The Slap

A beginner's guide to mastering the most difficult stroke on conga or djembe

Of the three basic strokes on conga or djembe--bass, tone, and slap--the slap is the most difficult to master and the hardest on your hands. So take your time learning it and go easy at first. Don't hurt yourself by hitting the drum too hard too soon.

The slap is produced by bringing your fingertips down onto the drumhead with a whip-like motion. Only the pad of each fingertip--the fingerprint section--should make contact with the drumhead. The only other part of your hand that will make contact with the drum when you make a slap will be the lower part of your palm--the chubby part. It should make light contact with the edge of the drumhead just before your fingertips make contact with the drumhead.

Here's an exercise that will help you get the feel of a slap stroke before you try the real thing. Rest the chubby part of your palm on the edge of the drum with your fingers raised, relaxed, and slightly curved. Now--without lifting your palm--bring your fingers down onto the drumhead. Make sure you make contact with just the fingerprint section of each finger. Do this exercise with alternating hands until the motion feels comfortable.

Now for the real thing. Start by lifting your hand two or three inches off the drum by raising your forearm slightly. At the same time, flex your wrist and pull your fingers up until your hand makes at least a 45 degree angle with the drumhead. Keep your fingers relaxed and together or slightly apart. Your thumb can be pulled up against your fingers or pointing out away from the hand--whatever's comfortable.

Now throw your fingers down onto the drumhead in a whip-like motion while you bring the chubby part of your palm into light contact with the edge of the drum. It may help to imagine that the pad of each fingertip is a lead weight and the rest of each finger is completely weightless.

When the pads of your fingertips make contact with the drumhead you have two choices. You can hold them down on the head with a slight gripping motion. This is called a "closed slap," and it's used by conga drummers. Or you can bounce your fingers off the drumhead immediately. This is called an "open slap" and it's used by both conga drummers and djembe players.

When you're practicing slaps, pay attention to each one you make. When you get a slap that sounds good and feels comfortable, stop and analyze what you just did. Ask yourself: "What was different that time?" "What made that one better than the rest?" You might find that you get a better sound by centering the force of the slap on a particular finger or fingers. Since everyone's hands are different, ultimately your own body will be your best teacher.

As you practice, also remember that the sound of the slap comes not from sheer force but from a relaxed snap of the wrist. If your hands hurt, you're doing something wrong. So only play as loud as you can play comfortably. As your technique improves, you'll be able to play louder with less effort.