11/06/2012

A Tale of Two Ludwigs: A Bass Drum Story.


Well it's been a busy couple of months, I guess it all starts with getting ready for Burning Man! Last year I went to Burning Man and was a part of the Ambient Drummer's Collective. The Ambient Drummer's Collective is a group of drummers and percussionists that  accompany groups of Fire Dancer's that play just before they burn The Man.
Last year I brought my La Playa conga which a friend had given me for free. It was light and already kind of a beater drum, so I would not have to worry about it getting banged up, dusty or even burned!
Well the burn was really exciting and a great event. I actually led a group of drummers, about 8 in all. I had so much fun I signed up to do it again this year. However this year I was looking for more chances to play. There are very few rumbas if any at Burning Man, and I'm not much into the drum circle thing, but I did notice that there were a couple of marching and samba bands. I had played orchestral percussion in Junior High where I learned to play timpani, snare drum and bass drum. Snare drum takes a lot of technique, but bass drum not so much, so I went and bought myself a bass drum on Ebay for $100.
The drum I got was a 24" Ludwig marching bass circa 1980's. When it arrived it was a bit more scratched and scraped than the photos showed, several of the lugs had been changed, there were brand new ones, old ones, some original ones and some vintage ones, kind of a Frankenstein of a drum. I could deal with all these things, but then I noticed the cracks in both hoops! Not cool. I emailed the seller about the damage and asked for my money back, and they offered me a partial refund, we settled on a 50% refund. Now I was feeling good as I had a functional drum to play AND a drum refurb project for $50. I always say, I love tinkering on drums almost as much as playing them!
This new project also gave me the chance to research marching bass drums, particularly those from the New Orleans Second Line tradition. Apparently in that style the bass drummer mounts a cymbal on the bass drum! Excellent! Now not only did I have a drum project I had a wonderful new esoteric and obscure drum project! And lucky for me I was able to get a glimpse of such a drum first hand as the Preservation Hall Jazz Band were in town for the inauguration of the Preservation Jazz Hall West here in San Francisco.
This was a fun little design challenge, the more I looked the more it seemed that every drummer had a different method of attaching the cymbal to the bass drum. Luckily I have the excellent Sam Adato's Drum Shop. I make sure and go to his shop every now and then. I picked up a sweet Zil-Bel bell for a fraction of what they go for a while back and he has the best sticks for playing guagua/cata/palitos. Anyways, Sam hooked me up with some nice pieces of hardware to mount the cymbal to the drum.

Well the white wrap on the Ludwig shell was a mess so I decided to replace it, but when I took it off I saw the drum was made from a nice Maple ply, so instead of a new wrap I stripped the old wrap from the shell and the black paint from the hoops and left them a natural wood color with a simple finish of clear ployurethane. Next I drilled a hole for the cymbal hardware, and the drum was ready for Burning Man, and looking pretty good too.
So I was off to Burning Man with my $50 dollar Ludwig! I had contacted a couple of the marching bands and had several gigs lined up. The best two ended up being Mardi Gras at a very large theme camp called the French Quarter and the other was a whimsical event called The Billion Bunny March, where burners dress like bunnys to protest humanity and "The Man".

At Mardi Gra at the French Quarter I went as a member of The Burning Band which is the longest running marching band on the playa and famous for their flaming tubas!
This was a great gig, with a full band and an audience of around 300, with lots of people coming and going. The New Orleans brass band style of music really added to the atmosphere of the camp and the French Quarter folks were very appreciative.

My next favorite gig was the Billion Bunny March. I went there after the meeting for the Ambiance Drummer's I mentioned previously. I was very touched at the Ambiance Drummer's meeting. I offered to lead a group again. After I introduced myself and did a little audition, I got more people asking to be in my group than last year and more than any other group leader. Not only that, but two drummer's from last year's burn joined my group again.

Anyways, after the meeting the Billion Bunny March meet up spot was right around the corner. So I took my drum, put on my bunny ears and started playing along to the music. Just as the march started the two leaders came over and said to me "You're leading the march!". I am? Well okay, let's go!
This ended up being a very popular parade, with about 2,000 participants. I was joined by a woman on snare later and some kazoo players. Really a lot of energy and a lot of fun. You can check out the video, I make my appearance at 2:42


So that was Burning Man and my Ludwig bass drum. The best $50 drum idea I've had!

So when I get back, I'm taking a day off and just browsing through the Craigslist Ads and I stumble upon this ad selling several marching bass drums from different manufacturers and of a variety of sizes, models and ages.  I looked through the pictures and saw something that caught my eye; a large vintage bass drum in good and complete condition. Anyone that is into vintage drums knows they just don't make them like they used to and that is because they can't, The types and quality of woods just aren't available like they were 50 years ago.
Seems like a very cool furniture design studio called Ohio Design right here in my neighborhood of The Mission in San Francisco had bought several drums from Dixon Elementary school, and right there in the photo above is the drum that caught my eye. Among other drums they were selling was this 40" orchestral bass drum, which I admit tempted me, but my apartment is just too small for a 40" drum! But the 28 incher, that I could handle.

I made the call and went on over to Ohio Design. As an architect I was impressed with the quality of their furniture designs and the wonderful atmosphere of their old Mission District warehouse studio.

 I looked over the drum and it was in better condition than I had hoped, no cracks and all the lugs were present and straight with very little rust. A little haggling and the deal was done; sold for $80 with no shipping or waiting, what a deal!
A little digging around on the vintage drum forums and I'm able to date this drum to the 1950's. It turns out this drum is a WFL Ludwig with a 3 ply mahogany shell with thick reinforcing maple rings at the bearing edge and with maple hoops. Even though this drum is 28", because of the wood types and construction it is lighter than my 24" maple Ludwig. The drum was in great shape but it did have one torn head and the other head was for a timpani and not a bass drum head.

Well when you get an old drum the choices are; do nothing and leave it alone, refinish it and keep the patina intact, restore it to as close as original condition, or refurbish it with some modification. I figured I already had a light colored drum with the 24" maple Ludwig, so I decided to do something different with this drum. I chose to stain this drum a darker color to contrast with my maple bass drum and also to highlight the wonderful art deco stylings of the metal lugs. I stripped the drum of it's old finish, applied several coats of Watco Danish Oil to the shell and stained the hoops darker. Finally I applied a gloss polyurethane coat to the hoops for additional protection. I rubbed the metal down a bit, but decided against polishing it too much, as I liked the grey matte color. Finally I ordered some new Remo Powermax heads.

I think the drum came out really beautiful. And it sounds phenomenal; a deep dry bass thump! The oil really brought out the color of the mahogany. The matte oil finish of the shell is a nice contrast to the glossy rims and the dark stained color of the rims really highlights the floral shape of the lug hooks.
When I ordered new drum heads for the 28" Ludwig I decided I might as well order new heads for the 24" inch Ludwig. Actually, when I was refurbishing that drum I was influenced by the appearance of Keith Frazier's drum. Keith is the bass drummer for the Rebirth Brass Band. Keith uses a beautiful wood finish bass drum with black heads for a very striking appearance. I recently saw Keith Frazier and the Rebirth Brass Band perform here in San Francisco and I was able to ask him about his drum as I didn't recognize the manufacturer or model. Keith Frazier told me that he made it. Apparently Keith Frazier put his bass drum together himself! So the maple Ludwig got some nice black REMO Powermax heads as a kind of homage to Keith Frazier and the beautiful drum he has made and the music he makes with it.
Well in the meantime I had organized a band to play at San Francisco's Dia De Los Muertos celebration, an event I had played rumba at for two years previously. We always played rumba in Garfield Park where the altars for the dead are, and I hadn't yet joined the procession, so this year I formed a marching band to play in the procession jazz funeral style.
Since I had bought new heads and would be replacing the old heads the maple drum came with I decided to decorate the old heads in the tradition of Dia De Los Muertos, but I gave it a twist....one of the songs my band was going to play was Chopin's dirge, you know, dun dun dadun dun dadun dadun dadun. Well that song reminded me of the Imperial March from Stars Wars...so we decided to play that too.



As I was studying the Star Wars song, I remembered seeing art where a Stormtrooper helmet was decorated like a sugar skull. Sugar skulls are the theme for Dia De Los Muertos, so I painted a large Stormtrooper "Sugar Skull" on one of the drum heads.
Now I was ready for the procession. I managed to get around 15 different horns and a couple of percussionists, several of whom I had met at Burning Man, with three musicians traveling up from San Diego to play. I did miss playing rumba with the rumberos this year, but being in the procession with a marching jazz funeral band was awesome! The band all came out in costume and the crowd loved us. I'm sure we played for at least 2,500 people that night with a huge crowd following the band and dancing with us for several  blocks.

This drum was also an altar, I had some mementos and belongings from two of my friends that had passed away, KC Mitchell and Lisa Forman, attached to this drum.
Well the procession ended and I had some shiny new heads to put on my drum. Did I say I liked tinkering with my drums almost as much as playing them? Well the very next day the 24" Ludwig got the shiny black heads, and it looks great! I don't care if I am copying Keith Frazier! This drum looks hot. What I really enjoy is having the 28"drum and the 24"drum looking like opposites of each other, the vintage 28" has a classic look with dark wood and traditional white heads and the newer 24" drum has modern look with a blond wood finish and black heads.

Eventually the 28" drum will get a cymbal too, but I'm saving up for one of Frank Epstein's "Cymbelts" because the 3 ply mahogany shell is not quite robust enough to mount a cymbal by drilling a hole in the shell in the same way as my 24" Ludwig's maple shell.
One thing that has struck me through playing this new instrument and learning about the musical culture and tradition of  Second Line percussion and jazz marching bands in New Orleans is how similar the tradition is in many ways to the Comparsa in Cuba and Samba in Brazil. Of course a little research begins to show how and why they are connected. I'm currently reading a few books and articles on the subject, as well as comparing the rhythms of the three styles. I hope to be writing a more scholarly post soon on The Similarities of Samba, Comparsa and the Second Line soon.

2 comments:

  1. Wow! Indeed Amazing post. Lots of information on musical instruments with wonderful videos.

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  2. Yeah, brother! That was big fun. Let's do a comparsa group sometime! Looking forward to your next post. Have you checked out Billy Martin's "Riddim: Claves of African Origin?"

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