A Brief Perspective on the Utility of Vintage Drums
So what's the deal with vintage drums vs. new drums? Some drummers swear by them, others seem to not even know or care that they exist. Like basically everything in the world of music, it's very subjective and entirely subject to taste. But over the years I've come to have a practical understanding of where and why vintage works.
For most of my drumming life, I have not thought nor cared about vintage drums. For the last five years or so I've been exclusively a vintage drum player, and then in the last year, while shopping for a vintage Gretsch kit, I actually ended up buying a '90s set that was buried in a dark corner of the Hollywood GC.
Now, when I'm in the studio, I essentially only play vintage drums, but that has a lot to do with the kind of music I'm recording and the sound I'm aiming for. In a live setting, I really only play my new-ish Gretsch, which for all points and purposes is not a vintage kit.
For the sake of drawing a clear line, I somewhat arbitrarily cap the term vintage at roughly the early '80s, the reason there being that I find it annoying that vintage drum nuts who love the Ludwig "Blue and Olive" from the '70s always ignore the fact that those drums were manufactured that way up until 1984. Sorry, I'm the anti-geek geek, I guess.
Anyway, there are two prime elements that I'm looking at when considering which kit I'm going to play. One is the obvious- how does its sound fit with the music I'm a part of? The other one, and less apparent to those who have not done a lot of traveling with the kit is how durable or sturdy the kit is.
First, on the latter of those two points, what I'm driving at is how well the kit sets up, holds tuning, and how worried I am about it getting banged up. Obviously, with a vintage kit, the more damage it takes, whether you're talking about shell integrity or just cosmetic, the less valuable it will be. That tends to matter a lot for kits in really good shape- I feel it's essentially a drummer's responsibility to keep a really excellent condition vintage kit in that condition. You are playing a piece of history and should behave accordingly. I took a vintage Rogers kit on the road for years and it got beat pretty good. But the key there was I selected a kit that cosmetically was already beat to hell. The shells were great, but cosmetically it would be very poorly valued to a vintage collector.
Vintage kits suffer from several hardware challenges that modern kits do not. They typically have fewer lugs so are harder to keep in tune. They also may be more subject to sharp environmental changes than modern drums. Tom mounts and bass drum anchors tend to really suck on those old kits. Of course, this is relevant to how you play- if you're a punk rocker or old-school metal drummer... I don't know why you'd be playing on a vintage kit in the first place, but if you were you'd discover they were not really built for the physical intensity of that type of playing. Your bass drum will end up several feet away from you after the first song without some hardware reinforcement.
In any case, modern drums have to one degree or another succeeded at addressing these issues. Modern drums have more lugs to improve tuning, more reliable mounts, and bass drum anchors are far more functional in keeping the drum in one place. Especially on the road, it is clear that modern hardware is functionally preferable to deal with.
Now about sound. To me the conversation about what to play is a simple one: what style music are you playing? That's it. My kit preference is based on the decade and genre of what I'm playing. For instance, I'm currently very immersed in '60s and '70s soul music, so that Rogers kit works perfectly for it. I can get that very open Motown sound when I add in a sixties Leedy snare that I keep around. If I want that tighter Al Jackson Jr. STAX kinda sound, I get a brass snare and put some dampening on all the drums. How I play the music is really what matters, but it feels great for me as a player to be sitting behind a kit that suits the style I'm going for.
Most contemporary pop music is going to be well suited with a modern kit of some kind. If we zoom in too tight then we get into a conversation about heads, tunings, and all other things. Speaking strictly about kit, I see no reason to push for a vintage kit with modern music other than simply having a preference to play one. Music that is heavily influenced by electronic sounds and samples rarely requires an actual vintage drum. However, it's perfectly fine to make those choices if the drum fits the job.
I find it helpful to further divide the consideration of sound into studio and live playing. As an audio engineer I've spent a fair amount of time considering the sound of drums from the other side of the throne. In a live setting, I've mostly arrived at the opinion that it really doesn't matter at all whether or not you're playing a vintage kit. When you consider what a drumset sounds like by the time it gets from the stage, through the assortment of dynamic mics, out into the PA system, it just doesn't sound like a vintage kit. It sounds like DRUMS and that's kind of it. If you're playing the unmiked or low volume jazz club gig, sure fine. But any venue where by necessity you need a mic on every drum and probably have overheads, I am truly convinced that whether or not your kit is vintage is wholly irrelevant. Cymbal, head type/tuning, and snare sound are really the most significant things at that point.
Conversely, in the studio, everything can matter. That's what's fun and sometimes difficult about the studio. All the little things can add up to really create the magic that make a great feeling track, and I think that choosing all the right details about your kit are very meaningful in a studio setting. I feel it's really important to state for the record that in the end, the only thing that actually matters is the take, but building up to that, preparing the sound and mood of what you're going to track is both a ritual and an art. This is where diving into the vintage sound can be extremely fun and rewarding.
For a brief digression from straight drum talk, one of my favorite things was really digging into the Glyn Johns drum mic technique with my '60s Rogers kit. It's important to point out that if you're tracking vintage drums and really want that 'vintage sound,' there are undoubtedly countless things working against you, from using Logic or Pro Tools instead of recording to 2" tape, not using mics from the same era, and not being Uriel Jones or Buddy Harman. So it's important to get as close as we can get when we're going for the sound, and how we mike the kit in the studio is as big a part as the kit itself.
In summary, I feel like playing a vintage kit is purely a flavor thing that only plays a part of defining a drummer's sound. In the proper setting, and especially in the studio, I think the right vintage kit can really help evoke the right mood and attitude for a drummer aiming to capture a vintage playing style or approach. A large aspect of what I think is at play here is psychological- the way we feel about our playing is the feel of the take! We should do whatever it takes to tap into that place where we feel exhilarated to play, yet can enter our personal musical trance, free from distractions about the nitty gritty things like, "oh, the ring on the snare is a little weird right now," or "hmm the rack tom is wobbling on the mount a bit and I don't like it."
Don't buy or play vintage drums just because someone makes you think you should, or that it makes you more pro, or whatever. At the end of the day, they're just drums, and they are only the tool of the drummer. A good drummer can make any kit sound good, the right kit is just icing on the cake. Research the music you love, get into who played on what tracks or in what bands, and learn about how and what drums they played. If you feel like you really identify with a style or player, consider curating a gear setup similar to that vibe, but don't make the mistake of ever thinking that the gear makes the musician. You are the music and that is all that will ever matter.