Here are some very interesting and also, some of the best congas ever made. These are drums I have owned at one time or another and /or played a lot. I have also included several comparison videos for your viewing and listening pleasure. Some of these congas (or “tambores” aka “timbas”) are classic, vintage and others are modern.
I will tell you right off the bat, you may have a difference of opinion. And I expect that. These are only my choices, based on what I have been exposed to. I say “some of the best”. There are others that might be good or even better. That’s for you to decide.
PM Percussion congas are made by drum builder Peter Musser in Petaluma, California from imported French Oak wine barrels.
The barrels are taken apart, sorted and carefully aged and watched over time to get the moisture out.
Then they are artfully crafted and formed into congas in the true Cuban style and tradition.
I have been to Peter’s studio -workshop several times and had the pleasure to not only meet him and discuss his products in detail but also to play many of his drums he has made for himself, others and even me. I have a set of 5. I can testify that Peters attention to detail is among the best of any maker past or present.
Peter answers the phone and email inquiries in a timely manner and is a great guy as well. Peter also plays drums so he can help you make decisions based on your needs.
Manito Percussion is made by Ryan Manito Wendel in Georgia. His drums are solid shell , one piece drums made from fallen trees or found logs.
He hollows the log/tree and turns the wood on a lathe until it is a beautiful masterpiece which he finishes off with stainless steel hardware.
Stainless steel hardware is a highly recommended way to go as other metals can rust and often does. The rims are curved on the top and called “Moderna”.
This helps protects your hands from the sharp or cornered edge many people use in the “traditional” style rim. His drums are sleek and elegant and have a beautiful tonality and resonance. If you have never tried a solid shell drum you owe it to yourself to try one. You can actual feel the drum resonating subtly from the ground up when you play. There is nothing else quite like it.
Most drums these days are made from staves or pieces of wood that are either cut out in the shape of the drum and glued, or steam bent into shape and glued. However, the solid shell is all one piece, uses no glue and many believe gives a superior sound over glued staved drums. You will have to watch the videos and decide for yourself.
I have a set of five congas made in “local exotic” Maple Ambrosia wood found in the USA . Ryan also makes bongos, bomba drums, dununs and other instruments as well as supplying the best skins on the after-market right now.
I would like to mention that Ryan Manito Wendel, like Peter Musser and Matthew Smith is also a fine percussionist. He has lived and studied drumming an drum making in Cuba and really knows his stuff.
He has also spent much time developing professional level skins for all types of drums including congas, bongos and djembes and offers very nice pre mounted skins as well. I especially like the mule bongo skins and steer skins for congas. I have pre- mounted Manito “soft soak” skins I just put on my LP original series fiberglass vintage congas.
Spirit In The Wood drum company and conga drums are made by artisan Conrad Kubiak and is in several of the videos below.
His drums and bongos are also solid shell one piece construction. He uses local woods found in Pennsylvania where he operates out of.Interestingly enough he is not far from drum maker master builder Matthew Smith of Ritmo drums.
He also makes a variety of different instruments including djembes, bongos and Ashiko drums. He uses very interesting woods and design principles in all his drums.
Volcano Percussion congas were made by the late Tom Alexander on the Big Island of Hawaii using exotic Hawaiin hardwoods found only in the islands there.
You can not export this wood by itself off of the island of Hawaii, it can only be exported as a finished product making these drums very rare indeed.
Although they might look like furniture grade art masterpieces, they are actually amazingly great sounding drums. Some of his (other drums) used Koa wood, another extremely exotic and beautiful wood.
These drums were probably the most expensive drums out there on the market when he was in bussiness.
They originally used Bill Confers hides (which were available at the time). Bill has since gone out of business and now Manito Percussion (www.manitopercussion.com) is the one stop source for skins.
These particular drums are made from a combination of local exotic Monkey Pod and tropical Mango wood. They are large drums yet light weight.
The craftsmanship is exceptional and even though these drums are over 15 years old, they are above and beyond the sandards of many of todays best made drums.
This company is no longer in business9the owner passed on) but may start up again in the near future. Lets hope this company comes back to life as they made an exceptionally nice product worthy of the praise that it does not often get, but should!
My Matthew Smith “Ritmos” are made from walnut staves in Pennsylvania, not far from Spirit In The Wood percussion company (solid shell drums by Conrad Kubiak), interestingly enough.
To many in the conga drum world, (especially traditionalists), the Matthew Smith conga drums represent the best of the modern era drums.
These congas are “state of the art” but in a traditional sense. The shape, size and sound are near perfect. Somehow Matthew Smith has found the magic formula for making stave style drums.
Skin choices are very good as well although I have played several drums that I would recommend changing to different skins for optimal sound. I am not sure where he is sourcing his skins now that Bill Confers is out of business, though. Matthew Smith has so many orders there is a very long wait and waiting list.There is even recent word (not confirmed) he is not taking new orders. Further immortalizing his drums and products.
These Valje congas are all from the 1970’s and are made from red oak.
Back in the day, Valje’s was “the drum” to get and play. They have held up well through the years and can still hold there own in almost any situation.
Ralph Flores (the son of the late Tom Flores), has restored all of my drums in a long restoration process over the last several years.
I love these drums for their rich tone and light weight. They hold up well played by themselves or with today’s modern drums as well. There have been many imitations and copies even with in the different owners and versions (Haight Ashbury Music Center, Akbar, LP, etc) of Valje but the early drums are universally praised and accepted as the best ones to have.
The Valje is a very solid well made drum that is easy to restore. There is a huge price range from cheap to outrageously expensive on the used drum market but they can often be found inexpensively on Craigslist. Restoration is generally s simple as sanding and refinishing, there are no bands to deal with (except the bottom) so these are excellent restoration project drums as well. The splits that often happen are easily remedied on these drums.
The name Valje has gone through several different gads but these are the originals.
Junior Tirado congas were made in New York in the 1970’s by Junior Tirado himself.
I remember being a teen and walking by Manny’s in New York City and seeing one in the window around 1974 for a ridiculously low price. At the time I did not have that kind of money. I settled on a Mexican drum with the hope that someday I would find one. Fast forward to present time and here are my Junior’s.
To many drummers the Junior Tirado or “Juniors” as they are affectionately called by the aficionado, are the best drums ever made, past present or future.
These particular Junior Tirado conga drums (photo/video tests) are made from Honduran Mahogany and have been retrofitted with steer skin. You can get from Manito Percussion www.manitopercussion.com
Manito Percussion not only makes amazing congas and bongos but also has a wide variety skins for bongos, congas and djembes as well.
In this video listing article we also have some Sol Percussion (Akbar’s former company) Sol was a short lived company by Akbar who originally was a percussion salesman who took over my job at the Haight Asbury Music centre about 34 years ago.
Sol came after Akbar had taken over Valje, but his stock got lost in a warehouse fire in South San Francisco. Then he started Sol. His first offering we very skinny models (tested here) that sounded great but did not have that “traditional” belly that so many of us love. His second offering was a more value shaped drum.
There is even a video of Fat Congas in the quinto 6 drum comparison video. After stopping to make drums Rick B. kept on making cajon’s and occasionally a set of hardware here or there.
When Fat’s first came out, they were the elite drums of their era. I remember way back a friend of mine who I was working for had a set and we were all in total awe of him and his magical set of dream drums, unobtainable to us young ones.
Both companies are no longer in business although Sol started back up with some bongos (very nice) and cajon’s.
Gon Bops is a very old company with a history of different owners. In this video we have the underrated California Series in Oak, made by the legendary Akbar.
He is no longer with them now. I have been playing Gon Bops on and off since the mid 70’s. To me the California series Gon Bops are my favourite Gon Bops ever made. Simple as that. Check out the videos and see what you think.
A very nice and also a very underrated drum in my opinion. Not worth the huge dealer price but worth it if you can get a healthy discount or used.
I would like to mention that Akbar made these “California Series” conga drums by hand one at a time in California until he left the company a couple of years ago. I highly recommend finding the ones he made rather then after he left the company.
original LP fiberglass “shorties”. No article of great drums would be complete with out the originators of the genre (in the USA anyway).
Before some of the greats came along these drums were and still are to many, the workhorse of the industry!
I dont have any multi drum comparisons of the LP fiberglass drums yet however here is a video with the drums with their original skins, then with the fabulous new Manito Percussion pre -mounted, “soft soak” steer heads put on recently.
These skins have gone through a special “secret” treatment process by Manito to eliminate the ring sound so common with fiber glass drums such as these. Please check out the video and see for yourself.
Pre-mounted simply means you unbolt the tuning lugs, take the old skin off and slip the new one on, tune up the drum and you are ready to go. You can soak the heads for 30 minutes prior if you like but you don’t have to. It is as simple as that.
So those are most (not all) of the drums in the tests we are about to watch and view. I would love to hear your stories and views on these drums as well.
Please note, these are all drums I own or have owned or played a bunch. There are simply too many drums out there for me to own or test everything. This article is by no means intended as “the last word”.
If your drum or favourite company/ drum builder was left out I apologize in advance. Again these are simply my opinions and yours and others may differ widely and wildly. That’s the beauty of it all. Different strokes for different folks!
Lets start off the videos with four sets of some really nice conga played in California at Drummers Tradition. Matthew Smith ritmos, Peter Musser PM Percussion, Gon Bops California series (when they were made by Akbar before leaving Gon Bops) and Spiriti In The wood.
Now lets compare “Ritmos” (Matthew Smith ) to Manito Percussion solid shell one piece Maple Ambrosia congas:
Fat Congas, Sol and Spirit In The Wood Percussion companies in a 3 drum tumba comparison:
Now lets hear 6 different quinto drums with the above makers and adding Fat Congas and Sol:
Now lets hear a recent test of 5 great brands of congas. Valje’s restored by Ralph Flores (the son of Tom Flores originator of the Valje), PM Percussion wine barrel sourced oak congas, Manito percussion, Volcano Percussion exotic Hawaain hardwood drums made from Monkey Pod?mango and Manito Percussion solid shell maple ambrosia congas:
Now how about Matt Smith, Spirit IN The Wood and Manito Percussion?
Junior tirado Vs Manito Percussion
Junior Tirado Vintage 70’s Conga Drums Manito Heads Sound Demo: Timba 4 drum Conga Pattern
Now we have Junior Tirado, Manito Percussion and Skin On Skin congas.
The Best Congas! Skin On Skin, Junior Tirado and Manito Percussion
Here is a video of seven different quintos we carefully tuned to match each other. Joh Felice, a drum builder and craftsman from Maine helped me out in this video lending me his ear to try to match the drums closely.
The CP we could not get any higher. Valje Thailand, Valje Tom Flores 1970’s, Manito Percussion, Matthew Smith, PM Percussion, Volcano Percussion, LP CP.
7 Quintos *( High Conga Drum) Comparison Same Tuning On 6
LP Original congas in fiberglass from the 1970’s. This is a comparison of the same drums with the original skins and then the recently added new Manito Percussion ‘soft soak” skins made specifically for fiberglass drums.