Bongos (and we’re not talking about the African antelope here!) are a quintessential part of Afro-Cuban and general Caribbean music. Their bright voices and staccato rhythms provide the basic voicing in numerous styles of music. And they’re so simple!
Two open-bottomed drums, a smaller macho, and larger hembra, are covered by skins and played between the knees – that’s the basic set-up. But of course, there are varieties in shape, size, skin, and drum material.
So our mission is simple. Which are the Best Bongos?
- Top 5 Best Bongos On The Market Reviews
- Best Bongos Buying Guide
- Looking for Something Else?
- So, what Are The Best Bongos?
Top 5 Best Bongos On The Market Reviews
1 Remo Kids Percussion Bongo – Best Beginners Bongos
Sizes: 5″ Macho & 6″ Hembra
Finishes: Rainforest pattern
With today’s review, we’re going to start from the lowest-priced drums and work towards the most expensive. You might expect that the most expensive to be the best and the cheapest bongos are going to be the worst.
Shaking things up…
Yes, you read right – these are intended as a kids’ instrument, so what are they doing on our list? The simple answer is that coming in well under $50; this is a surprisingly good little instrument.
Kids will love the bright rainforest pattern on the shells, but these bongos are a great starting point for any beginner.
Here are the specs…
The macho is 5” and the hembra only 6”, so this is a smaller set of bongo drums for sure. They stand about 8” tall and connect using a plastic block.
The shells are made of Remo’s patented Acousticon. This is a recycled wood fiber material used on many kinds of professional instruments. They provide a surprisingly even tone and a strong voicing.
Remo also pops on their own animal skin pattern printed thick synthetic heads, called “Skyndeep.” These heads have the look of real skin but are also more durable and even water-resistant than skin.
Hey, remember they were designed for kids!
These drums sound pretty good. The pre-tuned heads (which can’t be adjusted, unfortunately) are tuned high and bright. The basic 90-degree shoulder design makes rim shots a breeze, and these little guys offer a solid ping.
Overall, for such a low price, this is a great little starter bongo set.
- Nicely tuned to high, bright pitch.
- Durable and cheap.
- Tuning can’t be adjusted.
2 Tycoon Percussion Ritmo Bongos – Best Budget Bongos
Sizes: 6″ Macho & 7″ Hembra
Finishes: Natural or Mahogany stain
Coming up in price is the Ritmo Bongo set from Tycoon Percussion, an up-and-coming instrument builder from Thailand. And for a really basic set of bongos, these drums sound surprisingly good!
Although called “Siam Oak” wood by several manufacturers, the staves of these drums are made from the wood of rubber trees cut down once they stop producing latex.
Rubberwood is of a medium density and is quite durable. This set comes with a clear stain or a deep reddish-brown they call mahogany.
What was that about “staves” again?
Traditional bongo shells are made from thick blocks of wood, or staves, angle-cut and glued together to form a tube. This gives bongos a thick, uniform shell.
The Ritmo bongos use strong water buffalo skin, which can be stretched very tight for that characteristic pingy sound. Black powder-coated steel top and bottom rings hold the heads in place. They connect with chromed steel tuning lugs.
In the past, a lamp or candle was used to drive away humidity from the skins, making them tighten up. Luckily things have changed, and the Ritmo bongos are tuned by turning nuts on the bottom of each tuning lug.
But how do they play?
At 6” and 7”, these are still small for bongos, and their tones are quite high. The top ring also rides fairly high, and that makes it a bit harder to hit great rim shots without hurting your fingers. The overall tone here is perfectly alright, though, and for the price, these are smart-looking, durable, and good-sounding bongos.
- Inexpensive and durable.
- Good overall tone.
- A bit small and high-pitched.
- Rim can hurt your hand after extended playing.
3 Meinl Journey Series Bongo – Loudest Bongos
Sizes: 6 ½ ” Macho & 7 ½ ” Hembra
Finishes: Black Gloss
Legendary percussion instrument maker Meinl has jumped into the bongo business with a few dozen different models. Here, we chose two very different bongo sets at two very different price points for a decent comparison.
First up is the Journey Series Bongo, at a similar price to the Ritmos.
To stave or not to stave…
After all that talk about stave construction, here’s a set of bongos that’s not made with staves at all. Instead, Meinl has tried out ABS plastic shells in a glossy jet black.
These shells are topped with traditional water buffalo skin. The hardware is very similar to the Ritmos – black powder-coated steel rings and chromed steel tuning lugs.
Some differences you’re going to notice immediately…
First, the tuning lugs are thicker and are also designed to look smoother. Also, the Journey’s rings are really slick looking and impeccably welded. The top ring curves down over the edge of the drum to make playing these drums very easy on the hands.
However, if held between the knees in a traditional playing position, those same rims don’t feel great on the inner thighs.
Big and bright…
These bongos are also only slightly bigger than the Ritmos but sound higher and brighter. This must be the influence of the ABS shells, which take out any lower tone the wood would normally provide.
These drums sound high and loud, so if you need the bongos to break through the din, they might be just the right choice.
- Inexpensive and durable.
- Loud, bright sounding.
- Not a lot of flexibility in tuning – it’s high or really high.
- It’s not clear how the ABS plastic shells will hold up over years of playing.
4 Meinl Marathon Designer Series Wood Bongo – Best Sounding Bongos
Sizes: 6 ¾ ” Macho & 8″ Hembra
Finishes: Leopard Burl Gloss
Meinl’s second offering in our review of the Best Bongos is the Marathon Design Series wood bongo.
We’ve moved up double the price from our last two bongo drums, so let’s see what that means in terms of look, quality, and sound.
A real eye-catcher…
Starting with the look, these simple rubberwood stave shells really pop! The shells have a set of rings lathed into them and a glossy lacquer finish to make them look like leopard burl wood.
The same sort of hardware as the Journey Series finishes them off to look very slick.
Inside, the shells have been lathed and sanded to perfection. And not only does the hardware look good, but it’s also a bit different from our last two bongos. Here the top ring sits much lower from the rim of the bongos, clearing it completely when hitting rim shots.
What does this mean for the sound?
With the Marathons, the same water buffalo skins are made to sound warmer and deeper by using wood shells that are slightly bigger once again.
However, bright popping overtones are still there, creating a more complex sound.
One more thing to mention…
Most bongos use a wood block connector (like the Ritmos) or a plastic one (like the Journeys) the Marathon Series bongo. However, these drums connect using Meinl’s “free-ride suspension system.”
This means the wood in the shells isn’t drilled at all. This eliminates any buzzing and allows for purely wood resonances to shine through.
The result sounds great.
- Complex and delightful sound, with a bigger tuning range.
- Sharp look.
- Moderately expensive – not a beginner instrument.
5 Gon Bops Alex Acuna Special Edition Bongo – Best Professional Bongos
Sizes: 7″ Macho & 8 ½” Hembra
Finishes: Ebony Stain Lacquer
Let’s finish up our list way over on the high end of bongos.
Introducing the Alex Acuna Special Edition Bong from California maker Gon Bops. These bigger (7″ Macho & 8 ½ “) and bolder bongos are also about triple to the price of the Marathons we just saw.
Are they worth it?
Let’s look at the construction first. These bongos are made from North American ash wood staves finished with a dark ebony lacquer. The hardware here is all chrome, setting a beautiful contrast to the dark-stained wood.
The macho and hembra join together with a solid wood connecting block. Everything is similar in construction to the much cheaper Ritmos.
That’s where the similarities end…
The Alex Acunas are topped with the same Remo “Skyndeep” material as the cheap Kids Percussion bongos for a start. But this time, there is a dark grey, almost black, color.
This synthetic head has the effect of tuning up very high and tight, so when stretched over this largest set of bongo drums, they still sound bright. Not to mention loud!
These bongos are made for pros. It looks the part, has a fairly wide range of tuning, and has the volume to cut through the rest of the band if need be.
- Great sound, with good tuning range possible.
- Quality construction and professional quality.
- Very expensive.
Best Bongos Buying Guide
Whether you’re a beginner on the bongo drum, or a seasoned performer looking for the perfect set, there are a few important things to consider when buying bongos.
It’s crucial to consider your needs as a player and the performance of the drums to find which set would be best for you.
Smaller drums are necessarily going to have higher tones. However, larger drums of good quality and with great heads can be tuned way up high, too. Larger drums give you more flexibility in tuning, and even when tuned high, they have more robust voices with robust overtones.
If you’re going to be on stage or recording, we recommend bigger bongos. If you’re playing at home or just starting out, any size is just fine.
Traditionally, bongos are drums with high-tones. They’re normally played together with congas, which provide more low end. But that doesn’t mean bongos are simple 2-tone instruments.
Good bongos will offer at least four distinct tones, each drum contributing a central tone from playing the head alone, and a rimshot tone. The best bongo drums will have very clear voicing that is easy to attain.
Aside from getting the pure, bright tones out of your bongo drums, they should also be easy and comfortable to play. Big top rings can hurt your thighs when playing traditionally with the bongos between your knees.
If the top rings are too high, they can also be very unforgiving on your poor fingers when striking rimshots.
A good connector is also the point where bongos clamp onto a stand if you’re playing standing up. Look for good solid wood connectors or specially designed suspension systems for even purer tones.
How much should two little drums cost? The only answer is, it depends on what you need them for.
For playing at home, with friends, and just fun jamming, you can find great sets for well under $100. Professional players will look above this price for superior quality but keep things reasonable.
Beautiful bongos shouldn’t break the bank!
Looking for Something Else?
Just looking to improve your skills? Take a gander at our reviews of the Best Drum Practice Pads you can buy in 2020.
So, what Are The Best Bongos?
It is never easy trying to find an instrument that we can recommend for most everyone. But this time, one set of bongos made it a bit easier.
The one that really did it for us was the…
These beautiful, affordable drums look fantastic, have great pure tones and a wide tuning range, and were by far the most comfortable to play. We loved low top rings, making banging away so easy on the hands!
So that’s our pick. But whether you choose the Marathons or another great set from our list, we know you have fun banging on your bongo drum!
And the beat goes on…