In today’s Amazon-obsessed world, ordering a drumstick or cymbal is only a click away.
But forty years ago, trying to find a pair of signature sticks or specialty mallets was more challenging. Lone Star Percussion made it possible for percussionists all over the United States to get their musical supplies in just a few days, and at discount prices.
In 1978, Harvey Vogel founded the percussion mail-order business in Dallas, Texas, located in a 400-square-foot storefront with a showroom just large enough to hold one six-foot counter. The shop originally only stocked sticks and mallets, but soon the shelves overflowed with drumheads and cymbals. In 1982 the ever-expanding business relocated to northeast Dallas, and three years after that moved across the street to its current 25,000-square-foot office/warehouse/ showroom. Known for its large inventory of heads, cymbals, marching and concert percussion instruments, and drumsets, Lone Star shipped most orders within 24 hours. Four decades later, the business is stronger than ever.
Jeff Nelson is the current president and CEO of Lone Star Percussion. Nelson joined the company in 2006, along with a partner—his sons’ percussion teacher—who left the business in 2016 to pursue other ventures. In March 2017, Lone Star added a second location in Fullerton, California.
Nelson’s percussion background began in middle school, when he joined a small drum corps in northern Kentucky. While attending the University of Kentucky, Nelson joined the Spirit of Atlanta Drum and Bugle Corps, where he marched for three seasons (and met his wife, Judy). In 1982, Nelson followed future DCI Hall of Fame percussion instructor Tom Float out to Concord, California, where he joined the Blue Devils, first as a marching member and then as an instructor.
After earning an electrical engineering degree and spending two decades in the telecom world, Nelson was ready for a career change. “Lone Star wasn’t on my radar during my drum corps days. But when I was shopping here for my kids, I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to have a place like this?’ We found out the business was for sale [from interim owner Bobby Roundtree] and thought we could make something out of it—I would be the business guy, and my partner, with his connections in the teaching community, would handle sales.”
“When we acquired the business, one of the first things we did was increase our walk-in presence. It was still mainly a catalog business, but we wanted to put more products into people’s hands. We expanded the showroom with band and orchestral items, because those were the roots of Lone Star. But one Christmas we decided to try drumsets, and lo and behold, they did really well. So now the [nearly 2,000-square-foot] showroom is dedicated to the combo/drumset market. It’s a very small piece of what we do at Lone Star, maybe about 10 percent, but compared to other drum shops, it’s quite large. Approximately 90 percent of our business is still driven by schools, but many students are getting into drumset.”
“When we decided to expand the drumset market, we focused on Dallas/Fort Worth. To a lot of local gigging drummers, Lone Star was a school shop. To change that perception, we had to treat them almost like a diff erent customer, with a completely diff erent marketing strategy. We felt we needed to have some clinics to bring them in the door, so we’ve hosted artists like Kenny Aronoff , Ignacio Berroa, Terry Bozzio, and Todd Sucherman. We built a stage in the back warehouse, including sound-proofi ng curtains and lighting. The room served two purposes: it was the only place that was large enough to [hold clinics], and walking through it let people see just how much inventory we have!”
“What we offer drumset players that other stores don’t are salespeople who truly know the drums. Other shops tend to have high turnover, but our employees stick around. Most of our guys have either a bachelor’s or master’s degree in percussion performance or education, and many are gigging drummers. We had eleven employees when we acquired the business in 2006, and we’re up to thirty-two now, including one [Dave Rieder, warehouse manager] who’s been here almost thirty years. One important thing is that no one works on commission. We tell everyone to take care of the customer and make sure he or she is happy. We use more of an educational approach with our customers. We certainly hope you buy at Lone Star, but you’ll never get pressured here.
“We also offer smaller, unique brands that aren’t found in chain stores. We carry high-end, handmade drums from Q Drum Co., Canopus Drums, Noble & Cooley, Craviotto, and A&F Drum Co.; snare drums from Dunnett and Cooper Acoutin; and Red Rock Drums from Australia. Of course we off er drumsets from the big companies as well—DW, Mapex, Pearl, Tama, and Yamaha. We also have a large cymbal display in the showroom featuring Zildjian, Sabian, Paiste, Meinl, and Dream, with even more in the warehouse.
“Most of our customers come through the school band programs. Students hear about us from their percussion teachers—it’s very word-of-mouth. We’ve made a big eff ort in recent years to attend numerous trade shows. We spend a lot of time supporting the arts, supporting Percussive Arts Society [Nelson currently serves on PAS’s board of directors], giving scholarships, sponsoring drum corps shows and WGI events—giving back to the community. We found that the older crowd knew Lone Star because they’d bought everything here when they were in college, but the young kids had no idea who we were!
“When we bought the business, we had very little web presence, so we put a big investment into our website. We also got rid of the iconic “discount price list/catalog.” We were scared to do it because it was the identity of the business to so many people, but we had to make that leap. Now the website features our own customized product descriptions. Customers either discover us on the internet or via word-of-mouth. You may buy your first drumset at a big-box music store, but we hope you’ll buy every drumset thereafter from us.”