Real or Fake? – Best Replacement Head for Congas or Bongo

It’s not enough to play congas with great technique. To sound great, you need the right drum heads. Most drums come with real skins yet a lot of pros use synthetic, and we all want that awesome sound. So, what is the best head for congas or bongo?

Synthetic heads are the best for congas because they work well in most situations. Cranked up real skins sound amazing, but taking the drums to gigs, especially outdoors, becomes a chore. The humidity can make tough to keep the drums in tune. Unless you have two sets of drums – one for gigging with synthetic and one with real skins for studio playing – synthetic are the best head for congas.

As I started thinking about which drumhead to recommend, I realized that so many other factors are involved with conga heads. It’s not a simple process to choose drum heads because it can become costly, and there are so many choices. The size of the drum is an issue, and basics like tuning come into play. Let’s dive deeper into these questions and more.

What size head do you need?

The head size depends on the drum size, and drum size depends on the model and manufacturer. The most common drum sizes are 11” (quinto), 11 ¾” (conga), and 12 ½” (tumba). The next most common size is the super tumba, which is about 14”, and some drum series have a 9 ¾” requinto.

Measure the middle of the bearing edge on one side to the middle on the other side. The bearing edge is the wood of the drum that the drum head is stretched over. This measurement will likely be a little less than the head size you need to buy.

Junior conga heads by LP usually run whole numbers between 8” and 12”. These drums come with real skins and are not recommended for professional use. I’ve seen 11” synthetic conga heads, but the 9” or 10”, for example, are usually only available in real skins.

The Remo Skyndeep and Evans Comfort Curve both have 9 3/4 “ heads, as well as the other sizes (11”, 11 ¾”, 12 ½“). If you had to mix match your drum heads a little, it’s not the end of the world. It still comes down to how well you play. Doesn’t it?

Lastly, drum sizes and hoop designs can be complicated. If you have LP Giovanni or other extended hoop models, the drum head may be differently sized to fit those drums properly. Consult the manufacturer’s site for the most current information because some drums, like the Meinl conga, can be 11.06” and require a specific head size to fit well.

Which head manufacturers are the best?

I like Remo, but it would be awesome to try the Evans heads. In fact, my wish list set up is a fiberglass set of four LP drums with Evans synthetic heads. I like the feel of the heads, and they tune up with more resonance fairly easily (I’ve used them as backline on gigs).  

Remo Nuskyns are on my current set of LP Salsa Model drums. I put these heads on my quinto and conga several years ago with awesome results. The tumba sounds great with its real skin, but I want to finish off the set by replacing the real skin with a “fake.”

The table below shows the drums sizes these drum manufacturers commonly carry, as well as the synthetic head sizes available from my two favorite conga head brands.

Should the drums be cranked?

After a noon Jazz departmental performance in college, my friend Pablo came over to me and said, “Those drums sound good, man. But you need to crank them up!”

Pablo had LP Potato Model fiberglass drums with Remo Fiberskyn heads, and I had the real LP skins that came with the drums. I liked the tone of my drums and the attack of Pablo’s. I bought the Nuskyn heads because I wanted the best of both worlds.

The tuck of the Nuskyn heads helps maintain the real skin tone by cutting out some of the higher frequencies. Cranking these skins leaves you with a warm crack and a tone that projects.

It’s your choice whether or it to tune the drums higher or lower. I find myself having to project over loud guitars and horn sections, so cranking them up helps me find a voice in the ensemble. Some of the folkloric music may benefit from lower tuning approaches.

How should the drum be tuned?

Tighten the tension rods evenly once the intonation is relatively stable. Place your finger in the center of the drum, and tap the head near each tension rod to determine which areas of the head need adjustment. Gradually tighten the lowest areas while checking the impact of each turn before turning another tension rod.

As I crank up the head, I usually play a heel stroke (or bass tone) with quite a bit of force to seat the head. You’ll hear the pitch of the drum head lower than before. That’s how you’ll know the head needs more tuning.

Some people tune the drum intervals based on thirds or fourths, but I just find intervals that work for the drums. If it sounds good to you, the. It’s good for the gig. Be prepared to make adjustments during recording sessions because the frequencies of the drum make conflict with other things happening on the tracks. No big deal. Crank it up or let it down some.

Do the tension rods need to be maintained?

The tension rods and nuts (also called lugs) should be inspected for damage or dirt. Keep them clean and replace anything that could become a problem in the future. These rods are under so much tension. It would be a shame to have one break and shoot across the room at something or someone.

As you loosen the nuts, leave them on the tension rods and let the rods hang down inside the side plate. Placing the rods or nuts on the carpet, for example, will likely lead to dirt getting inside the threads. These heads are tuned up and detuned whenever you transport them, so the condition and maintenance of the rods is crucial to your success as a player.  

Use lug lube to maintain the threads on the tension rods. You should be able to run the nuts up and down the threads freely by hand. It should be easy. If it’s not, then there’s a problem that needs to be addressed.

How should congas be stored?

Congas should be stored in a place that’s good for people. That’s my rule about musical instruments, in general, and it’s worked every time. This means no extreme temperatures or moisture. I keep a dehumidifier going in my studio to regulate the temperature and moisture at all times.

Make sure to detune the drums if you want to maintain their condition. I do a couple of half turns on each tension rod to gradually bring the head to a more relaxed state. I’m not sure that the drum shape would be affected much if you didn’t detune the drums, but the way I care for my drums ensures their longevity.  

How should congas be transported?

I transport all of my drums in cases. Bags have been sufficient for congas and bongo, but I would use flight cases if I had to do touring with an equipment trailer.

Be weary of those who offer help because these drums are big and can easily be banged around. Although the drums will probably beat up the woodwork around a door frame, all it takes is the wrong hit to the drum and a tension rod is bent.  

What about bongo heads?

Sizing a bongo Head is similar to congas. You need to measure the drum and cross check your measurement with the drum manufacturer specifications.

Most of the heads are either 6” and 7” or 8” and 9” with slight fractions for certain models. For example, the LP Aspire macho drum (small drum) is 6.75”.

Can you make your own heads?

Some bongoceros have used x-ray film on the macho. I don’t do this, but I do use a combination of real and fake skins on my bongo. The macho cuts through the band better with a synthetic head, while I appreciate the tone of the real skin on the hembra (larger drum).

LP sells real flat skins cut to fit several drum sizes. You can fit your own heads as long as you follow the recommended process. I’ve never done this, but I’m certainly curious and will try it someday.

It’s only a handful of steps to fit the head yourself.

  1. Soak the head in warm water — 8 hours for larger drums (thicker) and about 3 hours smaller drums (thinner).
  2. Retrieve the flesh ring from your old head and match it to your drum hoop to check its roundness. You may have to soak the head to retrieve the ring.
  3. Center the ring on the smooth side of the head. Wrap the skin up around the flesh ring so you can slide the hoop down on the wrapped up part of the head.
  4. Tighten the head evenly and adjust the skin to ensure it is as even as possible.
  5. Trim the excess tucked skin and let the skin dry. It could take 8 hours to 4 days, depending on the humidity.