The Top 10 Vintage Snare Drums, According to a Vintage Drum Expert

Of all the outstanding vintage snare drums that exist, picking 10 that rise to the top wasn't easy. But after ruminating on 35 years of phone calls, emails, and transactions, I made a list.

What follows is not a roll call of the "popular," but instead a list of pricey, hard-to-find, and ultra-rare models. I name this lineup, "WOW."

Trying to order these gems from great, to greater, to greatest would be difficult and almost criminal. So I've listed the drums below in alphabetical order.

"Billy Gladstone" Original / 1950's

This highly innovative drum was invented by Billy Gladstone, a percussionist at Radio City Music Hall. During a performance, he became inspired by the design of the roller skate screw. Soon after he applied its mechanics to create a unique drum tensioning system that could simultaneously tune top and bottom heads—or each head separately—from the topside of the drum, without having to turn it upside down. Gladstone further used his ingenuity to design the drum's micro-adjustable muffler, controllable vent, and elegant but simple throw off. He built only about 50 snare drums, many of which did not survive.

Billy Gladstone 6x14 Birdseye Maple Snare Drum with Gold Plated Hardware (Photos from Soul Drums)

Leedy "Autograph of the Stars" / 1940-41

The Leedy Drum Company used their roster of endorsers in a way that had never been done. They laid out 212 endorser autographs in a geometric grid strewn with five-pointed white stars, then overlaid that design on a background of blue Pyralin plastic. They named it "Autograph of the Stars." In recent years, two variations of the finish have surfaced; one with gold sparkle stars instead of white, the other with no stars and a white pearl background. Leedy's 1941 catalog touted that drums adorned with the finish would lend ". . . more personality, punch, character, and pride of ownership than any . . . ever before." Yet few were made making them extremely rare. It's unknown whether lack of popularity or intentionally limited production was the reason.

Leedy "Autograph of the Stars" (Photo from Maxwell Drums)

Photo Note: we chose the photo on the right only to show the "Autograph of the Stars" finish. Shortly after its release in 1941 the finish disappeared from Leedy's catalogues then reappeared years later on the this drum with the Leedy/Ludwig badge. This suggests that a remnant of the finish had been found and used after Leedy had merged with Ludwig in 1950. At times, drum makers used discontinued and leftover components on new drum models.

Ludwig & Ludwig "DeLuxe" / 8 & 10 tube Lugs / 1923-34

Its acoustical punch and character qualify this drum as one of the best sounding vintage snares ever. Add the aesthetic appeal of a hand-engraved black nickel finish shell, plus contrasting lacquered brass hardware, and you have one very irresistible snare drum. Although Ludwig called it the "DeLuxe," it's better known as the "Black Beauty," a name borrowed from Slingerland's 1928 Black Beauty. The DeLuxe, like the plain nickel finish model, was uniquely constructed with an air chamber inside its half-inch welded bearing edges and a two-piece brass shell welded at the center bead.

Early models were scroll-engraved; later ones were flower-engraved. Ludwig also made a six lug model, and although rarer than the 8 and 10 lug versions, it's not as desired or as valued by collectors.

Ludwig & Ludwig "DeLuxe" (Photos from Three on the Floor and Vintage Drum Center)

Ludwig & Ludwig Engraved Gold "Triumphal" / 1920's

The Gold Triumphal was Ludwig's absolute top of the line snare drum. Not only was the entire drum plated in real gold, but also the shell, rims, and tube lugs were ornately hand engraved. The designs varied, featuring leaves, scrollwork, and rose petals. The drum was available by special order only. It's estimated that less than a dozen Triumphals exist; only about nine have been found. The Triumphal has the same two-piece heavy brass shell construction as the Ludwig Black Beauty.

Ludwig & Ludwig 4x14 Engraved Triumphal snare drum, gold plated, 1920-1 (Photos from Bob Campbell)

Ludwig "Super" 6.5" x 14" / Brass Finish / 1960-62

Ludwig "Super" 6.5x14 Chrome Finish

Combined scarcity and an unusual mix of warm power, articulate response, and textured tone make the 6.5"x14" a real treasure. Ludwig formed the drum shell from strips of rolled brass welded together in a vertical seam. Rims were also brass. Shell Finish options were chrome and lacquered brass—the latter being extremely rare. In 1960, Ludwig introduced the 6.5"x14" size and produced it small quantities for only a few years. Prior to 1960, a 5"x14" was the only size Ludwig Super available.

I asked Jim Catalano who worked directly with William F. Ludwig II as the company's Director of Marketing from 1983-2013 why they stopped producing both brass snare drums models. He said, "As recalled from conversations with Bill Ludwig II, the 6.5"x14" size was not popular in the early 60's. Plus the rising cost of brass at that time contributed to the decision to discontinue both sizes. In addition, we could no longer get the right gauge of brass for the shell from our brass suppliers."

Ludwig & Ludwig "Top Hat" / 1940-41

No other vintage snare drum better captured the culture of its day when entertainers wore white gloves, twirled canes, and waved top hats. Ludwig accomplished this with a striking and unique finish filled with musical notes, top hats, canes, and gloves, all diagonally overlaid on white pearl. They named the finish "Top Hat". In their 1940 catalog Ludwig noted that the design was "actually a part of the pearl itself and not pasted on or painted on the outside." They reissued the Top Hat finish in celebration of their 90th anniversary with a limited run of 180 snare drums and three full drum sets.

Ludwig & Ludwig "Top Hat", 1940-41 (Photos from Donn Bennett)

Ludwig 5"x14" Oyster Black Pearl "Jazz Festival" Model / 1960's

Little did the Ludwig Drum Company know that Feb 9, 1964, would establish their Oyster Black Pearl drums as iconic collectibles decades later. On that day millions tuned in to see The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show and watched Ringo Starr drum on his Ludwig Classic Oyster Black Pearl finish drums. As for the Jazz Festival model snare drum he played, no other snare in history has, as yet, achieved such a degree of celebrity-generated demand.

In 2002, I had the privilege of interviewing William F. Ludwig II for a DRUM! Magazine article. Reflecting on the past, Mr. Ludwig said to me, "No one thought of vintage drums or collectors when we were making all of those drums back then. I never dreamed I'd be talking to you now about all of this [so many] years later."

Ludwig 5"x14" Oyster Black Pearl "Jazz Festival" Model (Photos from Three on the Floor)

Rogers Wood Shell "Dyna-Sonic" 5"x14" & 6.5"x14" / 1960's

Rogers' iconic Dyna-Sonic was not only a milestone in drum innovation but is still one of the most sensitive snare drums in existence. It's "floating" parallel-action snare wires were mounted in a frame that allowed them to be horizontally tensioned without putting pressure on the resonant head. This prevented the strainer itself from choking the head. The result was a remarkable playing response, tonal projection, and wire sensitivity.

Rogers produced the Dyna-Sonic in both brass and wood shells. According to some sources, only a few thousand wooden models were produced, and of those, very few were the 6.5"x14" size. In 2017, after a long absence, the Rogers Drum Company re-opened its doors and is again producing this remarkable snare drum.

Rogers 6.5x14 Dyna-Sonic snare drum with Gold Sparkle Pearl finish, 1960s (Photo from Three on the Floor)
Rogers 6.5x14 Dyna-Sonic snare drum with Black Onyx Pearl finish, 1960s (Photo from Three on the Floor)

Slingerland "Black Beauty" / 1928-32

The sheer beauty of this drum just takes your breath away. With clips over double flanged rims, brass Artgold hardware, and a triple-beaded hand-engraved black nickel finish shell, I rate this drum among the most beautiful vintage snares of all time. As of this printing, only about 15 are known to exist, two of which have come through our shop. One of the previous owners told me that he had fished the drum out of a dumpster. I was dump-struck! In spite of the shaggy quarters, it survived unscathed and came to us in excellent+ condition.

Slingerland "Black Beauty" (Photos from Maxwell Drums and Vintage Drum Center)

Slingerland 6.5"x14" "Gene Krupa Model Radio King" / White Marine Pearl / 1936 to 1954

Slingerland 6.5x14 Gene Krupa Model Radio_King (Photo from Maxwell Drums)

This drum will dazzle your ears. Endowed with a rich, "fat" tone distinctly its own, the 1-ply maple Slingerland Radio King is especially sought-after by studio musicians and recording engineers. There were several models in the "Radio King" snare drum series, all highly desirable, but the eight-lug 6.5"x14" white marine pearl Gene Krupa is the most desired. Slingerland named it after world-renowned drummer Gene Krupa who is credited for catapulting drummers into the limelight.

"Slingerland Radio King" is prominently engraved on the top rim of each drum. I'll always wonder if the title were intended as a tribute to the radio, the center of entertainment in the home during the 1930's "Golden Age of the Radio."

Ned Ingberman is the founder and owner of Vintage Drum Center. Visit their website or the Vintage Drum Center Reverb Shop to see more rare finds. You can also connect with Ned for drum appraisal services through this page on his website.

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