The Creation of The Double-Bass Drumkit
by Fred W. Gretsch
Double-bass drumkits are pretty common these days, but that wasn’t always the case. In fact, the introduction of the double-bass kit was a pretty revolutionary step in the history of drumming.
Ah, but who was the drummer who took that step? And what drum company created that kit for him?
Your answers to those questions probably depend on how old you are and how much you’ve studied the history of drumming. But trust me when I tell you that although early double-bass drumming is largely attributed to drummers like Ginger Baker (of Cream), Keith Moon (of The Who), and even Peter Criss (of KISS) in the 1960s and ’70s, the fact is that the creation of the double-bass kit took place a generation earlier—in 1946, to be exact. And it took place in the Brooklyn, New York factory of the Gretsch Musical Instrument Company.
Big-band music was the dominant musical style in 1946, and drummers in those bands were often featured—thanks largely to the influence of the legendary Gene Krupa. Wanting to take advantage of this, a young drumming phenom by the name of Louie Bellson had an idea for a drumkit that would be totally new and exciting—both visually and musically. For one thing, it would include two bass drums. This was unheard of in a time when four-piece kits were the standard.
Louie approached several different drum companies, and was flatly turned down. But when he brought his idea to the drum craftsmen at Gretsch, they were as excited as he was. They took Louie’s design concept as a challenge, and they promptly created a set that remains unduplicated to this day.
Louie’s revolutionary kit featured two 20×20 bass drums topped by a unique combination of tom-toms. The center tom was a 26×18 floor tom. Mounted on either side were 9×13 and 7×11 toms, with the whole assembly connected together and supported on legs. The floor toms were 16×16 and 16×18. Nothing like this had ever been seen before.
The kit was debuted by Louie with the Ted Fio Rito band in 1946. Shortly thereafter Louie moved to Benny Goodman’s band. Goodman wasn’t enamored of the big kit, but when Louie moved once again—this time to the band of Tommy Dorsey—the massive kit became a centerpiece. Dorsey was a savvy showman, so he put Louie and the kit on a revolving platform. When Louie would play a solo, Dorsey would revolve the platform so that the audience could see Louie’s feet. To coin a phrase: The crowds went crazy.
Louie’s revolutionary kit established him as one of the most creative and imaginative drummers on the big-band scene. It also launched a twenty-year association with Gretsch drums. “I had a wonderful relationship with Gretsch,” Louie told Gretsch Drums author Chet Falzerano. “Twenty years, that’s a long time! Their drums always had a great sound.”
So the next time you’re marveling at the sound and fury of your favorite double-bass drummer, take a moment to thank two pioneering drum innovators: Louie Bellson and Gretsch!
While no recordings of Louie playing on his original double-bass kit exist, check out this rare clip of Louie playing his solo composition “Skin Deep.” By the time this was recorded in 1957 he’d altered his kit design, but he was still kickin’ it on Gretsch!
In this clip from the Tonight Show (hosted by Steve Allen in 1956) Louie is again featured on his Gretsch double-bass kit, this time trading licks with drum greats Lionel Hampton and Don Lamond.