The history of the Ludwig Drum Company actually began in 1885, when a six-year-old German immigrant named William F. Ludwig arrived in Chicago with his father, mother, brother Theobald, and sister Elizabeth. Young Willy’s father was a professional trombonist who had come to this country to live, work, and raise his family.
Unfortunately, soon after settling in Chicago, Papa Ludwig was involved in a political quarrel that loosened some of his teeth, making trombone performance difficult. Not surprisingly, it was at that point that he decided that none of his children would play wind instruments.
Little William tried piano and violin. He took to neither. One day his imagination was captured by a drummer in a drum and bugle corps. He stuck with the drum and was soon working shows and concerts in Chicago’s theaters and parks.
Between afternoon and evening performances, William and his brother, Theo, operated a small drum shop in the theater district. They sold and repaired drums as a hobby. Because the brothers were musicians, not businessmen, they recruited their sister, Liz, to do the bookkeeping and collect a spindle-full of unpaid bills. Liz’s husband happened to be an engineer named Robert Danly.
Sometime in 1909, William was working a show and was unable to keep the fast tempo the conductor wanted. His “swing” pedal, which hung from the top of the bass drum, simply could not achieve the required speed. Ludwig immediately went to his shop, where he began working on a pedal that could do what he needed. He and Danly developed the first Ludwig bass drum pedal and the Ludwig & Ludwig Drum Company was in business.
William Ludwig married in 1914 and in 1916 his son and heir, William F. Ludwig, Jr., was born. When William, Jr. started working in the family business he had no way of knowing that under the combined guidance of father and son the Ludwig Drum company (and later Ludwig Industries) would become the biggest, most innovative, leader of the ever-growing percussion industry. William F. Ludwig III joined Ludwig Industries in 1977. He is the third generation of Ludwigs in the percussion business.
Why was Ludwig so successful? They were certainly not the first American drum company. Rogers made drums during the Civil War, Gretsch started in the 1880’s, and when the Ludwigs first opened their shop in Chicago they sold Leedy drums. If the history of the Ludwig Drum Company shows us anything, it is that destiny and strategy are equal components of success.
The quarrel, the drum corps, having an engineer in the family, all the chance events that occurred; these things could not have been planned nor could their significance have been immediately understood. Yet they forever changed the history of drumming. The mergers, product development, personnel selection, and marketing decisions were made, however, with greater knowledge and intent. Staying active, taking risks, and keeping competitive may be the best paths to success. Perhaps there’s a lesson we can all understand.
William F. Ludwig, Jr. is himself a friendly, likeable, fatherly person whose personal knowledge of the drum industry seems unending and unmatched. He maintains the Ludwig museum and library which spans the history of American drumming, still works in the plant five days a week, yet he’II pack his tool box and drive to a local school’s band room if their tympani pedal needs adjustment.
With the drum industry going through some major changes and realignment, I was pleased to have the chance to sit down and talk to the man who was responsible for the growth years of the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s.
DL: How did you get started on the drums?
WL: My father gave me rudimental drum lessons when I was eight. My mother, because of her operatic background, insisted that I also take piano. I played in a Boy Scout drum and bugle corps and when I got into high school I played in the high school band. I didn’t take it too seriously until a notice for contests appeared on the high school bulletin board. Contests were a spur to my learning; that got me going. I went into my first contest and got beaten badly. Then I practiced. In 1933, when I was a senior in high school, I won first place in the national competition held in Evanston, Illinois. I joined the musician’s union when I was fifteen and I played in the Chicago Civic Orchestra (the training orchestra to the Chicago Symphony) and the Chicago Light Opera Co.
The National Music Camp at Interlochen was the next great motivator. Playing symphonic music and associating with Dr. Frederick Fennell sharpened my appetite and created the desire to practice and do better. Following high school, I attended the University of Illinois, where I was priviledged to perform under the late, great, Austin A. Harding.
DL: When did you decide to go into the drum business?
WL: From the age of ten it had already been decided that “little Willy” would follow in his father’s footsteps. When I left college my father said, “Get in the car tomorrow morning.” I didn’t know where we were going. We ended up at the drum factory. That was forty-five years ago.
DL: What was it like being William F. Ludwig Sr.’s son?
WL: My father taught me a lot about the drum business. It was great being the son of an important man. It was also demanding as hell. A father and son act is difficult.
My father wanted to hold back. I wanted to expand. He was less quick to approve new products in the outfit field than he was in the classical field. We had tumultuous meetings and often disagreed on policy or philosophy or even on how to make percussion instruments. But, in the end, we were always together in attempting to produce a product that we could be proud to hang our name on.
When you’re a family business you’re very sensitive to criticism. It’s tough to take. That’s why the quality had to be up there. We still have that tradition. We still ask, “Is it the best?”
It goes back to a statement made by Mr. Danly, the engineer, in questioning my father’s directions on the pedals being made back in 1911. Mr. Danly wanted to make 1,000 pedals in a run. In those days that was a lot of pedals. My father said, “There aren’t that many drummers in the whole country.” Mr. Danly replied by asking, “It’s a good pedal, isn’t it?” My father answered, “It’s the best!” That’s all you have to ask, “Is it the best?” That’s one of the most important lessons my father taught me.
DL: What is the history of your early involvement in the Ludwig Drum Co.?
WL: My early days with the company were wonderful. The giants we revere today were, back then, just damn good players. Gene Krupa wasn’t a legend; he, Ray Bauduc and Ray McKinley were just good fellows and good players. Who knew, until you looked back, that these guys would be giants? My father had sold Ludwig & Ludwig to C.G. Conn in 1929. The big depression hadn’t happened yet but another kind of depression had. When talking pictures came in 1927, it cancelled out a lot of pit musicians. Over 50% of Ludwig & Ludwig’s business at the time was in sound effects; bird calls, whistles, horses hoofs, pistol shots. Suddenly, that was all gone. By 1929 the music business had been devastated. My father sold his company to Conn and so did U.G. Leedy of Indianapolis.
Conn moved the manufacturing divisions of Ludwig & Ludwig and Leedy into one building in Elkhart, Indiana. They kept the offices of Ludwig & Ludwig in Chicago, however. Conn maintained separate catalogs for each company. The hardware differed but the drums were the same.
In 1937 my father and I wanted to get back into the drum making business. We couldn’t use the Ludwig name so we formed the WFL Drum Company. For years we were actually competing with Ludwig & Ludwig drums. Needless to say, this was quite confusing to our customers. After World War II, Conn decided, in the interest of saving money, to put the offices and manufacturing plants of Ludwig & Ludwig and Leedy together in Elkhart. They then called the company Leedy & Ludwig.
By 1955 Conn’s interest had been captured by the electronic organ and they started to produce Conn organs. They ran short of money so they began to sell off some of their subsidiaries. It was then that “Bud” Slingerland (founder and owner of the Slingerland Drum Company) and I made Conn an offer. Slingerland got the Leedy name and tooling and I got my name back.
DL: Did you foresee the approaching drum and percussion eras or was it just good timing that you got the company back when you did?
WL: We worked to serve the growing percussion market. Had I known those were eras I would have paid more attention. We just went to work every morning. We went into the office, took off our coats, sat down at our desks, and then the phone would ring. When we had time we would roam the plant and get involved in one thing or another.
It was exciting. We worked 5 1/2 days a week; five days in the factory and the other half-day in the office. Sometimes, on Saturday afternoons when no one was around, we’d play tympani or drums, or set up outfits. Sunday we rested up for Monday. At night I would go out to listen and talk to drummers. From them I learned what was needed and then we would develop products that would meet their demands. We lived and worked from year to year; from catalog to catalog.
DL: Ludwig was quickly established in the rock and roll market because of the fact that Ringo played Ludwig drums. How did that come about?
WL: He bought them. We never gave Ringo anything. In 1963 the Beatles burst on the scene and for two and a half years we were producing four-drum “Beatle” outfits on double shifts. This is the way it happened:
Up until 1960 we hadn’t thought much about exporting drums. There was a lot of business in this country, plane travel took longer than it does today, and communication wasn’t as good. Exporting was complicated.
In 1960 a British entrepreneur, Iver Arbiter, visited a convention and asked if he could distribute our products in England. Nobody had ever asked us before. We said, “Why not?”
At the same time, we had received a new finish from our supplier of pearl. It was black, and also came in blue and pink. We decided to accept it and test it out on the market. I was called upon to give it a name. All I could think of was that it looked like the inside of an oyster shell, so I called it Oyster pearl.
This British distributor ordered a dozen sets in Oyster black and a dozen in Oyster blue. We put them all together and sent them to him. He put them in his store, which was just off Picadilly Circus in London. One of the Oyster black four-piece sets was put in the window.
The Beatles had just returned from their success in Hamburg. Ringo had a few pounds in his pocket so he went shopping for a new set of drums. He went into Arbiter’s store and asked for a certain make of drums. The clerk, however, had been told by his boss to push the Ludwigs. He directed Ringo’s attention to the window, to that black oyster set. Ringo was swayed by the fact that it was from America. The clerk gave him a good price and Ringo bought the set on the condition that the Ludwig logo be painted on the front head of the bass drum.
When I saw the pictures I didn’t think it was such a good idea to be so blatant about putting the name on the bass drum. But, Arbiter said that his customers were asking for the sets that way. We made decals for the English shipments. When the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan show we had to go out and buy thousands of decals. We started putting them on all the bass drum heads.
We never made contact with Ringo. He picked Ludwig that day, in that store. He was never an endorsee. We could never get in touch with him because he was always surrounded by such a large, protective, group. The closest I ever got to him was at a press conference at the Amphitheater in Chicago. We had made him a gold-plated snare drum. When I gave it to him, I don’t think he knew who I was. As a matter of fact, the last time I saw that gold-plated drum it was under the arm of a police security guard.
DL: What other trends started in the ’60s?
WL: There was the Beatles and there was “Total Percussion.” At the time, our marketing department was led by a very innovative and brilliant young man named Richard Schory. Dick Schory was quite a visionary. He coined the expression “Total Percussion.” I gave him free reign and he ran with the ball. Dick Schory was looking past the Beatle era while it was still going on.
Dick searched out composers and commissioned them to write short, programmatic pieces for percussion ensemble. Ludwig underwrote this enterprise. The software created the desire to form percussion ensembles which made a market for total percussion, not just drumsets. To this day a good part of our business is in school orchestras, bands and marching groups.
All areas of percussion grew in the ’60s. The marching percussion scene was truly exciting. We got involved in manufacturing portable tympani, we pioneered Timp-Toms and multiple carriers. We also improved our symphonic tympani and our orchestral line.
The ’50s and ’60s were great eras but there’s a lot more going on today. Ideas were germinating in the ’60s but today is the most marvelous age of percussion ever. Don’t confuse the excitement of the opening of an era with the climax of the era.
DL: Some of the major developments in the last few years have been in the versatility and strength of hardware. How do you decide which products to make?
WL: We’re all trying to be different. That’s why there have been so many “bummers” on the market. You think of something nobody else has and you beat them to the market. History has shown which ideas worked and which haven’t.
To expand on Danly’s question, “Is it good,” you also have to ask, “Is it needed? Is it an original idea or is it an improvement on somebody else’s idea?” Most improvements come from a combination of inside (factory) and outside (consumer) developments.
The first counter hoops were straight strips of steel. Somebody put a single flange [bend] on it because the sheer edge of the hoop cut the calfskin as it was drawn down. Then, to further protect the head, somebody created the double-flange hoop.
In 1939, our chief engineer came down from his second floor office and handed me the first triple-flange hoop the world had ever seen. He had taken a pair of pliers and bent the top edge of a double flange hoop out to make a third flange. He asked me, “Do you think there would be a market for this?” I told him I didn’t know.
We put it on a drum and beat it up a little. The first thing we noticed was that it was easier to make rim shots. The second thing was that it didn’t chew up the stick. But the third, and most important thing, was that nobody else had it.
We took the hoop to drummers and the response was good. We showed it at the summer convention and we took some orders. For fifteen years we were the only ones to have the triple-flange hoop.
For a long time nothing much happened. Then, about fifteen years ago, the age of high tension came upon us. Drum corps, in an effort to gain an advantage in the field of competition, would tighten their drums to great limits. Eventually, they reached the point where the steel hoops would bend. Even when we used steel that was twice as thick they bent.
Diecasting is the only type of construction that would take the stress of 40,000 pounds per square inch. It’s solid. But, even diecast hoops with ears bend. That’s why we went to an “ear-less” hoop; twin channels of metal with holes drilled through for the tension rods.
They were designed for drum corps needs where they’re tightening the heads that tight to win a contest. The winning edge, in the contestant’s mind, is defined as a half turn more tension than the other corps. They’re already tight, as tight as a table, but in the nervous anticipation of stepping out onto a field of combat they’ll go around one last half turn to get ’em up. It isn’t exactly a musical need.
DL: So, at least in this case, bigger is better.
WL: We’re not talking bigger, we’re talking stronger. We’re talking about mechanically answering high-tension needs. We now build wrenches to tighten heads because a regular drum key won’t work.
You always have this tendency to think that bigger is better. That’s why battleships were built. Carriers got so big that when an airplane came along it easily sank them. Bigger was not better. It didn’t make any difference how big they were.
In jazz, four drums and medium weight hardware is enough. Hard rock takes a lot of pounding. If you’re going to play rock, with the butt ends of 3S sticks, you’re going to push the drums around something bad. When you hit everything so hard, it shakes and shakes loose. Then you need heavy-duty hardware. What the drum industry is doing is answering a demand. That makes hardware heavier, longer to set up, and longer to knock down.
DL: Is there an end? Is it big enough?
WL: Yes, there’s an end. There’s already a reaction setting in. I’m getting more and more letters saying, “Your stuff is breaking my back. Make something lighter.” Our modular line is our maximum. That’s heavy enough, but we’re not the heaviest on the market.
DL: What is the Ludwig philosophy of how to make drums?
WL: We make everything in our own building. My father was a firm believer that if you make it, you control it. You control the process, the prices and, above all, you control the quality. My father taught me a few secrets so that I can take any drum off the assembly line, glance at it, tap it, run my finger over, and then reject or pass it. I also have a tape measure that I carry with me at all times. That’s as much as I can tell you about that.
My father also believed that a drum should be lightweight but strong. The lightest construction that he could conceive of, and he made hundreds of thousands of drums, was 3-ply construction with a reinforcement ring to provide strength at the tensioning edges.
The reinforcement ring was never considered to have any direct link to sound. No one thought about what it did to sound; it was a construction must for better than sixty-five years. A 3-ply shell without the reinforcement ring distorts and is not rigid; that ruins the sound.
Rock drummers, however, need a wide range of tones. That’s a characteristic of rock drumming. To get that variety of pitches you have to mount a variety of tom-toms on the bass drum. Therefore, you have to have a metal framework that will support a number of drums. When you add that weight you add stress to the shell. The 3-ply shell was no longer strong enough. The drum companies were faced with either blocking up the interior of the drum or adding more plies to the shell.
It was easier to add more plies. It wasn’t for sound alone. We thought of a mechanical manner in which we could make the middle of the drum strong enough to support the increased stress. We went to six, thick plies so you had strength at the edge of the shell and all the way through the shell. It was no longer necessary to have reinforcement rings. That changed a lot of things.
DL: What types of materials do you use for your drums?
WL: We use maple because it’s a hard wood and it finishes up great. We use mahogany because it’s a softer wood and it’s easily malleable. We use the combination of maple and mahogany because of their compatibility. Those are the woods that are available in large supply at the lowest price. We don’t use exotic woods because they’re expensive and have no acoustical advantages, that I can detect. I don’t think it makes any difference whether you use maple, mahogany, or rosewood. The important thing is that the drum is made of thick plies that are crossgrained.
The cross-grain, and the evenness of the molds (around which the plies are successively laid and cured with heat and pressure from the flat to the round state), are going to determine the strength and long lasting attributes of the shell.
Brass is used for snare drums because it is malleable, ductile, reasonably priced, plentiful, takes a good plating job, and sounds well.
We got into stainless-steel drums because we wanted to make a lightweight metal snare drum with a tough finish for the field. Stainless steel drums are perfectly round and will last forever. People who bought stainless steel drums invested wisely. We have all the molds and machinery to make stainless steel drums, but, unfortunately, the price went out of sight.
I don’t know if shell material makes any difference in the sound. Vistalite drums weren’t for sound as much as for a visual effect. Users did tell us that they were different to play on, though.
Flutes used to be made of wood. For the better part of a century, flutists insisted that there was no better sound than a wood flute. Today, they’re all metal. What happened? Yet, when H.M. White, the founder of King Band Instrument Co., attempted to switch the trade from wood to metal clarinets it was an utter failure.
I often marvel at young people who tour our factory. They’ll see some all-wood drums and say, “Man, those sound wonderful!” They’ve never even played them. But, put a pearl or cortex covering on the drum and they’ll say it doesn’t sound as good. They’re “cross-sensing”; they’re hearing with their eyes.
Sound is nebulous. You like a sound—I don’t. I like a sound that you don’t. The next fellow comes along and doesn’t like either of the sounds we like; he likes another sound. So, when we say that a drum sounds good, to whom does it sound good?
I wish that there was a machine that you could put a drum in that would say “good sound” or “bad sound” on an indicator. It would be easy. We wouldn’t sell the drum that had a bad sound. Drums sound different; there are no two alike. But never say one sounds better than another.
DL: Why are certain drum sizes standard? Were drum companies originally limited to making only those sizes?
WL: No. We could make any size. All the drum companies could make any size. I came into the business in 1937. The first tuneable tom-toms were introduced a couple of years prior to that. In those days, drums were single-tension to keep the price down. The top head was calfskin and the bottom head was pigskin, tacked to the drum.
The Dixieland drum setup that Ray Bauduc used with the Bob Crosby band at that time was a 7×11 and an 8×12, mounted on the bass drum, and a 14 x 16 on the floor. Because of his fame, that setup was a stock item in our catalog for quite a while.
The 9×13 was also of that era. Gene Krupa chose that size and used only one tom-tom on the bass drum. After that, everybody who wanted to play swing went to 9×13.
DL: So there was no acoustic reason that the drums were certain sizes? They were just what was being used?
WL: I don’t know why it came to be 9 x 13. It could have been 9 x 14 or 8 x 13. There was never any question, until you brought it up, as to why. That shows you what Modern Drummer is doing: It’s finding out; it’s questioning. In addition to producing a desired sound, the shell size was often determined by its compatibility to available holders and manufacturing equipment.
The Dixieland sound was short and muted. The swing sound was more resonant and open throated. What worked for Dixieland wouldn’t work for swing.
There is no reason to t h i nk that we conducted acoustical research at the factory. We didn’t hit a drum and say, “Oh, that one sounds better than this.” Remember, when you say one sound is better than another, who’s to say it sounds better? You, or me? We’re both different. Even back in the ’30s you couldn’t get people to say that an 8x 12 sounded better than a 9×13 because what do you mean “better”? Ray Bauduc loved his sound. Gene Krupa loved his, and later, Ray McKinley went to a 16 x 16 because he wanted to slug it out in a lower register. He added a couple of inches to the shell depth, that’s all.
And there it hung; 9 x 1 3 and 16x 16. I used to listen to bands and say, “That’s the ultimate. There’ll never be a need for anything but those two sizes.” But drummers started to experiment and styles changed.
DL: What factors should be considered when deciding which drum to buy? Shell, hardware, finish, sound, ads, who else plays that make; in short is a drummer buying product or image?
WL: All of that: product, image, reputation, history, service, friend’s recommendations, and gut feelings. For a drum company to be successful it has to do everything. We wouldn’t be in business if we didn’t have a decent product, at a fair price, year in and year out, backed by parts and service. You should always play the drum you intend to purchase. It has to sound and feel right to you; you’re the one that’s going to play it. Remember, the choice of one drum over another is a mat ter of personal taste.
DL: Has everything that can be done to a drum been done? Haven’t we reached the end of drum development?
WL: I don’t see how you can make a statement like that. That’s like saying nobody’s going to think anymore; nobody’s going to invent anymore. There’s going to be a lot of new things done. I’ve got two inventions sitting on my desk right now.
We’re alive; percussion is alive. But, you don’t just sit down and say, “Now I’m going to invent a new pedal.” No way! You sit down and you get some pedals and you study them and you take them apart and put them back together. Then you say, “Hey, here’s something nobody’s thought of.”
You make a model. Now, who’s going to make the pedal? You find someone to make it. Now, who’s going to buy it? Ninety-seven percent of all patents taken out are never produced. Of the 3% that find their way into production, only half are successful. That’s 98.5% failure. It’s a high risk. Success doesn’t come easy.
DL: One of the things that the Ludwig Drum Company has always been involved in is the area of education. How did that come about?
WL: My father never tired of telling me how, one day in 1925, he got a telephone call from Joliet, Illinois. In those days, that was long distance. The band director of the Joliet High School band asked my father if he could come out and get his drummers organized. My father was interested.
He started out one morning in the old Stanley Steamer. He went to that school and he was appalled at the condition of the drum section. He gave the kids a lesson and the band director thanked him by buy ing all Ludwig equipment. My father never forgot that.
He wrote books and published them. He standardized the rudiments and passed them out to drummers. It built the business, but above all, he was doing something that he enjoyed. He was helping young people. That’s been the spirit of the company. To this day we have an extensive educational department.
DL: How does a drummer become a Ludwig clinician and who, besides the drum company, benefits from it?
WL: Generally, you endorse a drum just by playing it. We’ll hear about a player from a dealer or someone on our staff. A player’s reputation, name recognition, visibility, demand, and his presentation determine his value to the company. For example, Ed Shaughnessy, and his drums, appear before fourteen million television viewers every night and Ed is a great clinician.
The bottom line for the drum company is to sell drums, but we’re not the only ones who benefit from the program. The dealer needs sales to live. We try to give him a clinician that will help his sales as well as educate. The drummers get an opportunity to see a professional drummer and they also get information. The clinician gets a fee that has been set by prior arrangement. He also gets exposure. Each endorsee or clinician has an arrangement that has been adjusted to their needs and abilities as well as ours. Everyone involved benefits.
DL: Some people say that the American drum companies allowed the Japanese to get into the drum market. How do you feel about it?
WL: Well, I’ve heard this in a few places and to me, it’s just foolish. You don’t allow a competitor to come into the market; he comes in. You don’t allow him or disallow him. The competition decides he wants to be in the drum business and he’s in it. We didn’t “allow it”; we objected, but they did it anyway.
Of course, we competed and struggled to keep them out. We always took them seriously. But, because of lower labor costs and preferential tariff treatment, it has become more and more difficult to compete on an equal basis.
For instance, drums are imported into the United States from Taiwan duty-free, yet when we ship our drums into Taiwan, a duty of 50% is slapped on them, plus additional tariffs and penalties amounting to another 65%; total 115% on top of the price of the drums.
Look at automobiles, look at steel, look at electronics; all are now Japanese dominated. Our government says, “Come in and sell your goods in America so that you will be strong and help us resist Communism.” American industry is a victim of a larger picture. I don’t see how anyone can say we, the Music Industry, or any indus try “allowed” the Japanese to penetrate our markets.
DL: Ludwig was the last major drum company to be sold to a larger company. Why did that happen?
WL: The business has changed. It has become as important to finance dealers as it is to design and build good products. What kind of terms can you provide? What kind of interest rates? Do you have a lease plan for schools? We, at Ludwig, were aware of our limitations. We don’t have the capital that a large company, like Selmer, has.
We were also aware of our limitations in marketing. For instance, we had thirteen salesmen on our sales force; Selmer had over thirty. Since both call on the same dealers, we found we could combine the two sales forces into one.
Thirdly, The Selmer Company has the engineering experience to assist Ludwig’s engineers in developing new products and continuing our forward momentum through the 1980s.
What I did was join a larger company with the management and financial ability to merchandise Ludwig products under more lenient credit terms. All the domestic drum companies that were private are now part of the larger companies for strength. My family and I didn’t have to sell the company, but now Ludwig offers more than it could when it was just a family business.
DL: How will the recent merger with The Selmer Company affect Ludwig Industries?
WL: Things are better than ever. I am working for Selmer as the president of Ludwig Industries. Selmer is going to manage and operate the three plants of Ludwig Industries in conjunction with the total operation of their seven other plants, all of which make musical instruments. That leaves me free to pay more attention to research and design, quality control, and to get out and meet my friends again.