BY LIAM MULHOLLAND
When Ringo Starr purchased his first set of Ludwig drums from London’s famous shop Drum City in 1961 or ’62, neither the man nor the company realized that this simple transaction would directly affect the lives of literally millions of people. The subsequent international exposure that Ringo’s Oyster Black drum kit received influenced a new generation of drummers to reconsider their ideas about drum fashion and appearance, induce many debates and discussions, and place Ludwig at the vanguard of drum production and sales for the next 15 to 20 years. Ever since the Beatles made their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, countless American Beatles admirers, devotees and wannabes have attempted to replicate in some form the famous “Ringo kit.”
Most drum historians tend to think of the quintessential Ringo kit as being a mid-’60s (preferably ’64-’66) 14″ x 22″, 9 x 13″, 16″ x 16″, Classic model toms and bass with a 5″ x 14″ Jazz Festival model snare drum in Oyster Black Pearl. The Ludwig Drum Co. first acquired this colored laminate finish in the late 1950s from a distributor who had the plastic manufactured in Italy. According to legend, William Ludwig II named the finish Oyster Black for presentation in Ludwig’s product catalogs, due to its resemblance to oyster shells. Somewhere during the years, the word order got switched and the finish became more commonly known as Black Oyster. Interestingly, Rogers also began receiving the same finish at approximately the same time – presumably from the same wholesaler as Ludwig – and called their version of the finish Black Strata. However, drum sets covered in their version of the same finish never made a dent in Ludwig’s market – but then again, they didn’t have Ringo playing their drums.
Along with Oyster Black, Ludwig offered drums finished in Oyster Blue and even Oyster Pink (similarly, Rogers had Blue Strata and Pink Strata). Each finish was semi-translucent, named after the predominant color, patterned in narrow horizontal streaks with other darker and lighter horizontal streaks of the same color, as well as white and creamy clear. These translucent streaks allowed the underlying wood – usually mahogany – to vaguely reflect from underneath, adding a different hue to the overall color. Oyster Pink disappeared from the roster of available colors by the time the Beatles recorded “A Hard Day’s Night,” apparently because it was not very popular with consumers. I can only guess that a market dominated by male customers did not consider pastel shades of pink an appropriate color choice. This, and the fact that the effect of the finish tended to resemble road kill or, at the very least, marbled meat, probably did not help to generate sales either. On the other hand, the Oyster Blue finish worked out exceedingly well and even out-survived the run of Oyster Black offered by Ludwig (and Rogers as well) by several years.
Many people have suggested that Ringo played Oyster Blue as well as Oyster Black Ludwigs. To my knowledge, there is no documentation or colored photographs that support this assertion. On the other hand, it’s not possible to determine in black-and-white photos whether the color of a particular set is black or blue. As for Ringo’s part in this debate … well, he isn’t saying!
What we do know comes from published accounts, photos, and films of Ringo in the pre-Beatles days playing on British Ajax and Premier kits. Several pictures exist of Ringo during his Beatles years playing on a small set of White Marine Pearl Ludwigs as well as the Black Oysters, and much later, on a large set of Natural Maple Ludwigs with double toms mounted on the bass drum, supposedly equipped with calfskin heads. Even beyond these points, the discussion continues to rage among Ringophiles. While most agree that 22″, 13″, and 16″ were the common sizes during the Black Oyster days, some pictures show sets with 20″ bass drums and even what appear to be 12″ (instead of 13″) rack toms and 14″ (instead of 16″) floor toms, often in seemingly random combinations, such as 20″, 13″ and 14″! Our only potential clues to this haunting mystery are comments that Ringo made in past interviews about how he often preferred smaller-size drums in live situations in order to appear physically larger.
There are even more specifics to take into account if you intend to build yourself your own Ringo kit. For example, do you use the Rail Consolette-style tom mounting system as offered by Ludwig or do you use the Rogers Swiv-O-Matic tom mount? Ringo is photographed with sets using both. How about Ludwig model 1400 or Premier cymbal stands? Ludwig Atlas or flat-base snare stands? WFL or Ludwig Pedals and hi-hat stands? Don’t worry. Ringo, according to photos, played them all.
In the early 1970s, Ludwig began to obtain its Oyster finishes from a different source. These differed noticeably in appearance from the original stock. They had a more delineated pattern with thicker horizontal lines and a bolder coloration that was totally opaque. The pattern of this finish was used in several brands of linoleum floor tile that was available at that time. It also looked very much like a finish used on bowling balls. These Oyster Black and Blue coverings thus became known as the Bowling Ball finishes among the intelligentsia. Still, drums covered with these veneers continued to sell long after the demise of the Beatles, because they were the closest thing to the original offerings available to the drummers in Beatles tribute and cover bands. When a new resurgence of interest in the Beatles and vintage drums began about ten years ago, individuals and companies began to seriously hunt for identical replications of the original ’60s covering material. Eventually, the original manufacturing company in Italy was tracked down. Within the last two to three years different varieties of the material have come on the market, which are indistinguishable to all but the most diligent vintage drum (or Beatles) aficionado.
By the way, Ringo, after you read this, do you mind ringing up the editors of DRUM! magazine to correct any misinformation you find here? I promise I won’t be offended!