, the hand must be quickly removed from the head to let the note "sing" otherwise the note becomes a "muff" which is different. To get the hand position, it helps to think of making a military salute and then bringing your "salute" down and strike the drumhead as described.

            Conga Tuning: Usually a conga is tuned according to the open tone. When playing two drums (conga and a tumba) a typical tuning would be an interval of a 4th (as in "here comes the bride"). And the conga is often tuned to a "C" and the tumba to a "G". However this tuning may vary to fit the keys typical for the music being played. Also some dual conga players prefer an interval of a 3rd rather than a 4th. Be sure to tilt the conga off the floor when tuning the open note or the note may be found to be tuned sharp when you play later with the drum tilted. While the open tone does change slightly as the bottom opening is obstructed or the drum is lifted, it does not change radically in pitch like the bass tone.  This is why the open tone is used for tuning.

            Pitch Bending: When playing tumbao "melodically" or perhaps just as a show-off solo trick, the pitch of the open tone can be "bent".  This is done by playing the open note with one hand and using the elbow of the other arm to raise the pitch of the note by pressing on the drum head. You press with the hard bone at the end of the elbow to keep from damping out the open tone and you place your elbow just inside the rim of the drumhead. You do not place it in the center of the drumhead as is done when pitch bending certain other types of drums.  A "bent" tone is not a commonly used tone in patterns.

Muff Tone: A "muff" describes a drum note where the hand is pressed into the head after the initial note to damp it out quickly. In conga playing this is typically an open tone in which continued finger pressure damps it out quickly. The key is to regulate the damping of the note to just the right amount. You should always hear the pitch of the open tone but it should damp out quickly. If there is no pitch to the note you have damped it too much. If it rings nearly as long as a normal open tone, you haven't damped it enough.  While muff notes are common, they are much less common that the standard bass, open and slap notes.

            "Closed" Conga Slap Note: The usual conga slap note is done with the fingers slightly curved and the idea is that the palm comes into the rim of the drum and the fingertips "slap" down against the head. There is a slight "grabbing" action to this as well as a certain wrist motion. In conga slaps (unlike djembe slaps where the fingers bounce back off the head) the fingers stay "stopped" against the drum head in a style analogous to the bass note. Except with the slap only the fingertips remain touching the head. It takes some practice to get nice slaps easily. One teacher has described the wrist action as "slapping your little sister's arm when she gets into your toys" The sound should be a single bright "crack" with no ring.

            "Open" and Muted Slaps: Open or djembe-style slaps are not common on congas though certain players can be seen using a slap that is slightly more open than that above. Usually they keep the hand quite low to the drum. Open slaps on a conga tend to create a lot of the characteristic open tone pitch in the sound. For this reason open slaps on a conga are usually played muted to kill the open tone ring. In playing this note the one hand is simply laid on the drumhead and an open or closed slap is played as usual with the other hand.  The hand damps the open slap into a more traditional conga slap sound. Beginners often find it easier to get a nice sound with a muted slap first.  The advantage of using open slaps with a mute is that executing fast double stroke open slaps is much easier than doing closed slaps, while the mute still insures a traditional conga slap sound.  Obviously the "heel-toe" hand can easily play the muting role.

            "Touch" Note: A "touch" is simply where the fingertips are brought down against the head to make a sound. Unlike a slap where the tips are slammed against the head to make a sharp sound, here the fingertips are pressed flatter, with the pressure going further back from the tips. Usually the fingers are together as in an open tone.  A "touch" should never produce any open-like tone.  If you hear an open tone pitch the note you are playing is a "muff" rather than a "touch". A "touch" is also the "toe" half of the Heel-Toe technique.  Whether or not the "heel" of the hand is on the drumhead when a finger "touch" is done will also modify the sound of a "toe" stroke.  When a louder "touch" note is desired it is sometimes played by bunching the thumb and four fingers together and then bringing them straight down tips first into the head. Cuban players often do a "touch" with the whole hand quite flat so that it appears to the observer as a bass note, but the palm does not strike the drum, or does so lightly, so the note is actually a "touch" sound rather than a bass note.  At other times these players will play a "heel" (see below) where even though the hand appears flat the base of the palm strikes first giving a bass-like tone. One has to listen to determine which note is being played as both moves can appear quite identical to the eye.  The location of the "touch" on the drumhead will help determine the exact sound of the given note.

            Heel-Toe: "Heel-toe" is a Cuban playing technique essential to the rhythmic patterns known collectively as "tumbao". In Spanish the technique is often called "mano secreta" which means "Secret of the hands" in English. The basic idea is to use a single hand to produce rapid successive notes. The technique produces rapid patterns that in a sense can simulate the rapid beats of the snare drum of the drumset player.

            The first motion of the heel-toe is the "heel". This is a note that simulates a bass tone. Here the hand and wrist is flexed such as when throwing out a rug or sheet to shake it out.  In doing the motion, the heel of the hand, consisting of the fat pad at the base of the thumb, (known in palmistry as the "mount of venus") and the pad directly across from that, are forced into the drum head giving a bass-like note. For speed some players just use the base of the thumb pad alone with a twisting motion to the hand to do heel-toe rather than the whole base of the palm.

            The second motion is the "toe" in which the fingertips come down in the "touch" note as described above which then lifts the "heel" off the head. There may be a slight pulling backward to accomplish this smoothly.

            Once the "heel" is raised, it can again be forced into the head and the cycle repeated. H-T-H-T-H-T etc. The "heel-toe" name refers to the similarity to tapping one's foot by first stomping the heel into the floor and then tapping the toe which raises the heel. For playing tumbao Heel-Toe is typically played with the player's weak hand, but nevertheless needs to be practiced with both hands. There are two ways to practice. One would be: Heel (strong hand), Toe (strong hand), Heel (weak hand), Toe (weak hand), repeat.  The other would be: Heel (Strong hand), Heel (weak hand), Toe (strong hand), Toe (weak hand), repeat.  Practice both ways with a metronome starting at a slow tempo and then gradually raising it. Also practice starting with the weak hand.

            Rim Shots and Harmonics: Other notes commonly used for solos are "rim shots and head "harmonics". For a "harmonic" a finger of one hand is lightly pressed on the head at it's center while the tips of the fingers of the other hand come down on the rim of the drum in a manner typical of a bongo-playing "rim shot". The finger damps the normal pitches of the head while the rim shot excites higher-order harmonics in the drumhead which are not damped by the finger, giving a pitch considerably higher than the normal open tone. Doing the same thing again, but lifting the center finger gives a similar note but this time with more of the same pitch as normal open tones present.  This note without the center damping finger is called a "rim shot" and is performed by striking the drum rim with just the tip of the first or second finger. Think of this as a kind of "miniature" open tone, but here just one finger is used and only the first phalange (segment of the finger) extends onto the head and the first finger joint hits at the bend in the head. The stroke is such that the finger slides off the head as it finishes and is like a "glancing" blow even when done straight at the head.  Harmonic notes and conga rim shots tend to be rather thin sounding.  For this reason they are not notes used in bread and butter rhythms.

            Head "Bowing": This sound from a conga drum, while not especially significant musically, is often seen in "flash and trash" solos. And by "flash and trash" I mean drum solos designed to bring the audience enthusiastically to their feet by show and chops rather than musical content. ["chops" is a musician term originally applied to horn players meaning the possession of playing ability in terms of speed, command of techniques and skill. Usually ultra-fast playing is implied.]  "Flash and trash" solos are often characterized by such showmanship as exaggerated arm motions such as raising the hands so high as to be over the player's head after each stroke. Head "bowing" is typically done by wetting the first finger and then placing the thumb and first finger together and running the fleshy pad of the finger diagonally across the drum head in such a manner that a tone is produced.  It is similar to the manner in which a violin string produces a tone when rubbed with a bow.  It takes some practice, but the sound is always a big hit with the crowd.

            Ghost Notes: "Ghost" notes are very light taps which are not really to be heard but often "played" by the conguero to keep the rhythm of his/her hands going. Typically tumbao does not have ghost notes because of its nature of every beat being played.  However, an exception to this rule does happen when the double open note at the end of the tumbao phrase is played as a single note such that the usual second open tone is reduced to a ghost note. The term for ghost notes in Spanish is Notas "fantasmas".  "Ghost" notes played on the metal rim of the conga for "rests" can be a big help when learning a new rhythm. This insures that the drummer "plays the spaces" so that the rhythm does not become rushed.

Cascara: "Cascara" (KAHS-kah-rah) is Spanish for "shell" and in Latin music refers to a rhythm played on the shell of the timbales (Spanish teem-BAH-less).  Such rhythms are also commonly played on the conga shell. Usually a timbale stick or a portion of one is used and the conga is struck either on the side of the shell or on the tuning bolts. The two sounds are slightly different but some players prefer not to hit an expensive drum shell. A common cascara rhythm is given below. The Xs refer to shell strokes. Here italic letters indicate accented beats.


















The author strongly suggests that the player investigate the fiber-composite timbale sticks manufactured by Mainline. They produce an unsurpassed cascara sound on conga shells.

            Stick Sounds: Typically Conga drums are never played with two drumsticks in the manner of drumset drums. However, in certain African musical styles a single stick is used. (Usually in the strong hand.) For example, this is typical of Senegalese playing. There are three fundamental notes produced by stick playing. The first is a typical drum stroke to the head where the stick is held loosely and allowed to bounce off the head. In the second note, the stick is gripped tightly and is brought down at a high angle into the head and is pressed into the head so as to give a more muted higher pitched note. And finally, there is a "choke tone" where the drum is struck in the usual bouncing note, but with the weak hand laying on the drumhead in the manner of the muted slap.  This gives a very damped sharp sound.  Usually a timbale stick or a shortened timbale stick is used for stick strokes. The "wrong" end of a common drumstick will also work in a pinch.


            Hand-drum players who also play drumset or marching snare will be familiar with a set of drum strokes known as rudiments (rude-uh-ments). These are the basic strokes for the snare drum of which there are 13 basic patterns and 13 standard extended patterns. There is an American standard naming and numbering system for these 26 rudiments.

            While hand-drum playing is somewhat different from the bouncy action of sticks upon a tight snare drum head, nevertheless many top conga players such as Giovanni Hidalgo practice rudiments regularly to gain speed and control. Certain of the rudiments clearly apply directly to developing conga technique.

            Single Stroke Roll: The simplest rudiment which represents the most elementary way of playing hand-drums would be a simple alternating of the hands: R L R L R L R L R L R…etc. This is known as rudiment #14, or the Single Stroke Roll. However, hand-drums are different from snare drums in that the player has a choice of sounds or "notes" at his/her disposal. Therefore, the hand-drum student should practice rudiment #14 (and indeed all the applicable rudiments) a number of different ways.  The first variation as should be obvious would be to practice as written starting with the right hand and then reverse the hands starting the pattern with the left hand. Start your practice with the pattern using all of the same drum notes. For example, one might commonly practice using all open tones.  But then one should be sure to repeat the procedure using all bass notes or all slap tones. Finally, one can practice mixing up the tones such as going bass, bass, tone, tone, slap, slap, etc. for the single stroke roll.  Other variations can be used in any combination the student invents.  Finally, we would suggest that the rudiments also be practiced using heel-toe rather than L-R hands. Again, this should be practiced with first the left and then the right hand starting. With even the simpler rudiments, the student will quickly discover great limitations to their technique! All we can suggest is to simply start very slowly and keep practicing. Speed will come and you will eventually have dazzling technique at your disposal.

            Long Rolls: The next rudiment of particular hand-drum interest would be rudiment #1, the long roll. This is the double stroke roll or what is commonly known as the "mammy-daddy".  This pattern is simply a doubling up of rudiment  #14 where each hand plays a double stroke: R R L L R R L L R R L L R R L L etc. This also should be practiced with reversed hands, and different tones, but each double should always stay of the given type, such as two open notes, two bass notes or two slaps with the given hand. Another way to practice doubles would be to use rudiments #2, #3, #15, #16, #17, #18.  These are the 5, 7, 9, 10, 11, 13, and 15 stroke roll. Except for the 10 stroke roll these all consist of a string of doubles with a single accented stroke on the end. The total number of strokes thus comes out an odd number. The 10 stroke roll, however, has two single strokes on the end. Don't forget the final stroke is clear and accented.  In addition to playing these rolls using double strokes, they are excellent practice using heel-toe of the as a substitute for two distinct strokes. Practice all the rolls in that manner as well.  The two heel-toe rolls we discussed previously are really just variations of rudiment #14 where in one case a right hand heel-toe is assigned to RR and a left hand heel-toe to LL. In the second case, a right heel-left heel is assigned to RR and a right toe-left toe is assigned to LL.  All the rolls can be practiced with either assignment.

            Paradiddles: A pair of excellent hand-drum rudiments are #21 the Single Paradiddle: R L R R L R L L and #11 the Double Paradiddle: R L R L R R L R L R L L.  Note that the patterns are naturally reversing so it is not necessary to start with opposite hands. The underlined note above is accented in the patterns.  These should be practiced all on one note as well as one hand playing one note and the other hand playing another. Paradiddles can be especially effective when each hand is playing a totally different drum.

            Flams: Another rudiment of extreme importance in hand-drum playing is the flam, rudiment # 4.  In the flam both hands strike the drum nearly simultaneously except that one hand arrives just slightly ahead of the main note forming a kind of grace note before the stroke. Usually, the hand hitting first strikes from a position closer to the drumhead.  Flams are typically practiced in groups of two, first with the left hand arriving first as the grace note followed by the case where right hand arrives first and repeat. Here both hands usually play the same note, but it is instructive to practice with different notes in the two hands.  The student should practice flams until the separation between the two strokes can be precisely controlled at will.  Drum accents are often performed with "flat flams" which means that both notes arrive at exactly the same time with no delay between them what-so-ever.  Also of interest is rudiment #20 the flam-tap where each flam is followed by a single stroke and #6 the Flam Paradiddle where the accented note in the paradiddle above is replaced by a flam.  We leave it to the interested student to investigate flam rudiments #24, #7, and #8.

            Ruff and Drag: After considerable effort has been applied to the double stroke rolls above, one can proceed to rudiment #5, the ruff. The ruff is a double bounce in one hand as grace notes to a single stroke in the other. The sound is implied in the word "ruff".  This is a very advanced and tricky rudiment for conga in that it requires the player to use the "bounce" of the drum head (exactly as a snare player does) to get the speed out of the double stroke grace notes.  At first the stroke seems impossible but it is NOT impossible as evidenced by the fact that Giovanni Hidalgo demonstrates this rudiment on one of his videos. No question, however, that the rudiment is an advanced stroke for conga.  The ruff followed by a single accented stroke is known in rudiment terminology as a "drag".  The advanced student having mastered the ruff can proceed to the various ruff and drag rudiments. And again we remind you not to forget to practice ruffs and drags where the double grace notes are produced by heel-toe action of the given hand.  Heel-toe ruffs and drags are much easier to learn and execute than the double bounces.  The double bounces on the other hand have the advantage that they can be applied to any drum note rather than just using only heel-toe sounds for doubles.

            Spending a lot of time on rudiment practice may seem like a drag (pun!), but one only needs to hear a player like Hidalgo to quickly realize the benefits that accrue from such practice. The fact that most hand-drum players don't bother with rudiments also gives the person who does practice them a leg-up on killer conga chops compared to the rank and file out there. A word to the wise!  A listing of all 26 standard snare drum rudiments is given in the appendix.

            One final suggestion for hand-drum practice would be that you would be STRONGLY urged to obtain a copy of the book "Stick Control for the Snare Drummer" by George Lawrence Stone. Don't worry that it appears to be written in standard music notation and is purportedly for snare drum players. The principles behind the book apply equally to hand-drums and since the first couple of pages are some of the most important exercises, one only need refer to the left and right hand notations rather than the musical staff since all the notes are of equal arbitrary value. One simply sets a metronome to a slow value and plays the patterns of left and right hands. To adapt the exercises better to hand-drums as was the case with rudiments the student has to be inventive to assign various tones to the groupings. All the patterns can be played with just a single sound, for example playing all the patterns open tone, then all the patterns bass, and finally all the patterns slap. Or one can mix them up.  Typically repeated strokes with a given hand playing the same sound seems to work well. Use your imagination and make practice fun.  The fact that Stone was first published in 1935 and is still probably the most popular drum practice book sold attests to the power of these exercises to build drumming skill. Do not be surprised if after some serious attention to Stone you are suddenly blowing your friends out of the water with your drum chops!


Go to Part two - Rhythms