I recently purchased a car with a dashboard light that alerts me when the vehicle requires its regular servicing. For a guy like me, this feature is invaluable. Typically, my first clue that the oil needs changing is more along the lines of a plume of black smoke streaming back from the hood. Drums, however, don’t come with this amenity, regardless of how high-end your kit may be. As far as upkeep — repairs, cleaning, etc. — you’re on your own. Too many of us arrive at the conclusion that our kits are in need of attention when we’re complimented on the cool, smoky gray finish of our kit, when in actuality, they’re clear Vistalites; or worse, when the boom-arm on our ride cymbal stand suddenly craps out, dropping the 21" brass plate directly on to our bass drum in the middle of a tender, a cappella intro.
The title of this piece is quite subjective, as some of us cover 30,000 miles in a few weeks, while others among us may never drag ourselves (and our drums) that distance. In actuality, it’s all about how often they’re played and how they’re treated, on and off stage. A kit that is brutally bashed six nights a week/four sets a night, but stays in the same club for a year at a time, might well require the same amount of ministrations that a one-show-a-night traveling kit demands.
Vibrations from traveling will loosen screws (of which there are many); the trauma of constant pounding will weaken and break stationary, moving, and connecting parts; smoke, dust, smog and grime will dull the beautiful sheen of our once pristine shells, hardware, and cymbals. The occasional but regular “tune-up” of a drum kit will reward you in several ways: Obviously, you’ll have a clean and sparkling kit, which will bring a new excitement to playing your same old drums. It’s not unlike the thrill you experience when your long-time lover walks out of the bedroom, dressed to the nines for a big night out - you can’t help but experience a renewed arousal and appreciation. Equally important — it can’t be denied that it just makes the whole band look more professional and successful.
You’ll also discover a forgotten ease in playing, as the newly cleaned, lubed, and tightened machine springs to life at your touch. Again, to employ simile, it’s as though you’ve taken your bicycle, computer, whatever, into the shop for a complete overhaul. You’ll be amazed at how much more responsive those old tubs are after a thorough revamping. Often, that new kit you’ve felt you absolutely must purchase becomes a not so immediate necessity.
Just about everything on your kit, except the shells, can be replaced. For instance, tension casings, rods, and hoops can all be swapped out when they’ve reached the end of the trail. In fact, unless your shells go bad (i.e., go “out of round” or crack severely), you can breathe new life into an old kit almost indefinitely, simply by giving your drums the care and respect they deserve. Okay, now that I’ve argued the case for drum maintenance, let’s figure out some ways to go about it.
Basically, there are two ways to approach the reconditioning of your kit: the “ripping the band-aid off” method (painful, but quicker), or the “slow peel” technique (slower, but arguably less painful). The first system is somewhat similar to the annual wax/detail drill one might lavish upon one’s car. Pick a sunny day, haul the drums outside, take them apart (heads off, stands completely dismantled, etc.) and for what will almost certainly be the better part of the day, go at it one piece at a time. The “slow peel,” on the other hand, is more of a piecemeal renovation that will take place over an extended period of time. If you’re constantly traveling, this might be the preferred way to go. First, let’s step-by-step, scrutinize the “ripping off the band aid” approach.
I’ve done this both at home and on the road; the necessary tools are essentially the same for both locations. Clean, soft cloths (towels and the like will leave fine scratches, especially on wood shells); soapy and clear water; screwdrivers, Allen wrenches, and drum keys; lubricant (WD-40 or your choice), new heads, and, if possible, a hose (I’ve schmoozed hotel staff into the use of the hose before; remember — a smile and courtesy will buy you a lot from these harried employees).
Starting in a clockwise fashion (let’s say hi-hat), loosen every wing nut, and separate every piece. Now, many of you will lose your minds when I reveal the next step: completely soak and scrub the lower half of your hi-hat assembly — legs, footboard, chain drive —all of it. After you’ve scrubbed off all the dust, grit, and grimy oil, rinse with the hose, towel dry, and set in the sun to dry. By the time you’ve completed the rest of the hardware, or however long it takes to thoroughly dry, get your lube of choice out, and re-oil all the moving parts and hinges. Do the kick pedal next, as the pedals probably need the most time to dry before you can re-lube. Leave the reassembling and readjusting of springs, tensions, and beater position until later, and move onto the rest of the hardware while the sun is with you.
Closely inspect each piece of every stand while you clean. Are all connections secure? Is anything in need of replacement? What’s been bugging you on stage (excluding your guitarist) that you forget about after the gig? Here’s a good tip to help you remember: Between songs, write down on your snare head the parts that are failing. That way, you’ll have all the required pieces with you at overhaul time. I don’t endorse specific cleaning or polishing agents, but a trusted friend recently told me that a certain polishing cloth, named for a town in Massachusetts is simple and works wonders (okay, it rhymes with “ape bod,” but you didn’t hear it from me). Again, I can’t emphasize strongly enough the importance of completely drying every metal piece before you begin reassembling. Failure to do this will inevitably result in rust and corrosion. After you have executed the “scrub, rinse, dry, sun bake, wipe down, and lube” process, you can move on to the shells.