Buying Custom, Part 2: Choosing a builder
©2015 Jeff Hankin
(Note: This is the second in a series of three articles about the process of custom drum ownership. The series examines the decision-making processes related to choosing custom, selecting a source, and developing a design plan. )
If you’ve decided that custom drums are right for your needs (see my previous article) it’s time for a critical next step: selecting the builder to work with. It’s not always easy. There are a lot of custom builders out there, with new ones entering – and others leaving – the marketplace every year. So making wise choices means doing your homework.
Step 1: The matchup. Try to work with a builder who’s a good complement for you, because you’re going to be a team in the process. So first review your motivations for wanting custom drums and see how a potential builder’s offerings and specialties align with your priorities. Check out the website and see if the photos demonstrate the use of materials, styles, and techniques you’re interested in. Also take note of how the business presents itself – it may reflect the builder’s commitment to quality and professionalism.
Step 2: The product. Is there an opportunity to see the builder’s drums first hand at a trade show, or in a store, or at a music performance? Have you heard them in person or, better yet, have you had the chance to play any of them? It’s not always possible, but it can help. Photos only tell part of the story. They can show a builder’s attention to detail and ability with design, but they can’t show a drum’s sound characteristics or playability.
Be very cautious about video and audio clips – there are so many variables in recording and playing back sound that what you hear might only vaguely relate to the actual drum. Any electronic reproduction is just that – reproduction – and no longer the original sound made by the instrument.
Step 3: Track record. First, how old is the business? If this builder has only a year or two of experience, make another mental note. It doesn’t mean he’s not a fine builder, but less experience means fewer problems faced and solved, fewer encounters with different materials, fewer process repetitions that hone techniques, test out materials, fine-tune systems, create quality controls, and reduce errors. To be sure, a new builder may bring great enthusiasm and endless energy to the project, but there’s also great value in experience; remember that you have a choice.
Second, what’s the builder’s reputation? Check online for reviews by knowledgeable people who have put the drums through their paces. You’ll find them in publications, blogs, websites and elsewhere. Also, look at discussion forums – yes, there are almost always some folks venting, but if you start to uncover a large number of complaints, raise a yellow caution flag and dig deeper to find out how problems were resolved, when they occurred, whether the complaints were reasonable, etc. And talk in person to players you know and find out what they may know about the builder – take advantage of people whose opinions you can trust. If you can, seek out someone who’s been a customer of the builder and ask about their experience.
Third, and less important, see if there are testimonials by non-endorsers. (Endorsement is too large a topic for me to address in this article; suffice it to say that endorsers may be useful in getting your attention but they shouldn’t be considerations in your decision making.) Success stories are helpful to know about, although they are certainly no guarantee for your experience.
Finally, if you feel you need to, see if the builder can provide you with references of previous customers who have had similar projects.
Remember, it’s very important when you check on reputation that you consider the credibility of the sources of the information. The opinion – good or bad – of someone who’s not particularly knowledgeable shouldn’t be taken particularly seriously in your information gathering. Look first and foremost for reliable sources whose opinions you value.
Step 4: Stability. You may find limited information available on this, but take what you can get. You don’t want to become one of those stories of people paying for drums and then the builder shutting down without delivering. Try to find out how things are going lately for the builder. Look for very recent slowdowns, complaints, etc. Also realize that a sudden growth spurt in the business could represent a big step forward or it could be the beginning of over-extension. As always, be sure to consider the information source.
Step 5: Communication. This one’s easy to check out. Contact the builder directly and see how you two connect. Start a dialogue. Ask a question or two. Does he respond? Is he willing to explain? Does he address your specific question, or are you just getting generalities? Does he make recommendations and back them up with the reasons? From this, you can get an idea of two things: how well you can communicate before and during the project, and how much knowledge, background, and thinking the builder can bring to the table to help you.
So after you’ve looked at the partnership, the product, the company, and the conversation, you’ll be in a much better position to dive into the project with confidence instead of worry. Making a good choice can give you a great build experience and drums that you’ll love owning and playing for years to come.
Next: Developing a Design Plan.
Written by Jeff Hankin
Jeff Hankin is the owner of Carolina Drumworks. Jeff is also a columnist and contributor to Not So Modern Drummer. You can visit his site at www.carolinadrumworks.com