If you think bongo and conga drums are pretty much the same, you'd be right, but then again you'd also be wrong. Both are percussion instruments, both are indispensable to Latin American music and both are played primarily using a person's hands. But there are differences--some obvious and some more subtle.
Differences in Size
Bongos have drum heads that are typically 7 inches (smaller head) and 8 ½ inches (larger head) in diameter. Conga drum heads vary from 9 to 15 inches in diameter, depending on the size of the drum itself. Conga drums are about 30 inches (75 cm) tall, whereas bongos measure between 7 to 10 inches in height. Both types of drums usually have drumheads made from animal hides, often of buffalo or goat.
While both congas and bongos are played with the fingers and palms, the resulting sounds differ, in that bongos produce a high-pitched percussive sound and congas produce a deeper bass sound, unless they are slapped, creating a flat, crisp beat.
Differences in Shape
Conga drums are easily identified by their tall, tapering shapes. The size of their "bellies" determines the amount of bass produced when the instruments are played. Bongos, on the other hand, are shorter and squat. The smaller bongo of the side-by-side pair is called the male or "macho"; the larger is the female or "hembra."
Conga drums probably came from Africa. Conga-like drums were used by the Congolese of the Congo, hence the name "conga." However, it was in Cuba that the conga drum began to be made using staves, instead of being hollowed from a single log. Bongos, too, came to South America and Cuba via the African slave trade, but bongo-like drums were also popular among the Moors of Morocco and Spain.
Names of Musicians
Someone who plays the conga drum is called a "conguero," whereas a person who plays the bongos is called a "bongosero."