By Phil Hood
There was a generation of giants in the music products industry from the 1950s to 1970s. These men — they were nearly all men — were leaders of companies at the forefront of the industry during its period of greatest growth, when Rhythm & Blues became Rock & Roll and Rock & Roll in turn became just plain Rock. I thought of all these people when I heard that Roy Burns, the founder of Aquarian Accessories, had passed away on May 2 at age 82.
These were men such as Armand Zildjian, who led the company that bore his name, and his brother Robert, who founded Sabian; Vic Firth, who built the largest drumstick company; Herb Brochstein of ProMark; Remo Belli, whose name became synonymous with drumheads; W.F. Ludwig II, who led the company during the explosive post-Beatles period; Robert and Toomas Paiste, and others. There also were industry giants who were their peers in building guitars, keyboards, or recording gear; Men like Leo Fender, Bob Moog, John D’Addario Sr., Jim Marshall, and other pioneers from who built the instruments and technology of today’s music equipment industry.
Roy was part of this group. He wasn’t a company leader or founder in the heyday of rock & roll. He didn’t start Aquarian Accessories until 1980. But in many ways he was equally influential. He was a teacher, author, kick-ass musician, builder, and entrepreneur. He started playing with Benny Goodman in 1956 when he was just 22, and went on to play with many others. As the education artist for Rogers drums in the late ‘60s he toured the country, introducing many students to their first drum clinic and then blowing everyone away with his playing, as he always did when he was behind the kit. His clinics made his name synonymous with Rogers at the time. For a generation of drummers, getting to see a Roy Burns clinic, or meet the man in person, was a lifetime thrill.
That generation shared a set of unique American musical experiences. They mostly were children of the Great Depression. Jazz and swing, not rock or rap, was their native tongue. Because of the time at which these men came of age and developed their instruments and musical products, they knew the giants of 20th century music firsthand, from Miles and Tony to Ginger and Eric. Not to mention John, Paul, George, and Ringo. Many of them were great musicians in their own right: Some, like Vic, Remo, and Herb, played in serious jazz bands while still in their teens. Armand (the drummer) and Robert (the bassist) were born a little earlier, in the 1920s. Working with their father at Zildjian, they had a front-row seat to the development of cymbals for the modern drum set and the entire pop music industry. The same goes for William F. Ludwig II.
These men shared another trait too. They loved music and they loved helping artists. When drummers talk about their time spent with Roy or Herb or Armand you can feel the love. They didn’t just create the tools for the greatest artists, they supported them. They counted them as friends. They were cheerleaders for drumming. Roy wrote a series of influential teaching columns for Modern Drummer over a dozen years that hugely impacted the lives of drummers everywhere. And he wrote nearly a dozen books as well.
I knew many of these men individually and I think they shared another interesting trait: They really wanted to know what made you tick. If you were an aspiring musician, they wanted to encourage you to push yourself to the next level musically and professionally. If you were a customer they really wanted to know what they could do to build a better product for you. If you were a magazine editor or publisher as I was when I met most of them, they wanted to know what you were going to do put out the best magazine you possibly could. That was more important to them than whether the magazine would say nice things about their products (not that they didn’t consider that important, too).
As he got older and mostly gave up playing, Roy still loved schooling young students on the art of drumming. Many customers were amazed when they called the Aquarian with a question or a complaint and found that they could be put through directly to Roy Burns himself. He liked to answer their questions and lay down a few nuggets of musical advice in the bargain. Even late into his 70s and early 80s he was in the office nearly every day, ready to call key accounts or maintain relationships with customers, distributors, and artists. I am sure his employees and his longtime business partner Ron Marquez treasured having a company leader who was such an inspiration to so many.
I used to like to call late in the afternoon or even right at 5 PM, because I figured Roy might still be there and have time to talk. If I got him on the line he’d tell me a few jokes, and if I had any that were nearly as good as his — which wasn’t often — I’d share mine. Then I’d quiz him about some of the legends he had met or perhaps played with in the ‘50s, names that seemed impossibly exotic and ancient when I was hearing them for the first time (on vinyl) in the 1970s. I learned what big ears Roy had. He knew the artists and the records and could explain things about their music in a way that opened up my own ears.
Now, with Roy’s passing, it feels like that generation is all gone. He and his contemporaries left their mark on music history with the instruments and tools they built and their personal relationships with pioneering musical artists in every style, from jazz and Latin to rock, metal, grunge, and soul. Their commitment was not to one style or one era: it was to the instrument itself and the dedication and craft required to master it. Many of them also left their names on their companies, names which will last many more decades or even centuries with any luck.
We miss them all. But this week, we’re missing Roy Burns the most.
“Focus on the instruments. They are what’s important. They will be here even after a musical style, or the players, or all of us, are long gone.”
— Jim Crockett, former editor and publisher of Guitar Player magazine.