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Pete's Conga basics page

This page should serve as a good starting point for anyone interested in getting a little deeper into conga playing, either for the novice or someone who has acquired a little experience already.  A majority of the material is for two congas but we do look a little at some possibilities for three drums.  Some traditional style rhythms and techniques will be looked at, as well as some alternative techniques applicable to other musical idioms.

There are three main drums;
Hi Pitched solo drum  Conga: Mid pitched drum  Tumba: Low pitched drum

More specialist companies such as Remo, LP and Toca sell a number of different sized congas but it is all to common to see just two sizes available from many companies.  In this instance you can still make a three drum set by using two of the larger drums tuned differently.  For the sake of this tutorial I am going to refer to them simply as High, Medium and Low pitched drums, rather than Quinto, Tumba etc.  When you get into the realms of three drum set ups, it is really a subjective matter of what works best for you. (Even more so if you expand to four, five or six drums!).   The layout I have proposed is the way that suits me best.  I am also using manuscript paper that has been simplified to make the respective drums stand out clearly.  You can download a PDF of the blank manuscript HERE or else at the bottom of the page.   The layout of the drums is on three lines with the High pitch drum in the centre, the Mid pitch drum which is to the players left on the top line and the Low pitch drum on the players right written on the bottom line.  I have also avoided using complex note heads to make the transcriptions as transparent as possible.

Key to strokes

 1 Centre drum- High pitch                      R = Right
2:  Drum on players left.  Mid pitch              L = Left
3:  Drum on players right.  Low pitch

 HHeel of hand    TFinger tips   SSlap stroke    O = Open stroke
fFlat hand, ghosted / un-stressed stroke 
Bass with flat hand and drum lifted slightly with feet
 *     Any note not marked will be a subtle touch stroke 

Cuban style

The main emphasis here is going to be with the Cuban style of playing where they use the heels and tips of the hands, along with other full handed strokes and touches in the creation of note combinations.  This style differs from other styles of Conga playing found in African and Brazilian influenced music.

Basic strokes and Tumbao heel tip base

We are going to start with the first part of the Tumbao rhythm which utilizes the heel tip technique.  The pattern leads with the left hand (for left handed players you would lead with the right). The first stroke is a left handed heel stroke articulated by lifting up with the wrist and the striking the drum head with the underside of the wrist, leaving the fingers slightly in the air and ready to come down onto the head for the second stroke.  Begin by getting used to this the left hand.  Try it with both hands.

Now we can move on to the slap stroke. The slap stroke is the sharp cutting sound we often associate with conga playing. It is one of those things that you can be shown and practice for months and still have trouble executing, then one day it just happens.  It is a sort of 'cup the hand' and 'grab' type motion.  After you have struck the head you leave the finger tips on the head and grab slightly, like you were pulling some string in towards yourself.  It is not a stroke that necessarily needs to be articulated violently, even though it sounds accented and aggressive.  It is a knack and if you try for long enough you will get it, believe me.  It's not rocket science!

Now we will combine these strokes for the basis of our Tumbao pattern. 
The sequence is;  HEEL-TIP SLAP-TIP


Heel tip pattern

Basic Tumbao for one drum

Now all we need to do is add a couple of open notes into the technique to have the basic Tumbao for the Conga. You do not leave you hand on the head after you have struck the drum like you do for the slap stroke.  For this stroke you want the drum to resonate. The hand at the bass of the fingers is roughly on the edge of the drum when this stroke is articulated.  To far back out towards yourself and you will get a thinner and less rounded open tone.


First part of tumbao

Basic Tumbao for two drums

Now we can look at a slightly more developed version of the Tumbao for two drums. This will involve two open tones being played on the Lower pitched conga placed to our right.


Tumbao on two drums.  Click to enlargeClick on the photograph to enlarge 

Basic Tumbao for one drum

Originally this would have been played on one drum with the open bass notes on the lower drum articulated by lifting the conga from the floor with our heels and playing accented bass notes with the flat hand in the centre of the drum.  These are not anything like the open tone, with the hand striking the centre of the drum firmly and staying on the skin for a milli-second afterwards. 


Tumbao on one drum. Click to enlargeClick on the photograph to enlarge

Tumbao variations

Check out some of these simple Tumbao variations.


Basic Son Montuno for two drums

Combine all these techniques over four bars and we have the basic Son Montuno for two drums.


Son Montuno.  Source, Giovanni Hidalgo.  Click to enlargeClick on the photograph to enlarge

Basic Son Montuno leading with the left

 I prefer leading with the right hand to articulate this Son Montuno for two drums.  It is important to work on all the strokes for both hands, heel, tip, slap, bass tone etc.


Standard 2:3 clave pattern found in Cuban styles.  Click to enlargeClick on the photograph to enlarge

Basic Rhumba/Guaguanco

This is a great rhythm for Congas, one of my faves.  Here is the basic pattern.


Rhumba pattern for two congas.  Click to enlargeClick on the photograph to enlarge

It is easy if you strip down the basis of the pattern to this hand pattern.

Basic hand pattern for Rhumba.  Click to enlargeClick on the photograph to enlarge

Rhumba with accompaniment

Here is what it might sound like with a few of the other percussion parts of the ensemble.


2:3  Rhumba clave pattern.  Click to enlargeClick on the photograph to enlarge

2:3 cowbell pattern.   Click to enlargeClick on the photograph to enlarge

Mozambique Style

I have come across lots of versions of Mozambique on my musical travels.  I like to use it as a basis for a lot of non-traditional patterns as it really has a great feel over four bars. The 'percussive melody' between the two drums is really great.


Variation on Mozambique pattern for two congas.  Click to enlargeClick on the photograph to enlarge

This version is a slightly more traditional execution, incorporating the heel tip strokes. This would be to the 2:3 Rhumba clave.

Mozambique pattern for two congas. .  Click to enlargeClick on the photograph to enlarge

Bongo Martillo for Congas

This is something that I am sure must be commonly employed, although I have never seen anyone do it personally.  It is a simple manipulation of the Bongo Martillo pattern onto Congas.  Apparemtly, this is a rhythm known as "caballo" It used to be common in the pachanga rhythm and today it is often used in fast merengues. There is also a variation called "pambichao"  Lovely stuff!  'HEEL-TIPS' at the ready.


Bongo Martillo adapted onto congas.  Click to enlargeClick on the photograph to enlarge

Pop patterns 1 & 2 for Congas

The pop applications employ a more African/Brazilian approach to the instrument where articulated predominantly with 'R-L-R-L' hand to hand stroke combinations with very little 'heel-tip' utilization.  This technique is to be by no means underestimated and can yeald some truly fantastic patterns. All the notes in these patterns without an indication regarding heel, tip or open should be played as light touches on the conga.


Pop conga pattern 1. Click to enlargeClick on the photograph to enlarge

Pop conga pattern  2.  Click to enlargeClick on the photograph to enlarge

Pop pattern 3 for Congas


Pop conga pattern  3. Click to enlargeClick on the photograph to enlarge

Pop pattern 4 for Congas


Pop conga pattern  4.  Click to enlargeClick on the photograph to enlarge

Pop pattern 5 for Congas


Pop conga pattern  5.  Click to enlargeClick on the photograph to enlarge







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