My Life as a Drum Set

Written by Jeremiah Stermer

Courtesy of Vintage Drummer Magazine

August 2004

Gretcsh Drums When I was born (that is, completed as a Gretsch drum set) in the summer of 1963, the sun was beaming in through the windows of the Brooklyn New York factory, setting my champagne sparkle ablaze with dazzle. I’m a four piece set comprised of a 5 x 14 chrome snare, a 9 x 13 tom tom, a 16 x 16 floor tom, and my heart is a 14 x 20 bass drum. My player-I call my owner my player because that’s the relation we had. Since, on one hand, he could certainly say I owned him, based solely on my irresistibility-so, my player had visited my birth place, the Gretsch factory, a month or so earlier. He and his Gretsch guitar-playing friend hooked out of school in Baltimore, hopped on a train to Manhattan and walked to the factory. I know back then you could just show up at Gretsch and if you asked nicely they would proudly take you on a factory tour.

My player and his friend were all smiles as they, at 16 years old, got to see everything that went into building Gretsch drums and guitars. I wasn’t born yet, but hundreds of my brothers and sisters (I guess there are girl drums? I don’t know-soul is soul!) were gleaming as they were in various stages of coming to be.

My player was playing an inexpensive Japanese set of red sparkle drums he got for Christmas six months prior to him buying me. He auditioned with them and got to be the drummer for a local soul/horn band, nine pieces. They played all Memphis soul: James Brown, Rufus and Carla Thomas, Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett, Tammy Montgomery, Eddie Floyd, Willie Mitchell, James & Bobby Purify, etc.

Being sixteen years old, my player was surprised when he got a phone call from the music store on that special Saturday informing him that,”Your Gretsch drums are in”. He was busy being sixteen but instantly snapped into tremendous joy as he went to pick up his new drums-me. He went directly to the store and walked over to his new drums and the smiling store owner. I had traveled in boxes from the factory and was still wrapped in clear plastic. He gleefully peeled open the plastic and gave my lustrous champagne sparkle wrap a stroke. He loved the polished look and feel of all my surfaces, and lifted me a little to get a sense of my weight. His eyes acknowledged the solid feel of me verses his Japanese set.

On the way home, in his excitement, he stopped at a drummer friend’s house who also played Gretsch. A late 50’s red sparkle set with stick-chopper hoops and baseball bat T-rods. And who, after seeing me, ordered a new set of black nitron Gretsch. My player-dude was so proud that he had to immediately show me off to a fellow Gretsch drummer.

We were in luck. We were going to play that very night. It was a dance at a girl’s academy with a great stage with rich acoustics, just right for that great Gretsch sound. He had played there before, but not with me. After all the oohs! and aahs! from the band as he placed me up on the stage having just come out of brand new soft covers one by one, he began to set me up. First a Rogers Swivo-matic pedal goes on the bass drum, then the throne, then the snare and hi-hat stand. And then, the first single solid tap on the bass drum. The whole band turned and looked at us. Wow! they all said with their widened eyes adding further to their anticipation of this fabulous night of playing live music.

My player finished setting me up surrounding me with stands and Zildjian cymbals, all my buddies. While the rest of the band finished setting up and plucked and blew a few warm-up notes, my player sat on the stool and laid a drum stick down across my snare-self with the end of the stick hanging off the edge to play one of those “clop” sounds. When he pivoted the stick down smacking the chrome rim you would have thought a gun had gone off by all the reactions. My player said, “Oh my God, I can’t believe how loud these drums are.” He warmed up with some little taps all around me teasing me and himself knowing the quality and power that was about to be unleashed to elevate that night of funky horn songs. That first night with me resounding away was so excellent it seemed to end way too soon.

You didn’t mic the drums back then. The other instruments weren’t so overly amped that it threw them out of balance with the drums. We played some private parties where everything was played at an acoustic level. With my ability to project, my player had to especially hold back on those occasions. A medium level of playing allowed for control of the dynamics in each song. Still, my player knew he had a super-charged engine under the hood with the natural and pronounced projection of quality tones I had.

My player’s band played once or twice each weekend, booked at various dances: teen centers, high school dances, frat parties, swim clubs and proms. Occasionally they got booked at night clubs.

They always kicked off the first set with “In The Midnight Hour” by Wilson Pickett. It was a strong horn song. It started with a small tom tom roll crescendoing to a solid kick on the bass drum and crash cymbal accenting the first note with all the horns. The song then proceeded with a strutting soul groove with accents and a strong back beat called fatback. My player learned all the different soul beats and knew lots of funky little fills to make the band and their songs that much more outstanding. It’s how he got the job when he auditioned. Now, we were set. We had each other and the perfect band to play with.

During those times in the 60’s we had a lot of fun playing together. My player was quite the funky drummer, especially considering he was a middle class suburban kid who was a bit of a hot dog on the drums. It didn’t go to his head though. He stayed humbled by the whole music thing. The worst he would do was to overplay a new lick, and the band leader would have to tell him to cool it. When someone asked him what instrument he played he would jokingly say, “I play lead drums”.

I could read my player. He would tell me through his playing how much he enjoyed me and how he loved the many many times I inspired his playing during practicing alone, or at band rehearsals, or on the spot during the songs live. He would read the band to see what brought out the best in them and watched the crowd for their reactions which would make it all escalate in a musical celebration.

Sometimes he would get in a little rut so he would buy new sticks or put new heads on me which would stimulate us further to come up with new ideas and feels. Those were wonderful times, chocked full of fabulous experiences and hundreds of stories. Experiences that are a permanent part of me and him. Timeless sensations and memories that are probably as timeless as the Universe is long.

My player believes all the good stuff never dies. That the celebration of life goes on everywhere at every level forever. He says that in heaven there is always great music of all kinds being played and enjoyed. And, that quality musical instruments weren’t originated here on Earth, but were fashioned here from deep recollections from our remembrance of heaven where they were originally invented. He’d say, “You don’t think God had something to do with designing the Fender bass guitar?” He believed too that all the great players are playing all the time. You just walk down the street and hear the grand music coming across the field from an outdoor amphitheater, or from the open door of a night club. You just stroll along and follow what attracts you.

There were times when we didn’t play. It never meant anything to me because I’m timeless. I have a sense of tempo, of pulse, but not of time passing.

I sat in my soft covers in my player’s parents’ garage while he was going through some life changes, like going to college, joining the National Guard, and getting married for the first time. We’d play every so often though.

One time my player sneaked us into the Goucher College auditorium, set up and played solos until we got caught and thrown out. We chuckled the whole way out because the acoustics of the stage were astounding like one might imagine Carnegie Hall to be like. We wouldn’t have traded it for anything. Some of our best sound qualities were heard and cherished by us both that day. Oh man! That was great! That’s what we lived for; to get everything we could out those halls with super sound quality. Or those special times when everything was right, the air, the weather, and there was magic all around. When you love just playing the beat while in gentle awe of the perfect tonalities, so much so that you don’t try to force anything clever. Then the song and the groove tell you what to play and you watch your hands and feet play the perfect fill as if on their own. You’re just the observer. You don’t try to repeat it or memorize it. You just stay in the pocket with it and keep lovin’ it.

One year, I rode around in our car all the time because that Gretsch guitar friend had a friend who had a ‘32 Dodge in which he would carry his string bass, and when one of them would find a place where we could play they would call each other, meet and play. One time in the summer we met and played in the unfinished hall of a yacht club. We played jazz, standards, etc. People would gather around and soak up the free concert. The guys would hand out cards and get all these fun little combo jobs.

For months I had been laying around in my soft cases in the garage. A cat sprayed a couple of the cases so my player had to throw them away. Whew! But he grabbed me up again and off we went to join a small early 70’s rock group who played a near perfect “I’m Your Captain” by Grand Funk. We played a multi-band concert and many teen dances and frat parties. I think my front bass drum head was off for the sound of the times, and so were my bottom tom tom heads. He still has some tape recordings from those years and has since burned them to CD.

In 1972 my player made a big change in his life and headed for full-time music. He quit his day job and placed an ad in the music section of the newspaper: DRUMMER WANTS FULL-TIME WORK.

Things get a little blurry for me around that time. From that ad my player got a job with a top-40 group who played six and seven nights a week at all the local night clubs. I heard they also did a 50’s rock floor show. I think I went on the audition for that group, but somewhere in there he traded me in on . . . yes! a new set of silver sparkle Ludwigs. There, I said it. Don’t get me wrong. I have complete respect for all the other top brands of drums. I just didn’t know that much about them. I can only assume, with the right player and some careful tuning of quality heads, any of them would sound just as good as the next.

During the years that my player played full-time he sold his Ludwigs and bought vintage shells and drums from Ted’s Musician Shop, a local music store that was like a pawn shop, but was all musical instruments. Some of my fellow drums in the shop went back to the War days of the 30’s and 40’s and had wooden lugs and hoops and calfskin heads tacked on bottom of the tom toms. My player was drawn back to Gretsch. He bought lugs, claws, T-handles and hardware, and would find shells to put together size combinations he liked.

I am delighted to have heard that my player has come full circle. He has bought a brand new factory-fresh set of Gretsch: a 10-lug 5 x 14 wood snare, 7 x 13 ride tom, 16 x 16 floor tom with diamond plate leg-brackets, and a 16 x 28 bass drum, all satin ebony finish with natural gloss maple hoops on the bass drum.

We had a fantastic multi-faceted life together. All those wonderful experiences will live on in us. I am presently in a warm and cozy club-room of a new player’s house. I am cherished here as well, and am pampered and bragged about regularly. I am part of a vintage collection, and every night when the players are sleeping, the other drum sets and I tell our stories to each other reminiscing about all the great times we had and are still having with all our players.

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