There are many types of percussion instruments. Some are struck with sticks, some are shook, some are slapped together, and then there are those that are played with your hands. Hand percussion instruments can appear to be very easy to play. It is true that anyone can make a sound with most hand percussion instruments easily, but to play them well can be a difficult, but highly rewarding, experience.
The most recognizable of the hand percussion instruments are the congas. The conga, or tumbadora, is a staved wooden or fiberglass shell with a skin head tensioned to the top. Most congas are usually 11.5 inches in diameter and can be combined with the quinto (an 11 inch drum) and the tumba (a 12 inch drum) to create a trio of sounds. The conga is played with the hands and if done correctly can replicate all the different sounds of the drum set.
The basic sound of the conga is the bass tone. This tone can replicate the bass drum of drum set players. The way to achieve the bass tone is to hit your palm in the center of the drum. You can either leave your palm down on the drum after the hit or can lift it off immediately. Both attacks will produce a different sound. The next tone that is usually learned is the touch tone (also called fingers). All that is done for this tone is that you take your four fingers (held closely together) and tap the drum with the four fingertips. This tone is not a loud tone and sometimes can even be inaudible to listeners at times. The sound that this tone produces is not the only thing that is important. It replicates the hi-hat cymbals of the drum set and is mostly used by percussionists to help keep their timing and to help make the patterns more filled out and complete.
The open tone is the sound that is most recognizable to most people from the conga. It is produced by hitting four fingers close to the rim of the drum. The sound is louder than the bass and finger tone and really resonates the drum. To achieve it correctly, you must thing of your hands like sticks and try not to leave your fingertips on the drum after the initial attack. This sound has many uses but to keep with the comparisons of this column, we will compare this tone to the snare drum of the drum set. When combined with the bass tone and the touch tone, these three tones allow you to play beats that resemble the bass drum, snare drum and hi-hat beats of drum set drummers.
Of course, beats are not the only thing that drum set drummers play. They also play fills (or fill-ins). These are commonly achieved by striking the various sized tom-toms and auxiliary cymbals. The conga can mimic some of these sounds and the fill-in approach by using open tones and slap tones. The slap is a loud tone that is achieved by cupping your hand and hitting the cupped hand on the head. The placement of the strike is similar to the open tone but more of the hand hits the drum. If you think of your hand as a cup, the cupped part of the hand kind of â€œopensâ€ as you hit the drum. This is the most difficult sound to achieve and to replicate well. When you have this tone comfortable, you can use the slap tones and open tones to break up and tie together the beats you are playing.
Congas are a beautiful instrument that can be easy to pick up. The hardest part of playing congas is trying to replicate all the different tones to where each tone is the same each time. Muscle memory will really help with this because after a while your hands will know exactly where to hit to achieve the perfect sounds.