When I first learnt to play the gong I was extremely lucky to have the chance to spend time in north Germany visiting the worlds two leading manufacturers of tuned gongs. At that time I had no idea what a blessing it was to be taught western gong making first hand and to be free to play a wide range of different, freshly birthed instruments.
However, when I guide my own students on how best to buy their first gong, I realise that without the chance to go to the manufacturers workshop, build a relationship of trust and spend as much time as you need trying out likely candidates, picking that all important first instrument is truly a mine field!
So what's the problem?
A musical instrument like no other...
Really it's simple... Imagine that you want to buy a keyboard... A keyboard is a mechanical instrument built to produce specific notes in response to specific actions. All keyboards have the same basic structure and, on the face of it, function in much the same way - press this key you get a B press that one and you get a C... The same with guitars, flutes or any other instrument that you might want to play... Yes there are variations in tuning and type - electric, acoustic, bass, six hole, five hole, grand, baby and so on. But fundamentally, for each variation, you know you will get what you pay for, and each instrument of a specific type and tuning will respond pretty consistently to your actions, whether you pay £100 or £1000 for it.
But gongs (actually what we play are technically known as Tam Tams... But we'll talk about that in Part 2) are so very different. Firstly gongs have no holes, keys, frets, tongues or any other device that will produce a consistent, repeatable note. Yes some of them might have been finely tuned to produce a clear sound of a specific frequency when struck firmly in the centre. But this is seldom how we play them.
Instead, each and every gong produces a kaleidoscopic avalanche of abstract, unstructured harmony. Some whistle and warble, some roar and thunder. Some can be drawn out to chant gently whilst others - made by the same manufacturer, of the same material, size, construction and tuning - stubbornly refuse to do anything other than grumble and chunter. Add to this the fact that for most gongs the more you work with them the more responsive they become - every gong is completely different. And of course who knows what style is going to work for you when you start to play?
I do know one manufacturer who takes incredible care to assure consistency between his instruments; to the degree that I once saw him produce as many as 9 different gongs for a single customer order - unwilling to ship any of them because he believed they were all too far away from his original 'master' gong of the same specification. But even with that level of diligence I know he would be the first to admit that every gong is different, sometimes profoundly so...
On one occasion I had a couple of delightful students who wanted to train together, up to practitioner level. They were committed to working together as a team at all of their public sessions, and decided it would be great to play identical gongs. They visited a local supplier who was willing to let them try a few, and fell in love with a delightful little Paiste Mercury gong.
The supplier let them take away the one they had just played - a remarkable chittering-chattering, laughing character - entirely what you would expect of Mercury - and placed another one on back order with the manufacturer. A few weeks later, the second Paiste Mercury gong arrived and you couldn't imagine a more different character...this one was dark, rolling and soporific. Both great gongs made to exactly the same specification, in the same workshop and by the same manufacturer, but completely different in sound and effect on the listener.
Many cooks many broths...
Next we come to the huge diversity of manufacturers making large metal discs that they claim (or we assume) will be suitable for playing to an audience.
Broadly speaking, the gong market here in the UK (and as I understand it in Europe and North America) splits into 3 camps: There are Asian or 'Chau' gongs, European gongs and Designer gongs.
The vast majority of Chau gongs are made at myriad small foundries, mainly in the bustling industrial city of Wuhan, China, about 500 miles west of Shanghai. They are cast from bronze of varying composition, similar to bell metal, which is then worked to produce some kind of resonance.
As Chau gongs are produced by so many different workshops they are gathered together by a handful of global distributors, given a label and sold onto the western market at between 50% and 90% of the cost of a European gong of equivalent size. That's probably about what they are worth. They have their place at the back of a drum kit (think Pink Floyd and Zildjan). Some varieties of Chau gongs, such as the wind gongs, can produce some interesting sounds, and I am told that many work well with Flumies (Friction Mallets). But compared to European gongs they are of limited use and you may well soon tire of playing them. There is also the risk that, being cast, if the original mix or casting were poor then over time, or if hit by a hard object, this type of gong can crack, which will be the end of their playing days; they cannot be repaired.
Most European gongs are made from circular blanks cut from huge sheets of milled nickel silver. When worked by skilled craftsmen this material can produce a truly astounding variety of sounds. These gongs can be very accurately tuned for specific functions (often known as 'Planetary gongs' which we'll also talk about in Part 2).
There are really two companies who produce such tuned gongs in significant volume, both of which operate out of Rendsburg in northern Germany: Paiste (www.paistegongs.com) dominate the market; shipping around 2000 gongs per year, whilst Oetken Gongs (www.oetken-gongs.de) produce about 600; distributed predominantly through the Meinl Sonic Energy brand (www.meinlsonicenergy.com). Paiste sell through a sophisticated retail network worldwide. Meinl sell more often through the Internet - beware, Meinl also sell ranges of Chinese Chau, wind and other specialist gongs under their Sonic Energy brand, but they do make it absolutely clear which of their gongs are made in Germany and which are imported from Asia.
There are subtle differences in the manufacture and appearance of Paiste and Oetken/Meinl gongs. At the time of writing Paiste tend to use a slightly thicker metal which means their gongs are a little heavier to play and have a more bell like quality, particularly when they are 'coming down'. In contrast the Oetken/Meinl gongs are a little lighter, quicker to come up, and tend to have a more 'dynamic' character; playing to the inherent tension within the instrument.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the companies is that, being smaller with fewer craftsmen, Oetken appear able to ensure higher consistency between their products. And, at least at the time I was dealing with them regularly, were still small enough to invest time with potential clients and build bespoke gongs that have been tuned and/or finished to individual customer specifications. If you want an Oetken gong in a hurry though you'll need to buy a standard build through the Meinl brand.