10 Conga Patterns Every Percussionist Should Know

photo from the side back stage of congas timbale bongo setup on stage

After defining your tones, slaps, and other sounds, playing congas is about the conga patterns. Some of the rhythms and conversations are traditional, while others are modern and improvised. So the question I’ve always asked is which conga patterns are the most important ones to know?

Conga drums were built for certain patterns, and Tumbao, a Cuban concept, is the most important one to know. Tumbao is the basis of several Cuban styles used in salsa music and timba, and it is one of the most adapted patterns in popular music like jazz, rhythm and blues, or rock ‘n’ roll.

Other common conga patterns from Cuba include guaguancó and bolero. Although the bolero is from Spain, the music was reinvented in Cuba and the Caribbean with Afro-Cuban rhythms and instruments. Many of the patterns listed below have a similar back story.

Some rhythms, like guaguancó, are more folkloric and less likely to be shaking the walls of modern night club, unless it’s Gloria Estefan. Other rhythms, like merengue, have moved from the street to the premier dance venues. Regardless of where these patterns are played, conga drummers must know them to be fluent on their instrument.

notation key for congas
This is the conga drum notation key. The tumba is the low drum, and the quinto is the high drum. The heel, toe, and mute is explained below with photos.

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1. Tumbao (2/3 clave)

Tumbao refers to a rhythmic concept in Cuban music. The concept is most associated with the bass part for music derived from son cubano — mambo, timba, and salsa, to name a few. The conga pattern for most of these genres is also called tumbao.

The pattern includes a few different crucial elements. It’s comprised of open tones, slaps, and the marcha. The marcha is the rhythmic aesthetic and timbre you achieve when the heel and toe strokes are played on the drum.

  • Heel – Hold your hand, fingers straight, over the drum and drop it onto the head where it stays until you need to prepare for another stroke. This is a meaty sound, so you should be able to hear the bass tone a bit and certainly the muffled smack of skin striking the drum head.
hand is parallel to the conga about 8 inches above the head ready to drop for the heel stroke
  • Toe – With the base of your palm (and wrist) still resting on the head, raise your fingers off the drum by turning your wrist. Strike the drum with the fingers and the rest of the palm to create a sound that has more attack and definition than the heel. This stroke is also best played with very relaxed hands and lots of acceleration of the fingers striking the drum.
wrist is resting on the drum with fingers pointing straight up in preparation for toe stroke on the conga head
  • Touch – A touch is mostly the fingers lightly touching the drum for timing in between slaps, tones, and other accents. Don’t take them for granted, however. Touches can have a significant effect on the feel of the pattern and the thickness of the sound.

Related: Conga Drums – A Guide for Beginner and Intermediate Players

The following examples include the basic tumbao that works for most son-based musical styles. The variations are more sophisticated in terms of their accents and conversational differences — substituting tones for slaps or adding slaps, for example.

Make sure you play the low drum part of the tumbao pattern on the 3 side of the clave. This is an expanded phrasing that’s played when the song arrangement reaches its loudest sections. The bongocero will also change to compana (cow bell) during this part the arrangement.

tumbao notation conga pattern for son and salsa
The stroke order for these patterns are as follows. The heel and toe are with left hand, while the slaps and open tones are with the right hand. Reverse the hands if you are left hand dominant.
heel – toe – slap – toe – heel – toe – open tone – open tone
tumbao variation with more slaps and single open tones
tumbao pattern for cha cha
The slap before the open tones is played with the left hand.

Related: How to Play Tumbao on Congas – 21 Variations

2. Bolero

Congas and bongo provide the drum parts that establish most of the bolero rhythm section. The conga pattern is much like the tumbao with a slight twist with the open tones. The example shown below is an extended phrase. This is sometimes good to use when the low-high-low open tones sound too busy for the song.

The basic bolero is the second measure of the example below repeated until the song arrangement dictates otherwise. For harmony that changes often, the one-bar phrase sometimes makes the most sense. The extended phrase written below is often the way I play it so I can open up the groove and make it more interesting over the course of the song.

bolero conga rhythm music notation
bolero pattern music notation for congas
This is a variation on the bolero pattern. The traditional pattern is simply the second measure repeated over and over.

3. Guaguancó

This is the most significant of the folkloric patterns on this list. Although it is used in popular music, guaguancó is a street and party music for having fun and dancing with friends and family. It’s one of the three major rumba styles — yambú, guaguancó, and rumba columbia (see number 5 on this list).

The drum parts include quinto, segunda (tres golpes), and tumba (salidor) and are played individually in a rumba setting. The quinto solos with the dancer and prescribed rhythmic parts for loose conversational improvisation. This conversation structure is most evident in the guaguancó from Matanzas, Cuba.

For one drummer with two drums, the example below is a good place to start. It sounds good with folkloric and modern popular forms, and it’s not tough to learn. It includes the tres golpes part on the segundo (11 ¾” conga drum) and the open tone conversation most associated with Havana-style guaguancó.

The tres golpes part is played with muted tones. Treat muted tones like open tones with your hands left on the drum. They have the energy of the tones without the resonance, so don’t confuse them with a touch. Play them out because they are significant parts of the pattern.    

guaguanco pattern for two conga drums music notation
All of the slash note heads are mute tones. Treat them like open tones. The only difference is that you leave your hand on the drum to mute the head.

4. Merengue

Merengue is traditionally performed with a tambora, which is a double-headed barrel-shaped drum held across the lap and played with a hand and a stick. The conga pattern is something that’s been added by larger orchestras that started playing merengues in dance clubs.

The toe strokes are one of the key features of the conga pattern. They establish an “a caballo” feel, which means that the rhythm gallups a bit like a horse. Add some improvisational rhythms in the style of the tambora to fill in and phrase with the song.

merengue conga pattern music notation
All of the slash note heads are toe stokes played with the left hand (or whichever hand is not leading the pattern).

If the song is really fast and long, play with your right hand on the tumba (low drum) and your left hand on the conga. Sometimes too much energy is used moving your arm back and forth between the two drums.  

5. Rumba Columbia

The rumba columbia is a folkloric style in the Afro-Cuban music tradition. It’s in 6/8 time, and the African bell pattern is played with 3/2 clave. The first pattern includes the drum parts during the beginning of a song when it is lower intensity, while the second pattern is for the higher intensity ending of the song.

These 6/8 patterns are good to develop because they allow you to phrase over any division of three. For example, if you’re called to play congas on a shuffle that fills in a lot of the triplet inner beats, variations on these conversations would stand out in the mix without being a distraction.

Try adding slaps in different places in the pattern. I like to play two slaps before the low drum tones in the first pattern. The space in this pattern toward the end is also a good place to improvise, so practice playing short fills that don’t interrupt the groove.

rumba columbia conga pattern music notation
rumba columbia conga pattern music notation
This is a session that I used the rumba columbia patterns to improvise a groove for this 6/8 tune. I think the arranger said, “Play Afro-Cuban.”

6. Calypso

Even if you never find yourself playing congas with a steel band, this pattern is a good one to have in your arsenal. Try it during a drum break, and add fills that fit with the style of the pattern. This groove also works for styles like hip hop, funk, and R&B.

calypso conga pattern music notation
This pattern can be played hand to hand with the second downbeat of the first measure played with a heel stroke.

7. Funk Variations

When I think of funk conga patterns, I approach them like a drum set groove. The only difference is that I try not to play too many tones or slaps on top of the drum set kick or snare hits. Lock in with the drum set groove, and shift the pattern into the spaces with more syncopated rhythms.

funk variations conga pattern music notation

8. Pop / Rock Variations

Think of pop / rock patterns like tumbao that doesn’t have the marcha. But you don’t always want all of the heel and toe strokes in the pattern because it can become too thick and cover parts of the song that should be clear.

The pattern I chose for pop / rock is a Luis Conte part on a song called “1000 Years” by Sting. If he had played a straight tumbao pattern, the slaps on two and four and the snare drum on three would be a lot of backbeat phrasing that does not line up. The one slap, double tones on each drum, and the single tone to finish the phrase is better for the song because it adds melody and clarity to the rhythm section.

pop rock luis conte conga pattern music notation sting thousand years
The slash note heads are heel strokes for keeping time. You would likely play shaker in one hand, so those heels aren’t crucial for the groove.

9. Cumbia

Cumbia is a Colombian folkloric style that’s been adapted to popular music in Mexico and the United States. Salsa and tejano bands in Texas, for example, play cumbia arrangements to mix up the Afro-Latin styles on their setlists.

The cumbia pattern is simple, so you don’t want to mess it up. It’s important to play it strong and in time. Lock in with the bass player and timbale (or drum set). For phrasing, you can play the second variation or add sparse fills within the style. Listen to cumbia bands for improvisation ideas. You can pick it up in a few songs.

cumbia conga pattern music notation
The heel strokes are all played with left hand (if you lead with your right).

10. Mozambique

The mozambique pattern is derived from the Cuban street rhythms of comparsa. It’s adaptation to Latin jazz in New York by band leaders like Eddie Palmieri added more variation to the concept. Furthermore, drum set player Steve Gadd brought an adaptation of the pattern to the pop / rock world on “Late in The Evening” by Paul Simon.

I think of the mozambique as a heavier groove that works nicely on a Latin jazz arrangement when the song needs the support. It’s sometimes a busier phrase overall, so it doesn’t work for everything.

mozambique conga pattern music notation

Final Thoughts on Conga Patterns

Once you’ve learned the traditional patterns, I encourage you to try your own variations and fills. Mess with the tones and slaps to create something new for your music. It’s the only way you’ll develop a style that people identify with you as a player.

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