A lot of my fellow Jam Addict team members are drummers. Drums and percussion are actually the most popular instruments here in the office (guitar is the second most popular, in case you’re wondering).
The other day I was going through the Jam Addict Compound studio and found some old conga drums. With the amount of dust on them, it’s likely that they hadn’t been used in a session for close to a decade.
I started playing them and, somehow, they were still in tune.
The experience made me realize how underutilized the congas are in modern music production. You rarely hear records made with the help of someone actually playing the congas. Rather, these people just use loops and sampled instrument versions of the congas.
In the spirit of doing things the OG way, here’s a guide that shows you how quinto and tumba drums are played.
Quinto drums are the smallest (and therefore highest pitched) drums in a conga set.
Tumba drums are the biggest (and therefore lowest pitched) drums in a congo set.
Remember what conga drums usually look like: a quinto and tumba drum that are side by side:
Quintos are generally considered to be the ‘lead’ drum when it comes to playing styles of music that use conga drums extensively.
Tumbas give a much lower sound than the smaller quintos, and you can get some really cool sounds if you use a quinto and tumba in your conga pair.
Enough chit-chat. Let’s get down to the business of how you actually play these things.
When playing congas (especially quinto-tumba pairs), remember that you have 5 stroke types available:
An open tone is executed with four fingers close to the rim of the drum’s head. The tone produced is clear and resonant, and it will have a clear pitch.
A ‘muffled’ or ‘mute’ tone (AKA tono ahogado) is played a bit like the open tone. Just strike the drum with four fingers, but instead of letting your fingers bounce off the drum head after you strike, do your best to leave your fingers on the head and muffle the tone.
Bass tone (AKA tono bajo): this one you play with your palm. Just hit the drumhead with your palm like a boss. If you get a good clean, it should produce a clear low tone.
Slap tone (AKA tono seco): this one is probably one of the more difficult techniques you can play. The goal is to produce a loud “pop” sound that stands above most of the other tones you might be playing during the course of a song.
You use this technique when making rapid fire hits that are supposed to excite the dancer and get help increase the tension on the dancefloor.
Touch tone (AKA toque de punta): As its name may suggest, you can make this tone by touching the fingers OR your palm heal directly to the drumhead.
The next step is to alternate a touch of your palm w/ a touch of your fingers. This move is called heel-toe (AKA manoteo). You can use heel-toe to produce a sort of “conga drumroll.” Use it tastefully, please!
There are a few different kinds of music that traditionally use the congas (including quinto and tumba drums).
The main genre that uses congas is called (we swear this is the truth) conga music.
Conga drums originated in Cuba. Going back to their even deeper roots, the conga’s precursors likely originated from somewhere in Africa, travelling to the west Indies to eventually become the conga drums we associate with Cuba today.
Some modern genres, like reggaeton, even use conga drums with some frequency.
Unlike genres that utilize the classic western drum kit (think: classic rock) the types of music that utilize quinto and tuba drums are distinctly more sophisticated than simple rock-based backbeats.
Learning to play conga patterns accurately, at higher tempos, is often challenging for our students who are just learning how to add congas to their percussion repertoire.
Believe it or not, when we’re working on a track at the Jam Addict compound that needs conga, we typically don’t try and play it ourselves.
Playing the congas (and other unique percussion instruments) well is a bonafide skill, and we have a couple of pro conga session players who roll through the studio and lay down the parts we’re looking for.
Not only are they incredibly skilled musicians, but they know exactly how to tune the high-end congas that they bring to the session. Come to think of it, that might be why we lost track of that old set in the compound studio – we simply don’t even need to worry about playing this instrument ourselves.
This is one broken record we DON’T turn off here at Jam Addict: if you’re learning an instrument (congas included) FOR THE LOVE OF ALL THAT IS HOLY DO NOT SPEND MORE THAN 50% OF YOUR PRACTICE TIME WITHOUT A METRONOME.
A lot of rhythms that use congas are not simple in nature. In order to really learn how to be in the pocket, you’re going to want to use a metronome.
Latin music that uses congas is typically played at a very quick tempo.
While you may be tempted to try and play quickly like you hear in your favorite records, trying to go too fast right out of the gate is typically a bad idea.
Turning down the metronome’s tempo to something that sounds way too slow is… probably a good idea, if you’re just starting out.
You can’t play something fast if you can’t play it slow. Anyone that says otherwise probably needs to check themselves.
Another motto that we abuse here at Jam Addict is a play on the trite cliche “practice makes perfect.”
We hate that cliche because everyone knows that, in music, there is no such thing as perfect.
The best you can hope for is to practice your ass off and hope that one day you sound passable when you play your instrument.
If you take that mindset, after a few years, you'll realize that you're actually pretty good.
The number 1 thing to do when learning to play congas, or ANY instrument, is to make sure to spend lots of quality time with you, your instrument, and a metronome of your choice.
The Jam Addict team is a revolving door of writers who care about music, its effects on culture, and giving aspiring artists tools and knowledge to be inspired and keep on creating.
If you have any questions or concerns or just want to drop us a line, don't hesitate to contact us! We always appreciate the feedback.