BUYING & USING: percussion
how to choose percussion instruments, and how to use them once you’ve got them home
Strictly speaking, 'percussion" refers to any musical instrument you hit. But outside of the conventional drum kit lies a whole world of 'percussion" instruments that are as crucial to today's music as bass, snare, and hi-hat.
LONG AGO, in the dim, distant and dingy past, I was talking to a friend about how wonderful it was to play percussion. Explaining to him that, like playing drums, it gave me an incredible physical buzz. That basic techniques could be learnt quickly and without much training. That you could start by lashing out just a few quid. That an excellent professional setup could be bought for round about a grand. And that there were comparatively few top players, and plenty of room for more. He wasn't convinced.
Yesterday, I saw him at Wembley Arena. Playing percussion. Intrigued? You should be.
Over the past 20 years, there has a been a steady rise in the fortunes of the percussionist. The original breed tended to stick to what you might call "traditional" genres, the best known of which is Latin American percussion. Put it this way: if a band played Latin music, they employed one or more percussionists to play traditional rhythms on traditional instruments. That was the beginning and the end of it.
But as bands began to cast about for new sounds and new influences, traditional percussion began to seep away from its roots into a wider range of music. So-called "Fusion" music, for example, took Latin and other influences and mixed them with Western jazz and rock to form a new and varied genre. In fact, it would be true to say that music in general has taken on a more overtly percussive feel as time has passed: a trend which has reached its zenith in the dance music of the last five years. More recently still, sampling has given producers and songwriters access to a vast range of percussive voices; and sequencing has given musicians the means of stringing them together and experimenting freely with rhythm.
So much for history. The question every would-be percussionist needs answered is: "Where do I start?" There's a bewildering array of instruments to choose from, and given the financial constraints under which we all labour, some advice wouldn't go amiss.
BROADLY SPEAKING, all percussion instruments fall into one of three categories. First off there is hand percussion - percussion you play with your bare hands (surprise, surprise). The commonest and best-known piece of hand percussion is the conga drum: tall, barrel-shaped, and with a hide skin. This African instrument is generally associated with Latin American styles, though it has become the commonest form of percussion in music right across the board. Sooner or later, you'll find you quite simply need to be able to play congas: it's an instrument you can't afford to ignore. And because, technically, it is probably one of the hardest percussion instruments to play, it's worth starting off with it, rather than coming to it later as I did.
There's one drawback with this plan of action: congas are one of the more expensive pieces of percussion gear. New, they'll set you back something between £200 and £700 a pair; secondhand, between maybe £125-300. Obviously, there are quite a few pros and cons to weigh up.
First of all, congas come in three main sizes, each of which has a different name. The Tumbadora is the largest, with a head diameter of 12½"; next the comes Conga at 11¾"; then the Quinto at 11". The sizes given refer to congas made by the Latin Percussion company and top-of-the-range Meinl models; other companies have their own standard sizes. Smaller congas are also common, between about 8½" and 10¾". The usual pairing is Conga and Tumbadora, though some players prefer to use smaller sizes.
Congas are made of either fibreglass or wood. The former material is chosen for its volume, projection and durability; the latter for its warmth and cleaner, more traditional sound. I'd advise buying fibreglass congas without reservation: they're almost universally used by professionals live because of their volume and "cut", and will stand up to years of travel and abuse. These days, wood congas are very rarely used outside of the studio, where their clean sound makes them ideal for recording.
The main problem with fiberglass congas, particularly Quintos and Congas, is that they tend to have a toppy ring that can present problems, especially in the studio. Some makes are worse than others in this respect - the thinner the shell, the more the drum will ring.
Something else to bear in mind when buying congas is how you are going to mount them. If you're going to be playing, for example, traditional Cuban style, then the congas are simply rested on the floor, with one drum gripped between your knees and tilted slightly to allow sound to escape. However, for most applications, this is an unsatisfactory state of affairs. For volume in general and clear bass tones in particular, the congas must be lifted off the ground.
There are two main mounting methods: the cradle and the hanging stand. Cradles vary widely in cost and efficiency. A ring runs around the lower half of the conga, with vertical rubber-covered supports gripping the conga. This whole structure is supported by three legs. If you're lucky, these will be adjustable for height. If you want to play standing up, bear in mind that the congas have to be raised surprisingly high off the ground - and most cradles seem to have been designed with dwarves in mind.
The other type is designed rather along the lines of a standard drum stand. A mounting plate is bolted onto the side of each conga which in turn is affixed to a central mounting post. Below the widest point of the congas is a pair of rubber-lined shell grippers to steady the lower part of the drums. At the bottom of the post are widely splayed legs to support the whole structure.
Unfortunately, nearly all brands of congas have castors on the feet of the stands to allow the congas to be wheeled about - they are pretty heavy, after all - but the brakes often shake loose during a gig. Result? The drums sail away during a solo passage like the launch of the QE2.
The other problem is that a great deal of stress is placed on the drum shell at the point of mounting. This can cause deformation and even splitting. Make sure that the bolts on the mounting plates have large washers on the inside to spread the load. And if you're very heavy-handed, I'd avoid this form of stand altogether.
Which brand to choose? It's very much a matter of preference. Latin Percussion are traditionally the leaders in the field, but are fairly expensive over here. Gon Bops produce congas to dream about at around £300 each. Arguably best value for money are Meinl congas, though they are fairly thin-shelled. Other makes you may be able to lay your hands on are Cosmic (made by LP), Natal, Black Mamba, PJ, Supercussion, and France. Beware of cheapo Taiwanese copies: they're a false economy. And buy secondhand if you're short of money. Old congas can be as good as, if not better than, new ones.
The junior brethren of congas are the bongos: small wood or fibreglass hand drums joined in pairs. Typically they are 7¼" and 8⅝" in diameter, sometimes larger. Most of what I've said about congas applies to bongos too, except that wooden varieties are more common. Again, I prefer fibreglass. In terms of construction, the best have a heavy rim round the base of each bongo to which the tuning lug is attached. Avoid drum kit-type nut boxes: they tend to rip off the shell under high tension.
Bongos offer an excellent cheap alternative to congas. A decent pair will cost as little as £60 new, £35 secondhand. And for some styles of music, they're actually preferable to congas because of their higher pitch. However, the range of sounds available is limited by the small size of the skins and lack of resonance. Another tone can be obtained by gently using sticks, though care must be taken not to split the skins.
The traditional way of playing bongos is to grip them between your knees. Make sure the pair you buy is comfortable for you. I've found that occasionally the fittings of some models dig into my legs. Alternatively, they may be mounted on a stand. This must be sturdy - despite the comparatively light weight of the bongos - because quite a force is applied during playing. I've seen many a stand collapse under normal playing conditions.
Finally, no list of hand percussion would be complete without mention of the tambourine. This is essential for the recording percussionist (most pop records have a tambourine in there somewhere), and it's well worth buying a decent model. A contoured handle is a great help, though beware of some shapes - for example, the Rhythm Tech model - which can render extended play excruciating. Especially good value for money are those produced by Israeli company Halilit, which have a sound box in the hand grip, allowing you to alter the pitch of the jingle by altering your grasp.
One last point. Playing hand percussion can be extremely painful. X-rays of top players' hands show that the bones in their fingertips are completely shattered from years of playing. Start off practising in short bursts only, gradually increasing the duration of sessions as your hands harden. At the end of a session, your hands may not hurt as much as you imagined they would: there is a hot feeling of numbness. Don't be lulled into thinking it's OK to carry on: next morning, you'll feel all the bruises in acute detail. If you have very bony hands, try wrapping insulation or Gaffa tape around the final joints of your fingers to protect them.
Some manufacturers make more comfortable rims than others, notably Natal and Latin Percussion. But you have to pay for the privilege.
ITS NOT AN earth-shattering revelation to say that this group consists of any piece of percussion that you hit with some form of stick.
For the sake of argument, let's start off with timbales. These single-headed Latin American drums are usually made of steel or brass, or very occasionally wood, and may be fitted with hide or more commonly plastic heads. Brass models are warmer sounding, steel more cutting. Timbales usually come in pairs, the commonest sizes being 13" and 14" in diameter, roughly 6" deep. The larger a timbale is, the deeper it sounds.
Timbale heads are tuned under considerable tension, so make sure the shell is heavy enough to withstand the pressure. The best models have two or more widely spaced ridges running around the shell to strengthen them against the twisting force of the tuning lugs. A strong stand is essential, since the rimshots used in the traditional playing method transfer force, metal to metal, straight to the stand. If you're buying secondhand, check that the mounting system hasn't drooped under the punishment: timbales shouldn't lean away from each other. And remember, some stands allow the timbales to be tilted towards the player, which can be useful.
Prices? These vary considerably, from around £90 for a budget Taiwanese pair to around £400; or £50 to around £200 secondhand. However, cheap timbales are generally better value than cheap congas, particularly if you're careful how you tighten the heads. Most drum manufacturers produce timbales - Premier, Pearl and Tama, for example - as do most of the conga-making companies named above.
In passing, it's worth noting if you're a drummer with a metal snare that if you try taking the bottom head off and tuning it high, it often gives a passable timbale sound.
And so on to the cowbell, one of the most under-exploited and cheapest of percussion instruments. Their pitch depends on size (the larger the bell, the deeper the note). Chrome-plated bells are brighter in tone. In general, watch out for messy welding, which gives a clue to the quality of the metal from which a cowbell is constructed. A neatly produced bell not only looks better, but sounds better. Expect to pay between about £5 and £25 each.
The handheld variety is played with a thick hardwood beater, and a great variety of tones may be obtained depending on where the bell is struck and how the fingers damp it. Mounted cowbells, on the other hand, are less subtle but no less useful. Watch out for the quality of the screw used to tighten the bell: the threads quickly strip on some models.
Cheaper bells tend to have unattractive overtones, but these can sometimes be alleviated by wrapping masking tape or Gaffa around the body of the cowbell. If the overtones are particularly bad, it may well be because the stand is adding to the build-up. Try wrapping tape around the cowbell mounting post to dampen vibrations.
Clavés and woodblocks are also excellent value for money. The former are simply two cylinders of wood brought together to give the characteristic cutting wooden tone that carries the basic Cuban rhythms; the latter is a more mellow sound. Check that the wood doesn't become indented while you're trying them out - it's a sign of poor material. And while we're on the subject, the best wood of all is rosewood.
THIS FINAL CATEGORY includes all the shaken and scraped instruments. Especially noteworthy are maracas; cheap, great-sounding and phenomenally hard to play properly. Avoid plastic versions and those filled with lead shot: they are dull-sounding and often split at the most inopportune moments. Wooden maracas are bright and high-pitched but very delicate - so build a case for them from a strong shoe box. Best of all, save up and buy a pair of rawhide maracas. They're strong and sound fantastic.
Guiros are wood or metal sound chambers indented with grooves and scraped with sticks or metal combs. Cheap models imported from Mexico are quite adequate, provided you handle them with care.
For reasons of space, this article omits more percussion instruments than it includes. Have a quick look at the sidebar titled "The Rest", and nose around: you'll be amazed at what turns up in the secondhand sections of music stores. But most of all, remember how today's musical styles cry out for skilled percussionists.
Take the plunge, buy those bongos, and join one of the music industry's most exclusive clubs.
Feature by Tim Ponting
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