Nov 17, 2008

Drum Heaven & The Galaxy Snare Drum - My Very Own Drum Company

Back in the early 1990's I had a nice little sideline business buying, selling, and restoring vintage drums. I called it Drum Heaven. It was a great way to get my feet wet in the drum world and learn the ins and outs of what made those great American drums so great. At that time, unlike nowadays, the major drum companies weren't putting a lot of imagination into the design of their products. Sure there were some nice drums being made by the Japanese drum manufacturers and DW was making inroads into the market, but the once dominant American companies like Ludwig, Gretsch, and Slingerland (Leedy and Rogers were all but nonexistent) were foundering under poor management, lack of innovation, and disinterest by parent companies. They were losing huge chunks of market share to the Japanese, who were making big advances (and profits) in the drum biz by applying the same creativity and design ingenuity they had used to capture the American auto market.

In the meantime there were growing rumblings by a small handful of craftsmen who were committed to building quality hand-crafted instruments for the growing number of discerning drummers and collectors who were demanding more quality from their drums than what was available from the major makers. It was in this environment that I started daydreaming about building my own custom snare drums. I knew the vintage drums I was restoring sounded and looked better than any of the modern products I had played. There was an attention to detail in the choice of materials, visual appearance, and quality of construction that had somehow been lost over time. Just take a look at a Leedy Elite, a Slingerland Radio King kit, from the 30's and 40's, or a 1920's Ludwig Black Beauty and you can see the marriage of form and function that these drums personified.

I had also developed a nice full Rolodex (remember those?) of contacts who were willing to share info and knowledge about drum building. I had a good relationship with Joe MacSweeney of Eames Drum Company who made amazing hand-crafted birch shells and was willing to share his thoughts about what made a good sounding snare drum. John Aldridge, master drum engraver and publisher of NSMD magazine was a good friend. Other custom snare drum makers were happy to let me pick their brains. This was before every Joe RackTom or Sally SnareBed knew about the Internet, so very little information was available about drum making and design. I had noticed what a big difference real brass hoops had on the sound of a snare drum, compared to alloy hoops, so I searched out a manufacturer who was willing to make them and imported them from China and then had John Aldridge engrave them. I used an undersized Eames 15-ply birch shell to replicate the Leedy Floating Head design and cut a rounder bearing edge and longer snare bed that mimicked the full bodied drums made by Slingerland and Ludwig during the 1930's. At first I used the fine brass tube lugs made by Don Corder, but later switched to a local machinist here in the Boston area. I also stole/copied duco finishes from vintage drums, but made them translucent so the beautiful figuring of the birch could be seen through the nitrocellulose lacquer. All of these elements were fairly radical at the time and unlike now, you could count the custom drum makers in the USA on two hands .

I received a great response when I debuted the drums at the Winter NAMM show in Anaheim. I knew I was onto something by the amount of reps from the major drum companies that came by to examine my Galaxy snare drums. Drummers like Dennis Chambers, Peter Erskine, Richie Hayward, and guitarist Ry Cooder all stopped by my booth to check out what the buzz was all about. The engraved brass hoops, brass tube lugs, luxurious finishes, and thick birch shell combined to make an impressive looking and sounding drum (if I do say so myself!). In designing and building the drums I gained a lot of valuable knowledge through making and fixing mistakes (at one point I had to recall some ten drums because of improperly cured lacquer finishes and poorly seated tube lug stems!) and by tireless trial and error.

Eventually, due mostly to my lack of bottom line business acumen, I retired from drum making and watched as the custom drum industry grew into what it is today. There are quite a few Drum Heaven Galaxy snare drums out there and every once in awhile I'll get an e-mail from an original owner or someone who has purchased one on EBay telling me how much they enjoy the drum. It made it onto a lot of recordings, one of my faves being "Early To Bed" by Morphine with my friend Billy Conway on drums. You can check out the video below...

Nov 13, 2008

Mitch Mitchell remembered in The Guardian UK

Mitch Mitchell in the Jimi Hendrix Experience

Blog posting by David Stubbs - Original here.

Mitch Mitchell ... one of the few who could hold their own when jamming with Jimi. Photograph: Joel Elkins/Rex Features

The death of drummer Mitch Mitchell, aged 61, marks an unwanted milestone in rock mortality. Led Zeppelin, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, all have suffered fatalities over the years. However, with the passing of Mitchell, all three members of the Jimi Hendrix Experience are now dead. This is especially poignant since, with 1968's Electric Ladyland, the three of them created a double album of such sheer volume, incandescence and pyromaniac creativity that it remains unmatched and undimmed. It still has the power to knock you off your seat and Mitch Mitchell's percussive ferocity is a significant contributor to that.

Mitchell and bassist Noel Redding were selected for the Jimi Hendrix Experience in 1966 as much for their ability to look the part for the psychedelic novelty act the band were being promoted as. They were two kooky, pseudo Afro-sporting innocents standing alongside the Wild Man of Rock, and critics have occasionally been condescending towards Redding and Mitchell as a result. Writers like Nik Cohn suggested that they were uncommonly lucky to be playing alongside a genius like Hendrix, while biographer David Henderson wrote of the "strange contempt" he divined in Mitchell towards Hendrix. However, Mitchell deeply resented these remarks and, while he may not always have been happy with the lack of attention or remuneration he received in comparison with Hendrix, all of this was channelled as grist to his percussive mill.

Mitchell had been a child actor, a skill he brought to bear in the spoken word intro to Axis: Bold As Love, and at ease with the extroversion of rock showmanship. He had the same boundless, manic qualities as Who drummer Keith Moon – it seemed at times that he was not so much playing his kit as trying to smash it to smithereens. However, he really could play. He was steeped in jazz and particularly indebted to the post-bebop drummer Elvin Jones.

Playing with Hendrix was no second-fiddle indignity for Mitchell but a challenge to be risen to, time and again. On a track like Manic Depression, it's as if he's about to be pitched off his drum seat over the top of the kit, propelled by the sheer tsunami of his drumming. He is almost the dominant force. By 1968, as Hendrix really began to experiment, bassist Noel Redding found himself marginalised and eventually jettisoned. Mitchell, however, rose again to the occasion, holding his own in the jam session with Hendrix and Steve Winwood that gave rise to Voodoo Chile. Even when Hendrix went the way many of his black followers had hoped he would and formed the African American trio Band of Gypsys, Mitchell was never out of the loop. On the last Hendrix recordings, he was part of a trio that included bassist Billy Cox. He worked with him to the end, and beyond. For on October 19, 1970, it was Mitchell's grievous duty to go in and lay down the studio drum part to Angel, over the guitars and vocals of his colleague who had died tragically just a month earlier, aged 27. The rising swell of cymbals that concludes the track feel like a final embrace with the ascended soul of his old friend.

Although he played in a supergroup involving John Lennon, Mitchell never
really found a major role for himself following Hendrix's death, and towards the end of his life he had been playing on the Experience Hendrix tour across America. However, rock historians should always remember to open their ears beyond Hendrix's dazzling playing and recall that Mitchell was, then and forever, an indispensable part of the Experience.

Nov 10, 2008

Bass Player's 23rd Psalm

Thanks to Hal Blaine for sending this:

The Lord is my drummer, I shall not rush,
He maketh me to layout in tasteful places,
He leadeth me beside cool meter changes,
He restoreth my "one."
Yeah, man, though I read through the
trickiest of charts, I will fear no train wrecks,
For you are with it.
Your ride and your snare they comfort me,
You setteth up a solo for me
In the presence of mine guitarists,
You anointeth my lines with drive,
My groove overfloweth.
Surely good feel and swing will follow me
through all the tunes of each set,
And I will dwell in the pocket
the whole gig long.

Nov 4, 2008

New Yamaha Snare Drums - Loud, Sensitive, & Vintage

I'm reviewing three new Yamaha snare drums for DRUM! magazine. Top in the above photo is the 14x6.5" 7-ply maple Yamaha Sensitive Series drum. In the middle is the 14x6" 4-ply maple Vintage series drum, and the 14x7" 8-ply oak (!) Loud Series drum is on the bottom. I've gigged and rehearsed a few times with the Sensitive drum and got to hear the Loud Series drum miked in the studio the other day.

An interesting feature of the Sensitive snare is a 60 degree top bearing edge and a 45 degree bottom edge. The wider top edge gives the head more land to sit on and allows a fuller sound and more snare response. This drum has a lot of uses and I've found it very musical and easy to tune and play.

I use to own an oak shell Craviotto snare drum and have found the Loud drum to be similar in character. The best way I can describe the difference between oak and the more commonly used maple and birch is that, while oak has less identifiable character, it does project very well. It's a dry sound that is very focused, which makes it excellent for playing at higher volumes. Further drying the sound are the eight vent holes drilled around the shell. I really liked the throaty snare response and the clean note the drum produced when I heard it over the control room speakers in the studio.

I'm still tinkering around with the Vintage drum but it seems to have good potential. Check out DRUM! mag in a few months for the official review.

Nov 2, 2008

Blue Moon Harem at The Outpost 11/2/08

Worked on three drum tracks with drummer Brian MacDougall for Blue Moon Harem's upcoming CD. Brian had expressed interest in using his Sonor Force Maple toms (as we had in previous sessions) and I'm really glad we did. I liked these 9 horizontal ply drums once I sussed out the proper way to tune them. They have a nice low end roundness that worked nicely in the studio. I also had a chance to play and hear the new "Loud Series" snare drum from Yamaha I'm reviewing for DRUM! magazine and will feature in an upcoming post.

Brian made quick business out of the songs and I had a chance to enjoy the last hours of a beautiful but chilly New England autumn day...