What Are The Differences Between Tom Drums & Bongos?

Beyond the confines of a standard drum kit, you'll find other popular drums that, despite their strong ethnic connection to Africa, have been utilized in more mainstream contexts quite frequently. One of these instruments is the bongo, which vaguely resembles the tom drum in both sound and appearance.

What are the differences between tom drums and bongos? The differences are as follows:

  • The materials and core design of both instruments are slightly different.
  • The Bongos' sound is much higher-pitched than that of tom drums.
  • Bongos are considered hand drums. Tom drums are usually played with beaters.

Throughout this article, we'll be disclosing more details on the differences between tom drums and bongos that were just mentioned. However, let's first place both instruments into their proper historical contexts.

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The Backgrounds Of Tom Drums And Bongos

Asia and Africa were the two biggest contributors to what is now known as the drum family. The first recorded appearance of the drum supposedly happened in China in around 5,500 B.C. After that, it spread into Africa. But it would not be until approximately 200 B.C. that we'd see the drums arrive in Western Europe, particularly in Rome and Greece.

Tom drums and bongos owe their existence to Asian and African musical traditions, respectively, though at times, it's difficult to pin down their direct ancestors.

Let's now look at both instruments separately:

The Background Of Tom Drums

Tom drums were inspired by some of the earliest Asian hand drums ever made. The early 1900s saw many of these drums imported from China, but they lacked tuning capabilities and sported heavy Chinese artwork on their skins.

Jazz giant Duke Ellington pioneered the “jungle” sound at the Cotton Club with the aid of these drums. Likewise, Fletcher Henderson was wont to feature them in his gigs for the “oriental flare” they conveyed.

Due to their wide acceptance, big companies such as Slingerland and Ludwig began marketing these drums en masse as standard parts of the drum kit. They improved them by adding tension rods to customize their tuning and make it easier to replace their heads.

Ludwig is featured in several top drum brand articles at My New Microphone. Check out these articles here!

The Background Of Bongos

Like congas, the bongos appear to have originated from traditional African drums brought to Cuba by Bantu slaves imported to the island in the 17th and 18th centuries. However, the bongo rose to prominence, particularly on the eastern side of the country, being featured in two main eastern Cuban genres, namely the Changüi and Son.

The bongos that were used for the Changüi rhythm were mildly larger than the modern bongos, while the Son (which became a more widespread genre later on) resembled the bongos we commonly see today. These bongos became so prevalent that they started being included in the repertoire of various American and European pop and rock bands throughout the '60s, in part due to their accessibility and portability.

What Are The Differences Between Tom Drums And Bongos?

Now, we'll proceed to unveil more details on the differences laid out at the beginning:

Difference 1: Design

The first difference I pointed out was that:

“The materials and core design of both instruments are slightly different.”

At first sight, both drums seem to possess similar form factors, but probably the first major distinction between them lies in how their shells are shaped.

You would discern a slight taper in the bongo that narrows towards the bottom. Also, the “center block” is virtually impossible to miss, binding both the “macho” (small) and “hembra” (big) drums together.

Tom drums have a straight cylindrical shell and don't come in twins like the bongos, though they may be attached to other drums (such as the bass drum) by a separate rack.

Although bongo drums may be similar in diameter to the smallest rack toms on the market, the hembra (which is the bigger drum out of the pair) will rarely exceed 9″, whereas you might find tom-toms (such as the floor tom) easily reaching 18″.

In terms of materials, bongo heads are made with animal skin such as cowhide, while tom drums nowadays ordinarily wear synthetic heads made of Mylar plastic or other polymers (being far more weather-resistant and durable).

The shells in both instruments are largely made of wood types such as birch, maple, or mahogany. Alternatively, toms could be built with steel and brass shells, though these materials are mostly reserved for snare drum shells.

Lastly, bongos are equipped solely with top heads and retain a hollow underside. At the same time, the majority of tom-toms carry two heads, one at the top (“batter head”) and one at the bottom (“resonate head”), ensuring a huge difference in sound (as we'll see shortly).

Difference 2: Sound

Next, regarding sound, I highlighted the following:

“The Bongos' sound is much higher-pitched than that of tom drums.”

You'll immediately notice the stark contrast in harmonic content when playing bongos and rack toms side-by-side. Bongos aim for a much higher frequency with a marked emphasis on the treble. Meanwhile, tom drums resonate at much lower frequencies, even when playing the smallest tom drums on a set.

Another aspect that needs to be brought up is linked with the tom-toms' constitution. I already stressed that tom-toms carry two heads (except for the concert tom). This impacts their resonance capacity, as the vibrations produced within the inner chamber of the drum affect the bottom head, resulting in a much more powerful sound output with longer sustain.

On the flip side, the bongos only rely on the vibrations of the upper membrane, resulting in a sharper staccato.

Difference 3: Playing Method

Finally, I affirmed that:

“Bongos are considered hand drums. Tom drums are usually played with beaters.”

While these are the staple methods, they're not set in stone. Regardless, it's rare to see tom drums (in particular, the modern ones) being played with the bare hands because of how the rim sticks out, increasing the risk of injuries.

Bongo drums, nevertheless perfectly fitting for drum kits, are not capable of withstanding the action of beaters – such as sticks or mallets – for a very long time before needing replacement. It's therefore recommended to play them either with the hands (by which players may deliver a wider variety of tones) or with brushes.

Read How Tom Drums Compare To Other Instruments

Read How Bongos 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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