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A LAYMAN’S GUIDE TO VINTAGE DRUMS- By Powderfinger’s Cogs

Hi all dedicated drummers. If you’re a beginner or an old hand at the art of caressing the skins you’ve probably come across a crusty old kit that could be described as vintage. Since the dawn of ebay trading, the collecting of these vintage kits has become more and more popular. Collectors are drawn to old kits because of their stunning colours and the romantic stories belonging to each one. I’m no expert on the subject – I’ve been using vintage kits on and off for ten years or so – but I know that when you look into these beautiful creations (and start bidding for a few) you’ll probably develop an obsession or what I like to call a fetish for them. Hopefully this article will help steer you on the right track when such a fetish takes over.

My interest in vintage kits was born from listening to 60s and 70s drummers like Ginger Baker, Mitch Mitchell, Buddy Rich, Papa Jo Jones and Ringo Starr, and finding out what kits they used to get their unique sounds. Actually it’s hard to find a drum sound from the 60s and 70s that isn’t good. It may be the old recording techniques with old valve mics and beautiful sounding desks that determine much of the old sound.  More often than not the unique style and techniques of those drummers gave those drummers their signature sound, but by using a vintage kit, you may begin to sound like them. You just have to find one, and that is where your troubles begin.

cogsLudwig 1968 kitI describe myself as having a vintage kit fetish because when I do find a good one, I treat it like a hidden treasure and guard it with my life. OK, that may be a little over the top, but the hunt for them is exciting and a little addictive. It’s hard to find a good one and if you can’t find one, you’ll be glad to know that most top drum brands make kits that sound a bit like vintage kits. I think they’ve realised that there’s a market for that old sound and have attempted to build modern day replicas. I don’t know much about these kits to tell the truth. My fetish doesn’t allow for such open mindedness. It also worries me that they may sound too good. What I mean is, they don’t have the imperfections of the old kits that have developed their own personality over 30 or 40 years. The type of imperfections that are a pain in the arse to mend and maintain, but they are imperfections that make you love that sparkly jewel more every day (did I say fetish?). I’ll explain more later.

If you decide to buy a vintage kit the easiest place to look is ebay. Good buys on ebay are rare though. There is a lack of quantity in Australia, as most were made overseas, so you’ll usually pay market prices. There’s nothing wrong with that though, you usually still get a kit that’s cheaper than a brand new replica, it’s just that buying on ebay isn’t as rewarding as finding a vintage drum in a remotely inaccessible pawn brokers in a remote town like Muswellbrook or Mt Gambier for instance. It’s like buying anything vintage really – good bargains are hard to find. The one place that it’s hard to find vintage kits these days is in drum shops – ebay dealers and the odd fetisher have bought them up. Ten years ago you would seldom come across a vintage kit at Col Gillies drum store in Brissy or Drummers Paradise in Melbourne, but sadly those days have passed. But do not worry my fellow addicts – they are out there. So keep your eyes open for the kits that follow.

There are five brands of kits that you want to look for: Ludwig, Slingerland, Gretsch, Rogers and Premier. Actually there are five and a half brands really. Leedy drums get the half rating because they’re so rare you may go mad looking for them. I prefer to not be held responsible.
Ludwig drums are less rare and probably the most sought after. Ludwig make new kits as well but the new kits don’t have the warmth and romance of the old. For recording, pre-1970 kits are a bit of a stand out. They also have some fruity and freaky colours that no one has been able to top: beautiful sparkles (burgundy, galaxy and champagne), mother of pearls (from white through silver to black) and things like psychedelic red and psychedelic mod orange (check them out online). Ringo played the highly sort after black oyster kit and I remember playing Rob Hirst’s (a fellow fetisher perhaps) mish mash psychedelic red drumset many years ago. They sounded and looked great. From 1970 ,on Ludwig developed a new style of drum that is just as readily sought after but have a different badge (it’s blue and olive, the older one is brass) and most enthusiasts relate them to the omnipotent John Bonham. Like I’ve said, they’re hard to find, so if you can’t find one the next best thing is probably finding a supraphonic or supersensitive ludalloy snare drum. No question, you will use these to record with. These drums exude a sound that sits beautifully in rock music. It can bond the rhythm section because it has a deep note void of unpleasant resonance. You’ll be surprised. A little secret though – Ludwig make a new snare drum called a black beauty that sounds just as good. So if you can afford one (and you don’t have a fetish yet), don’t be scared to get one (that’ll be $50 for that plug thanks Ludwig).

cogsSligerland 70s kitIf you want an all round reliable beast of a kit, look for an old Slingerland. These are the drums that jazz greats Buddy Rich and Gene Krupa primarily used. It’s also rumoured that Sir Bonham used one on the first Led Zeppelin record. Like Ludwig and Premier kits, many old Slingers have a unique sound created by their construction. Ok this may get boring here, but I owe you the explanation. Most of their shells are made with three plies of wood. These shells are thinner and less resonant than the five and seven ply modern kits. Hence they don’t dominate the music when you’re playing in a band. They help the instruments to gel by not getting in the way too much. In my humble opinion the loud and obnoxious drums of the modern era are often created to please the guy practising by himself, not for someone trying to be the catalyst in a room of musicians. On the other hand, if that doesn’t convince you of the advantages of these kits and you want to see an old Slingerland kit being set upon, check out Buddy Rich on you tube. My god, he’s a true freak of nature (I think I nearly lost my noodles visualising him then). There’s even a video of him soloing (a million miles an hour mind you) while he’s suffering a heart attack (he collapsed as he left the stage). If having a Slingerland can give you a bit of that Buddy magic, just a glimmer, then get a Slingerland man (hey, Buddy may have looked at the said kit when he was at the factory once). While you’re online, check out Gene Krupa’s matchbox solo. He is a freak too. You will have serious love for these two remarkable human beings.

Next we have Premier drums. They were and are still made in England. Truthfully, I don’t know much about these little suckers. To help get a clearer idea of them you just have to think of Keith Moon and his drumming. In fact, if you end up purchasing a Premier kit I believe you have a responsibility to emulate or at least respect Keith’s style. Short of drinking copious amounts of alcohol and having a suspected personality disorder (is being too rock’n’roll a disorder though?) you should at least consider waving your arms around like a maniac and pulling an exploding fish face expression while circumnavigating your kit for a fill. You should also keep in mind that Keith Moon rarely appeared in public without dressing immaculately as an English gent. Oh, and while you’re trying to be Keith, you’ll have to buy at least two drum kits and arrange them as one large kit. For your fans sake, you’ll then sit as high as you can for better viewing. Sadly though that drum kit won’t last long because you’ll be either standing on it every night or trashing it once a week. But seriously, listening to The Who and Keith Moon can inspire anyone to want a vintage Premier.

Rogers kits are another company
I don’t know much about. I could look in my vintage kits book to elaborate but that would be cheating to look in it. Actually, if you really want to know more about these kits (to avoid being ripped off) check out ‘The Drum Book: A history of the rock drum kit’ by Geoff Nicholls. It’ll give you everything you need with a few beaut rock stories. I once saw the Black Key’s drummer using an old Rogers kit. It sounded dirty, sleazy and crusty. It was amazing. I can’t help but hear that sound every time I here a Rogers now. Although I must admit, a few months a go I purchased a Rogers kit that was played by Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys on their tour of Australia. This had tested my resolve that Rogers’ kits sounds dirty and sleazy because I thought the Beach Boys were so pure and innocent. This was until I caught a Beach Boys live special from the seventies the other night. Now don’t tell me those guys weren’t sleazy. If they didn’t represent the male version of the cougar then I don’t know what did.  They made the girls go crazy with those sweet harmonies. Come to think of it, I was going a little crazy myself. Dirty and sleazy alright – especially Dennis. But apart from the Beach Boys, Rogers made these great snares in there time as well. They’re called Dynosonics and are known to be a recording standard. I haven’t used one to record so I couldn’t honestly give them such a rap but if you spot one for a cheap price don’t be scared to snap it up.

cogsGretsch 80s kitGretsch drums aren’t as crusty. These are the jazz drummers most reliable find – but rock drummers do use them – Charlie Watts of The Rolling Stones has played them for years. Apparently he’s a collector too. Gretsch kits are a little more dependable in that they were made to last. The family that made Gretsch instruments staked their name on the quality of the product. Personally, I think this makes them a little more boring. Mmm, perhaps not boring but conservative feeling. It’s a little hard to explain but the feeling that these guys knew they had the best product and they used jazz dudes to market them makes them different and less rock’n’roll. Actually, now that I think about it, those jazz guys were a little unhinged so maybe Gretsch isn’t so conservative. Perhaps those jazz guys and girls saw themselves as supremely confident in their ability to play and don’t care what rackety rock drummers think. Anyway, if you would like to sample someone making love to a Gretsch kit check Papa Jo Jones on you tube. He’s one of those jazz drummers of mythical ability. The two amazing things about Papa (which blows my conservative argument out of the water) – he is the most dexterous-yet-laid-back drummer of all time (sorry Buddy) and he can seduce ladies in the audience as he plays. When you check it out, look into his eyes. He’s thinking (said slowly)- ‘Yep… I’m hot. Yep… I play like I rule this club and the city around it. Yep (to the ladies)… you like that don’t you baby. Yep… I’m taking your clothes of with my eyes.

Yep…Yep…Yeah.’

So vintage drums aren’t all they’re cracked up to be? No, there’s more to them than you could ever imagine. If you ever get a chance to play one, let alone own one, you’ll have a hoot. Not only do they sound great, there’s a story to each one as well. Oh, you may remember, I was going to tell you about the imperfections. Well, they fall apart a bit and the rack toms usually don’t resonate much due to the old hardware. You may have to replace bits and pieces every now and then by purchasing from ebay, but this is half the fun. I suppose it’s like owning an old car that was built before computers infiltrated engines. You can fix them yourself if you have a spare few hours of private time. And don’t forget to give them a little spit and polish from me.

All the best,
Jonathan ‘Cogs’ Coghill
Drummer Extraordinaire

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