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I recently obtained an oldish pair of bongos, in good shape, and would like them to be part of my drumkit. But - they have animal skins, rather than the plastic heads found on most drums. That means they maybe won't take kindly to being hit with sticks rather than hands. Will they suffer, or perhaps get played with different sticks? What experience do any readers have to share?

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  • Skin age may be a factor in this. I've 2 animal skin djembes & with nothing but time, one skin failed at 20 years. The other is still good after 30 years. As regards storage, they sit next to each other in the living room, so I'd consider their treatment 'identical'. One was a couple of hundred quid more than the other, which may go some way to explaining why the cheap one failed first. My bongos are plastic skins so I can't really compare.
    – Tetsujin
    Apr 6 at 16:18
  • @Tetsujin as you've probably considered, the skins may well have undergone different preparation or endured different storage conditions, or both, before they got to your living room, which would very likely account for much of the difference in durability (and some of the difference in price).
    – phoog
    Apr 6 at 17:45
  • @phoog - absolutely. One was bought in a posh music shop in the centre of London, the other from an African market. One can easily speculate the manufacture was likely 'different'. I suppose I should have said 'quality' rather than just 'age'.
    – Tetsujin
    Apr 6 at 17:48
  • I did a bit of research, finding that synthetic drumheads were developed during the 1950s, but I decided not to post an answer based on this fact because a natural head on a snare drum (or on any other drum intended to be played with a stick) could still be significantly different from the ones on your bongos.
    – phoog
    Apr 6 at 17:49
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First, I’m not a percussionist but I do know a decent amount about Latin percussion so here goes: Bongo skins are thin but the skins that are made for companies like LP and Meinl are pretty durable. Also remember drum heads used to be made from calfskin (and still are!) If you’re not doing any serious banging and you take a sensible approach you should be fine.

There are also synthetic heads made for bongos and congas that are much more durable if you’re willing to invest a bit. Many pro Latin percussionists I know have switched to synthetic heads for their feel, durability, tone, the ability to hold its tune and not having to detune them when not playing. Here is an example.

One thing about bongos is by playing them with sticks you lose a lot of the nuances that you get by playing with hands and fingers, like slap and muted tones for example. It is a nice color to add to a drum kit though and I know some guys that have done it.

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  • "lose a lot of nuances": One can touch the head with one hand, or even with one stick, while striking it with the other stick, though it is perhaps impractical to do a lot of this if you're very busy with the rest of the kit.
    – phoog
    Apr 6 at 17:43
  • @phoog That still doesn’t come close to what a bongo player does with his hands and fingers. Apr 6 at 17:47
  • Of course. But it is a way to achieve a degree of variation that is not possible with sticks alone.
    – phoog
    Apr 6 at 18:18
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You can add bongos to your drum kit and hit them with sticks, if you're willing to accept a little risk. Yes, the drumheads will wear out faster, since they are not meant to be hit with sticks, but the heads still should be pretty durable, and you may be able to replace them with regular coated drumheads. The 8" head will be easy to find, the 6.75- maybe not so much.

There was one Drum Corps group (I can't remember which one!) that replaced one of the small drums on their marching tenors with a bongo. These bongos took much more abuse than they would on your drumkit, and they must have worked well enough, since the instruments survived shows and they never scrapped the idea.

I'd be more concerned with the bearing edge of the drums, which is the wood rim that the drumhead rests on. The bearing edge is pretty exposed on a bongo, and accidentally hitting it can damage the drum itself over time.

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Bongos are used as part of drumkits, but there are certain provisos.

Since they have no rim, like a snare has, care needs to be taken not to hit the head like a rimshot, striking the bearing edge. The wood underneath at that spot will get dented, and the head itself will wear quickly there.

The head itself isn't much of a problem, after all, earlier drum heads were made from vellum, before being plastic.

While sticks can be and are used, mallets, tymp sticks or rutes are going to be kinder to the bongo. Timbale sticks or conga sticks work well, but again, avoid hitting the bearing edge. Skin heads are more susceptible to temperature and humidity changes, and won't be as easy as a tuned drum to reproduce exactly the same sound wherever they're struck, due to differing thickness across the heads, although that's a small problem.

Evelyn Glennie uses bongos as part of her percussion set-up, playing them with standard drumsticks.

So, bottom line - yes, they will survive, if treated respectfully, but consider using them as they were designed - played with fingers and hands. They would still be part of the kit, but used for their original purpose.

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