Eight Centuries of Innovation & Ingenuity Followed Beginnings as Military Communication Device
By David A. Brensilver
The idea of stretching a cord of some sort across a drumhead came about as a way to “do away with the pitch of the drum,” Guy Gauthreaux II says, matter-of-factly. Gauthreaux, a retired U.S. Navy Band timpanist, received his doctorate in percussion performance from Louisiana State University in 1989. The dissertation he wrote as a requirement of earning that degree, Orchestral Snare Drum Performance: An Historical Study, indicates (citing information from The New Grove Dictionary Of Music And Musicians) that “the origin of the snare drum can be traced to the medieval tabor, which is clearly represented in early thirteenth and fourteenth century art as a rope-tensioned drum with one or more snares, usually on the head that was struck.” While originally used by foot soldiers as a signal-calling device in military environments, the snare drum did not, as some believe, stem directly from the instruments of the Janissary corps of the Ottoman Empire, though the instrumentation common to those Turkish military bands, which included davuls (double-headed bass drums played on one side with a stick and on the other with a clutch of twigs) and kettledrums, likely influenced the incorporation of drums into European military units.
In the Encyclopedia Of Percussion, a compendium edited by John Beck, contributors Jeff Hartsough and Derrick Logozzo write (in an article titled “Marching And Field Percussion”), “In looking at the history of the drum itself, there were many forms in each ancient country. All of them… are usually related to three regions: ancient Egypt, Arabia, and Assyria.” Hartsough and Logozzo refer in their article to the “introduction of the snare drum to medieval Europe by various Eastern countries during the crusades.” In medieval Europe, the tabor (Fig. 1) had been used in various battle-evoking tournaments and to accompany dancers and other performers. It hung from a player’s arm and was played with a single stick while the individual played a pipe, a three-holed wind instrument, with the other.
Whereas one person played the tabor and pipe simultaneously, the drum and ﬁfe required two, primarily because the latter was played with two hands. “The association of the ﬁfe and drum is recorded as early as 1332 in the Chronicles Of Basel,” according to Gauthreaux’s dissertation. The Basel drum, a rope-tensioned ﬁeld instrument with a wood or metal shell that takes its name from the Swiss city, was a large drum that typically measured 16″ in diameter and was at least that deep. In an article titled “The Basel Drum,” in Beck’s Encyclopedia Of Percussion, Alfons Grieder, a percussionist born in Basel, explains “the first use of fifes and drums by Swiss army units is confirmed in a chronicle of the battle of Sempach in 1386.” The style of military music developed by the Swiss drummers of the day remains unique to that tradition, while having influenced marching musicians and rudimental-style drummers in Europe and elsewhere. Uniformly, by the 16th century, snares, made with gut (animal tissue), were stretched across the bottom heads of drums, which had by that time gotten signiﬁcantly larger.
The famous rudimental snare drum solo Three Camps was played as a way for a divided company of soldiers to communicate.
Introduced by Europeans to North America, the ﬁeld drum (Fig. 2) was first used by the colonists as a signaling instrument, to convey military orders and to call people to church or other gatherings. In 1610, Jamestown colonists in Virginia used a ﬁeld drum to lure native Powhatan people into a deadly ambush. A drum believed to be the oldest in the United States that is part of the Connecticut Historical Society’s collection was used in 1650 to call parishioners to church in the town of Farmington. In military use, the drum allowed troops to communicate with one another. The famous rudimental snare drum solo Three Camps was played as a way for a divided company of soldiers to communicate.
After the Civil War, in the United States, drummers took their instruments home, and the drum began to reﬂect evolving musical styles, while, in Europe, the snare drum had made its way into the concert hall. In his 1706 opera Alcyone, French composer Marin Marais used a snare drum to evoke a storm, Gauthreaux points out in his dissertation. It was, at the time, a unique use of the instrument. For many years, it remained more common for composers to use the instrument to create a military atmosphere. Beethoven used a march-like snare-drum part in his 1810 incidental music for Goethe’s Egmont. The instrument is used in a similar way in Rossini’s 1817 overture to La Gazza Ladra (The Thieving Magpie).
Largely for economic reasons, it became ideal for one drummer to play the instruments previously assigned to two.
In post-Civil War America, the snare drum had also made its way indoors for use in entertainment. Vaudeville was popular, as were the Dixieland and ragtime styles. Largely for economic reasons, it became ideal for one drummer to play the instruments previously assigned to two: chieﬂy, the snare drum, bass drum, and cymbal. William F. Ludwig was among the practitioners of this so-called “double-drumming” approach. In 1909, not satisﬁed with the user-unfriendliness of the crude “overhang” bass-drum pedals of the day, he and his brother, Theobald, invented the modern bass drum pedal. And that, for all intents and purposes, gave rise to the drum set—and to Ludwig & Ludwig.
Innovation & A Sum Of Parts
The turn of the century saw myriad developments in the design of the snare drum, not the least of which was the popularization of smaller instruments. By the late 19th century, metal tensioning devices, while not at all standardized, had largely replaced rope tensioning. As Andrew Spencer explains in the Encyclopedia Of Percussion (in an article titled “The Snare Drum”), “This change was ﬁrst introduced in 1837 by Cornelius Ward. His drum used screw tensioning instead of rope, had a brass shell, and was considerably smaller than earlier drums. The size of the drum was reduced to accommodate its use in nonmilitary events.” In 1883, the Duplex Manufacturing Company’s Emile Boulanger introduced a separate-tension snare drum with tube lugs (Fig. 3), and in 1904, cabinet-maker-turned-drum-builder Charles Stromberg secured a patent for his separate-tension Invincible Orchestra Drum (Fig. 4), which, according to the blog associated with W. Lee Vinson’s website bostondrumbuilders.com, featured a 3-ply maple shell, nickel-plated brass lugs, “claws” that grabbed onto the instrument’s wooden hoops, and a throw-off mechanism. Indeed, as Vinson writes, “this drum was in many ways a decade or two ahead of its time.”
Robert Danly didn’t design tube lugs for Ludwig until around 1911. His throw-off mechanism appeared in 1914 (Fig. 5), the same year Julius Meyer secured a patent for his version of the throw-off strainer. Boston-based drum maker Harry Bower had developed a throw-off system around the same time that Stromberg patented his.
While World War I slowed production for companies like Ludwig, the conﬂict had little effect on the innovations that were being made. The single-ﬂanged metal hoop made its appearance around the end of the war and was followed a few years later by the double-ﬂanged hoop. Around that time, Ludwig and the Leedy Drum Company introduced their versions of the Black Beauty snare drums—the DeLuxe (Fig. 6) and Elite (Fig. 7) models, respectively. While the Slingerland Drum Company is widely believed to have become the ﬁrst to use the Black Beauty name, when it ﬁrst introduced its engraved, black-nickel-over brass drum in 1928, a George B. Stone & Son catalog produced nearly four years earlier offers a “Black Beauty Separate Tension Snare Drum,” as evidenced on Vinson’s blog. Drum makers had started using brass after the Civil War, during which brass shells had been imported from Europe.
In 1921, Leedy introduced its Marvel parallel-action strainer (Fig. 8), which was ﬁtted onto several different models of Leedy snare drums. It allowed snare tension to be maintained even when the snares weren’t in contact with the bottom head. “Parallel-action” referred to the fact that the strainer, by way of a connecting rod, was raised and lowered on both sides of a drum.
Black Beauties In A Golden Age
The 1920s represented the ﬁrst golden age of snare-drum building, marked equally by quality craftsmanship and practical, functional designs. Larger ensembles, led by the likes of Duke Ellington and his orchestra, became popular and the snare drum continued to evolve. In 1923, George Way, working for Leedy, developed a swivel-nut lug design, which made tensioning easier. The following year, Ludwig patented its parallel-action strainer system, which made changing the snares themselves a simple task. In 1928, Ludwig produced the Super-Ludwig, a drum with a second set of snares inside the drum, beneath the batter head. The drum was renamed the Super-Sensitive (Fig. 9), but was discontinued a few years later. It was reintroduced to the marketplace in 1962.
These innovations were being made even as the industry entered a period of upheaval. C.G. Conn purchased Leedy in 1927 and bought Ludwig two years later. The latter reemerged in 1937 as the William F. Ludwig Drum Company, which, under legal pressure from C.G. Conn, became the WFL Drum Company. In 1955, Slingerland, the former banjo- and ukulele-maker that had gotten into the drum business 30 years earlier to compete with Ludwig, purchased the Leedy name and parts from C.G. Conn, and WFL bought back its rights and adopted the name Ludwig Drum Company.
If the 1920s represented the ﬁrst golden age of drum-building—marked particularly by the Black Beauty drums that had been produced beginning in the late teens—the next few decades saw great changes in musical styles, which, in turn, dictated which types of snare drums the players of the day used. Robert Breithaupt, in an article titled “The Drum Set: A History,” in the Encyclopedia Of Percussion, explains that “The snare drum had become the trademark of many players and companies, utilizing the latest in features such as separate tensioning of the heads, a variety of snare adjustment mechanisms, and a wide choice of shell materials and designs.”
The whole drum set evolved during the 1930s, thanks in large part to Gene Krupa, who incorporated tunable tom-toms in his setup, making Chinese toms, which had heads that were tacked onto the shells, all but obsolete. At that point in his career, Krupa endorsed Slingerland drums, playing the company’s then-new Radio King models, and was truly the ﬁrst rock-star drummer, though that genre was still a few decades from materializing. In 1931, Ludwig started using the name Black Beauty in association with its line of engraved, black-nickel-plated brass snare drums, which it would continue to produce until 1940. That company’s Cecil Strupe, a former Leedy employee, came up with a triple-ﬂanged metal hoop in 1938. Single- and double-ﬂanged metal hoops had appeared two decades earlier, of course, while die-cast hoops wouldn’t become widely available, through the Gretsch Company, until the late 1950s. Whereas early metal hoops were typically chrome-over-brass designs, drum companies eventually switched to chrome-over-steel rims.
Size Matters & Plastic Concerns
Swing music and the big bands that played it were all the rage as the 1930s gave way to the ’40s. Standard snare drum depth had grown from 4″, 5″, and 6″ to as much as 8″. After all, drummers were working with sizable ensembles and their sets weren’t ampliﬁed. Shortly after the United States got involved in World War II, manufacturing restrictions limited the amount of metal companies could use in construction. Naturally, that meant a turn toward wooden drum shells. Still, even as war broke out in Europe, new trends unfolded in the United States. In 1939, New York-based percussionist William Gladstone patented a unique, three-way tensioning system by which each head could be tuned individually from the top of the drum, and both could be tuned simultaneously. Gretsch introduced Gladstone’s drum shortly thereafter (Fig. 10), though the design didn’t catch on throughout the industry.
Just as the swing era of the late 1930s and early ’40s had paved the way for larger drums, the introduction of bebop, which featured smaller groups and catered to listeners and not to dancers, made smaller drums more suitable. Max Roach, a Gretsch endorser, popularized the 4″ piccolo snare. Describing Gretsch’s Max Roach model piccolo snare drum (Fig. 11) in his Guide To Vintage Drums, John Aldridge writes, “The lugs were small, single post Gretsch-Gladstone type tube lugs, while the strainer and hoops were standard Gretsch parts.” Steve Maxwell, a custom drum expert who operates stores in Chicago and New York, called the Gretsch-Gladstone snare drum the “holy grail of collector drums.”
Gretsch made more, if warmer, noise in the 1950s with “roundover” bearing edges on its Broadkaster series tom-toms and bass drums that lent added richness to the round-badge-era kit’s sound. Bearing edges have, generally speaking, gotten sharper over time. Speaking to that trend, Jim Ellis of the Cooperman Company—an industry leader in ﬁfe and rope-drum building—says his customers, beginning in the 1990s, started requesting sharper edges than the more rounded ones that were common to rope-tension drums.
The introduction of plastic drumheads in the late 1950s, perhaps the most signiﬁcant sound-related development of that decade, made bearing-edge consistency and sharpness all the more important, as plastic isn’t nearly as forgiving as skin. Jim Irwin, of 3M, secured a patent in 1955 for a Mylar head. In an article in the Encyclopedia Of Percussion titled “The Plastic Drumhead: Its History And Development,” longtime Remo employee Lloyd S. McCausland writes, “Sonny Greer, Duke Ellington’s drummer, was the ﬁrst drummer to approve the use of polyester ﬁlm as a drumhead.” Marion “Chick” Evans and Remo Belli introduced plastic heads in ’57, respectively. Previously, of course, drumheads were made from animal skin.
The Second Golden Age
The 1960s ushered in a second golden age of drum making, and the soundtrack was rock and roll. In 1959, Ludwig had introduced the Supraphonic (Fig. 12), as iconic a snare drum as has been produced. Initially a chrome-over-brass drum, the company started making it with Ludalloy (chrome over aluminum) in 1962, the same year that Rogers introduced its Dyna-Sonic model (Fig. 13), originally a wooden drum that featured a parallel-action strainer that had a lot in common with Leedy’s 1921 Marvel design. The Dyna-Sonic featured a system that kept the snare strainer itself from choking the bottom head. While John Bonham famously played a 14″ x 6.5″ Supraphonic throughout his career, Buddy Rich for many years used a Dyna-Sonic. The drum was designed, in fact, with Rich’s sonic interests in mind.
Another important innovation that made its appearance in 1962 was Ludwig’s metal Acousti-Perfect drum shell, whose “rolled-in” snare bed, which replaced the crimped snare-bed common to most metal shells of the day, featured a longer, more gradual taper than had been the norm. Previous to being cut by machine on wooden drums, snare beds were simply hand-carved arches. Before shells were modiﬁed in that way, a head and hoop held snares in place. Aldridge says the advent of the Acousti-Perfect design marks the most signiﬁcant innovation in snare bed design. It addressed the fact that plastic heads didn’t conform to more abrupt snare bed tapers. Generally speaking, the introduction of plastic heads in the late 1950s marked a point at which snare beds became shallower and featured longer tapers than they had previously.
The most signiﬁcant moment of the 1960s in terms of drum-related trends took place on February 9, 1964, the night The Beatles performed on The Ed Sullivan Show. While metal-shell instruments had become the popular choice among drummers, Ringo Starr’s preference for a wooden snare drum tilted demand in that direction. Not surprisingly, Starr’s appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show did wonders for Ludwig. It was a piece of marketing that couldn’t have been more fruitful. Orders for Ludwig kits multiplied exponentially overnight, says Donn Bennett, whose drum shop in Bellevue, Washington, deals primarily with celebrity instruments. Today, the eight-lug Ludwig Jazz Festival snare drum in an oyster-black ﬁnish is a sought-after drum among collectors, thanks almost exclusively to Starr. It was a good period for drum manufacturers; there were many of them, and they all beneﬁtted from a relatively healthy economy.
If the 1960s represented a second golden age of American drum making, the 1970s saw manufacturers catering to both brand new and broadly familiar aesthetics. In 1970, Bill Zickos secured a patent for an acrylic drum shell, an advance in building materials that opened the door for Ludwig’s iconic Vistalite instruments. Perhaps a telling hint that sound still took precedence over appearance was the fact that many drummers who played acrylic kits tended to use more traditional snare drums. Bonham, most famously, stuck with his trusted Ludwig Supraphonic snare drum instead of using an acrylic one with his Vistalite kit.
In 1978, Ludwig began reissuing the Black Beauty snares it had started producing after World War I and discontinued in 1940. What was old was new again, and continues to be so. That’s not to say the last few decades of the previous century didn’t see their share of innovations. Cable snares became popular in the 1970s, particularly among orchestral players, who, in the 1990s, embraced the triple-strainer systems produced by such big companies as Pearl and boutique manufacturers like Black Swamp Percussion. These mechanisms allowed players to quickly switch from gut to wire to cable snares. Unlike gut, cable is not affected by temperature or humidity. While snares were originally made from gut (Fig. 14), Vinson’s blog indicates that by the turn of the 20th century, drum companies were offering such alternatives as braided linen (Fig. 15), wire-wound silk (Fig. 16), and coiled wire (Fig. 17). The appearance of the James Snappi Wires (Fig. 18), patented in 1916 by Moulton Wheeler, was hugely important inasmuch as the individual snares were soldered to one piece of metal. Previously, each snare strand had to be individually afﬁxed to a drum.
Custom Builders & The Collectors’ Market
The 1980s and ’90s saw the birth of an ever-growing vintage movement, marked in part by anniversary models and the reintroduction of tube lugs and single-ﬂange hoops. Replicas remain popular today, as evidenced by Tama’s recent 40th anniversary, limited-edition reissue of its Superstar drums from the 1970s, and by Drum Workshop’s Collector’s Series Icon drums, which honor Pink Floyd’s Nick Mason, Queen’s Roger Taylor, and Rush’s Neil Peart. And thanks to the availability of the Internet, collectors of authentic vintage instruments can search the world for speciﬁc makes and models. The past few decades have seen a boom in custom drum makers like the Craviotto Drum Company (Johnny Craviotto), AK Drums (Adrian Kirchler), the Brady Drum Company (Chris Brady), and Dunnett Classic Drums (Ronn Dunnett), as well as other craftsmen like Aldridge, perhaps the most sought-after master engraver in the United States. Talking about the quality of Kirchler’s work, vintage drum collector Mike Curotto, says, “He’s worth his weight in gold.” Similarly, Maxwell says Craviotto is “arguably the ﬁnest in the world” at what he does.
As far as the supply side of the authentic vintage drum market is concerned, Michael Ambroszewski, of the Quincy, Massachusetts-based PTech Percussion Technologies, says, “It’s a pie that’s getting cut up pretty small,” thanks in large part to eBay and other online resources. The collector’s market, Maxwell says, has “grown signiﬁcantly over the last 20 to 25 years” and is driven as much by the sound of various drums as their ﬁnishes. “The vintage drum market is still, in my opinion, undervalued,” Maxwell says, pointing out that demand easily outpaces supply. Maxwell also says the vintage drum market has always lagged behind the vintage guitar market.
While what’s collectable is entirely subjective, certain drums are and will remain hot commodities among vintage instrument aﬁcionados. Nineteen-twenties-era drums, including various Black Beauty models, are always in high demand, as are the brass Ludwig Supraphonic and Super-Sensitive drums that were made in the 1960s, before the company started using Ludalloy. Curotto, who collects “the rarest of the rare,” says he owns more than 120 Black Beautys and that, “My goal is to get every model, every size.” The Slingerland Radio King and the Gretsch-Gladstone drum are also popular among collectors. An orchestral drum that has become quite collectable is the Hinger Space-Tone (Fig. 19), a snare made in the 1980s by Fred Hinger, who served as timpanist with the Philadelphia Orchestra and Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, which featured a split, synthetic shell that could be opened and closed to regulate the amount of air inside.
As might be obvious, the older the drum, the more it’s likely to be prized by collectors. Maxwell says, for example, that only eight or nine Ludwig Triumphal drums are known to exist (Fig. 20), and that one of the engraved, 24-carat-gold-plated instruments, which were made between 1925 and 1928, could fetch as much as $20,000 to $35,000. It’s the “ultimate high end,” Maxwell says.
While plenty of innovations have been applied to snare-drum building over the years, the instrument’s fundamental design hasn’t really changed much at all. Technology has helped manufacturers refine different parts of the drum, history has provided a vast library of sounds to replicate, and musical styles have largely dictated design trends. Just as bebop led to the popularity of smaller instruments, the big-band era and the music that filled arenas in the 1970s and ’80s prompted drummers to use bigger drums. Today, drum makers from the major companies to custom builders are finding new ways to capture the sounds and aesthetics drummers are looking for. Vinson believes we are now experiencing yet another golden age of drum production. With the quality of instruments going through the roof, Vinson says, what’s best is “really a matter of taste at this point.”
Sources & Publications
SOURCES (QUOTED OR CITED)
- John Aldridge, master engraver, Vintage Drum Company, Shawnee, Oklahoma
- Michael Ambroszewski, PTech Percussion Technologies, Quincy, Massachusetts
- Donn Bennett, Donn Bennett Drum Studio, Bellevue, Washington
- Mike Curotto, The Curotto Collection, San Mateo, California
- Jim Ellis, Cooperman Company, Bellows Falls, Vermont
- Guy Gauthreaux II, U.S. Navy Band (ret.)
- Steve Maxwell, Steve Maxwell Vintage And Custom Drums, Naperville, Illinois, and New York, New York
SOURCES (NOT QUOTED OR CITED)
- Rob Cook, Rebeats, Alma, Michigan
- Brian Hill, contributor, Not So Modern Drummer
- Bostondrumbuilders.com and associated blog, W. Lee Vinson
- Encyclopedia Of Percussion, ed. John Beck, 2007, Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group
- Guide To Vintage Drums, John Aldridge, 1994, Centerstream Publications, Hal Leonard Corporation
- Orchestral Snare Drum Performance: An Historical Study, Guy Gauthreaux II, dissertation, 1989, Louisiana State University
PUBLICATIONS (NOT CITED)
- History Of The Ludwig Drum Company, Paul William Schmidt, 1991, Centerstream Publishing, Hal Leonard Corporation
This article was originally published in the August 2015 issue of Drum! magazine. Get the back-issue bundle of all 12 issues from 2015 in our web store.