Here are some tips on and about buying a used conga drum.
If this is your first drum you do not need to buy an expensive or new drum. Even a somewhat scratched up drum is O.K. to start with if you have a very low budget and are just learning. You can always move up to better (and more expensive) drums later after you have learned to play a little.
A used conga drum is a much better choice to begin with then a new drum. A new drum, like a new car looses it’s resale value the moment you leave the music stores door (or receive it in the mail). So I suggest getting a lower priced used drum first to see if you even like to drum! Many people buy expensive drums and they end up sitting around their house as furniture. Or they get sold at a loss.
An important question is, what kind of drumming will you be doing and where will you be playing? Do you want to play in a band or just with other drummers?
Do you want one, two or three conga drums? If it is your first time to buy a drum or you can only buy one drum, I recommend a segundo (second) aka a conga drum. The three most common sizes are the quinto, which is the the smallest in diameter and highest pitched (for soloing), the conga (or second ) drum and the tumba or tumbao which is the largest in diameter and lowest pitched.
There is also sometimes a “super” tumba, even larger then a normal tumba and there is also a requinto drum which is smaller then the quinto and often played in conjunction with a cahone or box drum in traditional afro cuban rumba drumming scenarios.
I do not recommend either of the last two mentioned drums to start our with as they are too small or too large to learn on. Once you already have your basic set established you can add these one or two drums later if you feel you really need them. The Gon Bops Super Tumba on the right in the photo is a non production model (experimental) made in the early 70’s.
It almost looks like the photo was photoshopped but this is an actual drum that was made. My friend has a rare Sol Super Tumba and it is amazing for bass but again not a practical choice if you are only going to have one or two conga drums in your arsenal.
I recommend the segundo or standard conga drum size if you are going to only have one drum as this drum provides the slap sound, bass and tone all in one drum.
You can get tone and slap out of a quinto but generaly it is not used nor does it have bass tone because of it’s small size, unless you have an elite model of solid shell conga which does have bass tone as well.
For example my Spirit In The Wood Drum Company requinto has excellent bass slap and tone but again this is very unusual and you have to pay the price in dollars to get a drum of this super high quality and sound.
The tumba drum or lowest drum when played in traditional rumba settings is used to hold the bass line and therefore does not provide a crisp slap like the other two drums. You can slap on them of course but it takes more skill to slap on a lower drum as the skin is generally not as tight as the higher drums. The higher the drum is tuned or “cranked” the easier it is to make a slap sound or “pop”.
To me one of the most important aspects of the drum is the skin. A great skin can make a poor conga drum sound great and the wrong skin on a good drum can make the drum sound bad. Also, if the skin is too thick, especially on the quinto drum you can hurt your hands.
I like my tumba thickness to be about 12 sheets of paper thick (rough estimate of course). If it is less then that for me the drum can sound too ringy.
Skins are always a personal preference. I enjoy cow skin of medium thickness on my conga and tumba and medium on my quinto and requinto. Drum jeads (skins) are generally easy to replace especially compared to mounting djembe heads.
However, replacement skins are not cheap. Minimum price on a replacement skin is going to be $50 if you are lucky. And it goes up from there. If you add on labor if someone else does it then it really starts to get up there! You are not going to get deecnt heads put on your drum and out the door for under$80 and it’s probably going to be a lot more then that.
Many drums coming out of Asia such as L.P., Gon Bops (except for California models which are hand built in USA by Akbar formerly of Sol and Valje) and others have water buffalo skin which makes for a crisp, bright sound which is good if you are playing in a band for example.
On the down side it can make the drums sound ringy. I like cowskin which has a warmer smoother sound. Some people still use mule which is generally harder on your hands but has the least bright sound and therefore, in my opinion the best tone quality.
Many people especially those in humid climates prefer synthetic skins. You can buy them in different thickness but almost always they are pre mounted so you need to know the exact model of drum before buying a replacement synthtic skin.
You do not have to soak them in water and they pop right onto your drum so that makes things easy. The downside for me is that I do not like the sound or feel of any synthetic skin I have played or heard. Something about hitting plastic that is not fun or nice for me. I also feel like it hurts my already sensitive hands. But many people swear by them.
I play in Bali a lot and everyone uses them on their drums there because the humidity eats the natural skins alive. I am curious if people kept their drums in cases after they played them if the natural skins would last longer there?
If a skin is too thin the sound of the drum can be too ringy and not full. It does help the slap project more however if the skin is thin.
The next factor to consider is do you want a wood drum or fiberglass drum?
The fiberglass drum is generally going to project more (be louder) and also has the potential to have more ring unless the skins are thicker. It is an easy fix one way or the other by using the correct skin.
Fiberglass congas are great for playing in bands or any place you need more sound. They are a bit more durable then wood and my drums have no cracks or issues even after 35 years! And these drums have been knocked around. Of course they do scratch.
Wood drums have a warmer sound and nicer tone to my ears and I like the feel of wooden drums better as well. A fiberglass drum can have some melting issues if left in an extremely hot car for example. The choice of a wood conga vs a fiberglas conga is a matter of personal taste I think.
My LP original style congas from 1975 still have that fiberglass smell if you turn them upside down. If you do not like that or if you are sensitive to smells please take note.
The next factor is your budget. If it is slim, you may want to try Craigslist or even a pawn shop if you live near a big city. This is going to be cheaper then going into a music shop to buy a used conga drum.
Ebay is great for deals if you know what you are shopping for and if you trust the buyer 100%. You would need to have a list of questions answered and he or she would need to be 100% honest!
Still, you can not inspect the drum first or hear it. And you always need to inspect the skin for rips, tears, mold and other issues such as rings being out of round or the head being turned into an oval shape from a circle. Heads can be cleaned easily enough and also reconditioned.
I do not like to put any oil into heads (skins). When I clean a head I use a very watered down solution of water and light dish soap. I am careful not to get the skin damp. This and some elbow grease usually takes most of the gunk off of old skins. You may have to scrape it off sometimes however.
It’s really nice if new heads have been put on an older drum recently. That will save you some costs especially if it is the right head! So try and find drums with new heads if you have the option or choice.
Drum heads go out of round after many years for various reasons. One of the reason is the drums being tuned up or cranked very high and being left in that position. The wood then comes out of round.
Sometimes being out of round is O.K., it may not effect the sound. But it sure does not look pretty. Out of round is when you look down at the drum from above and the drum head is no longer perfectly round. It has become oval.
Another problem that occurs over time on used drums is bent rims, and rims coming over the rings. This happens for the same reason. You also want to turn the tightening bolts on any drum and make sure that they move easily. This is not something you can see in a photo.
If a drum is scratched up, that is O.K. As long as it is scratches and not cracks that go through the outside surface to the inside. Check all the joints carefully on a wood drum to see that the staves have not separated over time as well.
Cracks can be fixed (if you know the right people or have basic wood working skills) and there are different opinions on how important or not it is to buy a conga drum with out cracks. For me, I want zero cracks.
Like any other purchase you might make in your life, it sometimes helps to know the drum make and model you want to buy first before searching. You can look on line at the models, or research doing a google search. Interestingly enough, you could buy a higher end used drum for less then a lower end model new drum.
Turn the drum upside down and put it on top of a towel or soft object to protect the skin from scratching and out of respect for the owners belongings.
Look inside and feel around with your hand. Use a flashlight. It is pretty easy to see if there is damage or not. Also if there have been prior repairs done.
If there have been repairs done and there has been a crack that has gone all the way through the drum then buyer beware!
Many used drums need and can use a new skin which is easy to put on if you are a little bit handy. You will have to soak the dry new skin in a tub for a few hours and wrestle around with it. If you have someone to show you how to do it the first time I highly recommend this.
There are several places to buy these such as L and H in NYC. You can buy pre mounted or a flat skin and mount your own. If you are looking at fiberglass drums make sure there is no indentation in the fiberglass or sagging anywhere especially by the hardware. This happens on older fiberglass drums tht have been left in a heated situation such as a trunk of a car.
Speaking of hardware check for rust, and bring a wrench with you and test each bolt by turning as you would normally do tune a drum. Many used drums have not been tuned in ages. As I mentioned, if the drum has been left tuned all the way up the drum can go out of round and also the nuts can lock into place and you may not be able to get them to turn and then you can not tune the drum.
It is not the end of the world to replace the lugs, but it is an additional expense and sometimes hard to find replacement parts if you want the original parts for older drums. More often then not you can swap out parts from LP’s or Gon Bops and use them on other drums. So if those parts need replacement make sure you consider that in your budget.
There are many different oils that can be used, and you may be able to bring old nuts and bolts back to life, but don’t count on it and new hardware replacement parts can be expensive.
What brand to buy? Which is best? Again personal preference. Here is a short list of the most common drums you will see used on Craigslist and Ebay. Latin Percussion, Gon Bops, Mienl, Pearl, Toca and Tycoon. There are many others of course. I have seen old Slingerland recently.
My personal favorites for inexpensive drums would be the LP and Gon Bops. I would stay away from the many Mexican used conga drums out there as the quality and sound is poor.
Also I do not like the hardware. I have noticed that many people are trying to sell Mexican drums as “vintage Cuban” drums so please be careful about this.
I will get more into vintage drums in a minute but suffice to say that people are trying to cash in on the “vintage” craze and calling average run of the mill so-s0 drums vintage.
If you are not sure if something is vintage or not please take or foward and post on one of the conga drums sites such as my “conga drums and percussion” page on Facebook or “conga drums and djembes” for sale on facebook.
I personally do not like entry level models from LP such as the Aspire, and LP’s rumba line. The hardware is really cheap and they are easy to brake. Don’t buy them unless you get an amazing deal or not sure if you will stay with conga drumming or not.
However earlier models such as the LP performance series (made for Guitar Center) are a nice compromise of quality, sound and price.
For the money, you can not go wrong with an LP Matador series drum if it has a nice skin and you can get it for under $200 used.
They sound great and it is one of the best all around choices for a good used conga drum. I would say my top pick. My friend put a Cuban skin his friend brought back from Cuba on his quinto and the drum sounds amazing now!
Many people including myself recommend against buying high priced drums to start with.
However, if you are 100% sure you are going to stay with conga drumming and or keep the drum forever there are several great choices out there for used and vintage conga drums. They will not go down in value if you get them at a fair price. Valje is one of these choices I highly recommend.
There seem to be many Valjes around but it is generally hard to find a good set of them at a reasonable price as they are considered “vintage” drums by many. I did se a nice set on Craigslist recently in Hawaii for $600 which is an absolute steal!
Speaking of vintage, to me a vintage drum is over 20 years old. A vintage drum is not a great drum for a beginner to buy as the drum can have issues.
Valje has gone though different eras. Tom Flores started the company in the 60’s in L.A. then Akbar bought the company name in the 80’s there was a fire then LP had them and now Ralph Flores the son of Tom has a company called Resolution. There is a lot written about them on line and I do not prfess to be a Valje expert so it is better if you research that more yourself.
You will see many older Gon Bops out there and people are starting to ask a lot of cash for them as well. You have to check for cracks on these drums and also make sure that the metal bands are all there (sometimes they fall off and they are really hard to find replacement bands and get them back on). Gon Bops is also back in business and you will see many newer models for sale used as well.
A great way to see what a drum is selling for used is to go to ebay, sign in (you have to have an account to do this I think) and look at recently sold items to check the actual price the items sold for.
People can ask anything and this does not mean this is what the drum is actually worth. There are also several helpful people on the online conga forums and Facebook happy to answer questions about drums.
Once you see what drums have actually sold for you can have an idea of what a drum you are looking at or for should be selling for as people can ask anything. I have seen absolutely crazy asking prices on some drums so be careful! People write me all the time and ask me what should they sell or buy a drum for and this is the advice i give them.
I have owned and played many of the LP models such as the LP Galaxy Giovanni Series Congas as well as LP original short fiberglass drums which I still have . They are heavy so if the weight is important make sure you consider this.
I am told that the staves, the pieces of wood that make up the drum have little piece of metal slotted in between them which is what makes the drums o heavy. These drums are made in Thailand. They do a good job on these drums but they occasionaly do have problems, my friends cracked so be sure to inspect them carefuly as you would any other drum.
There are also what I call “boutique” conga drums which are highly desirable to collectors and players as well.
Skin On Skin is one of these companies which make cuban style, traditional conga drums. I had a set of 4 Skin on Skin congas.
The sound was wonderful. Very warm and full tone. However, in time the quinto went out of round and also the rim bent.
I also had splinter cracks on 2 of the drums. In all fairness the drums went back and fourth to Hawaii at least two times and lived in different climatic zones and wood is wood.
My personal Skin on Skin conga drums were hand made in New York by a man named Jay Berek in 1986. I hear they are not individually made by him anymore as he has a helper.
But who cares? They are still some of the finest drums made. There are sometimes deals to be had on them as well, if you call $650 for a drum a deal! I saw a nice one very well priced in LA and also NYC recently. Like many of the other boutique companies you will have a long wait to receive these drums after ordering.
There was also another hand made company in New York called “Junior’s congas” made by the late Junior Tirado but they are almost impossible to find as are JCR., another small company in New York known more for their cowbells. If you do find them, grab them!
The prettiest congas for many years back in the day (70’s) were the Fat Congas. They stopped making them a while back, though. Another company worth mentioning is Moperc in Canada.
Michel, the owner does a fine job on a great line of drums of solid drums. I have not played them yet but I watched all the videos of his drums being played in Cuba and also Munequitos playing them in Canada and they sure sounded great to me! I have not seen any used Moperc congas for sale used anywhere at anytime! That say’s something to me. People buy them and keep them!
Jesse Seymour, the amazing conga player in the Barabajaba percussion ensemble in Hawaii plays Volcano brand congas, bongo and bata. I had a chance to record and perform with his drums and they are an amazing drum. Tom the owner died last year but the company is being reestablished by a local person there now. They are some of the most beautiful, light and exotic hardwood drums made anywhere but they fetch a pretty penny and are probaly the most expensive used conga drum you can find! I have seen some on the market used bu the price was astronomical.
It is pretty much agreed for traditional afro cuban look, feel and sound that Matthew Smith of Ritmo has the best drums. You can check out more about him and his drums on line. He does all the work himself so it can take a while to get your drums as well. HIs hardware is solid and the drums are incredible. Credit where credit is do.
I have seen them recently a few times on ebay and they are usually over $1,100 a drum used. You can order them for much less but you have to wait from 1 to 3 years to get them! Patience is a virtue.
There are other less expensive choices used so unless you have all that extra cash you may want to get some Moperc or check a new company from Columbia called HR. I have not played the HR drums yet but they look absolutely gorgous!
Not too long ago I bought a set of 3 Timba congas on line for a reasonable price. Timba is out of business now but they had previously taken over Gon Bops tooling when Gon Bops was on hiatus and made some improvements as well.
They are durable, made well, did not have quality control issues, sound great and reasonably priced compared to other boutique congas. They represent a great buy if you can find them and want a reasonably priced high end “boutique” drum. So these are my top choice if you can find them fro under $550 a drum or so.
You may see Isla drums used and even on sale new from time to time but they have quality issues so you must inspect there used drums carefuly before buying.
There are several other brands of conga drums out there and frankly too many for me to review or list. LP has so many models it is hard to keep up with. On the used market you can find just about anything.
I currently play and perform on Spirit In the Wood Drum Company figured ash wood solid shell, one piece conga drums. All four drums were made from the same tree. There are no staves (slats) or glue as the drum is from a log.
The sound is amazing because of the solid inner smooth structure and no uneven surfaces like you have with glued staves which create un even surfaces and the sound to bounce all around. I have a requinto, quinto, conga and tumba. I really want to get the super tumba as well! The sound is amazing and to my eye and ear they are the most beautiful drums made. They cost, but you get what you pay for!
I have not seen any used yet and they are relatively unknown. I have several videos of them being played on my Youtube channel. You can go to michaelpluznick (all one word) on Youtube and or search Spirit In The Wood Conga drums if you want to hear them and see them.
So what is best for you? To recap I suggest looking at your local Craigslist on line, comparing prices and if you are just starting out looking for the best deal on a used drum.