It takes a lot more creativity to play congas than most people think. Look at it this way, each drum has only one tone, so a pair gives you two notes to work with. That’s it! A piano gives you 88 notes. However, by altering the way we strike the congas, we change the sonic characteristic, or timbre (pronounced tam-ber), of each drum. There are six basic hand techniques. These six form the foundation for most of your conga playing.
First of all, position yourself with one conga between your legs while sitting down. If you tilt the drum slightly away from yourself, you allow the drum to breathe from the bottom, offering better tonal qualities. This is common among seated players. Your shoulders are relaxed; so relaxed you should be able to put a drumstick under each arm and practice your techniques that way. Your forearms are parallel to the floor, and your back is straight (see Fig. 1). All of your practicing should be done with this relaxed position in mind. Finally, envision a glass shelf 6—8" above the conga head. When you practice, try not to raise your hands high enough off the surface of the head to strike that glass. You will soon learn that relaxation and good technique beats power any day of the week. Remember that everything that goes for the right hand also goes for the left hand.
Open Tone (Fig. 2) The most fundamental of all the techniques. Start with one hand resting on the head, fingers together, and knuckles aligned on the edge. Lift your hand a few inches off the head and strike the drum in the same position you started with. When you make contact, immediately release your hand from the head. Think of your wrist as the starting point making a wave like motion to the tips of your fingers – in other words, you do not want to be stiff. Stay relaxed and flexible. A full resonating tone is achieved, as well as stating the true “pitch” of the drum.
(Fig. 3) This tone will yield the lowest frequencies of your conga. You can use either the base of your palm, full palm, or full hand. Your point of contact is in the center of the head, and you want to “drive though” the drum. Experiment by leaving your hand on the head then releasing for slightly different tones.
Mute or Muffled Tone
(Fig. 4) Go back to the open tone position, but slide your knuckles back about an inch, so now your fingers are the only part of your hand on the head. Strike like the open tone, but leave your fingers on the head at contact, choking the head from resonating. Press in with your fingertips to ensure good contact with the head. Try this exercise – play four alternating open tones then four alternating mute tones. Repeat these eight strokes until you really hear the difference.
Palm or Heel
(Fig. 5) Start with your full hand on the head with your palm positioned between the center and the edge of the head. Your wrist really comes into play here by lifting straight up, raising the palm, then driving straight down returning the palm and lifting the fingers.