I recently went to the studios of Peter Musser in Petaluma, California to see what exactly he was up to and I was blown away by the incredible drums he is making! Anyone considering an “artisan” conga, a conga drum or set of congas from an individual craftsman, should definitely check out Peter’s work.
Here is an interview I did with him:
I started playing congas when I was about 17 and was fascinated by the instrument – so much so that I wanted to learn to build them then. As time went by life moved on, I needed to make a living so the dream of building drums went to the back burner until 2001 when I could build a suitable shop to work in.
MP: How long have you been making conga drums? What did you do before this?
The carpentry time wasn’t wasted: I spent those thirty+ years working with wood as a carpenter/ wood worker and so developed my chops with wood as well as the math needed to build the drums.
MP: Do you play drums?
I used to play all the time but never studied very long with any one teacher so I never learned the parts and the rules. Now that I’m building drums I’m around many really great players and so I see how little I really know. But I still dig playing and if I give myself the time to get my chops back I do alright.
MP: How do you develop new instruments or perfect the sound quality of your current line?
The development of my instruments comes from a combination of experience with that instrument and intuition. I’ve been lucky with the congas, my first ones are the set I play to this day and they sound great. But even so I still tweak the design all the time to see if I can improve on them. Sometimes it does, sometimes not but I never let an instrument leave the shop that I don’t love.
The cajons, however, took several generations to get to where they are today. For a seemingly simple instrument the details make a huge difference in the way sound and play.
MP: where do you source your wood from and why do you use the woods you use? What is peperwood,
where is it from? What are the sound qualities? It looks amazing!
When I first started making congas I went to a local independent mill to get my wood and was introduced to pepper wood. After some research into the wood and it’s acoustic qualities I purchased enough to make a pair and they turned out great. As well as sounding great they looked beautiful. As time went by I started grain matching and produced really interesting patterns, and the run-out of the wood captures and reflects light in such beautiful ways.
There are a few different species of pepper wood; around here we have Bay, the same tree that gives us bay leaves. The wood gives off a really pleasant smell when it’s being worked. In Oregon they have Myrtle. The trees look identical but they don’t smell as good. I get the wood from the part of the log where the sapwood and the heartwood meet. That’s what makes the drums so interesting to look at.
Drumming is such a traditional form of music, no matter how innovative anyone gets, the music can all be traced back to the roots so I decided to get back to the roots of the early staved drums of Cuba. The early drum makers didn’t have a lot of resources so they used what they had. Almost everything back in those days was shipped in barrels, as a result they had a lot of discarded barrels that they could rework into the shapes of the drums they remembered from Africa.
The Tribute series sprang up from that desire to get back to the roots of drum making in the western hemisphere. After some experimentation and ratio changes I began to produce the Tribute series and they have been well received.
In the early days the Cubans didn’t have very good glue so they needed to band the drums to hold them together. Today the glue as well as modern joinery techniques
make the bands unnecessary but they give the drums a beautiful, traditional look.
MP: I noticed you have a keen sense for detail and craftsmenship. I simply have not seen stave conga drums finished like your pepperwood congas, the extreme attention to detail is remarkable. Why do you spend so much time making them perfect instead of rushing them out to your eagerly awaiting customers?
I pay very close attention to the details because of my experience as a carpenter. I always wanted my work to be as flawless as possible. In any profession you need to be accurate. If you’re not than how can you call yourself a pro? I don’t think anyone wants less than your best effort.
MP: can you explain the baffle system you use inside your drums?
Some shells have a natural overtone that I don’t find pleasant. You can tell before you even crown them by putting your ear near the top opening and slapping the side of the drum. What I’m looking for is simply the sound of the slap with no ring. But often times you will hear that ring- something about how the shell resonates the sound. I developed the baffle to interrupt that resonance without interfering with the sound or volume of the drum. Truly, its only effect is to kill the overtones and it works very well.
Currently I’m running at about a seven month wait for the drums. I’m trying everything I can to shorten the wait without compromising the instruments, like sending out my hardware to be polished by others, something that takes me forever to do.
Pricing of my drums is based on my costs. In the last two months my material costs have gone way up, forcing me to raise my prices. My tribute series start at $840 for any size with just a foot ring and go up to $899 for the full folkloric band package.
MP: The wine barrells are from France, why there? Do they have wine barrells in wine country near where you live?
Local wineries, where I get my barrels, purchase them from France. The best barrels for wine making come from France – something about the wood. Wine makers pay a hefty price for barrels and they are only good for winemaking for a couple of years; after that they stop adding to the flavor and quality of the wine, so they need to get rid of them. I like to get the barrels from premium winemakers because they don’t over use them- they are in better shape than the ones that have been used for three or more years.
MP: what is your goal in making conga drums and other instruments?
I love the instrument, working with wood, the music, and the community, and this is a way for me to be a part of it. It’s very fulfilling work.
www.pmpercussion.com ph: 707/762-9012