Like most kids growing up in the 70s and 80s I played a variety of sports. My parents aren’t the music type so I was not exposed to much music in the house except for things like John Denver or Rita Coolage. I may have heard the occasional Eagles song on the car radio but it was nothing that caught my attention or made me take notice. Our house only had a record player and it was not until I got a clock radio one year that I even had my own way to hear music. Every year my town had an old home day and in the summer of 1982 my world changed when a group of kids that were 3-5 years older than me had a band and they played on the back of a trailer at the park. As I sat watching these guys play things I had never heard before like AC/DC, Aerosmith and Van Halen I was totally sucked in to each band member feeling connected to what was going on. I knew my small hands would never be comfortable with a guitar or bass and I also knew I would never have enough confidence to stand out front of a stage and sing. What really caught my attention were the drums! The drummer was only three years older than me and I will never forget seeing that 1973 maple cortex set of Ludwigs with the shiny hardware and hollow logo Zildjians. I wondered how this kid knew what to hit, where and when and how he knew how to make them sound the way they did. After they finished playing I went straight over to this poor kid and besieged him with a million questions when I’m sure that all he wanted to do was talk to girls that may have been hanging around. The kid politely answered a few of my questions before curtly telling me that I needed to go see Barry Nelson at French’s music in town to ask for lessons. I went back, found my mom and proclaimed that I wanted drum lessons to which I got the response of….Um…ok….
I remember buying my first set of sticks, going in to my first lesson with Barry and I remember thinking to myself that even though I could barely hold the sticks properly that I was now a drummer! As the lessons progressed during that summer of 1982 and into the fall I became more and more engrossed with playing drums and sports was becoming a distant memory. My reading never really got all that great but I have good ears and am able to pick up a lot of things pretty quickly. As any 12 year old new drummer would, I dreamed of getting my first drum set as I had been playing on a practice pad augmented by some cardboard boxes. I was also discovering music and I was instantly hooked on Van Halen and specifically Alex Van Halen. My older brother brought home the Diver Down album and there was Alex sitting behind a black and white 4 bass drum set of Ludwigs perched up high with a big grin on his face in front of a crowd of something like 80,000 people! It was like seeing a super hero up there and of course the more I got into music and drummers I discovered that most of my favorite drummers played Ludwig. Even my teacher played a walnut cortex set of Ludwigs and that 70s block logo was always on my mind. Finally in June of 1983 the time had come as my teacher suggested to my parents that I get a set of drums. My mind raced with the thought of going to the music store and picking out a brand new Ludwig set when my teacher said that finding a used set of any kind would be the best bet. Not knowing anything about any drum company I worried about what I might get.
Looney Tunes music was a music store in Concord NH that sold lots of PA gear, used guitars, basses and the occasional drum set. The store was close to French’s music as French’s sold mostly records and the occasional guitar. In the front window of Looney Tunes sat two drum sets that were for sale. One was a see through Ludwig set and the other was a red colored set with the wood grain showing through the finish. It had some name on the stop sign looking badge called Gretsch that I had never heard of. Both sets were close in price as the Gretsch was $350 and the Ludwig was $400. Of course I wanted the Ludwig and I quickly found out that not only was this Ludwig see through in a red/yellow/orange color but it had built in lights that made the whole set light up! My mom and my teacher both looked at me and said that I certainly did not need a set with lights in it and it was a foolish thing to buy. My mom likes red anyway and the wood color of the Gretsch was much more appealing to her. Since I did not want to lose my chance at owning a real set of drums I said ok and went with the Gretsch. The set came with a bass drum, two toms and a floor tom. The snare said Ludwig but the logo and badge looked like no Ludwig I had ever seen as the drum was chrome with 10 lugs, had a keystone logo with Ludwig written in script. All the Ludwigs I had seen up to this point had a blue/olive badge with Ludwig written in block logo just like the set next to the Gretsch. The set also came with some misc. hardware and a few old cymbals, one of which was called a Krut. I also got some old beat up cases and the heads were old and dented. The only thing the set did not come with was a hi-hat stand or a stool. I ended up using a cut down bar stool for a long time until I got a real stool! The hi-hat stand came later too.
The Gretsch was my only set through most of high school and through reading Modern Drummer I was able to see that Gretsch is a great name in drum making. I still longed for a Ludwig set though as you can see in some pics that I was using a Ludwig logo on the front of the bass drum! The set also had a few drawbacks most of which came from the outdated 70’s hardware. The toms have the ball socket mounts and they never worked too well. In fact the screws that held the arms in place had stripped causing the toms to move around a little. The other issue was the floor tom legs. They always had the issue of slipping and I could find myself on the high school auditorium stage holding up the floor tom with my knee during a jazz band concert. There were also times when I found the color not to my liking and thought how cool it would be to cover the drums over since there were many companies in the 80s that sold cheap colors to wrap drums. Fortunately for me my handyman skills were and are lacking and I just felt I would leave the drums alone. It was also high school when I started using one tom up top instead of two which is something I still do today. I played in the high school jazz band and when every kid gets a crack at solos I was finding that my right arm would get tired from the ride being too far over. Taking away the second tom allowed me to move the ride in closer. I also cringe when I see pics and I have a few of those 80s boom stands that could hold up a house! It’s crazy how big some of those stands were and I had one holding a 16” crash.
I still own this Gretsch set today and, while I have been very blessed in owning many of the Ludwig drums of my dreams, I will always have this Gretsch set to bring me back to those days as a young kid on my quest to be a drummer. Through other collectors more knowledgeable about Gretsch then me, I have learned that these were made most likely around 1975. I added a correct era chrome Gretsch snare with a stop sign badge, changed out the legs for modern ones (without drilling new holes), added the correct Gretsch logo head and use one tom in a snare stand now ala Charlie Watts. The set does not get a lot of action these days but I am glad I kept them and did not alter them from their original state. I have had many Ludwig sets over the years and regularly gig out with Ludwig but I learned an early appreciation for Gretsch drums and of course much later learned of the rich history between Gretsch and jazz drumming. I cringe when I think back to jazz band using big loud drums with pinstripe heads and a ping ride but they worked well for the time. I fondly remember the many gigs played on this set and the many times my high school rock band jammed. I’m not sure I could sell these drums any time soon as they are “my” drums. For now they will stay with me and act as a reminder as to why I started to play drums in the first place. Used drums are everywhere at many levels of beginner to professional. When I find an old drum set it makes me wonder if I am in the possession of someone else’s first drums set. Maybe they took lessons and lost interest? Maybe they sold that first set to upgrade? Maybe life got in the way and forced this individual to sell their drums? Maybe they just retired from music altogether? Either way everyone had a first drum set. What was yours?