The Construction of Bongo Drums

by Jeremy Cato
Bongo drums are very carefully constructed to produce their unique sound.

Bongo drums are very carefully constructed to produce their unique sound.

Comstock/Comstock/Getty Images

The bongo drum has been a staple of African and Caribbean music traditions for centuries. These small drums produce a unique, high-pitched sound that is clearly recognizable in a musical performance. Bongo drums are often handmade and the process of constructing them is elaborate and somewhat time-consuming.

Constructing the Body

Bongo drums consist of a set of two connected drums; the hembra and the slightly smaller macho. The bodies, or shells, of these drums are often made from wood, though some are made from plastic or other synthetic materials. Wooden bongo shells are most often composed of thin sheets of hardwood, such as maple, oak or birch, glued together into the drum's shape, although some bongo drums are carved by hand from large blocks of wood. Plastic bongo shells are injection molded. Regardless of the material used in their construction, bongo drum sets are connected by a central piece of material that joins the two drums.

Creating the Head

The head of the bongo drum is either natural, made from animal skins, or synthetic, made from plastics. To make animal skin drum heads, the fur is removed and the skin is dried and stretched over the top of the drum. In manufacturing synthetic drum heads, the material is rolled out by machines, cut to an appropriate size and stretched over the top of the drums.

Construction of Drum Housing

Bongo drums are held in place by a metal frame and clamps that tighten the membrane around the drum head. The finished drum shells are set into the specially-designed metal frames, the membrane is stretched over the top of the drum and then a metal ring is placed over the membrane to seal the edges. Lastly, metal lugs and hooks are secured so that the head of the drum remains taut.

Other Information About Bongos

Bongo drums are played by hand -- never with a stick or mallet. Bongo players place the drum between the legs with the smaller macho drum near one thigh and the larger hembra on the calf of the other leg. The player strikes the membrane of the drum with the pads of their fingers to produce sounds. Other types of drums, including congo and djembe drums, are sometimes mistakenly referred to as "bongos."


Photo Credits

  • Comstock/Comstock/Getty Images