What Are The Differences Between Congas & Tablas?

Let's take a deep look at two instruments within the drum family with highly dissimilar backgrounds: the congas and the tablas.

What are the differences between congas and tablas? The differences are as follows:

  • The congas are larger than the tablas and have a distinct build and design.
  • The tablas have a wider range of sounds than the congas.
  • While both are hand drums, their playing methods are different.

In this article, we'll be disclosing more details on the distinctions between congas and tablas that were just summarized. But, first, let's examine both instruments' histories.

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The Background Of Congas And Tablas

Both the congas and the tablas possess a wide array of commonalities. For example, they're both played with the hands and carry a similar design philosophy.

However, the first major difference between both instruments lies in their direct ancestry. For now, we'll be elaborating on both instruments' backgrounds separately:

The Background Of Congas

Despite the congas appearing to be a very ancient instrument, they're barely a century old.

Notwithstanding, they seem to derive from some older African drums – such as the makúta drum or the bémbé – that Central African slaves (specifically of Bantu origin) brought to Cuba during the busier years of the European slave trade.

Despite being closer in appearance to the African drums just mentioned, the main inspiration for the conga might have presumably been the cajon. This crate-like instrument was utilized as the main percussion element in rumba dances.

This rumba style emerged shortly after slavery was abolished on the island at the end of the 19th century. Sometime after, the conga was conceived as a means to refine the sound of its rhythm section.

This instrument would soon become widespread and reach many other musical scenes abroad, though not to the same extent as the bongos, which were favoured for their accessibility and portability.

The Background Of Tablas

The tabla appeared more than a century earlier than the conga and in a starkly different geographical location.

It is said that the instrument was created utilizing the pakhawaj as a model. This latter drum was of medieval origin and proved to be highly popular during the Moghul era in Northern India. The pakhawaj is still extant.

Various stories have been disseminated regarding the tablas' origin. Still, the most reliable theory relates that the instrument was designed by a drummer called Amir Kushru to be used in a novel musical genre called the Khayal, sometime around the early- to mid-1700s.

What Are The Differences Between Congas And Tablas?

Now, we'll go over the differences between congas and tablas that were briefly mentioned at the beginning of this article:

Difference 1: Design

First, I made the following affirmation:

“The congas are larger than the tablas and have a distinct build and design.”

There's a lot to unpack in this regard, but let's begin talking about the sizes.

Both drums in the tabla set have an average height of 10″. However, they both differ strongly in drumhead diameter, with the larger drum (dagga) measuring from 9 to 11″ and the smaller one (bayan) hovering around the 6″ area.

The conga, contrastingly, has a height that triples that of tablas and a diameter ranging from 11″ to 13″.

When examining their heads' designs, we can readily see that the tablas have a highly complex setup, consisting of three concentric circles. The outer circles are made of a type of goatskin, while the center is a mixture of iron fillings, charcoal, soot, and gum.

On the flip side, the congas have a more straightforward head design consisting of a single piece of rawhide (normally extracted from buffalos or calves) or synthetic material that emulates the feel of animal skin.

Design differences are slightly less evident when glancing at both instruments' shells.

The conga has a slightly oblong outline similar to the smaller tabla (although with obvious contrasts in size). The larger tabla strays from this trend, sporting a more bowl-like form.

The shells likewise vary in terms of materials. Ordinarily, congas are made of a type of tropical hardwood, but alternatively, they can be made of fibreglass. The tablas may also be made of wood, though clay or metal versions can be regularly found.

There is another noticeable difference in the tuning mechanism of both instruments. The conga has a modern system of metal tuning hooks that are adjustable with the aid of a wrench or a similar tool.

On the other hand, the tablas utilize a net of woven leather strips called “Baar”, with wooden dowels attached. Those dowels (called “Ghatta”) are responsible for controlling the heads' tension.

Difference 2: Sound

Next, I highlighted that:

“The tablas have a wider range of sounds than the congas.”

This is not the only sound difference though it's probably the most discernible one.

It must be stressed that congas have a strong mid-range sound, and you might get mild nuances in tone. Nevertheless, the tablas are capable of emitting deeper bass notes and, at the same time, sharper trebles.

Another recognizable difference is that the tablas' notes have a softer attack and are more melodic in character. Meanwhile, the congas have a more “explosive” percussive sound that can penetrate a recording mix better.

Difference 3: Playing Style

Lastly, I stated the following:

“While both are hand drums, their playing styles are different.”

In this respect, the conga (traditionally called “tumbadora”) was a standalone instrument. However, with time, it would be optionally joined by others of assorted sizes to attain a wider tonal variety. The tablas, contrarily, have been played in pairs since their inception.

Furthermore, tabla players employ a specific language (called the “tabla language”), amounting to onomatopoeic syllables. Conversely, the congas have been adapted to be played in various musical genres and contexts.

Finally, the congas are played with the whole hand (predominantly the palms and the four main fingers), requiring you to rotate your forearms more at the elbows. In the meantime, the tablas can be played using one to four fingers and with the hands resting near the head's center for the most part.

Read How Congas 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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