BY KEVIN SCHUENEMANN
We’ve all stayed up way past midnight and saw those awful infomercials on TV and thought to ourselves, “Why is this necessary?” Who would have thought slicing vegetables could be so difficult we’d need a robot slicer? Does anyone really ever need a dedicated hot dog toaster? Then there are those products we can’t seem to live
without. Various Apple i-products come to mind. And though at first glance it would seem drums haven’t changed that much since the days of Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich, innovation has kept us chugging steadily along to the present. And while some ideas have stuck and others didn’t, the ones that have really mean something.
Sometimes it’s important to look back and appreciate the little things that have made our lives so much easier. So, we cleaned out the storage unit, dusted off the old tub collection, and came up with a list of our top ten drum innovations that make you want to shout, “Why didn’t somebody think of this sooner?!”
1. KICK DRUM PEDAL
Early kick drum pedals made their appearance in 1888 and included a striker that could hit a cymbal attached to the kick drum hoop. This new invention allowed the drummer to be more versatile and play more drums, which bandleaders in tight orchestra pits embraced. However, the pedals had no spring mechanism returning the beater to a resting position, which forced the drummer to manually depress and then recoil the beater. Due to the exhaustive repetitive motion, the drummers often could not play for long periods of time.
In 1909, Theobald and William F. Ludwig added a spring, which allowed the drummer to play longer and faster. Some models included a way to turn the cymbal striker off with their foot. For the first time, a single drummer could play a wide arrangement of drums, cymbals, and percussion using their hands and feet. Eventually the cymbal striker fell out of favor and we were left with the modern kick drum pedal.
2. THE MODERN HI-HAT STAND
If snare drums are the centerpiece of any drummer’s kit, surely hi-hats would be the cymbal equivalent. Hats of the roaring ’20s featured a pedal mechanism similar to kick drum pedals with cymbals attached that would clang together. It was similar to a modern hi-hat except it was kept very low to the ground, never intended to be hit with sticks — hence the name “low boy.”
After a chance stick drop, drummer and drum builder Barney Walberg noticed that now-famous gasping sound as the stick hit right at the opening action of the cymbals. After months of experimenting, Walberg’s company extended the inner rod and outer tube of his low hat stand to about waist high so he could play the cymbals with his hands as well as his feet. And so, in 1926, the modern hi-hat stand was born. Walberg was so confident that he named the new piece “Perfection Hats,” and they quickly flew off the shelves of every major drum company. Walberg may have been right about the name — in 86 years, very little has changed about the hi-hat stand. His company, Walberg And Auge, continued to make hardware for all the major drum companies, but remain to this day one of the most unsung leaders in drum innovation.
3. DOUBLE BASS DRUM PEDAL
The very first widely recognized predecessor to metal’s little helper didn’t come on the scene until the early ’70s, after Australian drummer/inventor Don Sleishman met handicapped drummer Evan Biddle. Biddle’s left arm had not fully developed, and so he compensated by having two kick drums to fill out those missing beats. Sleishman took note of this and struck on the novel idea of adapting a double bass drum setup (already popularized by drummers such as Louie Bellson, Ginger Baker, Keith Moon, and Ronnie Tut) into something more manageable for a handicapped musician. Sleishman built a double pedal prototype for Biddle and made it privately for friends for years before launching publicly in 1978. Since this innovation, almost every drum company offers a descendant of Don Sleishman’s “Twin Pedal.”
4. ELECTRONIC DRUM KITS
Graeme Edge, drummer for The Moody Blues, holds the distinction of creating the first known recording using electronic drums (on “Procession,” from 1971’s Every Good Boy Deserves Favor). “This was pre-chip days,” Edge said. “Back then you did it all with transistors … like, 500 transistors. The electronic drums inside looked something like spaghetti.”
The kit had six snares, thirteen tom-toms, eight bass drums, sixteen sequencers, and incorporated a tambourine. Although the drum sounds didn’t match acoustic drums, the new sounds, which included the classic “trash can” effect, opened up a new sonic palette to drummers. In 1978, Simmons began production on its line of electronic drum kits. Simmons’ signature dzzzzshh and clap sounds became staples of the ’80s and are still used heavily today. The entirety of rap and hip-hop owes a debt to Edge and his electronic kit.
5. ISOLATION TOM MOUNTS
The Rogers Drum Company’s Swiv-O-Matic tom holder featured the innovation of a ball-and-socket connection that exponentially increased movement and flexibility. Even Ludwig drummers such as Ringo Starr, Mitch Mitchell, and John Bonham used Swiv-O-Matic hardware. The Swiv-O-Matic represented the first significant thought drum builders had given to the mounting of toms.
The year 1979 brought out the RIMS (Resonance Isolation Mounting System), created by Gary Gauger of Gauger Percussion in a recording studio after cross talk from tom mounts transferred the vibrations into other toms and kick drums mounted from the same stand. The RIMS innovation eliminated the acoustical “short circuit” and “choking” effect on the resonance created by the drums, which drum builders often overlooked. Due to the slow reaction of drum builders to this chronic problem, RIMS remained a secret of studio drummers for years. The system has since become commonplace, and RIMS or their equivalent are now featured on the drums of many manufacturers.
6. MYLAR DRUMHEADS
In 1957, Remo Belli learned about a new film being produced by DuPont. The Mylar film intrigued Mr. Belli because of its low cost, weather resistance, and durability. As a drummer, he knew the pitch and tone of Mylar would work as a great substitute for calfskin heads. Remo traveled the Midwest pitching his new drumheads, dubbed “The Weatherking” after his dramatic demonstrations of pouring water onto the heads and then playing them, something inconceivable with calfskin. This act proved the heads’ viability for many dealers across the country. But convincing musicians who had grown accustomed to the old natural heads was a little more difficult. Chick Evans had invented a different plastic drumhead around the same time and encountered the same hesitations Remo did with musician acceptance. Jazz musicians still preferred calfskin.
With the ’60s came the new sound of rock and roll and a steady supply of younger, more aggressive players seeking longer-lasting drumheads that could keep their tone and pitch through punishing sets and despite changes of humidity and weather. Before long, Remo and Evans became the dominant forces in the drumhead industry, eventually supplanting nearly all calfskin heads with Mylar.
7. SNARE THROW-OFF
Snare drums had been around for a long time by 1913, and, before radios were invented, had even been used in combat to signal troops; a commander could order a few snare drum players to play a cadence that could be heard for miles. These drums found their way into the modern drum set and before long became the centerpiece.
In 1913, Julius A. Meyer came up with the idea for a snare throw-off when an orchestra he was in played a piece for which he needed to mute the snares and play the drum like a tom tom, quickly followed by a funeral cadence played with the snares engaged. Not long after filing for his patent, every drum company was making some variation of Meyer’s snare drum “muffler.” They became standard on snare drums throughout the 1920s. The look of the models varied, including a few parallel versions, but largely they performed the same task of releasing the tension of the snares against the bottom head.
In 1960–’61 Rogers began production on its famous Dyna-Sonic snare drums, which featured a frame to keep the tension of the snares tight and had an independent throw-off that released the frame from the head. The effect of the frame was that the snares could now be tensioned as tight as the drummer liked without choking the bottom drumhead’s vibrations.
8. THE DRUM RACK
Drums have always been cumbersome to haul around and store. One of the first innovations after the advent of the “drum set” was a wheeled system of tubes to attach cowbells and cymbals, making mobility much easier. The drum rack fell out of favor with musicians in the ’50s, ’60s, and most of the ’70s, when simpler kits were in vogue. The ’80s metal scene brought back the drum rack in a completely new and flamboyant way. Besides just reducing the weight of bulky stands and clutter, these racks had an almost sculptural quality — a sculpture that doubled as a solid folded metal frame.
Since the re-emergence of drum racks, almost every manufacturer now produces a basic rack with customizable parts allowing the drummer to create their own look. Often the drum rack itself is just as famous as the drummer playing behind it. Rikki Rockett, Ray Luzier, Terry Bozzio, Scott Rockenfield, and Tommy Aldridge are well known for their over-the-top, often twisted stage setups. Hip-hop groups got into the twisted-metal look as well with the advent of The Lou Rider, a drum kit played by Snoop Dogg and Kottonmouth Kings, which incorporated a bicycle as the basic drum frame and throne. Small drum risers were no longer an issue with Greg Voelker’s rack by hanging the kick drums off the edge of the riser and giving the drummer more space. The UFO-looking Drumframe elevated the kit and relaxed the drummer into a racecar seat. There is no stopping the customizable looks created by a few pieces of chrome pipes and connections.
Early drum builders were not concerned with the overtones cause by drums given their supportive role in large ensembles and the lack of sophisticated recording technology. Drummers learned to tune around the overtones and ringing. A few higher end drum kits came with dampeners on all the drums so you could adjust to a comfortable level without the drum sounding like a towel. As many other drummers did during the 1960s, drummer George Weimmer would cut the hoop and inner part of old drum heads, leaving a 2″ round strip of plastic that he would place over his new drumhead, significantly reducing the overtones and ringing. The plastic rings, however, always seemed to find ways to slide or bounce off the head.
In 1992, Tom Rogers was experimenting with gel to make an electronic drumhead. The gel-based head didn’t quite work and was more expensive than initially thought. However, during the experimentation stages, the gel was placed on a cymbal. When played, the gel controlled the amount of resonance while still allowing the tone of the cymbal to shine through. Drummers quickly learned that simply applying a small amount of “moongel” greatly reduced the amount of overtones in cymbals and drumheads, allowing them to fine-tune the resonance. The drummer could now get the customized sound he wanted without crazy amounts of muffling and tape.
10. EVERYTHING WITHIN REACH
The modern drum kit, as complex as it is and with an endless supply of gadgets, still has not ceased to compel drummers and drum builders to innovate. Some drummers, such as John Morrison, play solos performed entirely on pieces of the kit normally ignored by other drummers, like the hi-hat stand, while not touching the cymbals. Another great creation was Remo’s Spoxe, which effectively turned roto-tom brackets into hi-hats. Other high-profile bands, like Slipknot and Nile, continue to innovate drums and percussion by incorporating household and common items like saw blades, a boat propeller, car tire rims, and baseball bats. There are countless other drummers who often can’t afford the high price of drum gadgets invert crash cymbals to form Chinas or drill into them to create new effects sounds. Stomp! and Blue Man Group have even found a way to be percussive with brooms, PVC piping, and Zippo lighters. Street drummers even have their own niche among YouTubers by finding whatever is available — including a kitchen sink! No matter what background they come from, drummers seem to push forward new ideas and find ways to get previously unobtainable sounds through their own talents. I look forward to the next couple of decades to see what has become of drumming then.