By Phil Hood
In 1998 Sako Karaian got a call from his childhood friend Daron Malakian, guitarist for System of A Down. At the time the band was growing in popularity thanks to their self-titled debut album. “We’re getting ready for a big tour,” Daron said. “Are you ready to go with us?” But Sako protested that there was nothing he could do to help the band. To which Daron replied, “You’re going to be our drum tech.” A career was born.
Four years later Sako was discussing things backstage with bass tech Mark Connors, when he learned that Mark built guitars between tours. Sako became intrigued. Not long afterward the band was touring in Australia when he ran into Tomas Haake of Meshuggah. Tomas asked him what he would do after the tour and Sako for the first time said, “I’m going to build a 50-pound iron snare drum.” It was a wild idea that Haake heartily endorsed.
Back in the States Sako followed through. He tried a run of prototypes before settling on the model he builds today, which is a .5″ thick shell in a 14″ x 6″ design. When he made that first one, System of a Down drummer John Dolmayan loved the drum. Soon Roy Mayorga of Stone Sour wanted one and Sako found himself making drums for some very heavy players.
A shell that thick won’t vibrate much but it does impart a tonal color and the heads are readily tuned. Sako also likes that he is able to mic it top and bottom and put B-band mics inside it, which helps drummers achieve high volume without feedback on tour. “You can hear ghost notes in the last row of an arena,” he says with pride. Lots of engineers he encounters like how the drum tunes and sounds.
Ten years later, in 2012, System of a Down was again on tour at Australia’s Soundwave Festival when Sako ran into Haake. They hugged and Tomas said, “Sako, how are you doing? Hey, did you ever build that drum?” Sako ushered him up to the stage to try one of Dolmayan’s heavy iron snares. The Meshuggah drummer immediately made an appointment to buy one when he came to Los Angeles three months later for a Cinco de Mayo gig.
Today Sako divides his time between touring with artists such as Deftones and Ben Harper as well as SOAD, and building full Sako Drums kits that include quality wood shells with the weighty snare. He custom paints the wood drums (that’s a story for another time) and frequently anodizes the iron. I wonder whether the weight of the drum is oppressive for some potential clients. Before I can ask the question, Sako says: “Weight is still an issue for some people.” But then, he adds, many of his clients have drum techs.
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