Thanks to their distinctive sound and easy portability, bongos are one of the most popular types of Latin hand percussion. Before you buy new bongos, however, it's important to know what to look for.
- Skill level:
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Know what you need. If you're a beginner or on a budget, perhaps an entry-level fibreglass set with synthetic heads will do just fine; if you'll be using them in a professional situation, spend the extra money. If it's at all possible, play the bongos before buying them.
Check the tuning hardware. If it's not designed to handle the tension a real bongo requires, don't buy the bongos. If you can, avoid aluminium hardware; go for steel. Play the bongos and see if the tuning bolts stick up where they'll hurt your hands. Last but not least, stay away from rims that are cheap, stamped metal--they may bend under regular usage.
Make sure the centre block is strong and made of wood. If the centre block is plastic, it's a dead giveaway that you're looking at a cheap set of bongos.
Check the shells. Some inexpensive bongos are made from Siam oak, which is considered a low-quality wood that's soft and won't project well--but it's a step above fibreglass, especially for Latin-influenced players. If you are looking for a more advanced bongo set-up, go for oak and mahogany. Make sure the shells have no cracks or gaps.
Fibreglass shells don't have as warm a sound as wood bongos, but they still create a serviceable sound. If you'll be adding the bongos to your drum set, however, fibreglass might actually be a better choice.
Check the heads to see whether they sound dull. Skin heads should have a smooth, glossy surface, and they shouldn't look rough or too dry. If they don't have natural variations in the colour, they've probably been bleached, which weakens the hide--you'll need to retune more often and replace the heads sooner. If the head is synthetic, play it and see if it sounds warm and not too plastic-like.
Play them and ask yourself whether they will sound good played hard for a long time, and whether they'll survive a few knocks and drops. If you're buying online, read recommendations and look for bongos made by reputable manufacturers.
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