Paul Jamieson’s name keeps popping up in interviews with professional drummers. He’s the behind-the-scenes person who has built and customized drums that have been used in concert and in the studio by the likes of Toto, Steely Dan, Boz Scaggs, The Eagles, The Doobie Brothers, Fleetwood Mac, The Average White Band, Bee Gees, Christopher Cross, Brothers Johnson and Styx.

We managed to track Paul down on the West Coast, and he was kind enough to share some of his ideas on drum customizing.


PJ: Basically I build custom drums and drum equipment. Along with that I have a studio rental business. I rent my custom snare drums and drumsets to groups and individual players as they’re working in the studio, or here in L. A. if they’re doing TV dates, Academy Awards, Grammies, and so forth. I also have a service where I’m like an in-studio roadie. I arrange for cartages to make sure the equipment’s delivered to where it’s supposed to be. I do the set up and maintain the drums, keeping fresh heads on them, plenty of sticks in the bag; I tune the drums and work with the engineer in getting the sound if the player wants. Not all players have me tune their equipment. During the session I hang out. If something goes wrong, I fix it.

SF: When did you first discover that there was a need for your kind of service?

PJ: Six years ago Gerry Brown was here to do a session. The rental set of drums was a Ludwig Vistalite set that sounded horrible. I had my Ludwig maple kit at home sent out to me. A week later they were used on a Chick Corea Return to Forever album. I’d always worked on the road as a drum roadie. Working as a roadie you work one tour and than all of a sudden you’re unemployed. I had Jeff Porcaro, who I worked with for four years, have me come to his sessions and make sure all his stuff was right. That was four-and-a-half years ago. I’ve been doing it that long.

SF: It surprises me that so many drummers in the studio don’t know how to tune a drum.

PJ: I don’t want to give you the wrong impression. Jeff doesn’t have me tune his drums. Some of these guys . . . if they were football players they’d be All Pro’s. It would be an insult to Jeff if I tuned his drums. But, some guys don’t know how to tune the drums, which is really amazing to me. There are a lot of guys who haven’t been in the studio that much or they’re in there for the first time. With the cost of recording today, it’s worth it to the producer or the engineer to pay someone who knows how to do it, as opposed to wasting time. It costs $150 an hour, on the average, for a good studio and engineer. If the guy’s an inexperienced drummer and there’s a rattle in the floor tom, they might work on the floor tom for an hour. Right there it costs you $150 to get a sound out of a floor tom. I’ve seen people take two days to get a drum sound! That’s anywhere from four to eight hours per day. All of a sudden you’ve spent $2500 on a drum sound when you can pay somebody $50 to $100 to come in and have a sound for you in 20 minutes. You’re spending money to save money.

SF: Are you a drummer?

PJ: I’m a frustrated drummer. I bought my first set of drums when I was 19 years old and never really learned how to play them. At that point in my life I was at the crossroads. Should I learn how to play and make $200 a week playing in a corner bar, or set somebody else’s drums up and make $700 or $800 a week and see the world? I took the latter.

SF: What bands have you worked with on the road?

PJ: Toto, Rare Earth, Boz Scaggs, The L.A. Express, The Crusaders, Chick Corea, Return to Forever, Stanley Clarke. Being a drum roadie is like being part of a pit crew for a race car. Everything has to be ready before the show. During the show you’re there babysitting the equipment. Anything that goes wrong you’re on it immediately. After the show there’s the tear down and loading the truck. There are the logistics of making sure the transportation’s together to get the equipment to the next gig.

SF: Are all of the rental sets you have the same make of drums?

PJ: No. I use Gretsch and Ludwig drums. I prefer the Gretsch. Most of the ones I have are from the late ’50s or early ’60s. There’s a black Yamaha 9000 and a new Pearl power tom set on the way from Japan. I have ten rental sets.

SF: Why would an old Gretsch drum be better than, for example, a new Tama drum?

PJ: First off, the die-cast hoop is a big part of the Gretsch sound. They’re the only company that has die-cast hoops on every drum. Most of the companies are waking up to the fact that a die cast hoop is where it’s at. But, they only have it on the snare drum. The shells are the three-ply thick shells. It seems to me that the less plies, the better the sound. For instance, the solidmaple snare drums sound better than the plywood snare drums. I’ve found that a three-ply tom-tom shell sounds better than a six-ply. Gretsch is just the best-constructed drum I’ve found. All the lugs are good metal instead of the cheaper metal. Like the ad says: “It’s that great Gretsch sound.”

SF: Have you ever worked with any drums that you thought were really garbage?

PJ: I don’t want to point the finger at anybody. Everybody makes their good model and their cheap budget model. I find that a lot of the companies make good equipment. It’s just that no one set has everything. I prefer Gretsch drums, and a certain kind of hardware, rims and cymbal stands. On a set I put together it’s mix and match.

With my rental sets I use Ludwig tom holders because just about every drummer can adjust it. It’s real self-explanatory and it seems like everybody—at one time or another— has had a Ludwig set of drums. By having all Ludwig holders everything’s interchangeable.

Pedals are an individual thing. I try to keep a stock of just about everything that’s currently popular. I have the chain pedals, Speed Kings, Pearls, Yamaha, Rogers. When I have a rental I can ask a guy exactly what he wants. Most drummers are familiar with their set-up and they like to feel at home. This way, if a guy calls I can have the same kind of pedal for him, the same kind of hi-hat and even the throne!

Hardware-wise I prefer the old-style Ludwig tom-tom holder. I like the Yamaha cymbal stands with the miniboom. I like the Yamaha snare stand. I like the Pro-Mark hi-hat and I love Frank Ippolito’s chain-drive pedal.

Drumheads are individual preference. I recommend white coated Ambassadors across the board, with a Diplomat on the bottom of the snare. Sometimes I’ll have requests. Like Steve Gadd wants Hydraulic heads on his drums. Some guys want Diplomats on the bottom and Ambassadors on the top. Some want the dot heads. If I know ahead of time, I can have them.

SF: In the studio are you a middleman between the drummer and the engineer?

PJ: I’m like a foreign ambassador. It boils down to time is money. A lot of the engineers like me because I’m helping them speed the thing up; I’m saving them money. If it’s right on the tape when you record it, then when you mix it you’re fine. If it’s not right on the tape, they can spend hours trying to re-record. re-EQ and try to get something out of the drums that wasn’t there originally. You have to have it right the first time. You can’t go back and put something there that wasn’t there.

SF: Are you in business to rework the “guy on the street’s” drumset?

PJ: Sure. The only people I don’t tend to do those things for are the actual studios themselves. By doing that I slit my throat on my rental business.

SF: What’s the favorite snare you like to use in the studio?

PJ: I have an array of snare drums. I customize snare drums. I try to keep all the bases covered. There are certain drums I prefer, but anything the guy wants, within reason, I try to come up with.

SF: What could you do to improve, for example, a stock 5 x 14 wood Gretsch snare drum?

Jeff Porcaro and Paul Jamison
Photo by Rick Mattingly

PJ: First I would strip the shell. If it was a pearl finish I’d strip the pearl. I would fill all the external holes. I’d remove the muffler and fill all the holes with wood dowels. I’d make sure with a piece of glass that the shell is completely flat across the top and bottom except for the snare bed. You’ve got to be sure that the drum is round. In some cases I would re-bevel the edge, depending on what kind of drum it was. I’d use fresh inserts on the lugs and pack them so that the springs wouldn’t rattle. Instead of using the regular screws, I’d use lock washers and Allen-cap screws when I reinstalled them.

If it wasn’t a Gretsch drum I would put die-cast rims on it—either a Gretsch rim or possibly a Tama rim. I’ve seen the new Ludwig rim but I haven’t actually tried one yet. Maybe I’ll love them!

The strainer depends on what the guy wants. On some drums I use dual-tension strainers on both sides. On some I use a locked strainer on one side and a solid butt plate on the other.

Then I recommend a white Ambassador head on the top and a clear Diplomat on the bottom. According to the particular sound the guy is going for I use either 20- strand or 40-strand snares, or I make my own Hinger-style snares.

A snare drum is just like a guitar. You use a Gibson 335 for the rhythm tracks, a Stratocaster for the little chord riffs, a Les Paul for the solo. The snare drums are the same way. You use a certain sound for a ballad, for a rock tune, for a fusion song. There is no one drum that does it all.

SF: You’d suggest that any serious drummer should have several snare drums?

PJ: Oh yeah. I work on the side with Jeff Porcaro, Russ Kunkel, and Gerry Brown. Jeff, for instance, has seven or eight snare drums that go to each session. Russell has five or six, and Gerry has three or four. It depends on what they’re doing. They use a different drum for a lot of different sounds.

SF: Can you do much to doctor up a metal snare drum?

PJ: It all depends. I’ve had more luck with the older shells. Once again, if it’s an older drum, often the answer is to strip it. I’ve found that on the bottom of older shells, where the lip is bent back in, it’s closed in on the top so there’s no airlock, but it’s still hollow on the inside. I fill it with sand to deaden that because you have an overtone ring when that’s left open. Jim Keltner showed me a trick on the newer style drums that are just bent up like a ” V.” You take a fan belt off a car and you can lay it sideways and glue it in there all the way around. That will fill that groove. After that it’s basically proper head combinations and tuning. Most drums, if they’re maintained right, will talk.

SF: Tell me a little more about your rental business.

PJ: It’s based in North Hollywood and I work out of Leed’s Musical Instrument Rentals, 11131 N. Weddington, N. Hollywood, CA. I’ve got ten drumsets that are all set up for the studio. They’re all packed and quiet. They don’t make any noise. No rattles. They are ready to go. I have an array of probably 40 snare drums to choose from. I can tailor make a drumset to a drummer’s needs so they can play on what they’re comfortable with.

All my drumsets are maple drums. I have 20″, 22″, 24″, and 26″ bass drums. I have 8″, 10″, 12″, 13″, 14″, and 15″ tomtoms. The floor toms are 14 x 14, 16 x 16, 16 x 18, and 18 x 20. With the Ludwig holders a guy can order whatever he wants because everything is interchangeable.

SF: Do you rent cymbals?

PJ: Yeah, but we have a problem with them breaking and being stolen. With my studio-musician customers who come in from out of town—mostly New York— they’ll bring their own cymbals. But, you can walk in with nothing. I’ve even got sticks!

SF: Who are some of the drummers you’ve built sets for?

PJ: Most of the rebuilding I do is on snare drums, although I have done some sets. We’ve got Jeff Porcaro, Russ Kunkel, Gerry Brown, John Guerin, Jim Keltner, Mick Fleetwood, Simon Phillips, Michael Walden, Tony Smith, Keith Knudsen and Chet McCraken, Bun E. Carlos, Steve Ferrone, Harvey Mason, Don Henley, John Panozzo, Jamie Oldaker, Alan Gratzer, The Bee Gees, Danny Seraphine, Casey Scheurell, Graham Lear, Joe Vitale, Jack White, Tris Imboden…do you need any more?

SF: Is that from word-of-mouth advertising?

PJ: Yeah. Some of these people have called me; most of them I’ve gone to myself. Oddly enough, when I get there to talk to them they say, “Oh I heard about you.”

SF: Why is it that drum companies don’t do similar things to their own drums?

PJ: It’s too expensive. The other thing is that most of the drums I sell are antique drums that I’ve reworked. It’s the old adage, “They don’t make them like they used to.”

SF: You work with the Slingerland Radio Kings a lot, don’t you?

PJ: Yeah, and the Leedy Broadways, Gretsch Rockets, and the older brass shells from Ludwig, Leedy and Slingerland.

SF: Do you ever mess around with the RIMS system?

PJ: Just a little bit. I really like the idea. Truthfully, I don’t know why I don’t have any. Russ Kunkel has them and he told me that they’re really happening. I like the idea of not mounting the toms to the bass drums. I don’t like anything where the rod comes into the drum. For some reason you can hold the drum when you’re tuning it and it’s fine. As soon as you put it on the stand it’s gone. I don’t know if it’s because of the hole the size of a 50-cent piece in the shell, or if it’s because the drum itself is being warped the way it’s hanging.

SF: Tell me about the drumsets you’ve built.

PJ: I’ve built a six-piece Gretsch Cherry Sunburst set for Jeff Porcaro; a five-piece North set painted in flames for Gerry Brown; a five-piece Pearl deep-shell kit with a custom rack for Jeff Porcaro and, among others, my own ten studio kits. Basically, the snare drum is what I can really stretch out on the most. What I’m doing is giving the guy a quiet set of drums. In the studio they hear everything.

SF: Would what you’re doing to drums apply to jazz drummers?

PJ: It’s just making the instrument more responsive and quieter. So, it’d work for everybody—even a Polka player!