Natal Drums: A Brief History of Jim Marshall's Drum Company

The backing of the mighty Marshall Amplification company has turned a historic British percussion brand into a world-beating drum maker. Ever since the ‘60s, the UK punched way above its weight in commercial rock and pop music, but it had less impact on instruments played by legendary artists. One area where Britain led the way, however, is amplification, where Marshall’s stacks were the launch pad for The Who, Jimi Hendrix, and, subsequently, the sound of heavy rock and metal.

James Charles Marshall (better-known as Jim) started out as a tool-making engineer, a tap dancer turned professional singer and serious big-band drummer, and an inspirational drum teacher whose pupils included Hendrix’s Mitch Mitchell, as well as Micky Waller (Jeff Beck, Rod Stewart), Mick Underwood (The Herd, Gillan), and John Marshall (Soft Machine).

A young Jim Marshall.

Jim Marshall’s elevation to number one Father of Loud was almost accidental, born from a sideline at his music shop. The Marshall store, on Uxbridge Road in Hanwell, north-west London, was frequented by stars such as Pete Townshend and also the leading session guitarists of the day, including Big Jim Sullivan, Jimmy Page, and Ritchie Blackmore.

Throughout his long and celebrated career, Jim never lost his love for drums. As a young man, he took lessons with the formidable Max Abrams and, like Max, he played Premier drums—the UK’s outstanding brand. His shop secured a prestigious Premier dealership back in the early days.

Premier enjoyed many decades of success, but by the time of the 2008 economic crash, the harsh realities of competition from Chinese factories and from global trade in general were taking a grievous toll. A plethora of individual British craft drum builders tried their hands at filling the gap, sparking a renaissance in drum building. Names like Noonan, HighWood, Jalapeno, KD, Guru, and others garnered outstanding reviews.

Meanwhile, the now aging Jim Marshall was determined to own a drum brand with a British heritage. Premier seemed the obvious choice, but this was not to be. Instead, in 2010, Marshall announced the acquisition of Natal.

Natal of London

Like Marshall, Natal came to international attention in the mid '60s. "Natal" suggests South Africa, but in fact it was the British percussionist Alan Sharp who came up with the name, an elision of "Natalie" (Sharp’s wife) and "Alan." Sharp, who died in 2013, was a studious Afro-Cuban percussionist and a one-time member of the hit British funk-Latin-disco band Gonzalez.

Alan Sharp c. '70s, with early Natal congos.

Sharp’s story is of the dedicated musician frustrated at being unable to get the gear he wants and who therefore sets about making it himself. This was way back in 1958. He sourced individual parts and assembled his own-design Afro-Cuban congas in his North London apartment.

He pioneered the use of fiberglass for his conga shells and guiros, which he actually molded at home. Amazingly, he also cast his own aluminum "crowns," a style of hoop since dubbed the "comfort hoop," because it’s kinder to the conguero’s hands than the traditional sharp-edged steel rim.

Fellow percussionists came calling, the brand slowly took off, and the Natal Percussion Company was launched in 1965. Like Marshall, Natal arrived at the right moment to fulfill a need in the British market. Natal congas had striking "dribble" finishes in black, red, and yellow, and their fiberglass shells meant they were considered louder than congas made with traditional stave wood. Natal could be seen on stage with Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley’s Wailers, Deep Purple, The Rolling Stones, T.Rex, Fleetwood Mac—pretty much everybody, really.

Alan Sharp continued to develop Natal until the ‘80s, when he moved to Cuba to study. The company was left with his student, Steve Mutter, a talented woodworker. Mutter introduced the first Natal congas made with ash-wood staves before selling to Craig Fenney of the Music Shipping Company in the late ‘90s. Fenney successfully expanded the percussion range during the early 2000s, until Jim Marshall came knocking.

You can see The Wailers' Carlton Barrett playing original Natal congas in this Top of the Pops performance of "Exodus."

Marshall Plan

Marshall’s sales director Craig Glover tells me that Jim liked the fact there were no rules with Natal, no legacy of products. "It was a blank canvas," he says. "You could start from the ground up. So all the designs were done in the UK, and all the tooling was owned by Marshall. Jim did not want generic drum products—he wanted everything unique. All along, the brief was to create an absolutely fantastic product."

It was important at first for Marshall to have something UK-built, so the first product was a snare drum with an ash-stave shell, built in the Marshall factory in Milton Keynes, north-west of London. The use of ash was a direct leap from the ash-stave congas. There was also a set of snare drums with hammered-steel shells offered in various finishes.

Craig Glover, Jim Marshall, and Gary Walmsley

When it came to full kits, however, the Marshall factory was not set up to produce drums in volume, and so drum sets and drum hardware were manufactured in two facilities in Taichung, Taiwan. Glover says it would have been far cheaper to produce the tooling and hardware and kits in China.

"But in Taiwan, everything follows the same quality-control processes that Marshall uses for its amplifiers. As a huge manufacturing company, Marshall could go in and say this is how we are going to set up the factory, putting all the processes in place to make the exact products that we wanted."

Distinctive Image

The Natal drum brand was unleashed at the 2010 Musikmesse in Frankfurt, alongside Natal’s existing congas and other percussion instruments. As if from nowhere, a new drum set appeared with a strong, fully realized visual identity. This had much to do with the lug design, which incorporated the original Natal sun logo in a thickly-cast circular zinc body. The motif was repeated on the twin badges affixed to each drum, with air-vent holes neatly providing the "sun" of the Natal logo.

Tri-Throw Snare

Further examination revealed abundant evidence of thoughtful design. The Tri-Throw snare strainer, the trickiest mechanical puzzle for any aspiring new drum company, also had the circular lug shape and sun motif, for example, but it offered three tension positions rather than simply an on-off.

For the inevitable small-tom resonance mount, Natal’s design team favored the ball-and-socket style, but they were unhappy with the way resin balls eventually wear and develop a positional "memory." The solution was to use a non-slip aluminum ball instead. Attention to quality control extended to the chroming on the lugs, too, which were polished by hand rather than machine. "There’s obviously an extra cost to that," Glover says, "but it has that really deep shine."

Right down to the minutiae, Natal seemed determined to go the extra distance. The Tru-Tune tension rods had tips dipped in red nylon to reduce detuning, and they incorporated no fewer than three washers: small and large steel, plus black nylon. Glover offers one more example: "We use British beeswax on the bearing edges. Jim insisted on using that, because it’s the best thing for the job. They couldn’t get it in Taiwan, so we flew over with a block of it," he adds with a smile.

Maple and Walnut Originals

With the hardware so well thought out, Marshall decided to make it universal to all the new drums. Glover says the first kits all had the same hardware, the same components—they just changed the wood. "So if you had ash, it would be cheaper than birch, and slightly cheaper than maple. The wood dictates the price. After we launched, we did that for five years, so there were no lower-level products."

These so-called Originals kits were all offered at competitive prices, belying their top professional quality. And at the same time, Natal delivered two complete sets of entirely UK-designed stands and pedals, bristling with cool ideas, as feature-packed as the drums.

Maple Originals in matte black.

Once the Originals series was firmly established, Natal added Arcadia in 2015 and Café Racer in 2017. Café Racer is now probably Natal’s best seller, using tulipwood (also known as yellow poplar) and offering new finishes. Glover says little was changed beyond the wood and the finishes. "It’s still made in Taiwan, hits a sweet price point, and has a superb vintage sound," he claims.

Arcadia, too, retains the Natal characteristics, but it’s made in China. Glover again: "Eventually we did produce a kit in China, because we needed something at a different price point. But it follows the same quality control procedure." The seamless acrylic-shelled version of the Arcadia is particularly impressive and marks another success for Natal.

Special Legacy

50th Anniversary Natal Drum Set.

The story of Natal drums is heartening. Jim Marshall lived to see his dream project realized: a top-notch Marshall-owned and Marshall-inspired British drum division.

Jim died in 2012, the 50th anniversary year of his legendary company, and as a tribute, Natal produced 50 glorious kits finished in Marshall’s signature black cabinet vinyl fitted with gold-plated hardware.

A testament to Natal’s popularity today is the growing list of varied endorsers, such as Sean Moore (Manic Street Preachers), Pat Lundy (Modestep), and Oli Wiseman (Anne-Marie). Craig Glover thinks it unlikely that a company the size of Marshall will ever again invest in a drum brand the way it has. "You need a lot of passion and desire," he says. "It was always to do with Jim Marshall’s passion as a drummer."


About the author: Geoff Nicholls is a musician, author, journalist, and lecturer based in London. He played drums on BBC2 TV’s award-winning Rockschool in 1984 and 1987 and wrote Byte the Music for BBC Radio 3, which won first prize at the New York Radio Festival in 1994. His books include The Drum Book: A History of the Rock Drum Kit (2007) and The Drum Handbook (2003), and he is a regular contributor to Rhythm magazine.

comments powered by Disqus