Andy Barrett compiles an overview of the rhythm-maker market
The colourful, broad and, frankly, unfathomable world of percussion makes it one of those sectors that could fill an entire magazine. Andy Barrett drops his plumb line into the ocean to see how deep the market really is…
When confronting something as mind-bogglingly varied as ‘percussion’ one immediately has to start making compromises as to what can and cannot be considered. The second confrontation is that, however one might hone the definitions, there is more stuff out there than a very long-armed drummer could wave a very long drumstick at.
That said, it also appears to be bloody good business and one where dealers can find a little niche that no-one nearby is working on. Even my small local store does a good line of specially supplied Senegalese djembes and other African beat makers.
It is argued by some that buying a percussion instrument requires more detailed explanation that pretty much any other instrument… Well, that might be pitching it a bit, but there is certainly a lot to consider, whatever it is you (or your punters) might be buying.
Shell material, heads, tuning (ropes, mechanical, none), tuned (how accurately), ease of playing (almost all percussion instruments are easy in principle, murderous in reality), size… the list goes on.
One thing is for sure, however, there is probably no single musical ‘element’ or component that brings more players into the world of making music. Whether it is the toddler with the saucepans in the kitchen, the classroom full of kids with various hitty, beaty and thumpy things, or the lads and lasses that turn up to open mic with a set of bongos, a cajon or a tambourine, beating out a rhythm is in the very core of our DNA and we just love to make a noise with whatever is at hand.
BORN IN THE UK
Now firmly established and accepted as part of the Marshall Amplification set-up, Natal offers a comprehensive range of percussion from Far-Eastern-manufactured (but UK-designed) instruments to the UK-made Cubana and Custom Cubana series, taking in along the way the Classic series of fibreglass instruments that brought the brand to the fore in the ‘60s and ‘70s.
So faithful is the process of manufacturing the Classic tumbas, congas, quintos and bongos, that it even utilises the original shell moulds from that era – and, Natal points out, even the badge remains faithful to the original.
The Cubana series is described by the manufacturer as ‘the ultimate in professional percussion instruments’, and is also still made to the same designs, using the original 1960s shell moulds. These drums feature the original ultra-lightweight aluminium Comfort Hoop rim for a brighter sound, heavy-duty tuning bolts, and hand-lapped natural hide heads. Aside from the fibreglass models, Natal also uses US ash extensively in its higher-end ranges.
The latest offerings from the UK company include a wide range of
African (djembes, dun duns and shakers), Latin (cabasas, caxixis, ganza shakers
and cajons) and more conventional western instruments and kit add-ons, such as cowbells, tambourines, claves and bar chimes.
SVM Percussion, still known to many as Soar Valley, has been one of the more intriguing percussion companies over the past couple of years, bringing into its catalogue the Techtonic electronic drumkits and scooping the distribution for Dream Cymbals. The marketing has seen SVM take a dramatic image shift from ethnic specialist to all-round percussion supplier – and it suits the company very well.
All this is not to say that the company has moved away from its roots and there is still a lot on offer in the traditional percussion sector.
Under the SVM brand, there are the Busker series bongos (six and a half-inch and seven-inch) in a red wine wood finish, and the Pro series bongos – the same size, but with a rounded hoop and a natural wood finish.
On the djembe front, SVM has something of a departure from its traditions with the Festival 12-inch Hydrobeat Djembe with a fibreglass body and a synthetic head. The results, SVM tells us, have been stunning, creating loud but light drums that react in a similar way to wood drums and are well priced, colourful and durable. Some of the Festival models have genuine rope and goat-skin heads, but the Hydrobeat is touted by SVM as the vegetarian option.
Another company making a surge into the more general spheres of all things hitty is Percussion Plus, now enjoying the benefits of one of the most impressive UK manufacturing set-ups in the MI trade.
The company has also broadened its offering in terms of brands, with Sonix being a major one and covering a very wide range of percussion from drumkits to cajons. For the latter there is the PP776 cajon, manufactured at Market Harborough and offering a superior sound for a budget instrument. The resonance from its quality snare at the top of the box is loud and crisp and, when played further down, produces a deep, mellow base sound.
The Perfect Pitch range of tuned instruments is also manufactured in the UK. Tuning uses the latest electronic node chromatic tuners that ensure the overtone notes are balance tuned to work in perfect pitch with the fundamental notes.
This range is proving immensely popular with schools not only because of the accuracy of pitch, but also because of the sturdy construction.
Also popular with schools is the Wac-a-Tube range of tuned, plastic, percussion tubes, based on the Boomwhacker. These brightly coloured tubes are useful for teaching melody, harmony and rhythm through a variety of playing techniques and just for having a lot of fun, really.
As well as flying the Stagg banner, EMD is in the enviable position of being the exclusive UK distributor for Remo, which not only produces the world's best selling drum heads, but also manufactures an impressive catalogue of world percussion. From the humble tambourine to exotic instruments from all over the globe, incorporating Remo's revolutionary Acousticon technology, the manufacturer continues to introduce wonderful percussion every year.
Remo Belli's main aim is for every household in the world to own a drum, fully endorsing and encouraging therapeutic and educational schemes nationwide and worldwide.
Stagg is no slouch in the percussion stakes either, producing everything from the simple egg shaker to the funkier rain stick or kokiriko.
Meinl, of course, has become one of the world’s leading cymbals makers, but has just as rich a tradition for making percussion instruments, wheresoever they might originate. The Bodhran, for example, is an Irish frame drum and was originally used by Irish soldiers as a battle drum.
It has gained popularity through the influence of Celtic music and is still mostly used for accompanying traditional dancing. The new 14-inch bodhran from Meinl features an extra deep shell for a rich, full sound and an extra dampening layer on the rim to reduce overtones. The traditional cross brace has been removed to enable direct hand pressure on the head for applying contemporary pitch-bending techniques.
Meinl also innovates (as with the bongo cajon) and the new cajon castanets are exactly that. Available in three different sizes, these lightweight castanets are the perfect add-on for any cajon player. They are easily attached to the cajon using an included self-adhesive tape, which sticks on any surface. They are easy to play and their cutting sound adds colour to cajon playing – or any other instrument for that matter.
By the time we were all raising our eyebrows at Marshall Amplification taking on Natal, we had almost forgotten about the shock of Fender buying Kaman Music and with it the Toca and Latin Percussion brands of percussion. It all seems to sit quite comfortably now, of course.
LP has recently launched the Qube, an interesting take on the humble shaker. At a glance, it looks like a simple wooden box, but looks can be deceiving. The LP Qube is actually a hi tech approach to shaker design, containing as it does an internal-baffle design to create a multitude of shaker effects, depending on which direction the box is moved in.
Forward-and-back creates one sound; side-to-side creates another. Spin your wrist to shake it in a circular pattern and you get a double-timed version of both. The Qube is available in two sizes and sounds. The smaller ‘studio’ version has a softer sound, while the larger ‘live’
model produces a sharper attack. Prices start at £18.
Toca’s new lightweight hand drums are a patented hybrid of a doumbek and a djembe. The sculpted shell is made from a light synthetic material that reduces the weight of the drum without impeding tone, resonance, or durability. Each drum is topped with a fixed, pre-tuned synthetic head, which offers great playing response and eliminates the need for tuning. Nine, ten and 12-inch versions are available in ‘Color Tone’ and ‘Earth Tone’ finishes.
JHS has a pretty impressive history in dealing with percussion for the MI trade, and not least thanks to the Rhythm Tech brand. As well as the famous pro tambourine, RT offers a couple of ‘rhythm packs’ containing either the DST tambourine and a five-inch cowbell or the DST and the Moon Block, an indestrucible, synthetic, woodblock sounding instrument.
Performance Percussion offers a wide range of educational percussion instruments for schoolchildren, including the KS1 28 Player Percussion set. This includes 28 handheld percussion instruments, such as castanets, jingles, maracas, triangles, wood blocks and chime bars among others.
Last, but not least from JHS is the Angel range of glockenspiels, xylophones and metallophones, representing an ideal means of offering a real starting point for young children to learn about the fundamentals of making music, both individually and in groups. By using these robust instruments, children can discover that music is creative, fun and exciting.
Gon Bops has been making percussion for around 60 years now and has developed a superlative reputation – although mainly across the pond. All that is changing now since the company was bought by Sabian and the benefits of a global network of distribution means that the world and his wife can easily get hold of the drums these days.
Aside from the bread and butter of the congas and bongos, Gon Bops covers vast tracts of the percussion world. Of note are the Alex Acuña signature timbales that have a unique brass-alloy shell, specially formulated to provide a dark, distinct cascara, recessed tuning rods and traditional steel counter hoops.
The company also makes a wide range of cajons, starting again with the Alex Acuña model. Then there is the (unusually) circular/conical bata cajons, which can be played with the same patterns and technique as traditional bata, but have a different musical timbre. These are made in Peru from Peruvian mohena.
The brand also offers bongo, conga, djembe and udu cajons – among others – as well as a collection of cowbells.
Tycoon, available in the UK through FCN Music, had a substantial amount of new gear at this year’s NAMM Show, although it has to be said that around 80 per cent of these were cajons. From the acrylic models through the Legacy series spalted maple model, the Vertex series American ash body and front plate, to the Artist series hand-painted retro, it is an almost unparalleled collection.
Tycoon also offers a new Dancing Drum 20-inch dundun bambata made from Siam oak, a triple-ring mounting system and a 5mm non-stretch rope, the Artist series Jamjuree bongos, again made from Siam oak and with quality water buffalo heads to create crisp tones and superb response, and the Black Pearl series low-pitched hand bell (named after its attractive finish), constructed of quality steel and with a rounded surface for easy playing.
Last, but by no means least, Gremlin, of course, has a spectacular offering of traditional and world percussion, from bodhrans through darabukas, djembes, talking drums, cajons, tablas, dholaks, naals and cajons. It would take the average dealer a morning to get through the lot.
The set of two tabla drums sees an attractive and solid construction (made in India) with a chrome plated brass dagga, cushions and hammer – it’s an authentic little set-up.
Gremlin also offers ancient-style percussion, with (probably the oldest of the lot) bones, as well as renaissance and tabor marching drums.
Gon Bops California series congas – £1,029
Made from red Appalachian oak, each shell is cut, bent and hand-hammered before undergoing months of curing. The shells are then glued, hammered again and turned meaning the process takes over a full year to complete. Impressive. There are five congas in the series, from the 9 ¾-inch super quinto to the 13 1/4 –inch super tumba.
Meinl bongo cajon – From £48.50
An innovative little creature this one, made from rubber wood, it can be played like a bongo (between the legs or on the lap) and offers a unique blend of tones that sounds like, well, a cross between a bongo and a cajon. The frame design is made to produce a forward sound projection, making acoustic control that much easier.
Boomwhackers – From £13.49
The famous tuned plastic tubes are the brainchild of the American inventor, Craig Ramsell and have won many awards over the past 25-odd years. The brightly coloured tubes are much loved in the education sphere, but are also used by pro musicians, for corporate teambuilding and in music therapy.
LP Stanton Moore pandeiro – £90
At 12-inches in diameter, the Stanton Moore pandeiro is sized for convenient placement in a drumkit, fitting into a snare stand or ‘flown’ off of a cymbal or drum stand. The high-density hardwood shell is designed to withstand the impact of a drumstick. The pandeiro is fitted with seven sets of jingles, eight tuning rods, a Remo Emperor coated drum head, and ships with a carry bag.
World Rhythm Percussion Hydrobeat djembe – £59.99
WRP’s Hydrobeat djembe comes in nine-and-a-half and 12-inch versions and combines the best of cutting edge materials and techniques to make a djembe that is very practical. Decorated with a batik pattern and matching printed Mylar head, this drum is perfect for mobile drum facilitators and schools.
Bucara 11-inch Ghanaian djembe – £101.99
This handmade, single-weave drum is from Ghana, made for Soar Valley in conjunction with a fair trade organisation. The drum is traditionally carved from the tweeneboa tree (African cedar) and skinned with goat. This particular model is described as ‘well-made with a big bass and a sharp slap’.
Remo Katsugi okedaiko – £1,064
The Katsugi Okedaiko is made from Remo’s patented lightweight Acousticon drum shells in the US from a durable, purely recycled wood fibre. The drumhead is specially made for the unique drumming style the okedaiko requires, using Remo’s Skyndeep natural drumhead.
Harmony soprano chromatic glockenspiel – £86.75
While the Harmony brand is Percussion Plus’ budget range, the instruments are all made in the UK at PP’s Market Harborough facility – and an impressive set-up it is, too. The glock here is fully chromatic, ranging a 22-note soprano range from C64 to A85, set on a single solid wood frame.
Natal Spirit bongos – £101
Spirit series percussion is crafted from Siam oak, delivering a fantastic tone when combined with the natural hide heads, the steel Comfort Hoop rims and the proprietary Resonance Block, which minimises surface contact and enables the bongo shells to produce a longer, freer and more resonant tone.
Stagg RSM-16 plastic rain stick – £15.99
A 16-inch rain stick with 16 chambers (you do the maths) and the requisite amount of little plastic balls to create the effect. Stagg’s instrument is popular with both schools and general musicians looking for more unusual sound effects. The rain stick is also available in an eight-inch version for £10.99.
Rhythm Tech Rhythm Pro tambourine – £58.99
Takes advantage of synthetic materials and computer-assisted design and manufacturing to create a thinner, more ergonomic handle, more efficient placement of the jingles, improved balance, a resilient, over-moulded rubber playing edge and an integrated mounting system. And you thought it was just a tombourine. Available with brass or steel jingles.
Tycoon acrylic cajon with fibreglass front plate – £395
Tycoon’s acrylic cajon features a solid, transparent acrylic body, a special design that expands the instruments’s bass tones, and a premium fibreglass front plate for added resonance with a wider range of frequency response. On top of this – and the visual appeal – come the usual features one would expect, such as allen key adjustable snare wires and the option of a carry bag.
Toca Freestyle II mechanically tuned djembes – From £66
Toca’s new, all-weather, synthetic heads eliminate the stretching, drying and loss of pitch that occurs with natural skin heads. They also aid the extended collar to provide a wider tuning range and a greater consistency of tone. The djembes come in nine, ten, 12 and 14-inch sizes and in a choice of red mask or gold mask finishes.
Glenluce bodhrans – From £32 to £99
The Glenluce bodhrans are made in Pakistan from a variety of woods (including rosewood) and all have a single strut and goatskin heads. Some feature a tunable rim, others patterned heads, but all offer amazing value.