Buying drums has to be one of the biggest impediments to being a drummer. Money is always tight and our instruments aren’t the cheapest. But at least the picture does seem to be improving for the drum consumer. The venues for selling drums have broadened and multiplied, bringing variables into the buying picture that open up the market to an unprecedented level. If you’re willing to spend a little time, no matter where you live, you can now find virtually any instrument that you could ever hope to purchase via the worldwide web. Because of the nature of the beast, you can also find multiples of that item, which allows you to comparison shop for a drum that you wouldn’t have even had the chance to buy 20 years ago. But before you jump on the web to cruise eBay for your next drum, you should take a look at some ways to protect yourself and insure that you really get what you want at a fair price.
Thirty years ago when I started playing, there were several ways to buy drums. My mother and father couldn’t afford the top-of-the-line Gold Sparkle Ludwig Super-Sensitive that I drooled on in the local music store when I purchased my first pair of sticks (Ludwig 3-S … I swear they weighed a pound apiece) but there were limited choices in 1971 in Ardmore, Oklahoma. My parents were supportive from the beginning, even though they didn’t have the money to buy an expensive drum. Besides, why should they spend a fortune on an expensive drum when I had left numerous economically feasible hints lying around the house in the form of every Sears catalog that featured musical instruments? To my 11-year-old brain, I just wanted a drum – any drum. The strategically placed catalogs would magically fall open to the page where the musical instruments were sold, and there was their answer, a cheap snare drum kit, just a phone call away!
That was my first experience with buying something from a catalog, sight unseen. I was a kid and I just knew that the folks at Sears wouldn’t handle any junk. They were the kings of catalog sales. At first, it was wonderful. I saw the drum through rose colored glasses and worshipped it! I’d hug it and clean it and tune it and love it forever and ever ... uh huh. But after a while, I noticed that it never really could be tuned to a pitch, and it sure had a funny ring to it, and why couldn’t the snares be tightened enough to make contact with the bottom head? After almost a month of working on the drum, I came to the conclusion that I (or at least my parents) had been hosed. This drum was almost worth the $39 hard earned dollars my parents spent on it. But within a year, the reinforcing rings started separating from the shell and the shell went out of round one week when I left the head off. I learned a lot from that drum. The lack of quality construction forced me to work on it to make it better than it was. It also gave me a strong motivation to look very carefully before I purchased my next drum.
In the past 30 years, I’ve bought sold, repaired, rebuilt, recovered, painted, piddled with, and played hundreds of drums in the course of being a working drummer. Having been burned about as often as I’ve had good transactions, I have a first-class education on how not to buy drums. As the editor of a small magazine devoted to buying, selling, and trading vintage drums (Not So Modern Drummer), I get numerous calls from subscribers and others who are avid collectors and drummers as well as drummers who are new to the hobby. Like me, they’re very enthusiastic and eager to find the drum of their dreams, but they’re (rightfully) leery of just sending money to a stranger to buy something through the mail, and particularly wary of purchasing drums over the Internet.
Ten years ago, I told people how to avoid getting burned when dealing through the mail and by phone. The same tips still apply today, but the Internet has opened up even more problems (and solutions) for drum buyers. The anonymity of the Internet is a beautiful thing in that it allows well-known collectors or public figures to buy things without revealing their own identity (which might result in a higher asking price). It is also an excellent way for an unscrupulous person to hide his or her identity from you in the event that the deal goes wrong (intentionally or not). Internet auction houses such as eBay have their own new set of problems to address, but most of the common-sense details of buying over the phone or through the mail still apply when dealing with unknown parties on the web.
The first thing that I would advise you to do before purchasing anything on the web is to know exactly what you intend to buy. Arm yourself with enough information to shop intelligently. With new drums, that’s easy. Get the catalogs from the companies you’re considering, or go to their websites and study their product line to find that product that will suit your budget and needs.
It’s a little tougher with vintage drums. You can research the vintage drum companies online or buy the books available on the subject. (Did I mention that I wrote: The Guide To Vintage Drums, published by Centerstream Publishing, distributed by Hal Leonard, which you can run out and buy for only $24.95?) Or you can subscribe to a magazine like Not So Modern Drummer (did I mention that I’m the Publisher/Janitor of this gem of publishing pulchritude?) to get your periodical dose of drum wisdom via the semi-regular subscription. (Editor’s note: Hey John, enough with the shamelessly self-serving plugs, already! And, oh yeah, did I mention that I wrote the Drum Setup And Hardware book for Hal Leonard? So there!)
After you’ve educated yourself on what the drum should look like, you’ll still need to deal with the subjective information concerning your online purchase. You’re totally at the mercy of the seller’s descriptive powers to determine if anything has been altered on the product since it left the assembly line 20—60 years ago. Your only protection in this instance is to know what the drum should be like, and ask enough questions to determine if it is original or altered enough to affect its value.