Pete Randall gives aid to skinbashers whose sound is bigger than their pockets, and goes hunting in second-hand land.
The price of buying new gear for any drummer today is daunting to say the least with prices rising all the time and a tendency for more sophisticated and larger set-ups being the rule rather than the exception in today's up and coming bands. Over the past two or three years, since the new wave music has become the vogue, more and more young people have become interested in taking up instruments and forming their own bands or joining other people's. The pre-1976 young aspiring musician often felt a bit overwhelmed by groups like Genesis, Yes, ELP, etc, because of their advanced techniques and mountains of equipment, and knew full well it would take him/her a lifetime of saving and practice to emulate the big stars. If nothing else, new wave has brought music back to the basics and made it more acceptable to a lot of young people who may not aspire to be the next ELP, Yes or similar.
Sales of second hand instruments have always been good ever since the Liverpool mopheads inspired thousands of kids (me among them) to rush out and buy a set of drums or guitars with hard-earned cash, begged, borrowed or saved over many anxious months. In those days (1964/65) you could buy a second-hand drum kit for about £30 or £40, complete with stands and cymbals. My first kit cost me £25, and was basically a mixture of Premier, Olympic and Ajax with Krut and Zyn cymbals, and I felt more excitement the first day of owning that kit than all the Ludwig, Gretsch, and Sonor kits and so on that have come into and gone from my possession over the years. To buy a new drum kit today can cost anything between £600 to £2000 depending on your needs and preferences for makes. This alone is a good reason to look seriously at what is available second-hand.
Unlike electronic instruments, drums are basically just shells with fittings on, and what you see is what you get. If there is anything wrong with a drum kit or cymbal, it will be obvious on close inspection and no super-smooth salesman can tell you it is in perfect working order if the shells are cracked or the tom tom holder is broken. A reasonable four drum kit without cymbals and accessories will probably set you back about £100 to £400, and many good drums and cymbals hold or increase their value as years go by. This is especially true of Avedis Zildjian and Paiste cymbals. About 12 years ago you could buy a 20in Avedis Zildjian cymbal for about £25 brand new and the price now is about £75 and going up all the time as world prices of metals and production costs constantly rise.
First let us deal with the drums themselves: scanning the pages of Exchange & Mart or Melody Maker is usually a good start in Britain, but you must know what you are letting yourself in for as you will have very little legal recourse on a private individual if your purchase turns out to be in some way faulty or falls to bits on your first gig. When phoning an advert in the press for a kit, make sure that the person has got exactly what is advertised. I once chased over to the other side of London after a four drum Hayman kit for £60 which turned out to be a battered old Carlton kit with Hayman stamped on the bass drum head. Needless to say, it was someone's mother selling the drums and she thought because it had Hayman on the bass drum, that was what it was! The things to look for regarding working condition are mostly very obvious — like rust and stripped threads. Check that everything works properly, setting the kit up if necessary. If it is piled up in a corner of a room, take it piece by piece and check everything thoroughly. If all the chrome work looks tidy and fittings appear to work well, try taking one head on each drum off and look at the inside of the shells since any cracks or holes should then be obvious. Remember that any faulty shell can be recovered to look good so don't be fooled by appearances.
Cymbals are usually what they appear to be — if they are dirty and dull-looking, a bit of warm soap and water and liquid cymbal cleaner will bring them up a treat but, as with drum shells, look for cracks. These usually appear at the edge across the grooves or towards the bell running with the grooves. These cracks can often be hairline and will not always show up on playing.
Many a tatty kit can be made to look like new by being recovered and cleaned up a bit, and there are people who can do this for you for about £30 or £40 for three drums. This is really worth doing if you buy a good quality kit like Ludwig, Slingerland, Gretsch, Pearl, Rogers, Premier or similar. There are a lot of really nice old Ludwig kits going around. The older ones have small crown-shaped metal badges and are reputedly a bit better quality than newer Ludwig kits. These are real gems and worth spending a little time and money on doing up.
At the cheaper end of the scale, many makes are worth investigating for they will usually sound good with decent well-tuned heads - among these Hayman, Olympic, Trixon, English Rogers, Beverly and pre-1972 Sonor are a few to look for. When you eventually find a kit you think is worth the price asked, don't worry too much about a duff spur or a wobbly tom tom holder since this will often give you an arguing point to hustle a bit of discount off the asking price. Most shops will give 10% at least for cash and the money you save can be spent on a new set of spurs or a new tom tom holder. If you don't feel like doing the job yourself most decent drum shops will undertake to replace a faulty part and absorb the labour cost (if it is not too much) into the profit made on the kit and parts. Buying privately as opposed to buying from a shop is really only for those who know what to look for and what price to pay. There are people who buy and sell drums all the time and their homes usually look like drum shops.
Looking through the back pages of the music press, certain names and telephone numbers crop up every week. These private dealers can often offer a kit cheaper than a shop can because of low overheads, no VAT and a number of other things, but cannot offer much of a guarantee which for a beginner or person of limited drum knowledge can be an important consideration. Remember shops want to keep your custom as you will always want sticks, cases, stands, etc, and even when you own that dream kit, the financial outlay does not stop there.
While on the question of finance, if you are a beginner don't think that you have to have as many drums as Phil Collins or Billy Cobham. You would probably do yourself more harm than good trying to get around ten tom toms and six cymbals if you cannot play a paradiddle yet. Most name drummers with big kits have been playing anything from 10-25 years and, as well as technique, have built up considerable stamina and strength over the years to be able to play large kits. The basic requirement can be as simple as one snare drum, a bass drum and a pair of hi-hats, all of which could be bought for about £30 to £50. Apart from second-hand gear, there are some very reasonable stands available at about £7 to £12 each which, if you are not playing the Hammersmith Odeon, will do the job while you're learning.
Customising is becoming a popular pastime with drummers these days and most things can be done at home with a very basic knowledge. Very few drummers buy a kit as per catalogue and different kits serve different purposes. If you do a lot of different types of work, say a small pub gig one night, a session the next day, and a loud rock band playing the Marquee on the weekend, then you might find two kits would be useful - say, one consisting of a 20in bass drum, 12in x 8in hanging tom and 14in x 14in floor tom with a 14in x 5in snare. These sizes will usually be more than enough for a session or pub gig. When playing in a fully amplified rock band, something like a 22in or 24in bass drum and a row of toms ranging from 8in to 16in with either a 16in x 16in or 18in x 16in floor tom would give you good looks and volume enough to compete with the guitar/keyboard backline. Anything bigger than this will probably be for effect rather than sound. It is a fallacy that a 26in or 28in bass drum will sound louder than a 22in or 24in: modern miking-up techniques coupled with a good PA system make a very large bass drum unnecessary.
If you fancy building a drum kit from scratch by buying all the bits and assembling them yourself, then you may encounter certain problems. I did just this recently with a pair of concert toms. Having bought two completely bare shells, I then bought some Pearl nut boxes and rods, a couple of rims and two brackets, and a floor stand. Finally, I had them covered to match the rest of my kit and painted the inside of the shells with a white silthane paint. When finally working out the cost of the individual items and recovering, it would work out about the same to have bought them brand new so I did not really save any money in the long run. Manufacturers are often uncooperative in supplying large enough quantities of nut boxes, for instance, to make it economically viable. Ludwig nut boxes are about £2.30 each so to make one bass drum you would spend £46 on nut boxes alone - if you could get hold of them. Most people I know making up custom drums use Hayman nut boxes mainly because they are cheap (about 80p each) and because they are still in plentiful supply owing to an enterprising person living on the south coast who still has the original jig and can supply shops and wholesalers.
To conclude then: spend your time looking round for good second-hand gear, don't be hasty, look through the small ads and try to talk to experienced drummers who may have valuable tips on makes, quality and the possibility for improvement.
Peter Randall is an ex-pro drummer now working as a salesman at Henrit's Drumstore in Central London.
Feature by Peter Randall
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