CongaDr+ Tony's Conga Adventures: JCR Congas project and review - new cow skins, less ring

Thursday, August 14, 2008

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JCR Congas project and review - new cow skins, less ring


This was a fun project for Norman a local player and Rumba fan. He saw a post on Craigslist when i was selling some extra gear. He emailed me about helping him reduce the ringing on some seriously hard JCR Congas. We found that we know each other from the rumba scene, and he would bring Isla's first conga made (2004) for me to restore as well.

The had JCR mule skins on them, young and in good shape, but not the right skins to make these congas sound right. Yes, its subjective, but you tell me: see video.

In fact, Norm was saying he didnt take them out of the back room, when cats would come over to play. These fine tubs, with great potential, remained virtually unplayed since purchased a few years back due to the heavy ringing.

It was so nice to see them come in, as i knew my skins would do the trick - cutting the ring, and fattening up the tone.

Norm is such good people, I knew this was going to be a fun project.

Firstly, it was a joy to take off the virtually new JCR mule skins, as people on the east coast brag about them, and I dont care for them - for most uses other than a thick piece on an oak rumba quinto, that is.

The mule skins will be nice, recycled for a set of bata, but to my ear, they were not right on this set of solid Oak congas. The ring was unbelievable.

I have to wonder.. with sets of bongo that have such legendary sound, why would JCR let these out of the shop ringing like this? Perhaps its just set up so a rookie can play them? not enough mule skin of quality? who knows. They sounded awful, but are very nice drums, built like tanks.

Built like a tank, sound like a tank? Sometimes... but i really like the sound of these tubs with thick cow on them. The hardware is immaculate, with some of the best banding ive ever seen on a conga. They have an alma, plates on the inside to disperse the load, and a rubber bottom, really nice beefy crown, lugs and sideplates. Matt Smith and JCR make the best hand made hardware ... JCR's metal bands rock like a metal band! They are as tight as i have seen on a conga.

The shells are thick and the shell is very well made. These drums are the heaviest on the market. I bet they are 50 lbs each! your average conga is 30 lbs.

Im not sure if the wood is cured correctly, as the small crack i fixed did show up early in the drums life... but this may have to do with the way the oak was cut ie plainsawn, as opposed to quartersawn like Valje congas, for example.. Perhaps they use the plainsawn to get the nice grain look, as the quartersawn is not as pretty looking to most people. (

I found out that Caly makes the shells and the hardware, and has an apprentice assemble and finish the drum.

Who ever is finishing the drums is not very experienced with wood, as there is much cross sanding... ....with the grain man... with!

All in all, they are fine drums, even at the $800 range or so.

They sounded a lot better, with the new Cow skin.

I did repair a small crack that had developed in the middle of a stave, down 6 inches from the top. It may also be due to the owner having to tune these JCR's high, just to get into their range, if you follow me.

I took a before and after video, so we can all see what im talking about regarding the ring. That is, if the sound quality works.. we'll see. Let me know if you can hear it ok. If it works, Ill do it for every restoration project from here out.

So, Norm showed up in the middle of the 'after' video taping, and was grinning ear to ear - loved the skins, and the sound of his new drums. He actually can play them now, with joy and pleasure. we ended up talking about the scene for hours. One cool cat.

After pic:

Another satisfied player, how fun it that. It's so rewarding to me.


Some notes on the video... sorry about how dark it is, will get that sorted out next time... I tuned them at the low and the high end of their range, so you can get good listen.. These tubs had a very small range, and needed to be tuned higher than i would like, for 11.75 and 12.5 drums.

I also recorded a new skin put on the Isla conga i restored for Norm as well as the El Chino 11". (they sound more similar live, not so much on the video, as you can hear)

I love the sound of Isla drums, this is the first one ever made by Mario, or so i understand. I had to mount it a bit low, as the lugs were a bit short. As i was saying, this was their first conga ever, made in July of 2004, so it was a work in progress. Isla makes great sounding drums, without a doubt.

The before and after video is funny to me, as it's obviously before and after coffee! I think i go from a bass to a tenor, as the day progresses. ;)

In response to questions..

Yea, the mule's were thin, thicker mule would sound much nicer. But i find it hard to get just the right thickness with Mule, as it can be way too thick, at times. In my experience, it takes a skilled eye, and the experience with the drum being skinned, to always get it right. Also, the hardware was not set up for beefy skins, it was a struggle to get these medium thick skins on, but im sure thats just a matter of a special order.

Like i was saying in the post, the skins will work nicely for the Machos of a set of Bata. They would also be nice on a set of bongo. Very nice that the drums were big enough, we can recycle the mule.

Player, If you watch the video again, you will see that, in the before section, i tuned them up to the top of its range.. the tape jumps to the higher tuning quickly, half way through the 'before' part.

The drums were tuned individually at the bottom, and then at the top of their individual range, not to be tuned with each other. It was meant to express the voice of each individual drum, and to be listened to one at a time. I should have played them one at a time, i hear you. As far as them being tuned high enough.. they are extremely high tuning drums, for the sizes, and you have to crank them up like a quinto to get into the sweet spot They had a limited range - probably why it was hard to see the change in tuning on the video.

They are a large conga and a tumba, keep in mind. Thats not such a bad thing, you can play this set like a quinto and a conga, if you want - lots of room on that 11.75" quinto! It does make the ringing more of an issue, however.



  1. That's great Tony! You turned those drums 180 degrees. Nice, I like when the owner comes in- that's a great moment. Good sound on the video.

  2. Thanks Johathan,

    Yea, the timing is perfect. Just like a true percussionist!

    It looks like it was staged ;)


  3. Hi Tony, Great job on taming them beasts. You could really tell the difference. I am presently waiting for my new SOS's and after watching your video I think about what their sound will be like. I really hope that they sound good from the get-go. Thanks again.

  4. I spoke to Norman by phone, a few years ago prior to his purchase of the JCRs.
    I would have recommended thicker
    or medium /thick mule skins which is what experienced players usually
    desire, and I always recommend.
    However he chose to pick up a set from from your local mega-retailer. They ordered 2 sets - which were originally intended for someone working in their drum dept. to their specifications.
    You can't really judge all mule skins or cow skins either by one or two sets...In fact no two animals
    are exactly alike. Given the exact same thickness in a mule and a steer or cow hide, you'd still have differnet densities and strength within, which is what partially defines the sound. The rest comes from the players abilities.
    Neither is it an east coast vs west coast issue. If that were true, more mule skins are in fact ordered from the west coast were you have many more talented and serious rumberos than anywhere in the country. I'm a bit jealous !

    But you're evaluations in this case
    are accurate...and keep up up
    your wonderful blog site.

    Isaac Gutwilik

  5. Nice to hear from you Isaac,

    I was wondering why they were so thin. Yes, im sure thicker mule would sound great as well.

    I sometimes use Mule myself. I like the sound of Mule for an oak quinto in a Rumba setting, and on the macho of a set of Bongo. Getting the right thickness is key, as Isaac indicated.

    In case anyone is looking for Mule skins, Isaac is the man. He also is the rep for JCR, if Im not mistaken, and from what i understand, they are making fine drums once again.

    So glad to hear JCR will continue it's stellar 'American Dream' of a story.



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