What Are The Differences Between Snare Drums & Congas?

The percussion family is so vast that you may easily get overwhelmed by the number of different instruments it comprises. Two instruments that particularly stand out are the snare drum and the conga.

What are the differences between snare drums and congas? The differences could be summarized as follows:

  • The snare drum has a different base design than the conga.
  • The conga has a more defined tone. The snare drum is untuned.
  • Congas are usually played with the hands. The snare drum is played with beaters.

Throughout this article, we'll elaborate on the differences between snare drums and congas that were just laid out. However, we should begin by disclosing their history.

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The Backgrounds Of Snare Drums And Congas

Congas and snare drums share more in common than many are willing to admit. Both instruments are of the membranophone family and share similar traits and perks, though they appear to have originated in divergent contexts.

The Background Of The Snare Drum

The snare drum draws its origins in Eastern Europe during the crusades, and it may have been inspired by some of the drums utilized by Ottoman janissaries of that time.

The tabor (as it was called back in the day) was initially deployed for use in military actions, though it was also widely played in tourneys and dances. “Fife and drum” became a popular musical setting during that era. However, it was not uncommon to see tabor players simultaneously playing a three-holed pipe held in the other hand.

The Basel drum, which originated in the Swiss city of the same name, sported snares on the underside, made from animal skin. This drum was also markedly larger than the typical tabor, measuring around 16″ in both diameter and depth.

This drum would be coined the term “field drum” in North America, for it was utilized heavily on the battlefield to send signals to other troops, though in some places, it was also used to summon people to church services.

In Europe, the Basel drum began being featured in classical music, with the likes of Marais making use of it to create storm sounds. Other composers also enjoyed including these drums in their repertoire to evoke a warring atmosphere.

In America, field drum players took their instruments home after the American civil war. From then on, they experimented with them for musical purposes, though they were not as prominent in concert halls as they were in Europe. Rather, these drums appeared in more popular musical backdrops such as Dixieland, ragtime, and vaudeville.

Later, the snare drum would be combined with the bass/kick drum in what appeared to have been the first drum kit in history. This design sprung from a necessity to economize space for shows in small venues around New Orleans. Edward “Dee Dee” Chandler was the first recorded jazz drummer to utilize the kick pedal for bass drum while playing the snare drum with both hands, setting a new trend in drum playing moving forward.

The Background Of The Conga

Cuba was populated with many enslaved people from the Congo region between the 17th and 18th centuries, with many of them bringing their ceremonial instruments with them.

With that stated, the conga's history is seemingly more recent. Still, we shouldn't neglect one of its most renowned ancestors: the makúta drum. The makúta drum is a tall barrel- or cylinder-shaped drum with an open lower end featured in Bantu religious ceremonies around the Central-African region.

Other ancient drums that resemble the modern conga are the Nigerian Lucumí bémbé drum, the Ngoma, the Yuka, and the Ashiko.

In any case, the conga began being developed sometime after the abolition of slavery in Cuba in the late 19th century. At this point in time, a cultural revolution began during which the secular music scene in Cuba began incorporating these instruments for social events and dances.

The rumba musical scene brought together various African tribes from very diverse regions, as well as poor white people who arrived in Cuba to seek work in austere conditions.

Rumba music was the hotbed for the origination of the modern congas, although the conga was preceded by the Cuban cajon, which was predominant during the final decades of the 1800s.

It's often stated that the cajones were actually the direct precursors to the congas (also called tumbadoras) in the context of the rumba beat, even though manufacturers employed the design of those more antique drums mentioned earlier as templates. Naturally, cajones differ substantially from congas in that they're idiophones, whereas congas, like the bémbé or the makúta, are membranophones.

What Are The Differences Between Snare Drums And Congas?

Now, we'll be unpacking the differences outlined at the beginning of this article.

Difference 1: Design

In the initial answer, I pointed out that:

“The snare drum has a different base design than the conga.”

This difference is quite significant and is a huge factor in each instrument's overall sound and feel.

The conga has a lot of similar features to snare drums. It has a drum shell, a hoop, and tuning lugs for stretching the top drumhead. Nevertheless, one can't fail to notice how different the shape and size of the shell are with respect to the snare drum's shell.

First, the shape is not totally cylindrical as in snare drums, but slightly oblong. In addition, most congas are made of either wood or fibreglass, while the rims, lugs, bolts, nuts, and other similar pieces of hardware are made of metal.

In addition, the shell is notably taller in congas than in snare drums, especially when taken in proportion to the drumhead.

Conversely, shells in snare drums – which can be made of either wood, metal, or other synthetic materials – are markedly shorter. In proportion, there is more drumhead than shell in snare drums, so much so that there are actually two drumheads instead of one. The one at the top is called the “batter head”, while the one at the bottom (which hosts the snares) is called the “bottom head” or “resonant head”.

Speaking of the snares, these are sets of wires of various sizes, materials, and tension levels. Some sets come with 12, 24, or even 42 wires which are commonly spiral-shaped and coiled. These snares are fixed to the bottom head by a snare butt, while they're stretched towards the other side by a strainer.

Drummers in Scottish pipe bands are wont to install a set of snares on the inside of the drum that is pressed against the batter head for tighter staccato sounds.

Difference 2: Sound

Now, let's segway into the sound department. In the introductory answer, I stated that:

“The conga has a more defined tone. The snare drum is untuned.”

This difference is also hard to miss. As you beat the conga's drumhead, you'll immediately notice its peculiar melodic qualities. With the conga, you're able to render a plethora of different notes, depending on the technique and the area you hit. As a matter of fact, during the '40s and '50s, conga players would generate all these pitches and sounds with only one conga.

Snare drums, on the flip side, don't generate discernible notes. Part of the reason might have to do with the form factor of both instruments, but tom drums, having a similar chassis as snare drums, are also capable of producing defined notes. Hence, the snares would have to be pointed to as the main culprit.

As stressed in a previous section, both snare drums and congas are membranophones, meaning that the sound they emit comes primarily from the vibration of the attached membrane.

Because the snares absorb part of the snare drum's vibration as they strike against the bottom head, the vibration of the membrane gets impeded to some degree. This causes the snare drum to engender a drier staccato tone with some “buzz” factor (added by the snares' movement).

Difference 3: Playing Style

Finally, I mentioned the following:

Congas are usually played with the hands. The snare drum is played with beaters.”

The key word here is “usually”. While snare drums are meant to be played with sticks or mallets, congas could also theoretically be played with beaters as well. However, the traditional way to approach congas is with the hands.

A myriad of accents and emphases could be conveyed with different hand techniques that would be much more difficult to attain with beaters, such as muffled strokes or glissando techniques.

To illustrate, the conga has five basic hand strokes: The open tone (near the rim), muffled tone (with the fingers held against the head to stop the vibration), bass tone (at the center of the drumhead), slap tone (slapping the edge with the fingers), and touch tone (as the name implies, it's achieved by simply touching the drumhead with the fingers or heel of the palm.)

In fairness, some of these effects could be achieved with beaters, though not with the same effectiveness or ease.

Read How Snare Drums Compare To Other Instruments

Read How Congas 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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