Tuning Your Conga Drum

By Jim Greiner

– Latin Percussion Magazine, 1999

Conga drums have their roots in West Africa and evolved into their present form in Cuba where they are known as Tumbadoras. In this Afro-Cuban tradition there are three main sizes of Tumbadoras, the largest diameter, low pitched Tumba, the middle sized, mid range Conga and the smallest diameter, high pitched Quinto.

There are no universally accepted pitches, scales or intervals used when tuning congas. Each player finds his or her own signature “sound” by listening to the ways more experienced conga drummers tune their instruments (take the time and effort to train your ears to really hear and recognize the sounds) and by exploring the nature of the instrument (by playing it and experimenting with it’s tuning).

Some players, especially experienced recording percussionists, do tune to specific pitches or key centers (either by ear or using an electronic tuner) and intervals (often combinations of 3rds, 4ths, or even 5ths). But even they have their own favorites.

The main goal, though, is to create a “sound” that is true to the nature of the instrument when played using traditional techniques and that work musically within the context in which it is used.

There are, however, some basic procedures and concepts followed by many experienced conga players and recommended by leading manufacturers (including LP):

1. Tune congas and bongos in a circular movement around the head. It doesn’t matter if you go clockwise or counter-clockwise, as long as you continue in the same direction as you started.

2. Tune each lug to the same pitch so the drum is in tune with itself. Again, learn to listen to and recognize the sounds.

3. Tune each drum to the note that produces the longest sustain when hitting an open tone and eliminates as much of the overtone ring (the high-pitched, “metallic” sound) as possible. Explore each drum’s “nature”, it’s best and worst pitches.

4. Tune up or down in small to moderate increments.

5. Tune the drum down when finished playing for the day. This greatly extends the life of the head, helps prevent the drum from going out of round and (as I tell all my own students)  allows you (a pleasure, not a chore!) to tune your drum up every time you play so that you get to know it even better.

Jim Greiner is an LP Endorser and Clinician, and is Head Artist of LP’s Community & recreational Drumming Program, and a touring percussionist and educator.