The Irresistible Rise of the British Drum Co.

At the winter 2020 NAMM show, Iron Maiden’s Nicko McBrain showed off a stunning British Drum Co. Legend Icarus kit, displaying the outstanding BDC quality that is turning more and more drummers’ heads. In the space of just four years, the company has seemingly risen from nowhere to become one of the most revered drum brands in the world.

BDC now leads a wider and typically understated British revolution that has been slowly bubbling away for two decades. And to understand all this, we need to delve briefly into history.

Setting the Scene

Drum set-building in the UK flourished from the Roaring Twenties through to the rock explosion of the ‘70s. Asian-built kits dominated thereafter, leaving the Premier company to fly a lonely Union flag. The UK’s local output dwindled to individual craftsmen builders like Alan Gilby (Richmo), Eddie Ryan, and Gary Noonan—outstanding characters, all.

1950s UK-built Premier Drum Set in Aqua Marine
Photo by Century Drum Shop

In the meantime, the ’80-‘90s digital revolution threatened the very existence of the acoustic kit. Yet, as the new millennium turned, an unexpected resurgence began. The acoustic kit recovered ground and craftsman workshops sprung up all over Britain, including: Jalapeno (1998) in the northwest; Guru (2003), HighWood (2004), Liberty, and Animal Custom (2006), all in the northeast; Morgan Davies (2007) and Carrera (2009) in the southeast.

Premier, too, fared well during that first decade. And in 2010, another illustrious UK marque, Marshall Amplification, entered the percussion fray by acquiring the historic UK brand Natal. Led by Jim Marshall—who’d started out as a respected drummer and teacher—Natal began marketing excellent, competitively priced, British-designed drums. But that is another story.

Back down among the new breed of boutique builders was KD Drums, founded by Keith Davidson Keough. An eventful decade later, Keith would go on to helm the British Drum Co.

From the Ground Up

What distinguished these youthful UK craftsmen was that nearly all of them set out to build their own shells from scratch, rather than buy off-the-peg shells to then finish themselves.

It takes a different level of skill and commitment to make your own wood shell from plies and planks of raw timber. In this respect, Britain’s drum builders were unlike many of their American counterparts who relied on outside companies—notably Keller—to deliver bare shells that they then carefully adorned.

KD Drums, Custom
Photo by Chicago Music Exchange

From an early age, Keith Keough had worked with wood alongside his dad, Alan, and upon leaving school, he became a cabinet-maker. He was also a drummer, so he experimented with making bespoke drums, and with a loan from The Prince’s Trust charity he founded KD Drums in 2003.

KD was based in the legendary Moolah Rouge Studios in Stockport, part of Greater Manchester. Here, Keith buddied up with Pete Salisbury, drummer in The Verve and The Charlatans, who’d opened a drum shop called Drum Inn. Keith moved in upstairs, eventually taking over the shop.

However, running a workshop above a retail shop with no sales staff was a strain, added to which KD suffered two floods and mounting pressure from the local council. (Following flood damage refurbishment, the council told Keith his shop made the area look untidy—which was a bit rich, as KD was flanked by two sex shops.)

Premier to the Rescue

Such was the parlous state of business that by 2010, KD faced mounting debts. At that point, a lifeline arose from Premier, which proposed a takeover.

That might seem a strange move by Premier—a world-renowned company of 90 years standing. But as numerous small UK startups were nibbling at the shrinking percussion pie, Premier was having to adapt to a quickly changing international market.

Saddled with its massive purpose-built factory—a famous landmark building in Wigston, near Leicester—Premier was downsizing drastically. And so, in 2007, Premier abandoned the factory (which would finally be bulldozed in October 2017 to make way for an inevitable supermarket) and relocated seven miles down the road to a small, modern facility in Kibworth Harcourt. In the meantime, all drum kit production moved to East Asia.

Premier Series Modern Classic Snare. Photo by Jonathan's Gear Outlet

Premier continued with quality kits such as the Series Classic, built using the company’s own three-millimeter-undersized molds transplanted to Taiwan. And by 2011, Premier was eager to return some high-end manufacturing to the UK, announcing in June 2011 the acquisition of KD Drums.

Steve White and the Premier Modern Classic

Keith Keough became Premier’s head of manufacture and design, and along with his right-hand man Tim Boyle, shell builder Duncan Tawse, and assembler Chris Haywood, supplied handmade drums bearing the Premier badge and hardware. Manufacturing was relocated to Ormskirk (north of Liverpool) in 2012, which was Premier’s 90th anniversary year.

Keith collaborated with Steve White (often voted Britain’s favorite drummer) on the Premier Modern Classic, launched in 2014. White eulogized, “Keith, in my opinion, shares the talent of Ulysses Leedy and George Way in his vision and talent for drum building.”

Keith also built custom drums for Nicko McBrain of Iron Maiden, a long-time Premier endorser. Nicko was mightily impressed and a lasting connection was made.

For a few years, the Premier arrangement delivered amazing, one-off, collectable drums, but July 2015 marked the end of the relationship.

You Can't Keep a Good Man Down

What happened next seems written in the stars. Al Murray—a top British comedian best-known for his Pub Landlord character, but also a well-known presence on the drum scene—asked Keith to make him a personal drum set. A light went on.

British Drum Company Lounge Drum Set
Photo by Drumazon

“It was serendipity,” Al told Rhythm magazine in 2016. “I found myself in a position to go into partnership with Keith. It’s like Charlie Bucket’s Golden Ticket—I have won the factory, and he is Willy Wonka! Make no mistake, what Keith is doing is really brilliant.”

Keith and Al put together a team of specialists—the backbone of the new, confidently named British Drum Co.

Ian Matthews is a versatile drummer with the major British band Kasabian, Alan Kitching is an exceptional design and manufacturing engineer, and Stu Warmington is an ex-Royal Marine and an expert on marching-band drumming. They’ve since been joined by Keith’s original sponsor, Pete Salisbury.

More Shells

So what makes BDC stand out? At the heart of any drum is the shell—and this is a major factor in the integrity of BDC. Most companies buy ready-made shells or make their own from pre-formed two and three-ply sheets. BDC goes back to basics and produces its own plies from single-leaf sheets of the finest-grade timbers. Plies are hand-cut at a five-degree angle, slotted into the mold, and “clicked” into place—a unique trick devised by Keith.

Crucially, the shells are then left to cure, rather than be subjected to the microwaving commonly employed by large manufacturers to expedite production. This “cold press” method takes up a lot of time, but for Keith, it's non-negotiable. He explains, “We now have seven sets of molds in ‘honeycomb’ stacks. We can mold shells twice a day, and leave a third set in overnight, meaning 21 sets of high-end drums in 24 hours. That’s a lot!”

Another important detail is that any exotic-finish veneer (or wrap) is inserted as the first (and therefore the outermost) ply in the lay-up. Thus, it becomes part of the shell rather than being applied to an already completed shell. This means the final diameter of the shell is exactly the diameter of the mold.

However thin an outer veneer or wrap may be, if it’s added after shell production, it minutely affects the angle of the tension rods. With BDC, the tension rod is always absolutely parallel to the shell wall.

Final Hurdle

To become a major player, BDC had to jump the final, and possibly toughest, hurdle for any fledgling drum company: It had to design its own unique metal hardware. This involves heavy investment, so most smaller companies are compelled to use generic components.

BDC eventually came up with its art deco streamline-inspired Palladium lug, a distinctively modern take on the classic Ludwig and Beaver Tail designs of revered vintage drums. Now, in 2020, a range of Casino stands and pedals completes the brand collection. A regular dice slots into each joint housing, thus identifying and matching up each stand section—an example of the company’s imaginative and fun rethinking of age-old issues.

British Drum Co. The Duke Snare Drum

And so, we arrive today with Nicko McBrain wholeheartedly onboard. For a drummer of his international renown, this was not a decision taken lightly. But in November 2019, Nicko was announced as BDC’s international ambassador, debuting his BDC Legacy Of The Beast tour kit, complete with the extravagant artwork essential for any Maiden voyage.

Despite its handcrafted approach, BDC has big ambitions. Starting in 2015, the firm has grown from a production workforce of four to 26, and its new Manchester factory covers 11,000 square feet—four times the size of the previous plant. As well as drum sets, the marching band side is rapidly expanding and distribution is now worldwide.

Keith Keough sums up the growth, stating, “Over the years, I’ve learned that we don’t want to be a custom maker. We want to be a major, mainstream brand, but with boutique detail and quality.”

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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