Vintage Stainless Steel Drum Kits

A Brief History

By Robert Henrit Originally Published In DRUM! Magazine's June/July 2002 Issue

Vintage Ludwig

The very first stainless steel drums came out around 1973, although companies had obviously been experimenting with them for some time prior to this. All-metal drum sets themselves were certainly not new, in fact America’s amazing Duplex stuff was around something like 50 years ago. But, since stainless steel is a pretty expensive material, drums made from it needed to be priced accordingly.

Several manufacturers had a stab at stainless drums: ASBA, who were the first, followed by Leeman, Ludwig, Sonor, and much more recently, Apache. Unfortunately the first two of these companies are now truly defunct, while Sonor’s stainless product never even made it to these shores at all, simply because of its extremely high price. The Ludwigs were discontinued in the ’80s.

Without a shadow of a doubt, those Ludwigs were the best made of the lot. But then they should be since the company had, by the time of their introduction in 1975, at least 60 years experience of building metal snare drums.

None of the companies involved used just any old metal. It had to be top quality stainless steel, which was hard and strong enough to keep its shape. In essence it’s not particularly complicated to produce metal drums, and the machinery to make them is not that sophisticated. Normally a pre-cut, pre-drilled sheet of metal (frequently coated with protective plastic film) was fed through three adjustable rollers, which gradually bent the metal, first into a “C” shape, then into a circle of the correct diameter. Once this was accomplished, the metal could be joined on another machine that welded it along its seam. Prior to this joining process, in ASBA’s case, its raw edge was doubled over and afterwards, along with Leeman’s, was fitted with an inverted U-shaped plastic channel so it wouldn’t cut into the head. ASBA also thoughtfully pressed a concave bead into their shell from the edge to strengthen and stop it buckling. Ludwig, though, was a great deal more sophisticated. They actually formed 45° inverse flanges into the edges of their shells, which leads me to believe they were seamlessly formed on a lathe from a single disc of metal, like their metal snare drums. In theory I’m sure this could be the case, but unfortunately I have no confirmation of this.

Like acrylic shells, the stainless versions had a strength and rigidity problem in their larger diameters, therefore the bass drum certainly shouldn’t have ever been played without a front head on (although of course if you so desired you could cut a hole in it). This is the main reason ASBA pressed in those beads and Ludwig formed their inverse flanges.

It’s difficult to discover the thickness of the metal used by the companies way back then. But Ludwig’s seemed to be roughly the same gauge as on their celebrated 400 snares, but I suspect weren’t. I know Leeman used 16-gauge for their basses, 18- and 20- for their toms, and 22-gauge for their snares. I’m told modern Apaches use 16-gauge for the bass and snare and 18- for the toms. I remember that ASBA also used a slightly thicker gauge for their snares and bass drums, so I presume Ludwig did too.

Ludwig fitted their stainless drums with their usual lugs, spurs, and tom and leg holders, although (like the other makers) they thoughtfully placed extra-large cup washers behind all the fittings, so they didn’t distort the shells when pressure was applied. Their set was based on their ProBeat set which came with 13" x 9", 14" x 10", 18" x 16" and 24" x 14" (and an optional 16" x 16”), and had wooden hoops inlaid with sparkle plastic and those large Camco-type spurs. It sold for $1,500.

ASBA’s stuff was intricate and a bit fussy, but still well designed. Their metal sets were expensive too, and sold for a little more than $1,500 in 1976, but that was because for some reason it came complete with two 24" basses as well as 13", 14", 16" toms, a 6" snare drum, a bunch of interesting stands, and a couple of their brilliant Caroline foot pedals. In their day ASBA was quite avant-garde with Y-shaped and piggyback stands for two cymbals. Believe it or not, they actually had a 12" x 7" snare drum in 1977! Their floor tom was unusual in that it had a drum-key holder attached to its shell, but I was rather let down by the fact that although it had a perfectly acceptable strip damper, it was actually sprung into position by a couple of rubber bands!

Leeman was unusual in a couple of ways, too. Besides the fact that they were launched in a freezing parking lot at the ’75 Frankfurt trade show, they had rectangular, black-anodized lugs, which weren’t placed opposite each other, but were purposely offset. (I recall them showing me some sonic diagrams at the time that purported to demonstrate how this method stiffened the drum less from top to bottom and helped the resonance. I still have an open mind on the subject, but it’s possibly significant that no other companies have emulated Leeman!) The company was also pretty unusual in fitting solid-alloy bass-drum hoops. They were half the price of their competition and you could pick up a set for $840 in 1976.

Apache are the only stainless steel drums still being made in what I presume to be much the same way as the originals. They take a flat sheet of bright annealed (heated, then cooled to soften) stainless with pre-drilled holes, fold in the bearing edge, bend it into a circle, and weld the joins so they don’t show. Their shells aren’t chromed like Ludwig’s, because you can’t do that with annealed stainless. They’re simply polished on buffing wheels (like ASBA were) using successively finer and finer grades of soap.

Originally a lot of drummers were put off by what they considered the boring, one-dimensional look of stainless steel, even though they liked the zingy sound. In a laudable effort to give a viable alternative, Leeman offered other watery colors (copper and brass) besides brushed silver, all of which were sandblasted, and unfortunately looked rather dull.

If you wanted to buy a used stainless set nowadays you could pay $700 to $800 for a Ludwig, $500 for an ASBA, and if by some miracle you found a Leeman, I guess you’d pay a couple of hundred dollars (or less).

Around 25 years ago I wrote that: “Stainless steel gives a drum more presence and purity of sound without any clanking overtones.” I was obviously enthusiastic about them then. So what went wrong? Surely it couldn’t have been the price. Frankly, I always felt there was a balance problem within all-metal kits. In my opinion, a metal snare drum cuts through more than the rest of the drums on a wooden set, as it should, simply because it’s made from a brighter material. But with stainless steel bass, toms, and snare in the same set, all the drums are loud. So those important backbeats simply don’t cut through so well.I

Robert Henrit was a founding member of Argent and the Roulettes. He also played with Adam Faith, Unit Four Plus Two, Roger Daltrey, Leo Sayer, and Ian Matthews. He currently drums with the Kinks. Ripping bio, in’it?