Al Duffy has been playing drums for forty-seven years. And that fact, perhaps more than any other, accounts for his singular reputation as a drum designer, craftsman and innovator. Now the key research and development source at Nashville’s Pearl International—and a man deeply involved in the company’s future—
Duffy is perhaps best known for his late ’60s tenure at Frank Ippolito’s Professional Percussion Center in New York, where he gained a reputation as a player’s best friend (qua technician and all-around ear), and for several seminal inventions, including the chain pedal. Recently, I visited him in Nashville, where we talked at length about drums and Al Duffy, past, present and future:
MR: Al, tell me how you came to be a person who knows as much as you do about drums.
AD: Well, in the first place, I don’t know everything there is to know. You never stop learning. I starting playing when I was four years old. My grandfather was a military-style drummer in the Spanish- American War, and the first recollection in life I have is sitting across the drum pad from my grandfather learning rudiments. Then I studied with a very good drum teacher up in Massachusetts who nobody knows, and eventually, he sent me to George Lawrence Stone in Boston, who I studied with for several years. Then, I went to the New England Conservatory of Music, and spent some time at Tanglewood and in various community orchestras around the Boston and Springfield area, all of those little jobs that you do while you’re a student at music school. I graduated in 1954, and then in ’56, I was in the U.S. Army, stationed in Germany, where I played in a band. Then I came out of the Army and spent one season with the North Carolina Symphony, touring, and then went to the Portland, Oregon Symphony. There, I first met Walt Johnston, who is the President of Pearl International here in Nashville. He used to play third flute and piccolo in the orchestra, and extra percussion. He’s a damn good drummer as well as an excellent flute player. We became friends then, and I guess from that point on, we were destined to work together. I stayed in Portland for six years, and then came back to the East Coast and became timpanist with the Baltimore Symphony for a few years. Then, I went to New York City, and got a job playing with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, which had been one of my goals throughout life. It was then that I became involved with the Professional Percussion Center in New York.
MR: This was what year?
AD: Maybe ’66 or ’67, I really can’t remember for sure. But I did help Frank Ippolito get Professional Percussion Center going. From there, I went to Hinger Touchtone Corporation, which manufacturers tympani, over in New Jersey. Dan Hinger, the president, is a timpanist with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. They make the state-of-the-art for tympani. I stayed with them for five years, and then one day when Pearl International was formed, I got a call from Walt Johnston.
MR: When did you become aware of your ability—or tendency—to invent for the drums?
AD: It probably started with my grandfather. He and I used to make practice pads out of discs of birch and cover them with pieces of rubber inner tube tires. Under that we had rubber heels, that you could buy in those days to repair your shoes with. I can clearly remember that being a whole lot of fun. And that’s the key, really, to designing or building things. It’s got to be fun to do. And it’s got to be something that challenges your interests, challenges your creativity.
MR: Take me through your career as a drum designer.
AD: Well, a whole lot of things that I’ve done, of course, I’ve done for myself. I’ve needed this, that or the other thing, and then just sat down and made it for myself, and maybe for one or two other people who said, “Yeah, I could use that too.”
AD: Well, like tympani sticks, or maybe a toe strap on the pedal to help me move the pedal, or a stop to keep me from sliding off of it. Then, one time, a particular tympani didn’t have a pitch indicator, but I felt a need for one. So I developed and built a very crude but workable pitch indicator. But, that’s past history. Today, I think I have one patent to my credit: the chain pedal. It’s a sprocket-and-chain-design pedal that was built out of necessity, because the leather straps that were being used were constantly breaking. While I was working at Professional Percussion, one of the biggest repairs we had to do was replacing them. One night, I was working on one of my own tympani, one that had a chain-drive mechanism on it. It suddenly occurred to me that damn, this chain was strong as a devil, but how could we use it on a bass drum pedal? Well, first I took the Camco pedal, and just bolted a piece of chain between the toe of the foot board, and wrapped it up over the strap cam on the shaft of the pedal. And it worked; it was strong. But then, it suddenly occurred to me, “Well, let’s take it one step further, and add the wheel as well.” And when I did that, I got one of the smoothest actions I’ve ever felt in my life. And I was granted a patent for that. And then, I sold it to Drum Workshop in California, shortly before I came to Pearl. They’re marketing that mechanism now, I guess, quite successfully.
MR: Tell me more about the days at Professional Percussion.
AD: Well, Frank Ippolito took over Bill Mather’s shop, when Bill died. Bill was an excellent drum technician, and he had a wonderful little shop in the basement, on 47th Street, down by the river. And after Frank took it over, he ran it as a sort of repair-and-retail type shop. I knew Frank, and I was in there from time to time visiting or whatnot, and he asked me one time if I could put a pedal mechanism on a rack of chimes that he had. I figured, “Yeah, I could do that.” I had a little workshop over in Brooklyn at that time, just for my own personal needs and a place to store equipment and whatnot. So I carried the rack back there and built a pedal mechanism on it. One thing led to another and we finally formed an association.
MR: What were some of the other things you developed at Professional Percussion?
AD: Oh, double-ended sticks, so that you can do two things with one pair of sticks without having to put one pair down; a stick with a brush on the end of it, which is nothing new. A lot of other people have done that . . .
MR: You’re that guy who, on any job, sticks out, because, “Here comes Duffy with all his homemade stuff.”
AD: Well, it takes somebody to think of things. I guess some people perhaps feel more challenged than others about developing things.
MR: How about your developing the extended drums?
AD: The Extenders are becoming more and more popular. But, I didn’t invent them. I stole the idea from the Dresden tympani, that were made 150 years ago, with oversized heads. Now, I’m not an acoustical engineer, although I have done some experiments with acoustics just to prove some of my own points. But, I noticed that when you put an oversized head on a drum, and the Extender is one-inch oversized in diameter, you increase the resonance of the drum and increase the decay rate to the point where, in some sizes, you get up to six-and-a-half or seven seconds of decay. And also, I noticed that when I played the conventional type tympani with the very short collar and a very tight head, in comparison to the diameter of the shell, the clarity of the pitch wasn’t as good. And I was not as happy playing that kind of tympani as I was when I played the Dresden type with the extended collar. With the extended collar, you’ve got a great clarity of pitch, a very true pitch, and a lot of resonance and much more volume. And back in, must have been ’65, or ’66, it suddenly occurred to me—it got through my thick head—that, “Wait a minute, if this can work in tympani, it can also work on tomtoms.”
MR: Was this before you went to Professional Percussion Center?
AD: No, this was while I was there. So, for my own personal use, I made a drumset with extended head tom-toms, singleheaded. Nobody else seemed to be too interested. They thought, “That’s a funny looking drumset,” and that was about it. But, all along I knew I was saving it up for something, and of course Pearl was that something. So, I did some experimental work here using double-head drums, and lo and behold, it worked great on double heads too. Of course, I only extended the batter head—but there again, my reasoning why may help folks understand a little bit about how the Extender works. You see, I likened a drum head to a stringed instrument. A drum head really is a string in a little different shape, because it has a bridge, an area that you’re actually playing on, and another area, the collar, where you don’t play unless you want to get a special sound. It’s similar to the area on the cello beyond the bridge between the bridge and the tailpiece. Now, if you think of a cello, the cello makers don’t draw the string right up to the bridge and then bend it in a sharp right angle and bolt it firmly to the body of the cello, do they? You can imagine what that would sound like! So, why should we do it to drums? So, the whole thing made a whole lot of sense. I sent prototype samples over to Pearl Musical Instruments in Japan, and their engineers got very excited about them. They immediately adopted the idea and extruded the plastic standout blocks for the casings—in about a month’s time, which is very unusual for a drum company. I think that brings me to a very important point for Pearl: here, we don’t make a proudct in-house, design it, develop it, test it on machines that test things, and then say to the market, “Here it is. Play it.” We go to the market, we go to the players and we say, “What do you need? What’s breaking? Here’s an idea, what do you think of it?” Before I even sent my prototypes with the Extenders over to Japan, I tried them out on Larrie Londin, Mark Stevens over on the West Coast and various other players, and just watched their reaction to see how excited they got.
MR: When you look back over the history of drum making, which you have a pretty good knowledge of, do you think most innovations have been invented by drummers or by drum companies?
AD: Well, I don’t think it’s an ethical thing to take somebody’s idea and pawn it off as your own. So, if somebody sends me an idea, and they do frequently, I’m going to just send it back to them and say, “Look, you’re not protected. Protect yourself by patent or copyright or whatever.”
MR: And then if they want to send it to you?
AD: Then, we’ll talk about it.
MR: But, getting back to my question…
AD: An answer is pretty hard to pin down, but I would say offhand that most things have been developed by drum companies for the simple reason that they have the financial ability and resources to do it. But I’ll bet you, if you were to add up, or to have some way to figure out all of the things that have been developed over the years, you’d find that it’s mostly players who have developed them.
MR: It sounds like you just said two different things. What’s the distinction?
AD: Well, if you go to the patent office in Washington, D.C., you’ll find reams and reams of patents, of funny things that have been developed for percussion, good things and bad things. And not so long ago, I got a letter from a player. He wrote me and asked, “What if we put, like, a toner inside a drum to focus sound?” Well, somebody way back in the ’20s had already marketed that very idea. My point is that there are literally hundreds of things in the patent office that players developed. It’s just that nobody knows about them. And yet, of course, the big things, tom tom holders, spurs, hi-hats, things of that nature were developed by drum companies. Except, don’t forget, William Ludwig was a drummer.
MR: And you’re a drummer, so…
AD: A drummer who’s lucky enough to be working with a major drum company.
MR: Do most major drum companies not have drummers working for them? They would have to, wouldn’t they?
AD: Well, I wouldn’t want to malign any drum company, but seriously, some of the things some of the major drum companies have come up with—I look at them and I become totally amazed at the incompetency involved.
MR: Generally speaking, what do you think drummers need? Is there something that ought to be supplied and maybe hasn’t been invented yet?
AD: Well, another thing I’ve worked on at Pearl is individual strand adjustment, so that each strand of the snares can be tuned, one at a time. It always offended me when you had to loosen the screw to tighten the strand. I guess you could get used to it, but it just offended me. Nobody ever made an attempt to do it any other way. It suddenly occurred to me, “Okay, instead of mounting the snare to the screw in one way, the old way, you could do it this new way and have a traveling block that runs along the screw. By tightening the screw, you tighten the strand, and by loosening the screw, you loosen the strand. And this is what I incorporated into our new individual strand adjustment strainer.
But, we also have a kind of unwritten motto at Pearl: “Sound and durability.” I think essentially what drummers need is the best sound they can get, from the strongest equipment they can get. All the basics are invented already. The potential durability is there. The potential sound is there. There’s only so much you can do with a drum, other than make it sound better, make it more round, make it more true, make it more parallel, make it more square between the bridge and the felt.
MR: I get the feeling that you don’t go looking for things to invent. Instead, they find you.
AD: I think if you go looking for something to invent, perse, then you’re straining. And every time you stop straining, you get a good result. Some of the best ideas I’ve had have come when I quit thinking about them. I just put them completely out of my life, and went to work on my car.