Tuning Japanese: A Look at Vintage Japanese Drum Sets

When most people think of drums from the '60s and '70s, they usually don't think of brands like Kingston, Del Rey, or U.S. Mercury first. However, collectors, players, session drummers, and producers are starting to become more aware of these lost names from the golden age of drums. These made in Japan (or "MIJ") brands represent a cross-section of the many names one might run across at a pawn shop or garage sale. They're usually a little banged up or missing parts, but they have a certain vibe that's difficult to explain.

A Demanding Drum Market

In the early to mid '60s, amidst the growing popularity of rock music and the onset of the British Invasion, Ludwig and other drum companies such as Slingerland and Rogers could barely keep up with the demand for drum sets. While Ludwig certainly had the edge over the rest of the marketplace due to their association with Ringo and The Beatles, this boom in rock music affected every drum company.

In turn, this gave emerging Japanese companies like Pearl, Yamaha, and Hoshino (later known as Tama), the opportunity to look overseas to see how they could profit from this rise in the demand for drums.

While every kid who wanted to start playing drums typically had their heart set on a Ludwig or other American-made set, not every parent could afford one. This is where the "off-brands" came in. It was common practice in many musical instrument factories to produce multiple lines that were aesthetically similar but had different brands associated with them.

Though Pearl and Yamaha were already beginning to produce some fairly high-quality drums in the late '60s, they wouldn't become known for high-quality, reliable drums until the late '70s and early '80s (the golden age of "MIJ" drums, to many).

But American importers saw an opportunity in the mid '60s to partner with these overseas companies and bring kits and snares into the U.S. that had the look and feel of American drums, without the hefty price tag. These were often sold in department stores, such as Montgomery Wards or Sears, or as entry-level alternatives in well-established drum shops.

Carving a Place in the Drum Market

There were a number of different badges and "brands" that could be associated with these sets, including Apollo, Lyra, Lido, Stewart, Zim-Gar, and Whitehall, as well as the aforementioned names. Many of these drums had the same lugs and hardware and were most likely made in the same factory. Exactly where they were produced and through which major company is impossible to tell.

One common factor among all these sets was the use of Luan mahogany wood to make the shells, most commonly with a vertical grain. Luan Mahogany, also known as Phillipine Mahogany, was cheap and easy to build with. Some drums would have reinforcement rings on the top and bottom of the shell. Others would have one running across the middle, and others would have none at all.

Many size configurations mirrored those of American drums, and their finishes were designed to copy the popular sparkle and swirl-based wraps of American drums. The materials and patterns used for these wraps, however, weren't always obtained from the same sources as American companies. This made for some unique finishes that have yet to be duplicated or featured on any other drums to this day.

Formerly Plentiful and Unappreciated, Now a Prized Rarity

These MIJ (also known as "stencil drums") kits and snares were known for being entry-level at the time, due to their flimsier hardware, cheaper chrome plating, and lower-level of quality control. But they were also plentiful and readily available. Because they were regarded this way, they were often thrown about haphazardly, or even eventually discarded altogether by their owners. This means that today, it can be difficult to find a complete and unmolested MIJ drum set in good condition.

Today, many high-profile drummers and engineers are starting to catch on to just how good these drums can be. Aaron Sterling, touring drummer for John Mayer, turned some heads when he brought his U.S. Mercury set out on tour.

With the right combination of an experienced tech, the right heads, and good tuning, it's difficult to tell the difference between an MIJ set and a vintage Slingerland – especially when mic'd up. The best part is that many of these kits can be purchased (if you can find them) for very reasonable prices, compared to other '60s and '70s drum sets. They often range anywhere from $200 to $800, depending on condition and the desirability of specific sizes and finishes.

This isn't to say that every MIJ kit is going to sound like a million dollars. Because the shells were thinner and flimsier, and not as much attention went into cutting the bearing edges, many of these drums have warped or gone out of round. Others have dips and chips in the bearing edges that make the drums nearly impossible to tune. That being said, when you get a good one, you get a good one.

Some sets have some real flexibility and range when tuned. They can be bottomed out for a great round, warm tone, or cranked up for jazz and bop. It can be helpful to inspect a stencil kit or snare when buying one, or to have a good sound file that really lets you hear what they can do.

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