Today boutique custom drum builders are everywhere. But that was not the case in 1982. That’s when the owner of Drums Only, a keen-eyed designer named Ray Ayotte, along with his brother George and a fine guitarmaker named Atilla Balogh came together around a vision that would soon be known as Ayotte Drums. Throughout the ‘80s and early ‘90s Ayotte gained a reputation for well-made drums, with style and innovations that were out of the ordinary. I reflected on this recently when I ran across a dozen Ayotte drums for sale on Reverb.com. In many of the ads the owners are quick to point out proudly that their set was made during Ray’s peak years with the company. So I decided to give it the Behind The Scenes treatment.
First at Ayotte, and later with Taye, Ray put his vision to work to develop drums that were thoughtfully designed and beautiful to look at. The drums gained quite a following and were distributed in Europe as well. But unfortunately, Ray’s companies were never quite as successful as his designs. Balogh died in an accident in 1989 and Ray, by his own admission, was not a great businessman. A majority of the company was purchased by outside investors in 1994. This led to a great expansion in Ayotte production as the dealer base was expanded from 11 to more than 200. The factory was enlarged, too, due to increasing demand. Famed builder Greg Keplinger joined the firm and his Keplinger snare drum was released. But the good times were short-lived. Disagreements over the business and artistic direction of the company cropped up, and by 1999 Ray was out.
In 2002 Ayotte Drums was sold and the company eventually was moved to Quebec in 2010. In the interim Ray put his designing talents to work at Taye drums and released some gorgeous models and hardware between 2005 and 2010. Afterward Ray rejoined Ayotte for a couple of years but that relationship terminated in 2015. Today’s Ayotte Drums are still made in Quebec.
Ray now lives in British Columbia and he spends his retirement playing music and making drums on his own from time to time, under the name Raya. He had to spend ten years learning how to make drums from scratch by myself, he says, after spending decades as part of a team. But the results speak for themselves. You can see many of his drums for sale on Reverb here. Though building is a sideline now he’s proud of the drums he’s put out. Many of his snares are solid. Not steamboat, but hollowed and carved from a single trunk of Canadian maple, a design he also tried during his time with Taye.
When I spoke to him late last year he said he had rediscovered the joy of playing and keeps multiple gigs going. “I play in half a dozen kinds of situations,” he says, adding “I enjoy playing with Indian guys, bhagra, basically Punjabi Sikh weddings, and other South Asian weddings That gig is usually a morning performance. Our job is to get the groom from his house to the temple [laughs].”
Ray’s forays into Indian music offer a nice counterpoint to his other gigs. “Once a month I do a jazz gig called Ray Ayotte impromptu, and we play improvised music. I also play in a coupl
e of other bands doing late Sixties stuff. That’s a great gig. It’s mostly jazz musicians. You know, when the Sixties were happening I was kind of a jazz snob. So I didn’t listen to all that music or play it. Now when I go back and learn to play something I heard on the radio back then; well to hear that music with discerning ears, it’s amazing to hear how well written a lot of it is, like the Doors. It’s a little humbling.”
With both companies that he spent time with, Ray’s designs stood out from his competitors. At Taye he introduced a range of finishes and colors that seemed to come from palletes not available to other drum builders, with satin finishes that are more reminiscent of some acoustic guitars than drums. Many of his drums more closely resemebled satin-finished guitars than drums. Likewise, with Ayotte in its heyday his drums, often with wood hoops, carried a certain look that was 100 percent Ayotte.
“I appreciate that people look at the drums and like what they see,” he says. “To me the design has to tell a story. I like to work with triangles, circles, rigid
shapes and structures.” I ask him about Raya’s beautiful badge and logo. “Raya is basically a triangular badge with a circle. In some models the badge has depth. It’s sidelit acrylic. The hole in the middle of the design is a way to cover an airhole without having a grommet. It solves all kinds of problems with that badge.
“The other thing about the badge is that is a completely stylized letter ‘A.’ I like the letter because it has symmetry. Turn it inside out and it’s still an ‘A,’ which speaks to another thing I like in design is to consider the obverse. Look at a problem you are trying to solve from the obverse view. Seeing it in a completely new way helps solve a problem.