Below is the full text for the Classic Drummer article that was published in their Jan 2006 issue. The text below is longer than the article itself because of the need to edit for length for the publication. The questions were submitted to us and Steve's responses are shown below each question. We hope you'll enjoy this information.
Steve Maxwell Questions: Classic Drummer
Can you tell us about your background as it pertains to music and drums?
Ans: I?m 53 years old and have been a jazz drummer for 40 years. My early influences were Buddy Rich, Louie Bellson, and later on Papa Jo Jones. I was born in Providence RI so we were only 1 hour from Boston and only 4 hours from NYC so we weren?t far from those hot spots for great music, and even in Providence we had big bands coming through fairly often. Ellington, Basie, Woody Herman, Buddy Rich, etc. I got the chance to go to the Newport Jazz Festival each year. In the 60s I?d always be sure to go on Saturday afternoon with my family and I?d see the 5 hour long ?drum workshop?. This was an afternoon totally devoted to drums. Every major player would come out and do 15 minutes. Buddy Rich, Louie Bellson, Mel Lewis, Art Blakey, Philly Joe Jones, Elvin, Max Roach, Papa Jo Jones, Joe Morello. The list goes on and on. That was truly an incredible inspiration for me. I studied traditional techniques and was highly focused on jazz, but I also studied classical percussion with Arthur Press from the Boston Symphony for awhile. In the early 70s I?d take the bus each week from Providence to Manhattan where I had the honor of studying with Papa Jo Jones when he used to teach at Frank Ippolito?s Pro Percussion in NYC. My wife and I moved to Chicago around 1975 and that?s where we?ve been since. I played in the Chicago area for awhile, then put my playing career on hold while I pursued a more traditional business career. I got back into music in a bigger way in the past 15 years.
What led you to open a drum shop?
Ans: That really evolved over time and through several influences. I always loved drums, and when I started studying with Papa Jo at Frank Ippolito?s shop I got my first taste of what would ultimately become great vintage drums. Back then round badge Gretsch kits were commonplace, as were great kits from Slingerland, Rogers, Ludwig, etc, and Franks had all of these, plus lots of K Zildjian cymbals too. Also, Al Duffy worked at Frank Ippolito?s shop. Al was truly the first custom drum builder and he worked from a corner of Frank?s shop. His custom work was inspiring to me and he was a wonderfully cordial man. Al always had time for the dumb questions of a young guy like me. Al built some of Billy Cobham?s snare drums, and he also was a pioneer with the chain drive bass drum pedal. He later went on to Hinger Touch Tone and then eventually to Pearl, where he headed up R&D for a time. Anyhow, right around 1974 I was playing in a band, and our vocalist was from Connecticut. She told me she lived near a drum shop run by a guy named Charlie Donnelly, so I went down to see Charlie and he showed me wonderful vintage drums. Stuff you?d never be able to see anywhere else. And he had such an amazing wealth of knowledge! He was the one who really got me started. I owe it all to him. In 1975 my wife and I moved to Chicago and I got over to see Maurie Lishon?s place, which of course was Frank?s Drum Shop (originally owned by Frank Gault). I also got to see Bill Crowden at his great shop. These were great guys who had wonderful stores. They too, were always cordial and helpful. I speak to Bill occasionally even now, and he is still the same. Wonderful guy. I eventually started refurbishing old vintage snares I?d find in pawn shops. I ended up selling them on consignment in Franks Drum Shop. Mostly these were old Slingerland Radio Kings. This was back in the days when these would show up in pawn shops for $50. I?d clean them up, put new heads on them, and sell them for maybe $125. Can you believe that? What a bargain. I even kept some of the old sales records from those. I started collecting drums after we got to a point where we had some cash, but then for several years I stopped and sold everything and concentrated on my full time job. I did pretty well in business over the years, so about ten years ago I went back to collecting again, and I ramped it up quite a bit. I got to the point where I had a significant collection, and eventually got to know Johnny Craviotto. I had seen one of Johnny?s first Timeless Timber solid birdseye maple snare drums and decided I had to have one. Johnny is, in my opinion, the finest drum craftsman that has ever lived. After getting my timeless timber maple snare I got in touch with Johnny and we started to do some special runs of timeless timber snares. We did 4x14s, 5.5x14s, 6.5x14s in maple and also birch. I set up a website and started selling these and other vintage drums. I still have a few of Johnny?s timeless timber snares available for sale, and of course I have several that are my own personal drums that I will never sell. These are the finest snares I have ever played. Johnny?s entire line of snares is unreal, and we?ve been a big supporter of his for years now. Absolutely wonderful man.
Anyhow, after a few more years of collecting and selling through my website I had so much in the way of vintage drums that I had to start thinking about opening a shop. We were packing and shipping drums from the family room, which was starting to look like a loading dock for UPS. The entire garage was filled with cardboard boxes for shipping drums. Thankfully, my wife was very understanding and supportive. I was also starting to set up a small booth at Rob Cook?s terrific Chicago Vintage Show. I had always gone to the show to stroll around and look at the vintage drums, so I finally decided to get a booth one year. I attend every year now and it?s great fun. Now we take two full booths and we have a ball.
When we finally decided to start thinking about a shop my idea was to make it a place unlike other drum shops. I wanted to have vintage drums in order to bring these great instruments to a wider range of players. I also wanted high end custom drums in order to represent the best of what is being built by talented craftsman in smaller custom shops such as Craviotto and others. I also wanted a museum section so people could see some of the drums that were used by some of the greatest players of the past. Lastly, we wanted to capture the sense of friendship and cooperation that I always got from Charlie, Frank, Al, Maurie and Bill. The way they did business was a model for how I wanted to do it at my shop. In fact, if you look on our website there is a section where we dedicate the shop to the people who influenced me the most.
We found a space, and I actually came upon it by accident. One of our sons is a classical bassist and performs with the Chicago Youth Symphony, which is located in the Fine Arts Building on Michigan Avenue right in the heart of downtown Chicago near Lake Michigan. The building used to be the headquarters for Studebaker back at the turn of the century. Now it is a historic landmark and is home to tons of arts-related businesses. Vocal instructors, piano teachers, artists, luthiers, you name it. I always said that if I ever opened a shop I?d love to do it there. A small space came available so I grabbed it. We were only open by appointment at first, and only on Sundays, because it was just me doing all of this in my spare time. After a year we moved to a larger space in the same building one floor below and have been there ever since. Ben Gray came on board right before we moved to the larger space and he has been fantastic. Ben knows vintage and custom drums really well and is great with customers, and I think he knows every gigging musician in the city! He manages the shop for me. My wife Debbie does all of the accounting work for the shop, which is really helpful. We run a small operation and everyone wears a lot of hats. We?re just finishing our third year in business and are just about ready to open a teaching studio also.
Tell us about the type of clientele you have. I would presume you have quite a few jazz and blues drummers given the nature of Chicago?s music environment?
Ans: Our clientele is really varied. We get lots of players from Chicago and we also have players coming in from all over the country because we have a pretty unique shop and people don?t get a chance to see these items anywhere else. We have a lot of jazz players as clients, both locally and from across the country. We get a lot of the NYC guys in here. We?re also catering to orchestral players as well. They love those heavy brass 20s era Ludwig snares. We also have customers in over 15 different locations overseas. Japan, Germany, Italy, Sweden, England, Greece, and more. It?s amazing what the internet can do in terms of making your products and services available worldwide. We also get a lot of calls now for people who want to consign items to us. We?ve worked hard to build a strong reputation and we have good exposure through the website, and we?ve also got a good sized client list. As a result, it makes sense for some folks to bring their vintage items to us to sell for them on consignment. We can reach a larger audience of prospective buyers than they can on their own, so to these sellers a consignment scenario is logical.
Is yours the only true drum shop in Chicago? If so, why is that?
Ans: Let me answer it this way: Ours is the only shop ?of its kind? in Chicago. There are some other great shops here, but mostly they are outside of the downtown area and are more along the lines of a multi-line pro drum shop. They carry a lot of different brands and focus mostly on new drums, cymbals etc and really don?t carry vintage and custom gear. We don?t really compete with each other. In fact, it?s sort of a cooperative arrangement. If someone asks me about a DW or Yamaha kit I refer them to one of the other shops. If those shops get inquiries about vintage or custom drums they send those customers to me.
Do you sell new name brand drums, and if so, what brands?
Ans: When we opened the shop we were primarily vintage and high end custom products from smaller custom-shop builders. But, as time went on we decided we wanted to have a small number of relationships with major lines that complimented what we did in the shop. We started with Premier, and just recently added Gretsch. Adding Gretsch was very important to us because we sell a lot of the vintage Gretsch kits. Our decision to carry new Gretsch drums plays off the heritage that exists with the fine round badge kits of the 50s-60s. Having the new Gretsch drums was a nice compliment to the great vintage Gretsch kits. We got behind Gretsch in a big way. I ordered a large number of their USA Custom kits in the most popular jazz configurations. We have a lot of sets in the 8x12, 14x14, 14x18, 5x14 configuration and we currently have more USA Gretsch sets in stock than any other dealer. Having that inventory was important to us. We wanted people to be able to come in and select from stock and not have to wait a long time for a custom order. In a true multi-line pro drum shop they have to carry too many brands to get heavily invested into any one line in terms of inventory. As a result, these days buyers of most any major brand drumset have to wait quite a long time from the day they decide to buy, to the day they receive their drums. We want to change that a bit, so we stocked up and actually have created an entire room in the shop dedicated to ?Gretsch, Then and Now?. In this room we have 15 brand new USA Gretsch kits; all of our vintage Gretsch kits; and we have our three ultra rare cadillac nitron green Gretsch kits, one of which is set up on a stage that we created to replicate the stage at the famous Birdland nightclub in NYC, where Gretsch had a cadillac nitron green kit as the house set for years.
Is your specialty used and vintage drums? What brands sell well for you and which do you prefer?
Ans: We do specialize in vintage drum sets and snares, and we sell a lot of Gretsch. That?s our top seller in terms of vintage drum sets. We also sell a lot of Rogers from the 60s; Slingerland from the 50s through 70s, and 50s-60s Ludwig. We also carry some Leedy, but not as much since the demand isn?t quite as high. Once in awhile we get some Camco, but not too often. As you can imagine, vintage drum inventory has its peaks and valleys. You can?t just call up the factory and order more 40 year old drum sets. So, timing is everything. At one point we had 14 round badge Gretsch kits including two with rare 18? bass drums, and several sets in rare colors including burgundy sparkle and starlight sparkle, but all of those sets sell fast. In terms of vintage snares there is always high demand for Slingerland Radio Kings, Ludwig heavy brass shell drums from the 20s; Ludwig brass Supraphonic 400s; Ludwig black beauties; Ludwig solid shell wood drums from the 20s; Rogers wood Powertones, and more. Buyers of vintage snares and drum sets run the gamut. We sell to jazz players, collectors, recording studios, you name it. People are looking for a specific sound, and many of these drums have those qualities, plus they were well made instruments and they have historical significance.
How do you compete with the big box stores and do you find them taking business away from you?
Ans: We don?t see ourselves in competition with the big box retail stores. They have a mass merchandising model with a decided focus on low cost, and their target market differs from ours. We serve a niche market. You can come to our shop and see things you can?t see anywhere else. You can also come in and try drums and cymbals in an environment that let?s you hear the quality of the instrument. We?re not the low-cost provider, but we have a wider selection of the types of things we carry, and you get personal attention from knowledgeable people who will know you and remember you as a customer. People can access the website and they will see the shop phone number where Ben or I can be reached, and my cell phone number is there too. I have no problem with people calling me directly. As a small business owner I believe strongly in staying in touch with the customers we serve. We try to keep the shop comfortable and low pressure. Players who travel in from out of town, or from another country, can come in, sit in the drummer?s lounge and just see the sites and relax.
Do you see big box stores as a threat to independent music stores in general?
Ans: I don?t pretend to have the answer to that question. However, I feel strongly that independent music stores are very critical to our business. I would hate to see them depleted. But, succeeding as an independent is clearly harder today than it was before the big box stores became so prominent. For us, we differentiate ourselves from the big box stores by virtue of the type of items we sell and the fact that we focus on a niche market that is not on the radar screen of big box retailers. There isn?t enough money in it for them to focus on it too heavily, and because the supply of vintage drums is limited, it can?t really be sustained as a product line in multi location big box retail shops.
You have quite a few celebrity snare drums and drumsets in your store. How did you acquire these? Please be as detailed as you can (Sonny Greer?s Leedys, Buddy?s and Mel?s Slingerlands, Billy Gladstone snares, etc.).
Ans: We allocate a good portion of the store to the museum section. We?ve got some very interesting items in there, among which are:
Buddy Rich?s Slingerland Kit: This came to me from Harry Cangany, a very good friend, vintage drum expert and author. Harry had this kit for a long time, and even wrote an article about in for Modern Drummer about a year ago. The kit is also featured in Harry?s book on vintage drum companies. The kit is 13/16/16/24 and includes all the stands and throne. This was the kit Buddy used just before he left Slingerland and went to Ludwig. This was the first celebrity owned kit I ever bought and I can not imagine ever selling it. Buddy was my hero. I saw him over a dozen times in person and he was beyond belief. I had always asked Harry to call me if he ever decided to sell the kit and one day he called. That was several years ago. I couldn?t get that check written fast enough!!
Sonny Greer?s Leedy kit: This is the kit he used with Ellington. This is the one museum item I have that I don?t actually own. It is owned by a very good collector friend, who has loaned it to me for display in the museum. The kit was owned by a famous drummer who is a friend of mine. This is the kit that the Smithsonian Institute took with them when they did an anniversary tour in honor of Ellington. This kit was used as part of a display that went from museum to museum. When the owner decided to sell the kit he came to me and I sold it to the current owner. This is a remarkable kit with incredible history.
Rufus Jones Slingerland Kit: This kit was used by Rufus ?Speedy? Jones when he was with Ellington. Rufus was an incredible player. I knew that this kit was around, and another dealer friend of mine had bought the kit some years ago. I always wanted this set for personal reasons: I had seen Rufus perform on this same set and I actually helped him take it down after the show. I was a lot younger back then! He was a wonderful, kind man, and a great player. Anyhow, when my dealer friend decided to sell the kit I purchased it.
Mel Torme?s Slingerland Kit: This kit is really interesting. Mel was a pretty good drummer and was always a big fan of Gene Krupa. Mel had come to own one of Gene?s kits and wanted to use it as his stage kit in his tribute to Krupa that he did during his show. At the time, Don Osborne was the President of Slingerland. Mel brought the kit to Don, but the kit was in bad shape. Don suggested using the hardware from Krupa?s kit but using new 70s era Slingerland shells. So, that?s what they did. This was Mel?s favorite kit and he used it every night in his show when he played a tribute to Gene. Don Osborne?s son, Don Jr, (Donny) was Mel?s drummer for 25 years, and performed with Mel each night. After Mel passed away Donny got the kit from Mel?s family. I got to know Donny and we became great friends. Donny and I are about the same age, and I used to kid him about how much I hated him when he was young because he got to play with Buddy?s band! When Donny was young he was an incredible player (sitting in with Buddy?s band and doing clinics along with Gene), and his playing now is even better! Anyhow, Donny and I talked and we both thought it would be great to bring the kit back to Chicago and have it here with Buddy?s kit. Buddy and Mel were great friends, so this seemed like a great idea. So, I bought the kit from Donny and it is here in the museum.
Billy Gladstone Snare Drums: We currently have three original Gladstone snares. We actually had five but we sold two. Billy only made about 50 drums, of which probably only about 25 still exist, and these are arguably the most highly sought after vintage snare drums. On our website we have posted a lot of information about how Billy designed these unique drums. He was an inventor as well as a phenomenal musician. His three way tuning system, unique internal muffling system and his beautifully simple snare throw-off were all his own inventions.
Of the three Gladstone drums we currently own, my favorite is the birdseye maple snare with gold plated hardware. This drum has an inscription on the name plate with Billy?s name, and the words ?Radio City Music Hall?. This drum is one of the last ones he built. It had been owned for quite awhile by the late Liam Mulholland, who eventually sold it to a friend of mine, and I bought it from him. The documented history of the drums that Billy made is a little sketchy, but as far as we know he only made 4 drums in the birdseye maple/gold hardware combination.
One of the other Gladstone drums is actually a prototype that he built before the he built the first commercially available drum. The prototype is unusual because the shell has reinforcement rings and the drum is wrapped in black diamond pearl. Billy always preferred Gretsch shells and liked to avoid pearl wraps, although he would wrap a drum if the buyer preferred it. We estimate that this drum was built probably around 1945-47.
The other drum is one that had been incomplete at the time of Billy?s death. The detailed history of this drum is also on our website. The drum came to me from Harry Cangany?s collection, and Harry had originally obtained it from Chet Falzerano. Chet is a wonderful guy who is a serious expert on Billy Gladstone and he owns several of Billy?s original drums, including the one built for Gene Krupa, and the one built for Louie Bellson, among others.
Other Important Rarities:
Gretsch Cadillac Nitron Green drum sets:
We have three Gretsch Cadillac Nitron Green drum sets. These sets were made in the 50s for a few years and they are one of the rarest of all Gretsch sets. We estimate that there are probably about 12 sets known to exist, but as with anything, those numbers can change as people find interesting treasures in their basements and attics. The kits were made in both three ply configuration and also lasted into the era of six ply drums. Of the three kits that we have, two of them are three ply and one is six ply. The earliest drums were the three ply sets and these were done in a lacquer finish and the lugs, rods, rims, claws, Ts, etc were all gold plated. The six ply era sets eventually were done in more of a wrap-like finish but still with the gold plated hardware. These were exceedingly expensive kits at the time, so they were very costly for Gretsch to make. As a result, they didn?t build very many. Gretsch placed one of these kits into the famous Birdland nightclub in NYC as the house kit. That set was a 13/16/22 with matching 5x14 SD.
Of the three kits we own, my favorite is the six ply kit. This kit is 13/16/22 with the matching 5x14 snare drum. As you can imagine, a lot of the gold plating has worn away because it was a fairly thin coating originally, but the set possesses such a great ?vibe? that it?s really incredible, and it sounds fabulous. In our Gretsch room at the shop we recreated a stage that somewhat resembles the stage at Birdland and have placed that kit up there on permanent display. These kits come up once in a blue moon. I had not seen one for sale for about 5 years, then, I acquired all three of the kits I have within a 90 day time span last year, which to me was unbelievable. The acquisition of the six ply kit was particularly interesting: This kit was the first one I acquired. I received a call out of the blue from a fellow on the east coast. He said he was 24 years old and had an old set of drums that had been given to him 6-7 years ago. He played in a band and was thinking that maybe he should do something to fix up the kit because they were old and looked sort of worn. I asked him to describe the kit, and he said they were Gretsch, and that they were green. I assumed he meant green sparkle (which is rare for a Gretsch color, but nowhere near as rare as caddy green nitron). I never in a million years expected that they?d be caddy green nitron. When he told me that they weren?t a sparkle finish I asked about the hardware and he told me it was gold. That?s when the lightbulb went off in my head. I told him that if the kit was what I thought it was, he had a true rarity on his hands. He didn?t have a digital camera, so he said he would mail me the snare drum to take a look. I got the drum and sure enough it was the real deal. We talked further and I eventually bought the entire kit from him.
The other two sets came about in unusual ways. One of the three ply 13/16/22 kits came about through another phone call out of the blue, about 30 days after I bought the six ply kit. Then, about a month later my webmaster, who is also an avid drum collector, sent me an email about an item on ebay. I happened to be sitting at the PC when his email arrived. I clicked on the item and to my disbelief and amazement it was a three ply 13/16/22 caddy green Gretsch kit up for sale with a Buy It Now. It had been up on ebay for about 24 hours I think, and no one had bought it yet, probably because they weren?t sure if it was original. I knew it was the real deal, so I grabbed it. That one was just pure luck and timing! It was great to get those three kits. However, it was a bit challenging because those are not inexpensive drums. Buying one set was OK, but buying three sets was more than I had bargained for, but this is the type of set that you buy when it is available. You never know when, or even ?if?, you will see one again. One of the three ply kits we have is now for sale.
Rogers Wood Dynasonics:
I am a big Rogers fan, and I love the wood dynasonics. These are rare instruments and they were made in very small quantities when compared to the metal shell dynasonics. I always wanted a White Marine Pearl wood dynasonic and when I was younger I never thought I?d even see one in person, never mind actually own one. Now, I have owned more than 40 different wood dynas in the past 5 years in various colors, and still have several of the rarest in my own personal collection, but acquiring the first one was a truly unique experience: This was about 8 years ago and I had been visiting an old music store not too far from where I live. The shop was owned by a very eccentric guy who only showed up about 2 hours each day, and you had to call for an appointment. Even then, if you showed up and he didn?t like the way you looked he wouldn?t let you in. I guess he liked me well enough because he let me in. The shop was old and musty, and I noticed that he had rows and rows of old guitars. These were brand new 60s guitars (referred to as ?new old stock?) and he had bought these from the factory brand new in the 60s and never sold them. There were Martin acoustics, Gretsch guitars, you name it. I asked him if he had any drums, and he took me down to an even mustier basement. In actuality he didn?t have anything as interesting in the way of drums, with one exception. I saw a drum on the shelf and it was Rogers and it was WMP. I then saw the dynasonic snare frame on the bottom head, but there was no ?dynasonic? badge around the venthole. Also, it had the old style Rogers lugs referred to as B&B, rather than the sturdier beavertail lugs used from circa 1964 onward. As it turns out, the drum was ultra rare because it was one of the very first dynasonics ever made. These were referred to as ?pre-badge? drums, because they did not have the ?dynasonic? badge surrounding the venthole. Instead, they had a paper tag on the inside with the word ?dynasonic? typed on it. There were probably only a couple of hundred pre-badge dynas ever made, and I only know of two others in WMP. Anyhow, this guy had bought the drum from Rogers when they first came on the market circa 1960-61 and he never sold it. It just sat there on the shelf in the basement of his store in new-old-stock condition. He knew the drum was worth money, but I didn?t have to think twice about going out and getting the cash to buy that drum because I knew I had to have it! Don?t think I?ll ever sell that one! We?ve also got two 6.5x14 wood dynasonics in the collection. These are the rarest of all wood dynasonics because there were very few produced. One of ours is WMP, and the other is rare Wildwood and is thought to be possibly the only 6.5x14 in this color in existence as far as we know.
Ellis Tollin?s Rogers kit: Ellis wasn?t a celebrity, but he was a pioneer in the drum business and was responsible for helping bring Buddy Rich into the Rogers family as an endorser. Also, Ellis, along with Joe Thompson and Ben Strauss of Rogers, helped with the creation of the design for the Dynasonic snare drum. I got to know Ellis some years ago and I gave him a WMP wood dynasonic to replace his, which had been stolen. After Ellis passed away I acquired the snare drum and also acquired this kit from his widow Jeannette. Ellis was close to Buddy Rich, Louie Bellson, and Gene Krupa, and was one of the very first people to sponsor drum clinics, which he did through his drum shop in Philadelphia.
We also have a couple of really unique Fibes one-off snare drums. One of them is said to have been a presentation drum built for one of the founders of Fibes when the C.F.Martin company bought Fibes. This drum is a Fibes shell covered with a wood veneer that is inlaid with diamond shaped mother of pearl, and the hardware is gold plated. The other drum is one that on the surface looks like a walnut 8 lug Slingerland Radio King complete with three point strainer and extension bridges. In reality, it is a 60s Fibes drum that was built for Jake Hanna. Jake apparently was playing Slingerland drums at the time, so the snare was made to resemble a Radio King. It has a wood veneer and all Slingerland parts. Interesting story: In some 60s photos of Buddy Rich you see him playing his WMP Rogers kit and he appears to be using a metal shell dynasonic. That?s odd from the start because Buddy usually didn?t use metal shell snares. But, that snare is actually a Fibes snare drum, not a metal shell dynasonic. The drum was built for Buddy by the founders of Fibes, but was wrapped in a chrome finish and built out with Rogers hardware so as to resemble a metal shell dynasonic. I actually know who has that snare drum. Hope he never sells it (unless of course he wants to sell it to me!).
Why did you decide to begin collecting celebrity-owned drums?
Ans: I didn?t start collecting these items just to have something owned by a person with a famous name. I really wanted something that belonged to the players I admired and respected most. That was the primary driving factor. So, something of Buddy?s was clearly high on the list. Same for Rufus Jones, Billy Gladstone, etc. I also have a kit that belonged to Barrett Deems, who was a great friend. It is a Gretsch kit that I actually gave him as a birthday present one year.
Who are some of the well-known drummers you have worked with? Who among them are collectors? Do you deal with drummers/collectors overseas?
Ans: We?ve had a lot of really wonderful people come through the shop. Steve Smith, Steve White, Peter Erskine, Clarence Penn, Stanton Moore, Matt Wilson, Todd Sucherman, Bryan Hitt. We?ve also done work with several recording studios and some producers who are looking for vintage snares, sets, and unique cymbals. We?ve also helped out Brian Blade and we have customers in several countries overseas. A lot of the players who visit us have personal collections of fine vintage drums and they are always interested in knowing about items that we acquire. We have seen that among drummers there is a common thread of deep appreciation for fine vintage instruments, not unlike with guitarists. And, it?s not just the jazz players. It?s orchestral players and rock players too. It?s great to see that there is so much awareness and appreciation of the fine instruments of the past, and it is great to see them go into the hands of players as well as collectors. First and foremost, these are instruments and they were built to be played.
You recently started offering your own line of drums. Tell us about them and how they came about.
Ans: Our own line of drums is a little over a year old now. This started with an idea way back in the 70s. I always wanted to try to build a kit, so I actually bought a few shells and found some old Radio King era Slingerland lugs and built a 13/16/22 back around 1976. I am not a builder, but I was intrigued by the idea and wanted to try it. The kit took a long time to build, but in the end I was happy with it. I eventually sold it to a recording studio many, many years ago. Wish I still had it! Anyhow, a little over a year ago Greg Gaylord and I were talking. Greg is a superb custom drum builder and does incredible work. He said that he thought he could build my kits for me. I wanted something that had a classic look, and a classic sound, but with enough of today?s contemporary features. I also wanted to try an experiment; that being the concept of building a small BeBop style kit with small enough drums to make the kit portable, but the drums needed to be large enough to deliver excellent sound. The very first prototype was an 8x10, 13x13 FT, and a 16x16 BD with a 5x13 SD. We used a ?vintage? WMP wrap, which is a slightly creamy colored WMP. It gives the kit a classic ?aged? look. Then we used lugs that remind you of the classic drums of the past. I knew what I wanted the kit to look like, and how I wanted it to sound. I also knew that I was not skilled enough to build them myself. Greg handles all of the building of these kits for us. We are using Keller maple shells, and Greg cuts the bearing edges in a special way to give us the sound we want. We had good success with the BeBop kit and as a result, we now produce an entire line of sets in many different sizes and configurations. We?ve had a lot of excellent feedback on these kits. We have several universities that use our drums in their music programs. Also, we have started a small endorser program. Chad Rager is our first endorser and he uses a beautiful big gold glitter double bass kit with his big band, and he also has one of the small BeBop kits for small combo work. We are also proud to say that one of our kits is now the house kit at Chicago?s famous Jazz Showcase nightclub. The universities, Chad?s band and the Jazz Showcase are great venues for visibility for our drums. We have no intention of trying to become a dominant force in drum set production. We are niche market focused. We create a high end custom product that suits primarily jazz players, and we try to keep it reasonably priced. One of our most popular kits consists of an 8x12, 14x14FT, 14? deep x 16? diameter bass drum, with either a 4x14 snare with side-by-side classic lugs, or a 5x14. The traditional jazz sized 14x18 bass drums are also very popular, and the 12/14/20 and 13/16/22 combinations also sell well. We can do pretty much any size drum within reason, and it only takes us 4 weeks to do a custom kit from start to finish. That?s a lot less than the 6-9 months that it takes for some of the larger manufacturers to do a custom order.
We?ve discussed only drums so far, but how about cymbals? What brands do you sell? Do you sell vintage cymbals like old K. Zildjians, etc, and if so, how do you feel about the high prices old K?s bring these days?
Ans: We love cymbals. Right now we sell Zildjian, Bosphorus and Istanbul. Because we cater mostly to jazz players we tend to bring in a larger quantity of only certain cymbals within these lines. As an example: most of what we sell for Bosphorus is from their Masters Series. We?ll order from their entire line of course, but we stock more of the Masters Series because that?s where we see the bulk of our demand. If someone is looking for a 22? thin, ?jazz? ride cymbal he may only be able to pick from two or three examples at some drum shops because the larger multi-line shops can?t always carry a ton of each item. A ride cymbal is a very personal item and selecting one takes time, and ideally, most buyers want to try more than a couple of examples. What we try to do is to give that buyer a choice of many examples of those ride cymbals. We also pick cymbals for some players. Personally I find that to be an honor, because most players will generally trust only one set of ears when it comes to cymbals, and that set of ears would be their own. But, we get to know the people who purchase from us fairly well, and we tend to have a pretty good sense for what they like to hear, especially the jazz drummers who are extremely discriminating when it comes to cymbals. So, as a result, if we know what the player tends to want in a cymbal we can weed out most of them and maybe get it down to 2-3 that we?re pretty sure will fall into the sweet spot for the player, then we can send those along for the player to pick from. So far our track record is pretty good in this area, and it really gives you a great feeling when the customer calls back and says we hit it right on the head.
As for the old Ks, they are always in demand. We definitely buy those when we can, but we try to be discriminating about these. The harsh truth is that some of them just don?t sound good. It?s a mistake to believe that just because a cymbal is old, it must be good. The same is true for drums. Some vintage drums just don?t sound very good. We don?t buy those. And, we don?t buy the old Ks that don?t sound good either. When we do get good ones they tend to sell fairly quickly. We try to be as reasonable as we can with prices on these, but supply and demand does take over at some point. My biggest issue with prices for old Ks is when you see cymbals being bought for large sums of money without the buyer ever hearing them. This gets into the realm of buyers who are collectors rather than players, and everyone has the right to buy whatever they want to, and to pay whatever price they feel like paying. But, that activity can inflate prices on an overall basis in the market, therefore making it harder for the performing musician to be able to afford the best cymbal. Personally, I like to see the best sounding cymbals going to players who can make the most out of that instrument?s potential. If we can match the best cymbals up with the best players, and still keep the price as reasonable as possible, that to me is the ideal scenario.
Some of the older A. Zildjians are also really excellent. I?m talking about the 40s and 50s As. My manager, Ben Gray, loves dealing with the old As and Ks. My own personal taste in cymbals runs to the one person who I believe is the absolute master cymbalsmith of all time, and that would be Roberto Spizzichino. Roberto understands the essence of the finest of the old ?K? sound, and has taken it to new heights. He operates a small one man shop in Italy, so he can not produce large quantities and therefore he does not sell to dealers. I have collected his cymbals for many years, and occasionally have sold some from my personal collection to drummers who were looking for the ultimate ride cymbal. These are, in my humble opinion, better than any of the old Ks I have ever heard. These are truly remarkable instruments and I am happy to pull these from my ?vault? for anyone who wants to hear them.
What are your immediate plans for the store in terms of growth and where do you see your business in the next five years? Is there any final statement you?d like to make about drums, drumming, or the music business?
Ans: Our immediate plans include starting a teaching studio. We?re just about ready for that now. There is no question that by having students coming through the shop the overall economics of the business improve. You gain the advantage of the revenues from lessons as well as the incremental sales of sticks, accessories, method books, drums, cymbals, etc. Additionally, we love the idea of expanding our reach down further into the arena of younger players so that we can also help to educate them about the history of their chosen instrument, and to introduce them to some of the great players of the past. I also see us expanding what we do with orchestral percussion, especially in terms of snare drums. Over the next 5 years I hope to see the store continue to grow. Right now we don?t have plans for geographic expansion, such as on the east coast or west coast, even though people have asked about it. We won?t rule it out, but right now our focus is to keep growing the Chicago shop.
As for a final statement, I?ll go back to what I heard from Papa Jo Jones when I studied with him in NYC back in the early 70s. Papa Jo told me that each of us has the obligation to pass along what we know. We try to incorporate that into what we do at the shop. We want to pass along historical information as a means of educating others, and we want to expose people, young and old, to the heritage of their chosen instrument and also want to be able to meet their current needs with unique and interesting products. Most of all, it has to be fun. We spend most of our lives working, and I believe that your work should be as enjoyable as possible. I am very thankful to be able to do what we?re doing with the shop, and I hope it provides enjoyment for everyone who visits.