A residential neighborhood in Pennsylvania’s sleepy state capital is not where you’d expect to find a world-class drum shop. But there it is, in a converted two-story house, just a couple blocks off a commercial drag on the outskirts of town.
Since opening Dale’s Drum Shop in 1982, Dale Wise and his team, which includes his wife, Gale, and longtime general manager, Rej Troup, have garnered a sterling reputation among drummers for running one of the most consumer-friendly and well-stocked stores in the country. Out-of-towners are as common as locals at the store, which is about ninety minutes from Baltimore and Philadelphia, two hours from Washington, D.C., and two and a half hours from New York City.
At Dale’s you’ll find dozens of snares and kits (with a heavy emphasis on DWs and Tamas) in two strategically lit rooms, a well-stocked cymbal room, an electronics room, just about every kind of accessory you can imagine—from lambs-wool kick pedal beaters to triggers—and some cool memorabilia on the walls, including posters and pictures featuring Wise’s old boss, Buddy Rich. MD huddled with the soft-spoken proprietor in the back of the shop one day to discuss his journey from “band boy” for one of the greatest drummers of all time to well-respected retailer.
I worked for Buddy Rich from about 1972 to 1976. I was only sixteen when I started working for him. I was what was still referred to in those days as the band boy. I took care of his drums and the setup for the band. I was in my last year of school, and I was already planning on leaving and taking a GED test anyway to get rolling with music. My family was great about it. Drums had become a fixation with me.
Buddy played here for about a week, at a local club. The guy that worked in the kitchen was a great drummer. And he’d heard they needed a [band boy] and was going to take the job. But in that period of time he experienced several of these band meetings, which have become legendary over time. So he decided: I can’t deal with that. And he sort of pushed me into it. I wasn’t aware of the depths of Buddy Rich’s talent. It was just like, “You want to travel the world? You want to go to England?” I was like, “Yep, I’ll go.” We got along great. I never really pestered him about drums. After about a year he sat me down and said, “You must not think much of my playing…you never say anything to me about it.” We became great friends. I cherish that part of it.
Buddy gave me a fair bunch of equipment. He had a bunch of cymbals, drumsticks, and heads that he just didn’t like. So he gave me that stuff. And I took it into a music store here in town and started selling it. And that’s how the whole business began in the early ’80s. I didn’t envision myself in the slightest [getting involved in retail]. I was just going to pop in there, get rid of the stuff, and travel on. And the business started to grow. I started to see how there was a need and an opportunity for it, because of the old-fashioned approach of local music stores not discounting like the stores in Philly and New York would do. Instead of everybody running down to 8th Street Music in Philly or something like that, I just matched their discount and basically took their business.
Back when we started in the ’80s, the heavy metal scene was exploding, especially around here. [A young Rikki Rockett was among the store’s early customers.] Equipment sales were through the roof. It was all double bass kits, and the music stores were all selling pointy guitars. We laugh now—we have a couple used kits with power toms. And we look at them and say, “Did we used to play these things?” They’re so cumbersome and nonresponsive compared to today’s drums.
Our customers are very frugal, very conscious of economics. Certain things that work great in the big cities just don’t work here. So we buy right, we shop for deals, and we [pass] those deals [to the customer]. We’re very economy-minded ourselves, so we don’t have a high overhead. And we don’t sell stuff where we can’t go to the owner and say, “Hey, you gotta make it right.” That’s one thing about a small area. If something isn’t right, word gets around really fast. So we won’t tolerate something that isn’t right.
I’m glad to see more females involved in buying drums. We see that as a trend here. Most of our customers are weekend players. I always like the guys who stopped playing and decide that they’re going to start playing again, so they get themselves a drumset and play at home. A drumset is a nice way to keep happy. Older guys can really enjoy that. We have third-generation customers. We have the grandkids coming in now, picking up the drums. That’s really gratifying.