Gon Bops: Mariano Series Congas & Bongos

gon bops

I really did consider titling this review “Me Want,” but I was pretty sure that wouldn’t pass the editor’s desk [Don’t tempt us. —Ed.]. But keep that in mind; these drums are very special, and if you need to summarize this information later for a friend, remember — “me want.”

Gon Bops. I remember hearing the name used by percussionists over the years, spoken in hushed and reverential tones, but I never had the chance to play Gon Bops hand drums until the Mariano series congas and bongos arrived on my doorstep. “Now we’ll see what all the big hullabaloo is about,” I said. I had no idea. But before telling you more about Gon Bops’ special new line of congas and bongos, perhaps a little history is in order (cue spotlight and music, please).

Gon Bops began in California as a garage workshop experiment in drum building by Mariano Bobadilla and Tom Flores, way back in the early 1950s. And while Gon Bops drums would eventually become some of the most sought-after by all the high-profile players on the West Coast, the slow pace of those early days forced Bobadilla and Flores to part ways. Bobadilla went on to found Gon Bops, one of the oldest and most respected modern manufacturers of Latin percussion instruments in the world, while Flores created a company called Valje, also a well-known and world-renowned name in conga building. Due to changes in the marketplace and the economy, Gon Bops was forced to close its doors in 1998 after an incredible four-plus-decade run. An investor bought the company, but couldn’t make it work, and after a couple of years sold off the pieces.

In 2001, Don Lombardi of Drum Workshop bought the Gon Bops name, but the name only. Nothing physical of the company was left, having been sold to someone else. Lombardi rectified this by purchasing Sol Percussion, and its president and drum builder, Akbar Moghaddam. By 2005, Gon Bops was back in the percussion business. This “Gon Bops 2.0,” if you will, never lost site of the company’s storied roots and Bobadilla’s vision.

Two years ago, Gon Bops changed hands again, this time to Sabian. And while the backstock, inventory, and paperwork moved to a new headquarters in Massachusetts, the factory remained at DW, in Oxnard, California. Because of that, Gon Bops drums retain a distinctly “California flavor.”

Fast-forward to the present, and the Mariano series. These finely crafted instruments are dedicated to, and based on, designs of the original master himself, Mariano Bobadilla. The care and craftsmanship show, and serve as excellent tribute. There are five drums in the new line: four congas (quinto, conga, tumba, and super tumba), and the bongos. And while the drums have much in common with the original Mariano series, some key improvements were added that make these drums particularly special.

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California Drumming

All the drums in the conga set are 30” tall, have two retaining rings with five screws in each, and come with very fetching silver, black, and red Gon Bops badges, each with individual serial numbers.

The tuning rings on the congas all have five points of tension (like the originals), while the bongos sport the standard four-point tuning rings. While the counterhoops are of the traditional variety in that they do not apparently have any softened edges or comfort-type curve, this is no problem, as they leave plenty of access to the drumheads for open tones and slaps. The heads use the same real cowhide as the originals, and their playability is superb.

The color and finish are what I would call “satin cocoa brown,” and what Gon Bops calls Mahogany Stain. The drums are constructed out of 100 percent sustainable durian hardwood, which takes the place of the original Mariano series’ Philippine mahogany while boasting many similar sonic characteristics. The drums appear to be constructed of between 18 and 20 individual staves. It’s very hard to tell, but this is a good thing. The construction of these congas is almost literally seamless, and the staves are so tight, inside and out, that it is sometimes hard to tell where one ends and the next begins. This seamless construction may be part of the secret to the Mariano series’ sound, which is very open, round, and, for lack of a better term, pure. As a player no less than Alex Acuña has pointed out, there are very few overtones produced by these drums; the sound is all fundamental, and all conga.

The bongo set matches the color and finish of the congas, and features a 7” playing surface on the macho drum, and 8.5” on the hembra. The sound and look of the bongos is in perfect harmony with the congas, and the bongos sport smaller versions of the same silver, red, and black badges.

The congas and bongos all come with their own tuning wrenches and carrying pouches, and the tuning rods each have a threaded rubber end-cap, to save on scratches on the instruments, and on the hands during transport. They do not come with cases or handles, so you’ll want to get a nice padded case for each one of your Mariano series instruments if you plan on taking them out of the house or transporting them to the studio or stage.

Testing And Observations

The Mariano series drums are one-of-a-kind. These instruments look gorgeous, but they can back-up the look with a sound that is beyond description with mere words — they just sound “right.”

Playability is a natural outgrowth of craftsmanship of this caliber. The drums were very easy to tune to specific pitches (Patato Valdes, anyone?). The compass of the available scale fell into a pretty faithful 1, 2, 4, 6 sequence of notes, and once I’d tuned it up I found myself immediately jamming “I’m A Man” with melodic precision. Alex Acuña was right, there are really no appreciable overtones to these drums, which makes tuning a breeze. Tuning to specific notes can be very important in traditional Latin playing, but can be a real bonus in the studio as well.

Big beefy open tones, crisp slaps, and solid palm sounds were very easy to achieve on the Mariano congas, and the drums all sound like they “belong” together. The bongos were easy to tune and play as well, and finger-pops came through bright and clear with very little effort.

The defining “Me Want” moment came after recording the Marianos with two condenser microphones in a simple X-Y stereo pattern. The reason I always heard Gon Bops congas discussed with such reverence was apparent on playback, which came through loud and clear. The sound in the room was exactly what was recorded — pure, pristine, and full.

Verdict

If you’re ready to move up to a truly classy set of instruments (more conga than you ever dreamed of), then the Mariano series just might be the drums for you. Gon Bops has truly paid the proper respect to its roots with this collection, and that’s no small order.

Details

Finish
Mahogany Stain
Construction
9- or 20-stave durian hardwood shells
Features
Wrenches and pouches included; classic-style counterhoops; original five-point tuning design; real cowhide head
Model, Size & List Price
Bongos ...7" & 8.5" $249
Quinto ...10.75" x 30" $669
Conga ...11.5" x 30" $699
Tumba ...12.25" x 30" $739
Super Tumba ...13.25" x 30" $799
Contact
Gon Bops
gonbops.com
800-817-2242