Castle Drums

Growing up in the shop of a Master Craftsman and Industrial Arts teacher, my Dad taught me a lot about making and fixing things. I learned about metal, leather, printing, mechanical drawing, and woodworking, among many other things. But the most important thing he taught me was quality. While making my rounds at the Nashville Drum Show, I saw many drums that were made with top-notch quality. But even amongst all the quality instruments that were present, some stood out a little more than others.

As I approached the Castle Drum Company’s booth, I at first thought I needed to get more sleep because the drums seemed a bit skewed. Taking a closer look I realized that my vision was fine and the drums were indeed, a bit skewed. David Cheney, the Master Craftsman behind Castle Drums, had come up with something special and a bit different. David had spent over a quarter of a century in fine woodworking as a maker of cabinets, building case work and furniture. Working with odd shaped and intricate pieces, his ability dictated a higher level of thinking about wood and the possibilities therein.

As many of us find as we become older and more proficient in life, we tend to start to figure out what we like and how we want to spend our time. David decided at one point that combining his love of woodworking and drumming might pacify that angst. After all, drums certainly can be made of wood. The one thing that he knew was that he did not want to be just another guy out there painting and assembling drums: he wanted to set himself apart from the rest of the herd. For that, David would have to dare to be different.

Keeping some of the principles of basic physics in mind, he rationed that if you could channel the sound waves of the batter head down to the snare head in a more efficient manner, you would have a more resonant snare response. Turns out he was right. By funneling the sound waves by way of a slightly conically shaped shell, that energy would become somewhat concentrated onto the snare head. With the application a vertical stave construction shell, the grain of the wood is also in turn aiding in directing the flow of sound waves toward the bottom snare head. This inner vertical grain direction also contributes to providing a little “extra” in bringing out the low-end fundamentals of the shell.

David sent me two drums to review for Not So Modern Drummer magazine: The Keystone and the Watch Tower models. Both drums were very similar but couldn’t be more different in some respects. Each shell had a 7/16” thick stave construction, six inches deep with a fourteen inch batter head. However, the shell tapered down to a thirteen inch diameter for the bottom snare head.

David told me that they did some sound testing with results indicating an average of “20% more bottom head movement, and about three decibels more off the resonant (snare) head than other drums.” These drums are very snappy and produce a great snare response with lots of volume.

The hardware on each drum was chrome plated and included triple flanged hoops, an RCK throw-off and butt, as well as tube lugs. Snares were 16 strand and Evans heads were applied top and bottom. The vent hole was left un-reinforced. Both drums came with very nicely worked 45 degree bearing edges, but, for that “vintage sound,” rounded edges are offered on request.

This Keystone model is made of Bubinga wood, while the Watch Tower drum came in White Oak. Tung oil was applied to the inside of each shell while the outside is nicely lacquered. In playing with different tunings, I thought the Bubinga drum was considerably brighter than the White Oak. The Oak had a much more porous and open grain while the Bubinga was a very tight grained wood; thus resulting in the expected and predictable timbres of each shell. Both drums exhibited a wide tuning range, both high and low. As always, I switched out the plastic heads for pre-mounted calf-skin heads from CT Pro Percussion. The calf skins worked out really nice as they added that warm and earthy sound and feel they’re known for.

I find both drums exceedingly versatile in application. However, the main difference in the two models was that the Watch Tower model has a series of vertical slits in the shell. This plays well with another basic principle of the physics of sound associated with drum design and engineering. Drums are thought to usually project sound mostly from the top and the bottom heads, throwing the sound vertically up and down. They do, however, have an inherent tendency to throw the sound horizontally through the shell. In opening up the lateral sides of the shell via the slits, the Watch Tower drum distributes the sound in all directions. My initial reaction to this is that I think this particular model is exceptionally well suited to the environments of orchestra, concert band, jazz or any “un-miced” small group situations.

The Castle Drum Co. uses a variety of hardware to choose from and includes, but not limited to: RCK, Trick and Dunnett throw-offs, die cast and triple flanged hoops, a variety of lugs, snares and heads. Wood ranges from maple, white and red oak, birch, ash, and mahogany. For something special, try an exotic wood such as zebrawood, purple heart or bubinga. If David can find it, he just might build you your next favorite drum in your choices of dimension and hardware.

I find these drums are in fact fun to play and easy to tune. They tune like a fourteen inch drum but snap like a thirteen. The stick-to-head response is really nice, offering an ease in playing involved passages at lower volumes. Back-beats are exceeding fat and full of rich snare sound. Sensitivity of snare response at the lower volumes is again, very good. As far as the higher volumes: they’re loud!

One of the more surprising and pleasant characteristics of the solid shell was that the effective strike zone was at least double the diameter of most other drums I’ve played. This certainly makes the drum much more forgiving than many if a player tends to play with a wider, wilder strike-zone. The slotted shell (Watch Tower model) did not have quite as wide a strike-zone as the solid shell due to the characteristics inherent to the open design, but was still exceedingly responsive across the head non-the-less.

In examining the Keystone model made of Bubinga wood in particular, I had a very hard time locating the individual wood segments as the joints are tight and the grain is matched as close as possible. After giving these Castle Drums a good go, I would really like to take a look at the furniture David Cheney makes. If the quality is even close, I think anyone who has any of his work must be very pleased. The craftsmanship and quality on these drums is of a very high standard. David’s passion and enthusiasm is very evident and the pride he puts in each drum is extraordinary.

Take a minute and visit the Castle Drum Co. on line. There is a very well made video with David in the shop and more models and options to ponder. If you’re looking for something unique and well made with extreme snare sound and response, not-to-mention a really big, fat back-beat, these drums deserve some real consideration.

From Lancaster County, PA…....Thoughts from the Shop.

Brian Hill


The Eggstar Drum


The idea for this drum first came to me many years ago while watching my mom, Lola Rokeach, refinish a table with eggshells. Yes, actual eggshells! The finish looked very striking to me, and I thought that it would look pretty cool on a drum.When I mentioned it to her about a year ago, her response was "Well, bring me a drum." My mom, in addition to raising eight kids, is quite an accomplished artist. She's done everything from sculpture, to painting, to rug making, and oh yes, furniture refinishing. She celebrated her 80th birthday last June. She was pretty confident that the eggshell finish would work on a drum. I wasn't so sure, but I thought that it would be worth a try.

I didn't want to use just any old drum. I had to get something special. I'm a Yamaha endorser, but I didn't want to bug them about doing a custom made one-off that might or might not work anyway. Besides, I was thinking about a single--ply solid shell for this project, and Yamaha has yet to offer one (I hope that they do someday). I did want to get someone involved who knew something about drum finishes.My mom lives just outside of New York City in the small town of Harrington Park, NJ. On one of my recent trips back there, I visited my old friend Neil Richter, also a drummer, also from Harrington Park, NJ. He told me that he had recently reconnected with yet another drummer from Harrington Park, Rob Kampa. Readers of this newsletter may know about Rob from his drum company Magstar, and his work with DrumMaker. Rob is known as one of the best drum craftsmen in the country. I had read rave reviews of Rob's custom drums over the years, in Modern Drummer magazine and on the internet. I also knew Rob when I was a kid.Between Fall of 1969 and Spring of 1970, I played in the percussion section of the Harrington Park School band with Neil and Rob. They were in eighth grade, I was in fifth. Rob, Neil, and another Harrington Park drummer named Mike Murtaugh, who was already in high school by this time, were the best drummers around. I thought that those guys were about the coolest dudes that ever lived. Getting to hang out with them definitely helped plant the seeds of my desire to be a drummer early on.Rob has been living in Nashville for the past few years, but still gets up to New Jersey every once in a while to visit family.

The more I thought about it, the more I came to realize that Rob would be the perfect guy to help make this happen, If he'd be willing. He could even get together with my mom and figure out the woodworking logistics if necessary. Well, Rob and I reconnected on the phone. Once we got to talking about drums, we decided to order a 5.5 x 14 solid shell from Vaughncraft. Vaughncraft sent a shell that was so beautifully figured that it would have been a crime to cover up the wood grain. I loved the shell but had planned to let it go. My wife and two daughters knew how much I hated to let that amazing shell go. They decided to have Rob build it for me as a Christmas present. So Rob built an incredible drum with a beautiful soft gloss finish, ten tube lugs, and a trick strainer. It looks and sounds fantastic. Merry Christmas!But we were still left with the task of finding a shell for the egg drum. We didn't want to order another solid shell. It seemed crazy to ask for one that was crappy-looking so that we could cover it. So we decided to use one of Rob's eight-ply Keller shells that he had already stained black. I had heard great things about Rob's multi-ply drums. This seemed to make the most sense. I had sent Rob some photos of a table that my mom had done her eggshell magic on. After seeing the photos, he suggested that we use black hardware for contrast.He sent the shell up to my mom in New Jersey. I still wasn't sure if the eggshell thing was going to work on a drum. I could tell that Rob was a bit skeptical too. My mom seemed to be the only one who was sure that it would work.She got going on it. Eggshells-- lots of eggshells, Elmer's glue, and ten coats of varnish. I was worried that the eggshells might be easily knocked off, but she told me, "Those eggshells aren't going anywhere."

Then she sent it back to Rob. He put all of the hardware on, and here it is. The drum has eight tube lugs, triple flanged hoops, forty-five degree bearing edges, and a trick strainer. The EGGSTAR has been hatched! It sounds great and looks eggstraordinary! It's got plenty of crack, and it's high in calcium too!I'm eggstatic about it!

-Dave Rokeach


David RokeachDavid Rokeach is a freelance drummer in the San Francisco Bay Area. He has played with Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Charlie Musselwhite, Mark Murphy, Rita Moreno, Merl Saunders, Aaron Neville, Patti Labelle,The Rubinoos, The Broadway Show Jersey Boys, Holly Near,and many others. He has been a faculty member at Jazz Camp West, The Stanford Jazz Workshop, Lafayette Summer Music Camp and The Jazzschool in Berekeley. You can visit his website at


Too Young To Die

Maker: UnknownCirca: 1855-1861 Dimensions: 9”(h) x 13”(dia.)

Drums have been moving creatures into dance and trance since the first rhythms were beat out of an audible object. The rhythms were a natural extension of ourselves; pulsing from our very core and starting with our own heart beats. With the modern inspiration that came at times from catalysts such as the “Ringo effect” or the impact of the likes of Gene Krupa, youngsters have always thought that drums were the coolest! Like most young boys, the generations of the early and mid 1800s, were visibly excited by the sight and sound of martial music propelled by the drums of the drum corps.

Nothing could instill a child with more pride and inspiration than being an accomplished drummer, and nothing short of a grand adventure could propel them to enlist faster.

From the very beginning, the American military has had a long history of recruiting young boys in time of hostilities. In the years following the American Revolution, military and governmental officials tried earnestly to rid the Army of the many under-aged boys that previously helped fill the ranks of the fledgling armed forces that eventually won the war. Over the next several decades the regulations on minimum requirements ebbed and flowed with the changing circumstances of building the new Republic. Regulations for the minimum age and height were always of a lower standard for musicians. Local and state militia units often ignored these regulations for musicians as most were just glad to have them along. Many under aged lads simply accompanied their fathers into the ranks or were orphaned and simply needed a place in the community.

By the time of the Civil War, the minimum age for an enlisted man was eighteen years, with a height requirement of at least five feet, four and a half inches. However, a musician could be enlisted as young as twelve years with no minimum height requirement. As would be expected, many underage boys simply lied about their age in order to enlist, skewing the records forever. Of the records of those who did not lie about their age, we know that there were at least three hundred boys 13 years old and under enlisted in the Union army during the Civil War, and at least 25 who were ten years old or younger.

Two of the younger enlisted drummers were eight year old Avery Brown of Company C, 31st Ohio who, two decades later, billed himself as “The Drummer Boy of the Cumberland”. Also there was 9 year old Albert C. White who accompanied his father, Lt. Cornelius C. White, into the ranks of Company D, 64th Ohio. Disease, hardships, and the casualty of battle would shorten the tenure of many of these small adventurers as they would not last 3 month, but the lot of them stayed the course and even reenlisted for the duration of the War.

Despite the sometimes romanticized idea of all these young drummer boys in the Army, most were never allowed even close to a recruiting officer. They were encouraged to find a “gig” on the home front. These young wizards of the drum were highly sought after…..and the younger the better. P.T. Barnum’s famed New York City museum regularly employed exceptionally talented young drummers during the War. Two of the most notable were Major Willie Bagley and Master Allie Turner, both four years old.

This drum was made shortly before the War started in 1861, during a time of extreme patriotism, and is a miniature version of a full sized military drum. With the War now a reality, production of this type of luxury item would no longer be practical, as most manufacturing would have been concentrated on the war effort. Commonly referred to as a child’s drum, rather than a toy, it sports many of the same features found on a regular sized military drum. The shell is a varnished, single ply of thin ash veneer with red sponged maple counter hoops. A single row of vertical brass tacks reinforce the outer edge of the scarf joint. The central figure of the drum is a decal of an eagle standing on a patriotic shield that was a very popular design from 1855to 1865. However, this type of design was also used decades before and was still in use on drums through the end of the century.

The original cat-gut snares remain and are simply wrapped around a piece of wood that acts as a snare butt and pinched between the hoop and shell opposite to create the tension. The ruptured heads are made of a parchment material very similar to heavy paper and glued to the flesh hoops. Only one leather ear is left present on the drum as the others have long since deteriorated from time and use. The hemp rope is tattered, but also original.

Written on the bottom head in pencil is the name: Harry C. Hartfence. Harry, quite possibly the original owner, may have received this drum as a gift. With the condition of the drum and the fact of the manner in which it was made, especially the condition of the heads and no repairs evident, the probability of a young Harry being the original owner makes good sense. No records indicate he was in the army during the Civil War.

Included with the drum is a very rare, child sized cloth drum sling, which is in very good condition. It is attached to the drum with an equally rare wrought iron sling attachment ring, which is run through one of the rope holes. It seems there was no standard with which to attach the sling to the drum….each drummer or manufacturer had his own way of accomplishing this task. A nice pair of black, under-sized drum sticks round out this grouping.

The drum remains original and untouched; sometimes referred to as “relic or farm-fresh” condition. Only a light cleaning was needed. The shell has a crack that runs about half way around the center of the drum and may be the victim of the inexpensive manner in which it was constructed as well as the lack of reinforcement at the scarf joint area. After all, it was only a child’s drum but, nonetheless, a silent testament to the patriotic zeal and seemingly ever present desire of youngsters to make the music. This small instrument was certainly made for those who had to stay behind…..…those too young to die.

From Lancaster County, PA... thoughts from the Shop.

-Brian Hill


Bob Campbell's 1920s Ludwig & Ludwig Wild Rose Triumphal

The Robert M. Campbell Collection - “1920’s Ludwig & Ludwig 4 X 14” Wild Rose pattern engraved, gold-plated Triumphal, Standard Model”  - by Robert “Bob” Campbell

As a collector, there are those “holy grail” or “desert island” snares that you hope one day to find, and with some good luck and sufficient cash, possibly own. At the 2013 Chicago Drum Show, I had the good fortune to be seated next to Bun E. Carlos during the filming of a Vintage Drums Talk segment by Jim Messina,, I’m not sure how the conversation started but Bun E. began telling me some stories about the legendary Charlie Donnelly (Connecticut drum store owner and vintage drum expert who Steve Maxwell credits as “the person responsible for jump-starting me down the path of vintage drums.”) This progressed to talk of our collections. I mentioned that I had purchased a Ludwig 1928 Gold Triumphal 100th Anniversary Reissue from Steve Maxwell. However, I said, “I really wanted an original 1920’s Ludwig & Ludwig Triumphal.”

To my surprise, Bun E. said something like, “I have one that I might sell. Are you seriously interested?” I, of course, replied with a most eloquent answer, “Umm, really?” So then and there, we made a deal.

Bun E. kindly invited me to pick up the drum at his storage barn. His amazing, expansive collection is a story for another time but I did get the Triumphal, signed by Bun E. on the inside of the shell.

I was very curious about the history of the drum and asked Bun E. for some background information. He referred me to Steve Maxwell, who originally acquired this Ludwig & Ludwig Triumphal. Steve said the fellow who had the drum obtained it in Chicago from his teacher in the 1950’s. He didn’t play it much then because it was “so nice”. When the seller contacted Steve, he hadn't played in 20 years and wanted to see how much it was worth. Steve provided this interesting account of how this unique, historic drum serendipitously came into his shop:

“I get a call out of the blue from a guy who says he has a metal Ludwig rare drum and since he's in his 70s and living on social security he figures he might as well try to sell it and see if it's worth a few dollars. I asked him to describe it and he told me it was a 1920’s Ludwig. He thinks it's a 5", then again maybe a 4x14”; and he said it was engraved. So, I assume he's talking about a regular Black Beauty, so I ask if the shell is black with engraving showing through, and he says, "No, it's a gold color". So, now I figure that he's got a stripped shell that was originally an engraved black beauty since we see that sort of thing from time to time, and therefore value is a lot lower. So, I ask him about the engraving pattern and if it is floral (and I describe the typical 10-point and 12-point floral) and he says "no". So I describe the typical scroll pattern and again he says "no". So I ask him what the pattern looks like and he says, "it's sort of like a flower". Now, the LAST thing I am thinking is that this might be another Wild Rose pattern Triumphal. I simply figure that he has a 1920’s era Standard that may have been nickel over brass, non-engraved; and I figure someone stripped it, polished the shell, and did a home-made engraving job. So, I tell the fellow to bring it in and I'll have a look. In the back of my mind, I'm thinking that this is maybe a $500-$700 player's drum. However, I didn't say that because I didn't want to disappoint him. So I figured I should just keep quiet until I actually saw the drum.

About a week later, he comes into my store with a drum case. I opened the case and just about passed out on the spot! Looking up from the case was an absolutely incredible 4x14” 1920’s era Wild Rose pattern Ludwig Triumphal. I told the guy to sit down because we had to have a serious talk here...

I pulled out Mike Curotto's book (Vintage Snare Drums: The Curotto Collection, Volume I) and turned to the page where Mike describes his Wild Rose, the only one that ever surfaced. I tell the guy that his drum is now only the second one in this pattern that has surfaced, and in fact is now the 8th Triumphal since only 7 other examples overall are known to exist.

As I mentioned in an email to Bun E, I could have bought this drum from the guy for a song since he needed cash, but I encouraged him to let me broker it on consignment so that he'd get a significantly higher amount than if I were to buy it outright. I told him that I felt we could move the drum fairly quickly for him. Then I told him what I thought we could get for the drum, and he almost passed out! He agreed to consignment so I then contacted Bun E and a few other people who I knew would be interested. Bun E grabbed it immediately. I delivered it to him in person, and the rest is history. It was a nice deal all around because the transaction was really life changing for the seller, and the drum went to someone who appreciated it (Bun E.), and now it's in your hands, which is great.” Many thanks to Steve for providing this wonderful story… Now if I could only find out who was the original owner prior to the 1950’s!

I am an avid believer that our drum history needs to be preserved and handed down to the next generation before it is lost forever. I am merely the custodian of this drum until it passes to the next owner. While I could not get the exact provenance of this Triumphal, I have captured all that I know in this article. If anyone has any information about the origins of this drum (or questions), please feel free to contact me at

Brief background on the Ludwig and Ludwig Triumphal snare drum:

The Ludwig & Ludwig Triumphal snare drums were truly exceptional in their day, coincidentally only a few years before the great Stock Market crash of 1929 (e.g., 1925-1928). They were the pinnacle of drum making; gold-plated and ornately hand-engraved on the shell, hoops and even the lugs. My drum is indeed a 4 X14”, 8-lug gold-plated, engraved Ludwig & Ludwig Triumphal Standard Model with the Wild Rose pattern. The center-beaded, two-piece soldered shell is quite heavy for a 4 X14” (although I guess not atypical for brass shell drums of the period). As noted by John Aldridge in his “Guide to Vintage Drums”, the Triumphal like Black Beauties of the period had an air chamber inside the bearing edge, i.e., formed by bending back the last ½ inch of bearing edge at a 90 degree angle and soldering it to the shell. Upon close inspection, I did not find a weld so assume this is a spun brass shell. To date, it is only the second known to exist with the Wild Rose pattern and perhaps only 1 of 8 total Triumphals that have survived.

Acknowledgements: Many thanks to Steve Maxwell, Bun E. Carlos and Mike Curotto for all the input, encouragement and shared wisdom.


From Basket Case to Beautiful

1929 Lavender Pearl Slingerland Artist Model

Restoring vintage drums can be challenging and reversing decades of use and abuse sometimes proves nearly impossible. I’d like to tell the story of a recent restoration I performed that nearly ended in disaster. In 2012, I purchased a 1920’s Slingerland Artist Model snare drum that was in terrible condition. The drum was missing many hard to find parts and the shell had been painted over with multiple coats of thick black paint, even over the badge! Since the drum did have several valuable parts, I was planning to use the drum as a “donor” for other Slingerland projects. Due to the condition of the drum shell, I even considered disposing of it, once the remaining parts and badge were removed. Before doing anything drastic, I decided to apply a small amount of paint remover in order to see if there was a pearl finish under all that paint. After a few minutes, I wiped away the paint remover and a bit of color began to appear. Assuming that the finish was probably just common white marine pearl that had faded to yellow, I did not feel it was worth the trouble to attempt to completely remove the paint.

But out of curiosity, I continued to wipe away the layers of black, sticky paint and I realized that the exposed finish had a decidedly “pink” color to it. Pink? That could only mean one thing…..Lavender Pearl!

Lavender Pearl is one of Slingerland’s most rare finishes. First introduced in 1929, this beautiful Pyralin (pearl) finish was only offered for about two years. Realizing that I had a potentially very special snare drum in front of me, I began to proceed with caution by applying a citrus based paint stripper to small areas at a time. The black paint was very stubborn and required several applications just to break through to the lavender. It became a case of “Catch 22” in that a lot of chemical stripper was required to remove the paint, but that also exposed the lavender pearl to its caustic affects. Nitro-Cellulose based Pyralin is somewhat fragile and can melt if exposed to strong solvents for more than a few minutes. At times, the pearl did became very soft and dull and I was beginning to think this was a hopeless case. The more paint I removed, the worse it looked. More than once I nearly catapulted the drum out the window. However, since there were no windows close by, I persevered. After nearly twenty applications of the paint remover, most of the black paint was gone. Unfortunately, the once gorgeous Lavender Pearl had turned to a lumpy, ugly, pink mess.

Failure! After several days of a very messy, frustrating, paint-covered operation, I was beginning to think that this drum would indeed end up being a “parts donor”. This once magnificent looking, eighty-five year old Lavender Pearl snare drum now looked absolutely horrible. Since I had nothing to lose, I began experimenting with “wet sanding”, a technique used primarily on automotive paint. Normally, I would not attempt to sand a drum’s finish but drastic measures were needed. My plan was to start with a relatively coarse 600 grit sandpaper, gradually working my way up to 1500. To my surprise, the sandpaper was smoothing out the very rough looking pearl, giving it a much more uniform appearance. After sanding, an automotive rubbing compound was applied, followed by a polishing compound which brought the finish up to a very nice luster. There were still a few black paint remnants that stubbornly refused to come off, but given the condition of the drum when I started, the difference was remarkable. This was starting to look like a drum!

With the finish looking its best, I turned to the task of finding and installing the correct hardware. This 1929 Artist Model snare drum originally was equipped with imitation gold hardware known as “Artgold”. But because the remaining parts were in such poor condition, I decided to use Artgold parts that I already had in my collection. The golden toned hardware really contrasts nicely with the Lavender Pearl.

The last step of this restoration was the installation of the Tone Flange, calf heads, and heavy brass double flanged hoops. The Tone Flange is a round metal device that resembles a hubcap. It rests on a metal ring and several flat wood screws, which are screwed into the top bearing edge. Slingerland’s Tone Flange was first introduced in 1928 and was supposed to improve tonal quality by reducing overtones and increasing projection.  Special oversize calf heads are required to fit over the flange. Whether or not the Tone Flanges improved the sound of Slingerland’s snare drums is open to debate but by the mid 1930’s, very few Tone Flange drums were being produced. They were however, still listed as an option in the 1936 Slingerland catalog.

The Slingerland Lavender Pearl Artist Model snare drum was definitely the most difficult, frustrating and challenging drum restoration I have ever undertaken. However, I am delighted with the results and feel great satisfaction in knowing that a nearly discarded relic from the past was saved. So the next time you encounter an old drum whose finish has been painted over, it might be a good idea to look closely. You never know what’s hiding under that paint!


An American Minstrel Drum

Maker: J.W. Pepper & Son Circa: 1911 Dimensions: 6" (h) x 16" (dia.)

An incredible piece of American black memorabilia, this rare and one of a kind minstrel drum also speaks volumes as to the changing role of the drum from one of military communication to that of an exclusive tool of entertainment. Formally part of a large "Black Memorabilia" collection, this drum was indeed part of an early 20th century minstrel show. It was accompanied by a tambourine featuring the hand-painted, exaggerated face of a black male character known as "Tambo," that covered the entire surface of the calf skin head. No doubt just part of the show as the average performance consisted mostly of music and comedy. Beginning in the 1830's, the blackface minstrel show was the first distinctly American theater form and was at the very core of the rise of an American music industry. In the early decades it provided a window for white America to view black America. But in the end, early minstrel music and dance was not the true black culture: it was merely the white reaction to it.

Seven of the eight panels are hand painted with the face of a "darky" stock character in classic "black-face" make-up with shades of blue, white, yellow, and red. Of particular note is the panel painting of the stock character of a civil war soldier clad in blue, echoing the free black soldiers' many contributions of service at a time of great change in the relatively young American country. It also seems to beckon forth thoughts of a time of reconstruction as well as of the growing freedoms and changing attitudes that would culminate in what would become jazz music and beyond.

The other panels present a variety of clownish characters, all in cartoon-like images and vivid color suggesting that this drum was played in a carnival like atmosphere with parades and bandstand performances.

By the turn of the 20th century, the minstrel show was starting a gradual decline as vaudeville began to replace it in popularity. However, it still managed to survive into the 1920s as a professional form of entertainment, with amateur performances continuing well into the 1960s.

The condition of the drum is one of restoration with some parts still unaccounted for and the skins left un-repaired. The shell is in very solid condition and is made of a single ply of ash wood, typical for drum makers in this part of the country. The counter-hoops are solid maple and are augmented with sheet metal to protect the wooden hoops from the abuses of honest stick wear. Ten single tension, slotted metal tuning rods are reminiscent of an earlier, well established style of rod modified with a thumb screw attachment. A few of these thumb screw rods have been lost or are broken off at the top and have been temporarily replaced with period slotted tuning rods that use a specific key or a flat head screwdriver to adjust until the correct replacement parts are found. The metal tension rod mounted leg rest is missing, but the top hoop mounted belt hook is still present and in good condition, confirming the drums versatility from bandstand to parade ground. Some of the snare adjuster is missing but the scroll patterned thumb screw is in perfect order and is still attached to a set of wire snares which were to be considered as something relatively new at the time.

Inside the drum is a paper maker's label identifying James W. Pepper and his son, Howard E., as the makers of this drum. The label reads: "J.W. Pepper & Son / Manufacturers of / Drums, Musical Instruments, Music and Musical Merchandise / Thirty Third and Walnut Streets, Philadelphia, PA." The label has some small cracks and a few small tears but is fully legible and shows its age. This address and the style of hardware suggests the circa of this drum to be about 1911.

There is really no definitive evidence that the J. W. Pepper & Son Company actually made this drum as they were known to market drums made by other builders and have their label affixed to those drums at different times.

We may also never know who painted or played this incredibly unique piece of American culture, but what we are left with is a partial record of evidence of the history of the music and percussion of this country. Crossing the lines of collecting between vintage drums, black memorabilia, and American history in general, this drum will always be in great demand as it changes hands over the years and will always be a great investment. Coming at the very end of the American victorian era, it is reminiscent of a time of great change that helped to make drums of music more common than Drums of WAR!

From Lancaster County, PA Thoughts from the shop....

-Brian Hill


Wake Up Call - WFL vs. Ludwig

OK people, we need to be a bit more imaginative. I mean, if you have the bucks and money is no object, by all means just go for the high-end stuff. But if you are like me, and the bank account is limited, then a little effort is required. Yeah, I wish I could buy every Gladstone drum that came along like I did when no one knew what they were or who he was (well, practically no one). But with the escalating prices of vintage drums, I have to be more creative. Personally, I am in rapt ecstasy over the current price trend of vintage drums. I genuinely surprised and amused when I see vintage drum collectors whine and cry (sometimes belligerently) over these price trends. DUDE, your collection is going up in value. OK, you can think the $165,000 this and the $65,000 that is absurd, but the $50 this and $100 that, you bought 10 years ago is going up too.

Be that as it may (some people love to whine), if you are on the hunt don’t limit yourself. I’ll give you a recent example from my personal experience. I am far from being a Ludwig expert but if I have heard it said once that the COB Ludwig Supraphonic is the best sounding metal snare, I’ve heard it a thousand times. That coupled with the dilemma of determining if a vintage Ludwig metal snare is indeed brass, I was surprised to see one go for the “cheap” on eBay. Click here to see the auction page.

OK so I am also not a Ludwig collector (last NSMD article notwithstanding) but for a second, I considered jumping into the fray, if anything to see what all the hoopla was all about. Then I thought “BASTA” (enough!) stay focused Chet! But, there has to be someone out there who needs this drum and it was only a three-day auction. So, little ‘ol benevolent me thought “put this up on Facebook.” I have two Facebook accounts, my personal one and one I created for Billy Gladstone. Gladstone’s site has more friends than mine (I can’t understand why) so to get the word out I posted the eBay auction with the description “I am not a Ludwig expert, but aren’t these WFL era Supraphonic snares rare? And because it is that old, doesn’t that signify that it is the desired COB shell? A bit rough but it could be brought back. Better hurry…only 2 days left…” Good friend Todd Reemy commented “in my day I sold 150 or more COB Ludwig's...of that number just 2 were WFL...I've always said they were the best sounding of the bunch with Trans badge era being 2nd...” In his day, Todd went by “The Drum Detective” moniker when he was in the retail vintage drum business. And “Dective” he was. His posts in the “For Sale” section in NSMD made my mouth water. This of course, gave my assumption validity so I passed this information along to the seller.

Hey, what goes around comes around. I have had many a helping hand in my day. I knew he would receive “Buy It Now” offers so I wanted to warn him. The seller, who seemed a bit naïve by his eBay description of the drum, was most appreciative and posted my comments in the listing.

When I sent the message one day into the auction, the listing had a paltry $172.49 current bid (up from and opening $149.99 start bid) with only 7 bids and 149 views. The numbers subsequently went up, bids to 22 and a current bid of $701.99 the final day of the auction. I, feeling like the Good Samaritan, was curious where the auction would end… 538 views, 33 bids, with a winning bid of $1009.99. At first I thought “He did well.” Then I searched eBay for other COB Ludwig snares and found this Ludwig Supraphonic COB that went for $1300.

OK, it is pretty. Yes, “Minty”…god I hate that word…when is anyone going to learn the true definition of the word “mint”? read eBay’s take on the subject. My personal definition of mint and that of coin collectors is one word “Uncirculated.” That means untouched by human hands. So if it is still sealed in the original box, it is mint. “New old stock” is exactly that, unsold, new, but not mint. Be that as it may, Todd, whom I consider an expert, said, “in my day I sold 150 or more COB Ludwig's...of that number just 2 were WFL.” That puts the odds at 75 to one, no? OK, I’m not saying the “fair condition” WFL is worth $74,449.25 more than the “Original” Ludwig but less? I don’t think so.

Yes, Mr. WFL is  not cosmetically as nice as Mr. Ludwig, but therein is the answer. With a little imagination, read “elbow grease”, it is definitely 75 times the drum. Unless a drum is mint, I personally like to see patina. It gives the instrument character. It has been used, played, enjoyed. Patina does not include dirt and rust so some work is required here. Again, my personal call is less is more. I will not use a buffing wheel. If it cant be removed by hand, it is patina. The bent rim (being brass) could easily be straightened. Imagine what a little work will do for this drum.