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Wanted - Drums of Note (Part 1)

Part 1 - The Americans

IT's exclusive guide to secondhand kits. What to look for, what to avoid.

Can't afford a new kit? Or looking for something a bit different? John Clarke guides you through the maze with a look at buying second-hand drums.

Whilst his guitarist colleagues will search long and hard to locate that very desirable 1952 'Febson Holocauster' with its rare nose tremolo attachment, the drummer has never had to worry about his instrument gaining such troublesome status. Until now, that is. A glance through the 'used' columns of the weeklies reveals the recent growth of phrases such as 'vintage kit' and 'rare model', accompanied by the sort of prices such words are attempting to justify. Are certain drums becoming collectable — and why should this occur now?

Due in part to the high cost of today's top-range kits, a lot more drummers are now looking to the older prestige makes which were previously cast aside in the rush to own the latest outfit from leading Japanese companies. Are any of these older kits worth resurrecting for the player who can't yet afford a brand-new one? What follows is a run-through of names and kits worth investigating, starting with America's once all-conquering 'big four' - in many areas today, available as virtual cast-offs.

The Big Four

LUDWIG must be the most famous family name ever to appear on an American drum (that'll set a few angry pens in motion!), with one Ringo Starr being largely responsible for their worldwide success in the 'sixties. A list of Ludwig drummers during that period, and for many years after, would miss out very few leading names of the era, with Joe Morello in the jazz sector and Ginger Baker in the heavy arena both playing drums of the same model, although in perhaps differing sizes and quantities. It must say one hell of a lot for a drum that it can be so versatile in its playing applications!

Flagship of the Ludwig fleet was the 'Super Classic', which comprised a 22"x 14" bass drum, 13"x9" mounted and 16"x 16" tom toms, and possibly the most widely acclaimed snare drum ever, their 14"x5" metal shell model.

Construction of Ludwig shells provided a thin ply bass drum using African Mahogany and Maple, with Beech reinforcing hoops, with their tom toms following the same construction with a Poplar core in their ply.

In my view (and admitting to the indulgence of owning two of these fine old sets), I have to say that Ludwig's manufacturing at that period sometimes left a little to be desired in the chrome plating department, and even today they still can't seem to overcome the problem on those 400 snare drums, which, after so many years, one would have thought should have been cured! Older Ludwig drums can be easily identified by the now defunct 'keystone' name badge, the use of reinforcing hoops, white paint (grandiosely titled 'Resocote') inside the shells, plus a rail-type tom tom holder and folding (Premier style) spurs. There was an interim period drum that had a thinner shell but carried the current logo and a lighter weight version of their present curved disappearing spurs, and this bridged the gap until Ludwig moved to the heavier Maple no-support shells of this decade. If you're after the 'Ludwig sound', often lauded by the more mature drummer, it's the old 'keystone' outfit that you should look for; and although good specimens are still to be found at reasonable prices I think they'll soon be snapped up by those wanting a genuine legend in percussion.

GRETSCH certainly run Ludwig a close second in the Statesider drum race, enjoying a reputation for both manufacturing and sound quality. With a heavier maple shell, Gretsch have remained virtually unchanged down the years, so age isn't perhaps as important when looking at this make - although, as they also altered the shape of their logo some time back, one sometimes sees adverts for Gretsch kits with the 'round' name badge. Taking this point up with a very informed Gretsch dealer, I was told that from his point of view the only thing it really means is that the wood is more aged, so, if you consider that of great importance, go for the round badge drums.

Genuine vintage 'Keystone' Ludwig logo

For many years Gretsch had the image of a jazz player's drum, and were largely ignored by the rock/pop drummer. To a certain degree this image remains, with jazz drummers certainly appreciating the sounds of these drums; but I wonder if this has largely been a result of Gretsch having marketed their drums to one sector in particular, combined with the lack of suitable hardware to attract the more energetic of our clan! Even now Gretsch are brought into the country as shell sets, to be fitted with holders and spurs to customers' preference, and in doing so they've attracted a number of Rock drummers who like their sound and high quality features such as the continued use of die-cast hoops and very well made and neat tension lugs. Definitely a drum for those seeking a highly respected and well constructed product, which will not only sound great but command a decent price in years to come; provided, of course, that it's well cared for.

ROGERS are a brand that, although popular when in production, never quite achieved the same degree of acceptance among British drummers as Ludwig or Gretsch. Older models were quite pleasing soundwise, but were endowed with their 'Swivomatic' spurs, tom tom and cymbal holders. These comprised fairly thin hexagonal rods which were trapped in position by clamping rings, tightening metal fingers on to the rod when fed into the relevant shell mounting. Certainly not the most rigid of methods for fitting a mounted tom tom! This hardware did little to endear itself to those wanting their tom toms to remain stil long enough to be clobbered! And, as you'd expect, Rogers' spurs and other fittings suffered in a similar way. The last efforts we saw from Rogers (before their demise as a US maker) went to the other extreme, with spurs resembling drainpipes protruding from the bass drum, but if you can live with those - and it is really a matter of taste - the fittings were a great improvement on what had gone before.

When considering buying an older Rogers kit, look out for any hardware suffering wear or deterioration. A special feature of their very good (albeit a swine to set up quickly) 'Dynasonic' snare drums was an exclusive-design cradle and snares, so before buying it would be a wise move to check if anyone has stock or replacement parts, and likewise for some other 'Rogers only' features.

A final word of caution. For a period, Rogers were made under an agreement with a British company who used parts shipped over, so check that what you're buying is in fact 'American manufacture', as this is a point the inexperienced could easily slip up on. Look out, too, for the few kits made in Taiwan under the Rogers label to be sold over here at a budget price. These should be pretty easy to spot, as they have modern fittings throughout and bear little resemblance to an original American Rogers.

It may seem that there are more ifs and buts in buying a used American Rogers than with other makes, but it isn't really the case. The main point is to make sure that it is a genuine USA model, and if so, not one for which you can't obtain vital spares.

A mid-60s Ludwig Super Classic in mint condition

SLINGERLAND is the last of the four major US makers that you're likely to encounter in the 'used' section of a music store. For many, the name Slingerland conjures up such luminaries as Buddy Rich, Louie Bellson and, prior to their demise, the endorsement of Carmine Appice, who is widely regarded as founder of the double bass drum/heavy school of drummers. Never really promoted as they deserved to be over here, I've often heard dealers complain that Slingerland were a difficult company to deal with, seemingly reluctant to answer correspondence and apparently unwilling to establish working lines of communication with their dealers. They're now another once-great name seemingly gone forever. Slingerland's shells were superbly made, with a 5-ply construction that allegedly used less glue than others, making for greater resonance and tonal qualities. Certainly the drums sound very good, and although, in common with the other Americans, they never had the hardware until it was too late, Slingerland have to be credited with a few nice touches on their drums, such as the counter hoops being turned inwards to provide a kinder and better striking surface for rimshots, along with the fitting of twin bass drum spurs long before others caught on to the idea (although, with newer designs, this is now outdated and unnecessary). Just before they ceased trading, a very heavy duty range of 'Magnum' hardware was introduced; but everyone I spoke to about this felt it would only appeal to the drummer with a handful of personal roadies or some form of surgical support! A case of too much, too late, I suspect.

The only Slingerland part that could cause problems today is a very individual snare assembly called the 'Slapshot'. This is no longer available as far as I'm aware, and you could well have to fit a whole new tensioner system when the snares need replacing.

Obviously there are many other American makes (such as Cameo, Leedy, North and Fibes), but I've stuck here to the 'big four' most likely candidates for your attention if a top-flight American drum kit is what you're considering. All four of these producers made drums that can stand side by side with any in terms of sound quality, but you do have to forget such luxuries as 'power sizes', the latest fashion finishes and (late Rogers excepted) memory systems. Also, you may find it an advantage to replace older tom tom holders with more modern designs, but if it's a good vintage set you're looking at, I strongly advise you to leave this to one of the many expert drum restorers capable of making a first-class job of such a conversion. Good hunting!

Series - "Drums Of Note"

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In Tune - Nov 1986


Buyer's Guide


Drums Of Note

Part 1 (Viewing) | Part 2

Feature by John Clarke

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> A New Track Record?

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