I am frequently asked what prompted me to start building drums. I don’t know that I can answer that without first reflecting on what made me decide to start playing the drums in the first place. That was one of the pinnacle moments of my life, and I remember it like it was yesterday. Only is was 35 years ago. I was eight years old (yep…do the math…I’m old) when I experienced the event that launched my journey.
As a matter of background, it is important to note that I am the youngest of five kids. And part of a large extended family who are all musicians. All three of my brothers played the drums and as a young kid, we always had two or three drum sets in the house. I was surrounded by music but more importantly I always remember hearing someone playing the drums. So I definitely think I was destined to play as those drummer genes worked their magic.
But one warm day when I was eight, I remember being in my brothers’ room looking through their record collection. We had this amazing stereo system with massive speakers and a tube receiver that looked like it was used to communicate with NASA. So I grabbed a record, one that I didn’t recognize, one that had no name on it, and placed it on the turn table. I put on the old soup-can headphones and dropped the needle at a random spot on the vinyl. And then I heard this sound. The thundering drum intro to Zeppelin’s “When the Levee Breaks” from Zeppelin IV. I remember closing my eyes and absorbing this fat bombastic sound. I just stood there with my hands on the headphones wondering what this was and why I had never heard anything like this. We listened to a ton of music in my house. Lots of classic rock, jazz, classical and country. I grew up on the Beatles and the Stones along with Charlie Parker, Willie Nelson and Chopin. But I had never heard drums that sounded like this. I was mesmerized. I must have listened to the song 20 times that day. At that moment, I decided I was going to be a drummer. I wanted to be Bonham.
So that night, I started sneaking down to the basement and began secretly playing one of my brothers’ kits. Side note, one of the drums from that kit is still in my personal set. More on that later. Anyway, I practiced “When the Levee Breaks” every day. I played the beat from memory…the memory that was burned in my brain. And I learned other songs, well more like other beats. Basic stuff, but I played over and over until I had the fundamentals down. This went on for about a year. I played in secrecy in the basement every day because I didn’t want my brothers or sister to hear me play and be disappointed.
Then one day a couple of my brothers were hanging out taking turns playing my oldest brother’s kit. I remember it being a hot summer day and everyone was crammed into this little room listening to loud music and playing along. I decided I was going to be bold and I asked if I could take a turn at playing. My supportive brothers excitedly agreed and set me up behind the kit…and I let loose. I was so nervous and had so much adrenalin rushing through my body that I don’t really remember what I played. But I do remember by brothers absolutely losing their mind. They were jumping around and high fiving each other. Especially my oldest brother. From that day forward, my brothers took me under their wings and taught me the necessary skills but more importantly the passion for playing the drums. And I never looked back.
That is an important backdrop because I want you to know how much I love the drums. And if you don’t have that passion and attraction to playing, I don’t know how you could ever really build drums with any level of satisfaction. By the time I was 12 or 13, I started playing live in my first band. Of course the passion continued to grow. And in those early days, I always loved working on my drums. I would take them apart, strip off all the hardware, make minor adjustments and then put them back together to see what changes in sound I created. Then I started sanding and altering the bearing edges of the shells or testing new hoops and heads. All to get different sounds.
When I was in high school, I started buying old kits and refinishing them. I remember when I was 16 I bought this monster kit that had eight or nine drums. They were beat to hell and were all different brands. But the shells were in great condition…and they sounded amazing. So I took them home and stripped them down to bare wood. I bought some discounted Formica and completely refinished the set. Of course, I abused this kit. But I learned to really enjoy creating a new look and a new sound. It felt like my set. One of a kind.
Fast forward to four or five years ago. I had taken a long break from playing the drums and found myself with some extra time on my hands and a void in my life. I realized that I still had this random collection of shells that I had eventually stripped back down to bare wood. In this abandoned collection was the floor tom from my brother’s original kit, the kick drum from that monster kit I bought when I was 16, and a coffee can full of hardware from my 4th grade elementary school band snare drum. I must have removed all the hardware and saved it for a rainy day. So I decided to once again refinish my old set to something that would be more permanent.
As I completed the project, I remember wishing I knew how to build the shells from scratch. I thought it would be so amazing to play a drum set that I made in its entirety. But I had no idea where to even start. Then one day I was out at a restaurant and I noticed that they had this old wine barrel in the corner for decoration. That made me think, I could definitely make a drum shell like that. Of course this type of shell, a stave drum, is pretty popular, but I had never realized that. So I started thinking through how I could accomplish the task and began my research.
After figuring out the measurements and the cuts, I had to build my own equipment. I made this jig that looked like two bookends with a spindle in the middle that held the shell in place. I set the spindle on a sled system and rigged it up to slide and spin over top of a table router. That allowed me to mill the outside of the shell. Then I set up this contraption that had a couple rolling pins lined up on a flat board. I set the shell on the rolling pins and ran a rail system through the center of the shell on which I placed a hand-held router. This allowed me to mill the inside of the shell. After a year of trial and error, I finally had the process down where I could make a good quality shell. The day I was able to produce a smooth shell that was perfectly balanced and shaped was a remarkable moment.
Now that I had the process down using some cheap wood, I decided to make a production-quality shell from hard maple. I made a 13x7 shell and finished it using an enamel swirl technique that had been dying to try. I essentially filled a bucket with water and dripped enamel paint on the water so that it floated on the top. By dipping the shell in the water, the paint adheres to the wood creating a bizarre design. I posted a few pictures of the completed snare online and a friend asked if it was for sale. I never thought about actually selling any drums…I was just looking for a new hobby. So after some thought, I traded the snare to my friend in exchange for some help building a website. I followed that up with another maple shell that I added the old hardware from my 4th grade snare. Within week of selling the first snare, another friend asked if I would make them a snare. A month later, I sold three snares. And I decided this could be a perfect way to extend my passion for playing the drums. So I launched 1710 Percussion in 2012 and started this amazing and challenging adventure. Of note, I named the company after the street address where I lived as a kid and this story started.
There you have it. Building drums is really just a natural extension of playing drums. It’s a way to be creative. It’s physically and mentally challenging. You get the enjoyment of offering other drummers the look and sound they always dreamed about. You get to learn all the details of wood hardness and density and how that affects the sound and performance. It is absolutely rewarding in every sense of the word.
Let me hear your story. What made you want to play the drums, or guitar, or sing, or dance, or play sports, or whatever? What early memories that were the foundation of your dreams can share?