6 Crucial Steps on the Way to the Modern Drum Kit

If you close your eyes and think of a drum kit, you'll probably imagine some variation of what is now a standard set: a floor-based bass drum, a snare drum at a perfect seated height, toms and cymbals in some playable array at convenient distances from the throne.

But none of this should be taken for granted. Go back to the early 20th century, and drums were still supposed to be played individually. Such luxuries as kick pedals or cymbal stands were a glint in some bass-strapped marching band drummer's eyes.

Below, we look at six crucial developments between that era and the modern drum kit.

Leedy–Cooley Manufacturing Co.'s Snare Drum Stand

1920s Leedy Snare Stand. Photo by The Vault.

Ulysses Grant Leedy's seminal drum company was formed in Indianapolis in 1898, but it's a name no longer familiar to modern drum set players. Leedy was, however, a prime instigator in shaping our beloved drum set. Among his more prosaic innovations is the humble snare drum stand.

Prior to Leedy, the snare drum was indeed the "side" drum, slung from the swarthy shoulders of the marching military man, while in orchestra pits the snare drum might be placed on a chair. It was crying out for a specialized stand, and Leedy obliged with his 1896 patent for a practical folding stand.

Don't sniff! The concept was seminal, a crucial step away from the centuries-old mindset that individual drums and cymbals were separate items of percussion. Leedy's stand helped move toward the unified concept of the drum set, to be played by a single individual rather than a percussion section (the method that persists today in field drums and symphonic percussion).

Ludwig & Ludwig's Drum Co.'s Practical Bass Drum Foot Pedal

1909 Ludwig Bass Pedal. Photo by Nels's Gear Outlet.

The next gargantuan step (pun intended) in formulating the kit involved playing the bass drum with the foot and not the hands. Legendary New Orleans drummers such as Warren "Baby" Dodds began placing the big marching bass drum upright on the floor and using the foot to stomp out the beat.

Some drummers struggled with unwieldy, slow, lashed-up gadgets slung from the top hoop of the bass drum. The breakthrough came in 1909 with the nifty pedal that would launch the Ludwig name toward its later boast: "The Most Famous Name On Drums."

William and Theobald Ludwig were brothers and both professional percussionists (and the Chicago agents for U.G. Leedy). The elder William found himself struggling to keep up with the lively ragtime tempos of the day, and like Leedy before him, he decided to take matters into his own hands.

He fabricated a floor pedal from wood which attached to the bottom of the hoop, and it had a short beater stroke for speedier response.

William's prototype was immediately successful, and he enlisted engineer Robert Danly (later to become his brother-in-law), who made the pedal in metal. The unit could be folded flat and was small, light, neat, and easily transportable. Hey presto: Now we had the basis of the modern instrument. Selling like hot cakes, the Ludwig pedal set the pattern for several decades.

Slingerland Banjo & Drum Co.'s Fully Tunable Toms

A 1938/39 Slingerland Radio King Kit. Photo by Apex Annex.

The early drum kit was bound up not only with jazz, but also with the vast circuit of vaudeville and silent-movie theaters. Music for these shows was invariably provided by a pianist and a percussionist—and the percussionist was expected to supply all manner of sound effects, which explains the early "traps" kit with klaxons, temple blocks, duck calls, and the rest.

All of that gradually became obsolete with the arrival of movies with sound, followed by the next big thing in music: swing. With its driving beat and outrageous dance moves, swing was the rock 'n' roll of the late '30s.

The clarinetist and bandleader Benny Goodman emerged as the unlikely pinup of swing, while his drummer, Gene Krupa, made an arguably bigger splash. Goodman had the perfect face for radio, but Krupa had the charisma of a matinee idol. Krupa's hard-swing drumming had no need for those novelty sound effects; he brought drumming to the fore with his sensational tom solos.

To maximize this style, Krupa hooked up with Slingerland, based in his hometown of Chicago and a competitor to Ludwig. He persuaded them to build him a sleek drum set with the first properly double-headed toms—in other words, toms tunable both top and bottom. The resulting Radio King set provided the blueprint for the drum kit and remains the standard design today.

Gene Krupa, 1947.

Fred Gretsch Manufacturing Co.'s Straight-Sided Plywood Shells

Meantime, there was the matter of shell construction. For centuries, side drums and bass drums were made by steam-bending a single plank of wood into the round, and then stabilizing it with wooden reinforcing rings inserted top and bottom.

The Gretsch company in Brooklyn realized that plywood is structurally tougher than solid wood, and so its use in a thin drum shell could enable a shell without reinforcing rings to stay circular. By staggering the ply joins around the shell, the structure could be made strong enough to hold true. Gretsch thus introduced the so-called "straight-sided" shell: one without the need for reinforcing rings, which cause obstructions at the top and bottom bearing edges.

Starting with three plies in 1920, Gretsch eventually settled on its definitive six-ply shell during the '50s. This was roughly the same thickness as three-ply—around a quarter of an inch—but each ply was thinner. And this layup is still used today. Other companies did change to ply in the '20s, but most kept the reinforcing rings right through to the '70s. Although re-rings have made a limited comeback in recent years, the majority of modern professional shells follow the straight-sided Gretsch formula of a thin shell with a mean number of plies hovering around six.

1950s/60s Gretsch 6-Ply Kit. Photo by Klash Drums.

Rogers Drums' Dedicated System Hardware

While drum shells are (generally) made from wood, everything else in the kit is metal. As drumming got tougher and louder, so the metalwork lagged behind—particularly the supporting brackets and stands. Just as early rock drummers were actually jazz drummers slumming it, so the kit was a jazz instrument given a rude pummeling by the likes of Keith Moon. Actually, never mind Keith—Buddy Rich was already subjecting every kit in his path to the shock of its life. Something was lacking. And, of course, it was all that metal.

Buddy Rich became a Rogers endorser a couple of years after designer Joe Thompson and marketing man Ben Strauss devised the groundbreaking Rogers Swiv-O-Matic hardware in 1957. This was the first all-encompassing drum hardware system, utilizing hexagonal steel rods and hardened steel oval-shaped balls and sockets to lock toms in place. The universal Swivo concept extended to stands and pedals. A picture series in the 1960 catalogue showed a drummer carrying an entire kit, all held together by Swiv-O-Matic components.

Early Rogers' Swiv-O-Matic ad.

Such was the success of Swiv-O-Matic that it transcended Rogers' own drums and was routinely fitted to drum sets of many other brands. In the '60s, Swivo brackets could be seen fitted to Moon's Premiers and Ringo's and Ginger Baker's Ludwigs, and in fact any number of drummers insisted on Swivo hardware, whatever the make of drums they favored.

Yamaha Drums' Wood Awareness

1970s Yamaha 9000 Series Kit. Photo by Nick's Gear Outlet.

Until the '70s, most (though certainly not all) drummers had little or no idea what species of wood their drum shells employed. Drum manufacturers simply used the most appropriate lumber available, generally hiding it beneath pearl or sparkle wraps. Inside, particularly with American drums, shells were painted silver, grey, or white. Then, in the late '70s, Yamaha of Japan pulled a masterstroke by transferring its superior expertise in block-color piano lacquering to its drum shells. Yamaha declared that the Hokkaido birch from which their shells were made was the ultimate "recording" wood and even that it was naturally "pre-EQ'd."

This captured the spirit of the times, with the rise in recording sophistication and the awareness among fans of the brilliant session musicians who were finally emerging as stars in their own right. In the drumming world, Steve Gadd reigned supreme, and he championed Yamaha's Recording Custom RC9000 drums. They were a sensation, taking off worldwide and changing forever the way drummers viewed their shells. The 9000 became the model for drum shells over the next decade.

Ironically, the American drums played on classic recordings of the previous 50 years mostly had mahogany or maple shells. Birch was the staple of Northern Europe. But following Yamaha's success, every company would now advertise the type of wood in its shells as a major selling point. Birch was followed by a return to North American maple, and today birch and maple remain the staples, to which a plethora of exotic timbers have been added.


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.

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