What Are The Differences Between Tom Drums & Congas?

Drums are some of the oldest instruments in existence, and, as expected, an astounding number of drum design variants have been produced over a very extended period. Two drums particularly stand out in the West: The tom drums and the congas. Both these drums serve as testimonies of these constant reinventions.

But, what are the differences between tom drums and congas? The differences can be summarized as follows:

  • Tom drums and congas have a starkly contrasting design.
  • Tom drums produce a slightly lower-pitched tone than congas.
  • Tom drums are played with beaters/sticks/mallets. Conga players predominantly use their hands.

In this article, we'll elaborate on the distinctions between tom drums and congas. However, let's first dive into a bit of history.

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The Backgrounds Of Tom Drums And Congas

The history of the drums goes back to the Neolithic age. China is purported to host the first drums ever built, made from primitive materials such as alligator skin.

From approximately 1,000 B.C., the first African drums were devised, paving the way for many new variants that would shape the music scene in other areas of the world.

The tom drums and congas are only a microcosm of how the drum family developed over the span of millennia, and each one represents the Asian and African musical traditions, respectively.

The Background Of Tom Drums

Tom drums were inspired by ancient East Asian drums, although these first drums were hand drums used for communication and religious purposes. Chinese tom drums similar to the ones seen today were first manufactured during the last decades of the 19th century, but these lacked the tuning mechanism of the more modern models.

By the early 1900s, drummers began installing these tom drums to convey an “exotic” feel in their musical output. Early renowned jazz musicians such as Duke Ellington were peculiarly fond of these instruments, which drew the attention of major drum companies.

These companies initially imported these instruments from China. They then began manufacturing them themselves, adding various quality-of-life features now seen in virtually all tom drums included in standard drum sets.

The Background Of Congas

The congas, on the other hand, are derived from a markedly African trend. Their origin may lie in autochthonous Central African drums – like the makúta drum or the bémbé – which were brought to Cuba by the Bantu slaves imported into the island during the 17th and 18th centuries.

During the cultural revolution that followed after the abolition of slavery on the island, a new musical genre arose called the rumba, which initially employed cajons (improvised from repurposed fish and fruit crates).

The conga (also called tumbadora) was soon developed – using traditional African drums as a template – and began to be incorporated as an integral part of the rhythm section in rumba gigs.

What Are The Differences Between Tom Drums And Congas?

Without further ado, let's proceed to unpack the differences outlined at the beginning of this article:

Difference 1: Design

In the initial paragraph, I stated the following:

“Tom drums and congas have a starkly contrasting design.”

I should begin by pointing out the obvious differences in the shell, starting with the shape. The shell in tom drums is short and has a homogeneous cylindrical shape. The shell in congas is oblong, narrowed towards the edges.

The conga's shell or body is also considerably taller (almost three or four times the height), with more body than head. In the case of the tom drums, the heads' diameter surpasses the shell's height. What's more, most tom drums (with the exception of the concert tom) carry two drumheads: The “batter head” at the top and the “resonate head” at the bottom.

In terms of materials, drumheads in tom drums are usually made of synthetic materials such as polyester or mylar. Their shells are made out of wood for the most part (birch, maple, oak, etc.), though they may alternatively come in chromed steel or other synthetic materials, while the hardware installed on the shell is largely metal (including the rim and the tuning posts).

Conversely, congas are generally made with only one natural rawhide head at the top and a wooden body (albeit fibreglass shells have also become popular). Their hardware is likewise made of steel and other metals, and, in some instances, the shell sports steel bands that extend horizontally.

Difference 2: Sound

The second distinction I brought up was with regard to sound:

“Tom drums produce a slightly lower-pitched tone than congas.”

These contrasts in sound are very perceptible even when using the smallest rack tom for comparison purposes.

In this video, you may already discern how much lower the tone of the rack tom is in comparison to Camero's second lowest conga note.

Many would point out that both instruments were simply hand-tuned that way, but more objective data can back up these differences. While comparing a 16″ tom with the “Super Tumba” (arguably the largest conga in the family), the former gives us notes closer to D2, while the lowest note attained on the latter is A3 (almost 1 1/2 octaves higher).

Note that some piccolo toms may approach or even surpass the fundamentals of congas.

Concerning other sound attributes, the conga engenders a cleaner and warmer tone with more harmonics. In contrast, the sound in tom drums is slightly more “percussive” with a heavier attack but without sacrificing too much in the “sustain” department.

Both drums resonate similarly, though you'll be able to notice a more powerful “thundering” sound coming out of tom drums. Concert toms, however, render more staccato beats.

Difference 3: Playing Method

Finally, I pointed out that:

“Tom drums are played with beaters/sticks/mallets. Conga players predominantly use their hands.”

It's still possible to play tom drums with your hands, but it's not advisable because of the raised rim and the potential injuries you may get from accidentally striking it.

The conga is traditionally played with the hands, although brushes or mallets can also be employed to great effect, as can be seen in this video. Nevertheless, striking the conga head with the hands provides more versatility and better control over the tones produced.

Read How Tom 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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