Drums are some of the oldest musical instruments in the percussion family, if not the oldest instruments in general. However, nowadays, a great variety of drums appear to have no connection to each other. Two of these drums are the snare drum and the bongo.
What are the differences between snare drums and bongos? The differences can be outlined as follows:
- The build and design of bongos and snare drums are palpably different.
- Bongos deliver defined tones, while snare drums don't have a marked pitch.
- The bongos are played mostly with the hands. Snare drums are played with beaters.
This article will focus on all the differences between snare drums and bongos. Nevertheless, it's beneficial first to analyze both instruments' histories to get a better grasp on each of them.
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The Backgrounds Of Snare Drums And Bongos
The first drums appeared to have originated in China during the Neolithic era (approximately 5,500 BC), with drumheads made from alligator skin. Sometime later, drums would spread to Africa and, roughly a millennium later, to Rome and Greece. These drums were heavily used for religious purposes, though, as time went on, people would play drums in more secular affairs.
Membranophones – such as the bongos and snare drums – are bound to share many similarities, though their background differs tremendously (as we'll see shortly). The link between the original drums and many of their modern variants may not be manifestly clear at first look, and we would expect to witness some gaps when examining their evolutionary history.
Without further ado, let's explore each instrument's past:
The Background Of Snare Drums
According to many historians, the snare drum has its historical origins in Eastern Europe, around the time of the Crusades. It seemed to have drawn inspiration from drums used by janissaries in the then-Ottoman Empire.
This drum was called the tabor and was utilized in military contexts initially, though it progressively made its way into chivalrous competitions and feasts. The “fife and drum” was widespread in medieval Western Europe, with the tabor providing the rhythm.
The Basel drum would feature snares on the underside and a bulkier build (measuring approximately 16″). This variant was amply featured in European concert halls, and many classical composers would use it to convey diverse environmental effects.
This drum was imported from Europe to North America and utilized in military operations for communication purposes. In other areas, it was used to call people for church services. After the American civil war, drummers would take their instruments home with them and give them a different use, though, on this occasion, they would not use them in academic music circles. Instead, they appeared in more popular Dixieland, vaudeville, and ragtime ensembles.
For the record, the snare drums were extremely important in the development of the drum kit, and it's currently one of the latter's main components.
The Background Of Bongos
Bongo drums have very deep African roots. They might have been pioneered in regions occupied by the Bantu peoples. Many of these Bantus were brought as slaves to various Spanish settlements in Central and South America. More specifically, Cuba received droves of people from the Congo area during the 17th and 18th centuries, many of whom imported their musical instruments to the island.
The bongo was predominantly featured in two popular musical genres: the Changüi and Son. The bongos employed for Changüi were slightly larger and lower-pitched than the modern bongos.
On the other hand, the Son (which proved to be the more popular musical style) included bongos that were comparatively similar in diameter to the modern bongos.
Until around the 1940s, the bongos' and congas' drumheads were fixed in place with nails or tacks, and the only way to alter their pitch was by wetting or heating the skin. Wetting it would make the skin more elastic to render notes at lower frequencies, while heating it made it tighter, increasing the pitch.
Between the 40s and 50s, the bongos began to be built with adjustable lug nuts to tune their pitch. This provided a much more practical way to explore the different tonal qualities of the bongos without relying on methods that proved to be highly impractical and damaging to the instrument in the long run.
What Are The Differences Between Snare Drums And Bongos?
After assessing each instrument's background, let's go over the differences mentioned at the beginning of this writing:
Difference 1: Design
In the initial answer, I stated the following:
“The build and design of bongos and snare drums are palpably different.”
I should elaborate on this since there are many factors to consider.
The first obvious difference lies in the overall constitution of both instruments. The snare drum is a standalone drum with only one drumhead to interact with. On the other hand, bongos typically come in pairs that are attached by a bridge or “center block”.
One of the drums in the bongo is called “hembra” (female), while the other one is called “macho” (male). The hembra (ranging from 7 to 9″ in diameter) is larger and lower-pitched than the macho (measuring from 6 to 7.25″ approximately).
Each drum is made up of a drumhead fixed by a hoop or rim, which, in turn, is bound to a ring located on the bottom. You also have a tuning lug, which, as the name suggests, is responsible for tuning the drum. The shells are typically made of a type of hardwood such as mahogany or oak, though one may find bongos made with fibreglass shells.
Meanwhile, the standard snare drum normally measures around 14″ in diameter. It has two drumheads attached to the same shell, one called the “batter head” located at the top and another at the bottom, which interacts with the snares.
The snares are coiled wires that extend across the membrane and are fastened by a strainer. They come in sets of various sizes, ranging from 12 to 42 wires. The hardware around the shell is a bit more cluttered in snare drums than in bongos, with a greater number of tension rods to tune the instrument to the desired pitch.
Difference 2: Sound
In this regard, I affirmed that:
“Bongos deliver defined tones, while snare drums don't have a marked pitch.”
In reality, all percussion instruments render a pitch, albeit discernible to a greater or lesser extent. In the case of bongos, the pitch is easier to be detected than in the case of snare drums, which delivers a sharper, metallic sound with lower sustain. This has much to do with the snares affixed to its bottom.
It's important to stress that both drums rely on the vibration of their skin drumheads for their sound, being that they're both membranophones.
With that said, as we strike the snare drum's batter head, the vibration generated is transmitted towards the snares, producing that peculiar “buzzing” sound at the end. In the interim, the membrane at the bottom produces a more constricted vibration because the snares are essentially getting “in the way”, reducing its oscillation.
As a result, snare drums tend to produce a sharper staccato with little emphasis on the pitch.
The bongos, in contrast, possess acoustic properties that allow the sound to carry a cleaner and more defined tone with a highly perceptible pitch and a narrowly greater sustain, though not as great as that of the congas.
Difference 3: Playing Method
Lastly, I stated that:
“Bongos are played mostly with the hands. Snare drums are played with beaters.”
Theoretically, bongos can be played with both naked hands and sticks, though the former is the traditional method.
It's likewise “possible” to play snare drums with bare hands, albeit highly inconvenient because of the metal rim getting in the way, so drummers are advised to use drumsticks or mallets instead.
The bongo basically has four main strokes: Slap (produced by the fingertips striking the center), open tone (with the upper palm), muted tone (with the fingertips while the other palm rests on the drumhead), and heel-tip (same as with the muted tone but rocking the striking hand from the heel). You'll get different sounds also depending on the struck spot.
The snare drum also has its own set of techniques, from ghost notes to the famous rim shots. You can generate several sounds on the snare drums depending on the drumstick's orientation, the strength of your stroke, and your hands' positioning and motion.
To illustrate, you might get dense rolls with a snare drum by taking advantage of the bounces, and you'll also be capable of alternating between center strokes and rim clicks/shots for highly dynamic patterns.
Read How Snare Drums Compare To Other Instruments
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