Once in a blue moon, a drum kit comes along that has as much impact on the music scene as the player behind it. Call it synergy, zeitgeist, synchronicity — however you want to paint it, these kits are as inextricable from the music as the parts they helped create. Here’s a look at seven of Sweetwater’s favorite music-shaping drum kits of all time.
Ludwig’s “Ringo Kit”
While there isn’t one kit that’s been officially named “The Ringo,” the Black Oyster Downbeat set Starr played on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 and the matching Super Classics he played throughout the Beatles’ mid-’60s, UK and US heyday have been most tied to his likeness. The importance of Ringo’s kits on garage drummers on both sides of the pond, as well as on Ludwig’s proud lineage, can’t be overstated. Watching Ringo and the lads put faces to hits like “I Want to Hold Your Hand” helped make William II’s struggling Ludwig drum company a household name.
Ringo’s earlier Downbeat kit consisted of a 12″ tom, a 14″ floor tom, and a 20″ bass drum with a matching 14″ snare. His later, and larger, Fab-sized Super Classic kit consisted of a 13″ tom, a 16″ floor tom, a 22″ bass drum, and a 14″ snare.
Moon and Bonham’s Acrylics
From their star-crossed careers to once even sharing the stage together in ’77, the lives of Keith Moon and John Bonham are forever intertwined in the annals of rock history. And when it came to drum choice, both Britons are known to have played supersized sets of see-through acrylic drums on their breakout US appearances.
Moon snatched up the first of his clear, double-kick Zickos acrylic drum sets during a Kansas City stop of the Who’s 1970 US tour. It’s this kit, or one just like it (he’s known to have purchased several), that Moon can be seen playing live on BBC’s Top of the Pops in 1971. This kit consisted of three 14″ high toms, four 18″ “stereo” floor toms, and a 22″ bass drum; it was notable for its presentation — until this time, non-wood drum kits were relatively unknown, and it caused quite a stir in the music presses.
The appearance of Moon’s kit would help pave the way for what would become the most distinguished acrylic kit of all time: John Bonham’s amber-tinted Ludwig Vistalite, which he and Led Zeppelin used to film 1973’s The Song Remains the Same at Madison Square Garden. Bonzo’s kit at this stage in Zep’s career is widely regarded to have been sized the same as his one-up/two-down Ludwig Green Sparkle kits, comprising a 14″ tom, a 16″ and an 18″ floor tom, a 26″ kick drum, and what was most likely a 14″ Supraphonic LM402 chrome-over-aluminum snare. Thanks in part to Moon’s earlier appearance and Bonham’s larger-than-life presence, acrylic kits from Ludwig and others soared in popularity. They’ve even seen a resurgence today among a range of players and custom drum makers.
Yamaha’s Recording Custom
Time travel to a major recording studio from the ’80s and ’90s, and odds are good you’ll spot at least one Recording Custom kit set up on the floor or proudly occupying the drum booth. This Yamaha series capitalized on the shell woods, edging, and finishing options available at the time to produce a premium kit that was tailor-made for the recording environment. The thin birch shells. The 30° bearing edges. Even that large, central, bass-head cutout. These qualities conspired to give the Recording Custom a dry, focused, and “pre-EQ’d” acoustic sound that worked great for the era’s transition to drier, more direct drum tones. Notable players include studio legends Dave Weckl, Steve Gadd, Carter Beauford (Dave Matthews Band), Cozy Powell (Rainbow), John “JR” Robinson (Madonna, Michael Jackson) — the list goes on.
What set the Recording Custom apart in the pantheon of top-class drum sets were the lengths Yamaha went to in perfecting the recorded drum sound. Maple was the go-to shell material of the time, but through independent research of pianos and wind instruments, Yamaha determined that birch would sound better in the studio. The shells also employed thin piano-lacquer finishing techniques, rather than the veneers and wraps that were common at the time, to provide furniture-grade beauty and a rich, open tone.
Gretsch’s USA Custom
Gretsch boasts a legacy that’s nearly as old as the drum set itself. The late 1940s introduced the world to Gretsch’s USA Custom line of handmade drum kits. These drums were the result of a close relationship between Gretsch and NYC’s Birdland Jazz Club, home to jazz icons such as Louie Bellson and Elvin Jones. However, Gretsch’s 6-ply USA Custom shell formula — a musical blend of broadband maple and rigid gumwood crowned with 30° edges and capped with robust die-cast hoops — would soon conquer the world of not just jazz music, but the burgeoning, worldwide rock scene, as well.
The ensuing Golden Age of Gretsch Drums saw USA Custom kits in the hands of players like Tony Williams, Max Roach, Art Blakey, and Jimmy Cobb. That “Great Gretsch Sound,” in the hands of these influencers, had a major impact on generations of up-and-coming players and producers.
If you’re lucky enough to find one today, those vintage Round Badge USA Custom kits have a reputation for holding up extremely well — shells and finishes both. Fortunately for drummers today, that Gretsch Round Badge recipe is alive and well in the modern USA Custom lineup, which remains faithful to the originals, right down to the Silver Sealer interiors.
Dave Simmons’s unmistakable hexagonal pads and modular drum synths have shared the stage with some of the most recognizable players of the ’80s and ’90s, including Phil Collins, Alex Van Halen, Danny Carey (Tool), Bill Bruford (Yes, King Crimson), and Roger Taylor (Queen).
The SDSV was Simmons’s first commercial venture, and Dave recalls it being a bit of a sleeper. “[Those in the industry] just weren’t interested in electronic instruments yet,” he recounts. But, thanks to a few, key artist appearances — notably Landscape’s “Einstein a Go Go” live performance on 1981’s Top of the Pops — the industry began to sit up and take notice of Dave and company’s breakthrough electronic drum designs.
The following SDS6, SDS7, SDS8, and SDS9 were all met with critical and commercial success. But it was 1987’s SDX (“X” for “model 10”) that introduced drummers to features that continue to be mainstays of the modern electronic drum kit — features like zone intelligence, layering capabilities, touch sensitivity, and onboard sampling, which really paved the way for drummers to fuse acoustic and electronic sounds together into one performance instrument.
Aspiring metalheads who wanted huge-sounding drums in the 1980s basically had two options: trigger your kick and toms or get a custom-built kit; that is, until the Superstar came along. These 6-ply birch kits were available in preconfigured “power tom” shell sizes, which supplied the cavernous depth and cannon-like projection that rock and hair metal players had been searching for. Power toms eventually went the way of the buffalo, but thanks to TAMA’s enterprising sound and features, not to mention a growing roster of metal drummers that included Lars Ulrich, Dave Lombardo, and John Stanier, the Superstar helped cement TAMA’s place in the world of hard rock and metal. This series would give rise to the late ’80s’ Rockstar and mid-’90s’ Starclassic lineups as well as 2015’s reinstatement of the Superstar Classic kits.
Buddy Rich’s Radio Kings
There will never be another player like Buddy. The chops, the panache, the razzle-dazzle — and of course, the business savvy. But as much as he migrated between gear, one of Buddy’s most cherished instruments remained his restored Slingerland Radio Kings — a gift from Eames Drum Company founder Joe MacSweeney — in White Marine Pearl. Buddy generally held a utilitarian view of drums and hardware: “A tom holder is a tom holder,” one writer recounts Buddy saying of Slingerland’s “groundbreaking” Set-O-Matic tom mounts. “My drums are right off the rack. You put a race driver in a car, if he knows how to drive, he can drive anything.” But, when it came to the Radio Kings, Buddy undeniably found a connection in his refurbished classics. “The perfect wood snare drum was a 5-1/2″ x 14″ Radio King,” Joe recalls Buddy saying in 1982. And considering he chose this kit until the day he died, right up through his final performance in January of 1987, we’d say that sounds pretty likely. Buddy’s beloved Radio Kings consisted of a 13″ tom, two 16″ floor toms, a 24″ bass drum, and a matching 14″ snare.
Love Drums? Let’s Make History!
Want to stake your claim on a piece of drum-set history? Many of these kits and more are available today in stunning reproductions. Let Sweetwater help make your drum-set dreams come true — talk to one of our Sales Engineers at (800) 222-4700. We’ll help you put together the kit you’ve been craving.
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