Tuning Tips for Beginners
When you're a beginner, it's hard to tell if your conga is in tune. You need good technique on the basic strokes to be able to judge tuning, and good technique takes time to develop. The sounds of a conga are also extremely complex. It takes a while to learn to analyze those sounds and hear subtle differences. So your ability to tune a conga will naturally improve as you gain experience and get familiar with your drum. In the meantime, you might want to have your teacher or another experienced player tune your conga for you.
The goal of tuning is to get the drumhead to a level of tension where slaps, open tones, and bass strokes all sound good. If the head is too loose, it will be hard to get a crisp slap. If it's too tight, the open tone may get choked and the bass may lose its bottom. Beyond this, tuning is a matter of personal preference. It's your drum. You're the one who's going to be playing it. So the most important thing is that it sounds good to you.
When I first started playing, I liked it when the open tone on my conga had a single pure pitch, so I would fiddle around with the tuning until I got that pure tone. And when I recorded "Jaguar at Half Moon Lake" with the guitarist Dean Magraw, I tuned each conga to a specific pitch for each song. This worked well on the album, but it was a hassle when we performed live together because I had to take time between each song to re-tune.
Now I prefer a more complex tone on a conga--one with a lot of overtones. This makes the pitch of the drum more ambiguous, so it will fit with songs in many different keys without the need to re-tune the drum. If the drum is a good one, the overtones will all fit together, so that an open tone creates a pleasing chord. That's what I notice about the congas I hear on CDs now, but it took me a long time to understand and appreciate the details of that sound.
If you have two congas, I'd first tune the higher conga so that it has a good all-around sound: slap, tone, and bass. Then I'd tune the lower conga so it's tone is in a pleasing relationship with the tone of the higher conga.
Most conga players tune the lower conga a fourth lower than the higher one. You can tell you've got this interval if you can play "Here comes the bride" on your congas.
Remember to compare the tones of the two drums while the higher drum is tilted forward. If you compare them while they're both standing flat on the floor, the relationship will change when you tilt the higher one forward to play it.
The mechanics of tuning are pretty simple. Just go around the head tightening or loosening each metal lug the same small amount in turn. Here's how to remember which way to turn your wrench. With the conga between your legs, attach the wrench to the lug directly in front of you. To tighten the lug, move the handle to the right; to loosen the lug, move the handle to the left. Tight to the right and loose to the left.
Pick a distinctive place to start--such as the lug next to the handle or the name on the drum--so you'll know when you've gone all the way around. Adjusting the bolts equally and gradually will ensure that there's even pressure on the head, so the drum doesn't get pulled out of shape.
To test whether the head is tightened evenly, go around it making a tone near each lug. All the tones should be the same pitch. You should also look at the head from the side to make sure it's level.
I've always heard that it's best to loosen the head of your conga when you're not playing it to preserve the life of the head. I'm sure that's true, but I've never done it. It's partly because I'm just too lazy and partly because I want to be able to just grab my drum and start playing whenever I want without having to take the time to tune it from scratch each time. And besides, I don't play hard enough to put much wear and tear on a conga head. In fact, I'm pretty sure my conga heads will outlast me, even if I leave them tightly tuned all the time.