Step into the Gretsch drum factory in Ridgeland, South Carolina and your eyes are immediately tricked into thinking it’s something much bigger than it actually is. The towering racks of naked shells stretch high above, while the expansive grounds seem to spill halfway to the horizon. Space is everywhere.
Your ears are confused, too, because it’s quiet — too quiet for an accounting office, much less a drum factory. Then comes a cacophonous roar. The break buzzer sounds and the building comes to life as the break room doors swing open, giving birth to the entire factory staff — from production manager to finishing specialist to maintenance man and everyone in between — ready to build the next set of Gretsch drums. But as the doors swing shut and the workers don their eyewear, an observation jumps out and bites you: There are only five people here.
While Gretsch has been crafting drums from this Ridgeland facility for “only” the past 20-some years, they began 125 years ago in a small music shop in Brooklyn, New York with German emigrant Friedrich Gretsch making banjos, drums, and tambourines. After pioneering multiple advancements in both drum and guitar manufacturing under the watch of several generations of Gretsch family members, the company was for 18 years owned and controlled by the Baldwin Music Company and juggled between various production sites around the Midwest.
But in 1985, Fred W. Gretsch, the great-grandson of the company’s founder, fulfilled a longstanding promise and purchased back his family’s proud heritage. Since then, the USA Custom drum division has concentrated every effort on not only making good drums, but on making good drums the right way, the way history — and the Gretsch family — intended.
And so now, in its 125th year and at the peak of restored success, the destiny of that same drum division lies in the keen, callused hands of about five or six people, give or take, depending on the day. For most factories, fewer people would mean more machines. But the opposite is true here. Everything done under this roof runs through the hands, and past the scrutinous gaze, of the plant’s skilled workers. It’s a truly tactile process — sawdust to face, palm to grain, thumb to edge — and a genuine art form that has become all too rare in a world of outsourcing and cost cutting.
Gretsch went to a thin 6-ply Gretsch maple-formula shell in the mid-’50s, and that’s the same shell the company uses today. Each shell is made to specific parameters, the details of which remain a company secret.
When the shells arrive at Ridgeland they’re sorted and then cut to order — depending on the type of drums being made that day. The inner seams are treated with putty before the shells head off to the woodshop.
“Things here are built basically the exact same way they’ve been built since the ’50s,” beams production manager Paul Cooper, the bona fide Santa of this little workshop. “We haven’t changed our shell or the basic designs of the lugs and hoops, likewise with the bearing edges and interior sealer. All those things make up what a Gretsch drum is, and it’s important to this company to not mess with the recipe.
“We’re very low-tech here, so everything is done by hand. There’s a lot of sanding. There’s a lot of simply looking at what you just did to make sure you did it right.”