What Are The Differences Between Bongos & Tablas?

In this present drums comparison, we'll be looking at two drums that appear similar on the surface but that, upon further examination, are heavily distinct from one another: The bongos and the tablas.

What are the differences between bongos and tablas? The differences are:

  • Bongos and tablas have different shell and head designs.
  • Tablas render a wider range of tones than bongos.
  • The bongos can be played with either hands or sticks. The tablas are mostly played with the hands.

Throughout this article, we'll be unpacking these differences in more detail. However, as always, let's first explore both instruments' backgrounds.

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The Backgrounds Of Bongos And Tablas

It's said that drums are the oldest instruments in existence, with a lifespan of over 7,000 years. The first drums were presumably built in China using alligator skin and other primitive materials.

Since then, a plethora of drum variants of different sizes, sounds, and structures have been developed worldwide, reaching virtually every corner of our known world. The bongos and tablas are both examples of this reality.

Let's now look at each drum separately:

The Background Of Bongos

The bongos come from a distinctively African tradition, though they did not emerge in Africa. Rather, they were designed by African slaves who were relocated to the Eastern part of Cuba during the apex of the European slave trade.

The bongos derive from other African instruments that were brought to the island and were key in developing two Afro-Cuban rhythms: The Changüi and the Son, two rhythms strongly influenced by Bantu religious expressions but were secularized over time.

The bongos used in the Changüi were much larger than those featured in the Son. The smaller Son bongos would be the ones that became mainstream, even reaching the American and British rock and pop scenes during the '60s and '70s.

The Background Of Tablas

The tabla has as its direct ancestor a medieval drum called the “pakhawaj”, which became very prominent during the Moghul era. This drum had a similar tuning mechanism to that of the tabla but was much larger and carried two heads, one on each side.

The history of the tabla's emergence has been a subject of debate. A more likely scenario was that the drum was created by a drummer called Amir Kushru in the 1730s to be used for a new musical style that arose during that time, called the Khayal.

Others point out that the creation of the tabla was more “accidental”.

An old legend tells of a drummer who, during a drum competition, became so upset that he unsheathed a sword and cut a pakhawaj in half, generating thus something akin to the two tabla drums seen nowadays. Regardless, the veracity of this story is disputed.

What Are The Differences Between Bongos And Tablas?

Now, we'll be fleshing out the differences between bongos and tablas referenced at the beginning:

Difference 1: Design

Earlier, I stated that:

“Bongos and tablas have different shell and head designs.”

In that regard, the shell in bongos has a barrel-like shape with a slight taper oriented upwards.

Meanwhile, both tablas have more asymmetrical shell designs, with the smaller one (called the bayan) carrying a barrel shape similar to the bongos and the larger one (the dagga) sporting a wider bowl-like form.

The bongos come in pairs, just like the tablas. Yet, both drums are joined together by a bridge or “center block”, a feature lacking in tablas. The smaller bongo is called the macho (“male” in Spanish) and the larger hembra (“female”).

The heads of both drums are strikingly different. The bongos wear a single piece of rawhide extracted from buffalos, cows, or calves.

The tablas' heads, contrarily, have a much more complex layout consisting of three concentric circles, with the outer two made of goatskin and the center circle made from a concoction of various materials such as iron fillings and charcoal.

In terms of sizes, both instruments are very comparable. The tablas appear to be a bit taller on average (coming in at about 10″) than the bongos (measuring roughly 6-9″ in height).

The diameters in tablas are quite contrasting, with the Dayan measuring around 6″ and the dagga reaching from 9 to 11″. Meanwhile, the size difference of both bongo drums is negligible, with the hembra measuring approximately 6-7″ and the macho 8-10″.

The tuning mechanisms of both drums also differ to a great degree.

The tablas utilize a rope-like tuning system consisting of a series of leather strips (called “Baar”) covering the shell. These strips are attached to wooden pieces called “Ghatta”, which aid in adjusting the tension of the head and, hence, the pitch.

The bongos' tuning system operates through pieces of hardware called tuning lugs or hooks with nuts at the bottom that are fastened or loosened with a wrench.

Lastly, while the base of both instruments is hollow, the bottom portion is designed slightly differently. Admittedly, this has no discernible effect on their overall output, but it indicates the divergent cultural backgrounds of both instruments.

The tabla has a highly-adorned cushion at the bottom to serve as support (since tablas are mostly played on the floor). On the flip side, the bongos have rubber tips that mainly support the tuning lugs.

Difference 2: Sound

Next, I made the following assertion:

“Tablas render a wider range of tones than bongos.”

This is readily apparent when playing or watching both drums being played side-by-side.

The tablas deliver more profound bass notes than the bongos but similar treble sounds. The general tone of the tabla can be described as “warmer”.

On another note, the bongos produce sounds at a slightly higher volume, being able to cut through a recording mix better than tablas (you can compare both instruments in action here.)

Difference 3: Playing Style

Lastly, I pointed out that:

“The bongos can be played with either hands or sticks. The tablas are mostly played with the hands.”

In this respect, I should stress that both instruments are traditionally played with the hands. Still, while it's not uncommon to see bongos played with beaters (especially those installed on drum sets), tabla players have refrained from using these types of tools.

This may be the case because, contrary to bongos, the tablas' heads are highly sensitive, changing tones drastically depending on the struck area.

To illustrate this, normally, the bigger tabla (dagga) is played with the wrist resting near the middle goatskin ring towards the center, with the fingertips pointing downwards for precise taps.

Lastly, I should mention that bongos and tablas have highly distinct rhythmic patterns associated with them.

As hinted at before, the bongos were utilized to convey specific Afro-Cuban rhythms (such as the Son, as was explained in the historical analysis of the instrument).

On the other hand, tablas have always been employed for specific North Indian musical expressions. What's more, there is a specific notation for the tablas that is depicted through distinctive syllables, making up what became known as the “tabla language”.

Read How Bongos Compare To Other Instruments

Read How Tablas Compare To Other Instruments

This article has been approved in accordance with the My New Microphone Editorial Policy.


Arthur is the owner of Fox Media Tech and the author of My New Microphone. He's an audio engineer by trade and works on contract in his home country of Canada. When not blogging on MNM, he's likely hiking outdoors and blogging at Hikers' Movement (hikersmovement.com) or producing music. For more info, please check out his YouTube channel and his music.

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