From DRUM! Magazine’s July 2017 Issue | By Brad Schlueter
Peanut butter and jelly. Arm and Hammer. Ben and Jerry. Some things were just meant to be together. So, when it was announced last year that, after dabbling with other endorsements, Vinnie Colaiuta, one of the world’s premier drummers and session players, would return home to Gretsch drums, the reaction from fans and admirers, rather than being one of astonishment, was actually more like, “Well, of course he is — duh!”
In fact, after first falling in love with “That Great Gretsch Sound” during college, Colaiuta has been known to surreptitiously play Gretsch drums in the studio throughout his career, regardless of the brand he officially endorsed on stage at any given moment. Gretsch announced his return to their roster just in time for him to hit the road with Sting and Peter Gabriel on the 2016 Rock, Paper, Scissors World Tour, but that was merely the first chapter of their reawakened bromance.
This year, to commemorate the reunion, Gretsch released a pair of signature Vinnie Colaiuta snare drums. The master drummer worked closely with the craftsmen at Gretsch’s USA factory in Ridgeland, South Carolina to create two new models worthy of his name. We were able to spend some time with them, and discovered two unique instruments, each of which has its own personality and yet shares notable similarities with its counterpart.
A Classic Formula
One of Colaiuta’s two signature snares is a versatile 14″ x 5″ drum. The second model, unless you play in a reggae band, could be classified as an auxiliary snare, since it measures just 12″ x 4″. Both have 6-ply 0.3″-thick shells made of maple and gumwood. The 14″ has double 45-degree bearing edges, and the 12″ has 30-degree edges. Both feature snare beds hand-cut by Gretsch craftsmen.
This shell formula should ring a bell among Gretsch aficionados. The Jasper furniture company made Gretsch’s shells for decades, but closed in 2003 when it became impossible to compete with inexpensive imported furniture. The maple and gum blend used in Jasper drum shells was one of the key ingredients that gave Gretsch snare drums their signature sound.
Traditionally, these shells had two maple plies and four gum plies, with the maple plies (“M”) oriented horizontally, and the gum plies (“G”) vertically, in this order: MGGGGM. That’s the same combination Colaiuta was initially drawn to, which is why he selected it for his new snare drums.
Pick Any Color (As Long As It’s Blue)
Colaiuta chose for his signature snares the same striking cobalt blue lacquer finish from the Gretsch USA Custom kit he played during the Sting/Gabriel tour. This finish almost looks like a wrap, since it’s an opaque lacquer that doesn’t show any grain. The saturated blue color is more bold than demure, and is flawlessly applied to the shell with a smooth, high-gloss luster. No other finishes are currently available for these snares.
Those of you familiar with the brand won’t be surprised to learn that the interiors of these snares are sprayed with Gretsch’s legendary Silver Sealer. This silver paint, found inside all of Gretsch’s high-end drums, protects the wood from moisture.
The 14″ snare has eight double-sided die-cast lugs, and the 12″ drum has just six. The larger drum’s lugs are longer than those on the shallower drum, although the lugs on each share a resemblance.
Both drums come with 4mm die-cast hoops, which are robust enough to withstand a lifetime of drumming wear and tear. They also happen to be as beautiful as they are heavy-duty — the chroming on all the hardware is mirror perfect, as you’d probably expect of Gretsch.
While the two snares have much in common, a key difference is the throw-off and butt plate. The larger drum uses Gretsch’s heavy-duty die-cast Lightning throw-off and Lightning butt plate, which are a little unusual in the way snare wire adjustments are divvied between each side.
The throw-off side is used only to drop the wires. Its curved handle extends a little above the top hoop, moving smoothly and quietly to lower the wires about 0.5″ below the drum. The Lightning butt plate resembles the drum’s lugs (except for the inclusion of a fishtail detail at the bottom of the butt) and features the fine-tuning knob. So if you’re used to a typical strainer, where the lever and fine-tuning knob are combined into one mechanism on the same side of the drum, it may take a minute to adjust to this setup.
The smaller 12″ drum uses Gretsch’s recently redesigned Micro-Sensitive throw-off. The original version was mounted on Gretsch snares from the ’50s and ’60s, and this version improves on the original in many ways. Primarily, it’s sturdier and better designed, and includes a small button at the top of the lever that locks the arm in position.
To move the lever, you must first press the button. It doesn’t take much pressure to release the arm, which otherwise doesn’t budge when locked in place. A large round knob on the side of the throw moves the entire unit toward and away from the shell. It’s a retro way to adjust wire tension, and isn’t quite as easy to turn at tighter settings as some other designs, including some of Gretsch’s. Fortunately for vintage collectors, the new model has the same mounting-hole pattern as the original, so it can be retrofitted onto an older drum.
The single node butt plate attaches to the shell with one screw, and also has its own fine-tuning mechanism. As you turn the knob, you feel indented positions to help lock your setting. Most drummers will probably set this once and leave it, preferring to make most of the finer adjustments from the larger knob on the throw.
Beneath the drum, clear tape holds 20 chrome-plated wires in place. Gretsch Permatone–coated single-ply heads (made by Remo) grace the batter side of the drum, and clear snare-side heads are on the bottom.
The rectangular badge is black and silver and features Colaiuta’s signature. It doesn’t have the “snap-in key” feature that so many USA Custom snares offer. This detail lets you push the bottom of the drum key through a hole in the middle of the badge and into the shell. I miss this feature, since it makes it easy to quickly find your drum key.
Under The Sticks
I first cranked up the smaller 12″ snare and played a variety of funk and breakbeat grooves on it. It’s very crisp and cuts through powerfully with ample attack. It also has more fullness than most metal snares of the same dimensions, with a balanced tonal spectrum that produces good highs over a solid midrange. This drum is pretty lively, and you’ll probably want to add a touch of dampening to it for most uses. Its rimshots are loud enough to cut through any band, but I found its ring too boisterous without a touch of muffling. I always prefer a drum with too much ring over a dead drum, since it’s easy to muffle to taste.
My favorite quality is that the drum is crisp and sensitive no matter how lightly or heavily you play it. It’s versatile enough that I could see using it as a primary snare on some of my gigs. Rim-clicks always suffer on drums this small, but I was able to pull a decent one from it if, and only if, I placed the butt of the stick near the rim and struck the opposite edge with the shoulder of the stick. That’s good news for matched-grip drummers who don’t flip their sticks around to play rim-clicks, but it isn’t optimal for traditional-grip players who hit the hoops with the stick butt.
The 14″ has the same basic sound profile as the smaller drum, except for its deeper pitch and more controlled ring. It’s crisp and very sensitive, with a solid, full-bodied tone underneath every hit. I tried the drum at a variety of tuning ranges. When tuned lower, its fullness allowed it to work surprisingly well in ballads, which surprised me. The tone was fat and meaty, but still had enough crispness to bring out the attack of every note. Normally, I’d expect such a beefy sound to come from a deeper drum, but not in this case.
The 14″ cuts well at middle and higher tunings, and its ring never seems excessive. Rim-clicks are clear and loud, thanks in no small part to its thick 4mm die-cast hoops. Buzz rolls sound smooth and crisp. Rimshots are extremely loud — almost too loud — but they decay nicely. This snare drum is very versatile.
It’s easy to see why Colaiuta likes these two snares. Both offer a lot of crispness and sensitivity, so when playing busy riffs, faster figures will be clearly articulated and won’t mush into one another, as is often the case with muddier snare drums.
The larger model is certainly versatile and has a wide tuning range that will excel at gigs or in the studio for a variety of styles, and the smaller drum is an excellent complement to it.
Since they share the same shell formula, their tones blend well while having noticeably different pitches. If you like the only finish available and have the funds required for a pair of high-end snares, these two new drums could give you the best of both worlds.