BY AJ DONAHUE
George Way’s legacy looms large over the modern drum set. He’s responsible for a monumental collection of innovations and design elements that have helped shape much of the evolution of the instrument. He was something of an “industry maverick” even when the drum industry was still in its infancy, placing uncommon focus on function, material quality, and customer satisfaction, while many of his contemporaries put the bottom line on top. His aesthetic and ethos persist today throughout the drumming community in pearl finish drum coverings, self-aligning lug inserts, turret-style lugs later adopted by Camco and then Drum Workshop, and dozens of other critical features.
Throughout his career, Way created high-caliber, streamlined drums along with parts that prioritized effortless movement and function. With that, it comes as no surprise that Ronn Dunnett picked up the Way mantle to carry it forward. Dunnett has a long history of outside-the-box thinking and innovative product design that feels very much of a kind with Way’s history, so this is natural fit.
Dunnett has been creating drums under the Geo. H. Way name for some time now, but 2019 marks a significant step forward for the revitalized brand. This year he is rolling out the Aristocrat line, which pays tribute while also modernizing the old Aristocrat kits offered by the original George Way Drum Company in the 1950s. Dunnett was kind enough to send over one of the new Aristocrat three-piece drum outfits for review.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS AND BUILD
The shell pack we received includes a 26” x 14” bass drum, a 13” x 9” mounted tom, and a 16” x 16” floor tom. Right out of the box, these drums are stunning. The Acacia shells are finished in a high-gloss that beautifully showcases wood’s cocoa color with a kiss of burgundy, as well as its rich grain figuring. The new Aristocrat kits come equipped with the turret-style lugs first made popular by the original George Way drums. Here, those lugs offer a perfect foil to the glossy shell exteriors. Everything comes together to create a truly timeless look.
Acacia is an interesting component here. On one hand, it feels like a diversion from the very “traditional” vibe of these kits. But on the other hand, it seems completely in-line with Way’s penchant for innovation and thinking outside the box. The imported tonewood originates in Australia and Hawaii, and is more dense than maple or birch, but not quite as hard as something like rosewood or bubinga. It’s an exciting choice for a drum set that already has a sort of built-in specialness to the vibe.
Expectedly, the build quality and attention to detail are through the roof here. The shells and finish are flawless. All of the tension rods turn smoothly and easily, making finger-tightening a breeze. Way’s Double Edge-Double Flange hoops are pretty easy on sticks, and feel like they sort of split the difference between 2.3mm steel and die-cast hoops. Die-cast claws with T-handles look perfect on this kit and make quick tension adjustments very easy. The Waybest Arch spurs are simple and feel secure despite their small size. Finally, the floor tom legs have band markings on most of their surfaces, which is great for positioning consistency. Frankly, I’m surprised more manufacturers aren’t doing this.
As mentioned above, Acacia is a hard, dense wood, so it has some of the quick, barking reflective quality I expect from tougher timber. To balance that sound, they have what looks like a 45-degree interior cut that peaks a hair closer to the exterior than the interior, and rounds off to the outside edge. Per Dunnett’s information, those cuts were modeled after the LA Camco edges.
At medium and high tensions, the toms respond with quick “spank” sounds on top followed by full, deep tones that settle quickly. To my ear, it’s not the warmest sound, but it’s not brittle or overly aggressive either. The toms are full and clear, and have a surprising vintage-Gretsch-y thing as the tension goes up. If I had to guess, I’d say that comes from a combination of Acacia’s density and the Way-designed Double Edge-Double Flange hoops.
I reviewed Dunnett’s Res-O-Tone heads last year, and I have a couple of thoughts about how they fit with this specific outfit. First, I love the feel. They’re springy underhand which I find very comfortable on drums this size. Second, I think there’s just a bit more slap in the attack at medium and high tensions than I would prefer. Were I keeping these drums loose and low, I would definitely leave the Res-Os in place. But I would likely swap in coated single or double-ply heads on the toms for other styles. That’s purely a personal preference thing. To me, I’m already hearing enough attack out of the shells, and would prefer to balance that something a hair mellower.
On the other hand, I think the Res-O-Tone Powestroke 3 batter and Felt Tone heads are a perfect fit for the bass drum. We’ll circle back to that in just a second.
This 26″ Aristocrat bass drum is a really powerful unit that can get a little wobbly if improperly tensioned. That’s true of any drum of course, but I think this drum’s size can highlight significant imbalances. The Way bass drum tunes up incredibly easily, however, thanks in part to those T-handles. With just a couple of quick turns, I brought it up to a rounded, sweet boom that felt perfect for big band or classic rock sounds. I’ve got to assume the carefully applied tone control elements in the Res-O-Tone Powerstroke 3 batter and unported Felt Tone resonant head helps there.
This bass drum has tremendous depth and low-end presence no matter how it’s tensioned. It’s a real room shaker, but surprisingly, all that bottom-end boom doesn’t get in the way of the woody tones in the mid-range. Even with the heads cranked way up high, it retains plenty of deep, punchy bass drum character.
With the heads dropped down low, these drums turn into completely different animals. The balance of spanking attack and extreme low-end sustain is just wild. I think those Res-O-Tone heads help keep the attack afloat here, adding in just a little more cutting presence up top than coated heads would without sacrificing color. They’re huge and growling with a low-middle punch that erupts upward after each hit. If you’re looking for deep, slamming rock sounds with aggressive bite up top, these drums can easily handle that while maintaining a more versatile character at higher tensions.
After spending some time with the Aristocrat drum outfit, it’s easy to see that the Geo. H. Way brand is in good hands. These drums are beautifully built, they sound superb, all of the moving parts are smooth as silk, and the shell hardware feels very much in-line with Way’s vision. The Acacia shells are punchy and powerful, but not lacking the woody sweetness I’d want in a drum set capable of handling a wide range of styles and settings. This is a beautiful, high-end kit that feels worth every penny.
GEO H. WAY ARISTOCRAT FEATURES
- 13″ x 9″ mounted tom, 16″ x 16″ floor tom, 26″ x 14″ bass drum
- Electronic bonded 4-ply Acacia shells with 4-ply rings
- Art Deco single-ended lugs (designed by George Way in 1953)
- Way Double Edge-Double Flange hoops
- Die-Cast bass drum claws with T-handles
- Waybest arch spurs
- Dunnett Res-O-Tone single-ply batter and resonant heads on toms
- Dunnett Res-O-Tone single-ply batter and Res-O-Tone Felt Tone resonant-side heads on bass drum
STREET PRICE: $3,060