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How to Tune Bongos

Thanks to the introduction of premounted heads, bongo tuning has never been this easy. In the past a player had to tuck his own head, which was a long and difficult process. Tucking involved cutting and drying while tuning the drums. This process could take over half an hour plus a couple hours of drying. Thankfully, premounted, synthetic heads were created to alleviate this painful procedure.

The tools required to tune your bongs are: lug oil, a tuning ratchet, and a set of premounted heads. Place the head on the bongo drums, and set the rim on top of that. Before you start anything, you should use the lug oil on the lugs to make it a smoother tune and create less stress on the drums. Next, fit the lugs into place and use your ratchet to tighten each lug evenly. It is important that you move in a circular pattern from lug to lug; this is different from tuning a drum set or conga. Another major factor is keeping an equilibrium in head tightness from lug to lug. Always keep an eye on the skin to make sure there are no wrinkles. Your first tightening should be about 2-3 revolutions per lug. The next step will be to go around again, but not tightening the head as much, about 1-2 turns.

Do not be afraid too tighten your bongo heads. Many people will make them too loose, leaving the bongo drum with a less than desired sound. The smallest, or 'macho' drum, is tuned fairly tight in order to get a crisp attack when the bongo is struck. The larger, or 'hembra' drum, should be tuned quite a bit lower than the macho. Many players will tune the hembra an octave below the macho.

Detuning is an important factor when you are finished playing your bongos. Use your ratchet to loosen each lug, starting with the one you first tightened in the beginning. Continue in a circular motion around the lugs and give each 1-2 turns for the first round. Continue this process until the tone each head have lowered, but the lugs are still securely fastened to the bongo drum. It is a good idea to count how many turns you use for each lug. You may then use that number when tightening for the next time you play. It won't be perfect, but it is a good time-saver.

Different sounds can be achieved from the same set of bongos by the way you tune, type of head, or the way you play. You don't always have to play with your hands when performing; sticks or mallets can be used for a different articulation or presence. Always remember to experiment when practicing, and don't get into a set way of playing throughout the years. Different musical styles call for different sounds. For example, Afro-Cuban music calls for the bongos' pitch to be lower than normal. Being open to different sounds really makes the difference between a good player and a great one.

For advice on how to select bongos please see our buyer's guide for bongos.


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