Bongo Mania!






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    How can you tell a good quality set of bongos from crappy ones? It's an important question when you're buying your first set, or upgrading to something more professional.

    Firstly, don't buy bongos that look like these:

novelty bongos

    They are cute, and they are the archetypal Beatnik or Hippie accessory, but they are not playable instruments. For one thing, the only way to tune them is to hold them over a fire.

    Secondly, don't buy bongos that look like these:

bogus bongos

    They are just junk. The tuning hardware is not designed to handle the tension a real bongo requires to tune high and withstand nightly beating. The standard drum key tuning bolts are sticking up where they will hurt your hands. The rims are cheap stamped metal, which will bend under regular usage. The center block is plastic.

    Real playable bongos look like this:

serious bongos

    ...with heavy-duty hardware including hook-shaped lugs connected to a tuning ring at the base of the drum. The rims should be welded or die-cast into shape, not stamped. They should look like you could not easily bend them with pliers. The parts should all fit together well, with no gaps. Notice, in this photo, how there is a big gap between the shell and the tuning ring:

gap between shell and ring

    That will affect how well the drums stay in tune, and it may damage the shell as I tune up and tune down over the years.

    In this photo, notice how the tuning ring fits the shell perfectly:

perfect fit

    The hardware should all be steel. There are some decent bongos with cast aluminum tuning rings, but aluminum from third-world countries often has lots of flaws and may be prone to breakage, so only accept aluminum on a high-end set of drums from a reputable company. Steel is best.

    The shells should have no cracks or gaps, and should be made from hard wood or fiberglass. Soft woods are cheap and don't project much sound.

    Heads are tricky, as hides have a lot of natural variation, and everybody has their own idea of what sounds good. If you can, try out the drums before buying in order to hear whether the heads sound especially dull or metallic. Look for heads that have a smooth, glossy top surface. They should not look rough or unusually dry. They should have natural variations in the color, because otherwise they have probably been bleached. That weakens the hide, which means you'll need to re-tune more often and replace the heads sooner.

    With bongos, you do not always get what you pay for! Sure, the $29.95 special is going to be junk compared to a $400 top-of-the-line set, but not every expensive set is actually all that great. Try before you buy, whenever possible.

    Most percussion instruments we find in music shops in the US and Europe were manufactured in a factory in Thailand. Some of the different brands are actually made in the same factory. Furthermore, the Kaman corporation now owns LP, CP, World Beat, Matador, Toca, and Gibraltar, so really some of our so-called choices just fatten one big corporate pocket. To the best of my knowledge, Meinl, Pearl, Sonor, Remo, Rhythm Tech, and DW Gon Bops are still independant even though they are large factory companies. JCR and Bauer are a couple of smaller independent brands that are definitely worth checking out as well.

    For those of you in the market for a really professional set: Before buying a new set of bongos for over $300 from a factory in Thailand, consider spending the same money on a hand-crafted set by El Piernas, Moperc, Isla Percussions, Mountain Rhythym, or any of the other brilliant drum artisans available to us. You will be amazed at the difference in quality, and it is always a good idea to support local craftspeople instead of huge corporations.
If you are on a tighter budget, I've been really impressed by the house-brand products from Rhythm Traders, especially their "Rumba Series" of bongos and congas. I think they are made in Asia, but the quality is very high and the price is reasonably low.
I hope this helps!

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