Buying your first gong - Part 1: How to avoid wasting your money...
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.
Alongside these two market-shapers there are companies such as UFIP (www.ufip.it) and Sona (www.sonasounds.com) who produce smaller quantities of instruments and either lack the technical capability or motivation to finely tune their products. This does not however mean that they don't produce great instruments, they are just different to play from the tuned gongs and their ranges are a little more limited.
One company to investigate here is Tone of Life (gongs.toneoflife.com) who handle the distribution of Sona gongs outside of Germany. These instruments are built with great intention and a strong emphasis on sound healing using natural elements....
I recently purchased a 42" Tone of Life Earth Gong (structurally equivalent to a Paiste or Oetken/Meinl 'Sound Creation' gong), which is a truly magnificent instrument - rough, ready expansive and deeply absorbing it sees its way into all of my sessions... But would I have bought it as a first gong?... Perhaps not...
Then we have the 'Designer gongs' of which there are many artisans like Martin Blasé, Matt Nolan and Steve Hubback experimenting with fantastic artwork, innovative shapes and exotic materials. If you want something that will get a real 'wow' when your friends first see it then this is the place to look. Being smaller, these manufacturers will quite possibly give you time to play their instruments too... But before you do it's worth making sure that you have tried a few Paiste or Oetken/Meinl gongs first so that you know, sound wise, what the 'art of the possible' really is.
In the past I did attempt to engage meaningfully with one of these designers about his products, but when I started to move the discussion onto the gongs specific sound and tuning he quickly stopped responding... Perhaps this gives some indication of the priorities for at least some of the suppliers at this end of the market?
So where does this leave you with respect to buying your first gong?
If you are budget constrained or think your work will be predominantly focus on friction mallets then it might be worth thinking about a Chau gong. But really, if you look on eBay there are occasionally some very reasonable looking European gongs available for about the same price and the chances are that their owners will be more than happy for you to go and play them to see if they work for you.
If the look of the gong is all important to you then the Designer gong route might be right - go make friends with whichever designers appeal to you and try a few out. I've never taken this route myself and the designer gongs I have played have felt quite heavy/disconnected. But they do have interesting voices and I do know accomplished gong players who say that they have some very good sounding designer gongs, so maybe it's worth investigating...
That leaves the big tuned European gong makers and their smaller untuned cousins. Certainly many gong players start out with one of the Paiste gongs, really for simple reasons - there are a lot on the market, they are easy to get hold of (by gong standards!), they are high quality, have a good name, you see lots of people playing them and they have a wide range of tunings which some retailers are willing to let you try... when they have stock.
Personally I don't use Paiste right now because of the personal relationship I developed with Oetken when I first started playing. But I may buy one or two some time, they have a slightly heavier bell like resonance than the tight, dynamic sounds of the Oetken gongs and I can see them working well alongside the big Tone of Life earth gong as well.
The important stuff...
Hopefully the above info will give you an idea where to start looking for your first gong and what manufacturers to investigate. You pay your money and you make your choice... but remember these three key points...
Firstly, until you have a ton of experience and have played a lot of different gongs do not buy a gong that you have not already played. By this I don't mean play your instructors 32" Paiste symphonic, fall in love with it and order one off the internet. I mean play your instructors 32" symphonic, fall in love with it and buy it off her, or go to a store who carry one, play it for 20 mins and see if you fall in love with that one too, before you buy it.
Secondly be patient - get out there, explore, investigate and play as many gongs as you can before you commit... Give it time. Most established gong players will tell you that in the same way that you don't play the gong, the gong plays you. You also don't choose the gong, the gong chooses you... Give your first gong time to find you.
Finally, don't listen to anyone who is trying to sell you a gong, listen to the gong itself. If a retailer tells you it is a brilliant gong but won't let you take as long as you need to play it, then walk away, it's not for you. If the description of the gong on the manufacturers website sounds like it was made for you but you have no chance to play it... Then don't buy it.
One last consideration...
Most people who work with the gong will tell you that their first gong fulfilled a different role to any of the others that they subsequently purchased or worked with. As a tutor, one of the hallmarks of the small handful of truly great gong players that I have heard is that they have reached a point in their own journey where they are able to temporarily leave 'self' aside when they play.
This is not something that comes over night. The gongs carry such a compelling energy that it is easy to become overwhelmed, grasp out for control and/or end up in a power struggle that we inevitably loose. But it is our first gong that teaches us how to surrender and find beauty in the flow; how to let go of self, how to become the channel and how to feed, nurture and animate it through the session.
So your first gong is all important, it might not even be the gong that you end up taking out to your first performances. But it will be the gong that prepares you to hold space and channel whatever energies these remarkable instruments can bring for others.
For my own part my first gong was a 36" tuned Pluto gong made by Broder Oetken, it was magnificently challenging, fiery, and cathartic - the high priest at the gate of Hades and the Phoenix rising from the ashes. For three months I played every day, sometimes for hours on end, sometimes laughing, sometimes crying, sometimes both at the same time.
By the end I was empty and the gong itself had mellowed - no matter how much the gong pushed into me I could calmly surrender and invite more; I knew I was ready to take the gongs out and leave myself behind. So I bought a gentle 36" tuned earth gong from Broder, almost identical in tuning to Pluto, but of a completely different character and far more suitable for taking out in public.
My first gong had served its purpose, had I started with the earth gong I may well have had the right gong for the audience but I would never have been able to grow into the space where I was ready to channel it effectively. This is why you really need to play the specific gong that you are interested in before you buy it. It will be the teacher who ultimately defines your pathway through this space, and you will know when that teacher has found you... You'll have no questions...
Gongs aren't cheap. I have trained a lot of people, but in truth few stay the course as practitioners. Perhaps it's not for them, perhaps it's more challenging than they thought, it is certainly very difficult for most of us to make a living out of it. But I can't help feeling that perhaps many of them simply rushed out and bought a 'reasonably priced' gong with a nice description on the Internet - which never really connected deeply enough with them to help them move on to the next stage of their journey.
Be patient... And wait for your next teacher to arrive...
In part 2 - What's the difference between Symphonic, Planetary and Tuned gongs?