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Guerilla Drum Making: The Interview

  • By Radim McCue
  • Published September 21, 2009

John Dutra is to home drum building as Bob Vila is to home repair projects or Rachel Ray is to cooking at home. He shows you how it's done and gives you confidence to do it yourself.

John's DVD Guerilla Drum Making is the first product to teach how to make professional looking and sounding drums at home. Combined with the articles on his web site, it's enough to start anyone down the road to building their dream kit. In honor of custom drum week, we interviewed John to find out how he became the Oprah of drum making and get his insights into the custom and extreme drum making scene.

DRUM! Tell us about your musical background.

Dutra I started playing drums a bit later than most people, I believe I was about 13 years old. My older brother played guitar which meant I wanted to play guitar too. The two of us took guitar lessons for years until one summer, he brought over his buddy's drum set so they could do some jamming. My mom hopped on the kit, my Dad took a stab at it then I said "what the hell?" and hopped on too; I quit going to guitar lessons and started playing from there. Since then I've been playing in bands, touring, giving drum lessons, and making drums.

DRUM! So how did you start making drums?

Dutra The drum making seeds were planted when I took a Ludwig set, tore the wrap off and painted it with a sparkly blue automotive spray paint. It actually turned out really good. I had a couple of buddies convinced that I bought a completely new set.

Before even finishing that project I started getting pretty anxious about customizing my own kit with special shell types, shell sizes, custom lugs, a cool finish, etc. But that was the late nineties and there just wasn't enough provoking information available to convince me to take the jump into drum making.

I didn't have the tools, I didn't have the money, I didn't even have the patience for drum making... and no one was convincing me that even without those things, I could STILL DO IT. Like myself, most people brush off drum making because they don't think that they have the means, which is totally wrong.

DRUM! What's the biggest obstabcle to making your own instrument?

Dutra I think the biggest challenge for first time drum makers is information overload and confidence. Finding drum making information is like googling "Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipes." Everyone uses this technique or that technique, this product but not that product, and if you use this without that you'll totally screw up the whole project, and blah blah blah. There's absolutely no room for imagination or experimenting and this kills confidence... there's nothing more discouraging than reading 1,000 opinions on how to stain a drum shell.

DRUM! What was your goal in making the DVD?

Dutra My goal with Guerrilla Drum Making was to eliminate these obstacles and road blocks by introducing basic ideas that produce professional results. No over thinking. No over measuring. No crazy tools. This builds confidence in people and leaves room for them to get creative and add on to it. It leaves them in the garage instead of at the computer staring at forum posts.

DRUM! Are you happy with the resonse??

Dutra The response to the DVD has been great; far better than I ever imagined. And I think the cool thing about people's response is that they watch it over and over and pick up new tricks every time. The DVD is basic enough to build confidence, but there's some complexity involved that poses a challenge for those who want to get more creative.

DRUM! Do you find value in hanging out on the drum making forums?

Dutra I'm slightly involved in most of the drum making forums, but I spend most of that time with Ghostnote.net. I find that ghostnote is more of an edgy forum; those guys aren't afraid to break the drum making rules, to showcase another builders work, to compliment each other and to share their methods through tutorials and forum posts.

[Ed. Note: Drumsmith is another popular drum building forum.

But what's also interesting is that these guys will literally BASH you and your opinions. If you make a post saying "Which kind of wrap: Pink Sparkle Or Yellow Sprakle", you'll get 100 people responding that say "neither." I don't really get involved in that aspect of it but I just love that honest truth... I think it builds better ideas and keeps people thinking.

DRUM! Drum making seems to be in a creative period right now.

Dutra The most exciting thing about drum making, right now, is that people are starting young and the ideas are getting really creative because they have to be. With drum making, if you can invest some creativity, then you don't need an outrageous budget, and this produces some crazy creative results. People are also finding out that pouring your blood and sweat into something is much more rewarding than going to Guitar Center with your credit card in hand. We're entering an exciting time of young drum makers coming into the scene with some edgy ideas.

DRUM! Some critics and builders have said to me, "If you don't make your own drums, then you're just an assembler."

Dutra **There are some diehards out there claiming that "If you don't make your own drum shells than you're just assembling, not actually drum building." But the holy grail, to me, is to spend less time making a drum set and more time behind the drum kit playing it. I mean, that's why we're all here isn't it?

Most of the guys building their own shells are seasoned craftsmen, some very smart guys; and that's great. They are entitled to their opinions but I'll stick to spending more time in the drum room than in the wood shop making shells.

Plus, almost every custom drum company in the states and overseas are assemblers. DW Drums was a better sounding drum company when they used Keller shells! So calling out every "assembler" as a fake drum builder is pointing the finger at 80% of the custom and corporate drum companies.

DRUM! I'm sure DW and others would disagree with you on that, but let me ask another question. When you play really loud rock, do shells and woods make a difference? Or do they only matter in the studio?

Dutra In a live situation, if you're playing loud rock you're probably not going to hear all the resonation and sensitivity that a drum shell has to offer. Most guys rock the thick shells that have some really nice attack and focus.... some fast decay on it. And with great mics and a great sound guy/mix, it sounds bad ass. There are so many considerations: head types, room, outside venues, drum microphones, sticks, tuning, etc.

If there is a lot of breathing room in the music for the drums, than yeah, shells and shell thickness do matter. Dany Carey's drum tones are a perfect example; they cut through during Tools' heavier parts and resonate and have a ton of sensitivity for their quieter, more soundscape parts.

But those subtleties and sensitivities of drum shells will never be heard if you're just thrashing your china cymbal all day while you're two guitarists are playing Pantera riffs, ya know? Joey Jordison could be playing tin cans up there... it doesn't really matter because he's triggering every single drum and his cymbals wash out his entire kit unless he's in a studio situation where he can control the mix.

Dutra Drum building has a ton of great rewards. The materialistic results like saving money, making a great sounding and great looking kit are nice. But the most important thing is what comes at the end of the day, expressing yourself behind a drum set that is unique to you and only you. It's your sweat that was poured into that kit, and no one else's. And realizing the dream drums, seeing your vision achieved and expressing that creativity, dumping passion into it and being proud of your achievement, making friendships through the drum making forums, and having the knowledge and ability to make drums forever are also very nice rewards.

Check out John Dutra's drum making blog at

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