By Salman Haqqi Posted September 21, 2009
The Ford Drums story began with a chance encounter when Jay Gaylen met Jimmy Ford in 1997 at the NAMM show. Gaylen asked Ford what drums he played and he replied, “Are you kidding? I make my own.” Once he saw Ford's drums, Gaylen was so impressed he spent the next four years trying to convince Ford to go into business with him to build them commercially.
Ford Drums started business in 2001, initially doing repair work for music stores around Southern California. As they worked on a variety of drums they became dissatisfied with how drum makers sometimes cut corners in the interest of making cheaper products. They began to use their knowledge of how other drums were made to build their own line of custom drums, which are acknowledged as some of the finest in the world.
Ford loves thick-shelled drums particularly if they’re going to be used for performance, as opposed to recording. “A 6-ply shell of yesteryear is equal to a ten-ply today,” he says because the wood industry makes veneers thinner than before. And, he adds, “A rigid shell gives you increased tuning range and better projection.”
Ford today makes three lines of drums. Their Organic line features solid, one-piece, steam-bent drums in your choice of more than 40 wood species. The Ply series is available in maple and birch in 10/10 or straight 10-ply configurations. And, the Maverick Series features10-ply North American Maple drums with Ford’s exclusive, virtually indestructible BTS Kevlar-infused elastomer finish.
Ford’s drums are not cheap. Their custom shells (either plies or solid) receive multiple coats of vinyl sealer and nitrocellulose lacquer—and that’s just the inside. Outside, they use $300-a-gallon lacquer, so that “it looks like you can dive through the damn thing.”
In addition to outstanding drums Ford also builds the Smart Ass™ line of thrones (with authentic Swedish memory foam) and their new line of DRUMVEE® soft cases.
We talked to Jimmy and Jay about their drum building philosophy and their products. They have strong opinions and they don’t hold back. Here’s what they had to say, in their own words.
Thicker Drums are Better Drums
When we started, like everyone else we used Keller but we used thicker shells. Drum companies use thinner shells and market it as more resonant because it’s cheaper for them to build a thinner shell drum. Wood is getting more expensive and supplies are drying up. If you want a shell that is equivalent to older shells you have to go to 10-ply.
If the shell is rigid you’re getting an increased tuning range and better projection. A drum is a drum and you should be able to tune it for the application that you are playing. And, you should be able to use any type of heads, single, double, coated, goatskin or whatever. A lot of today’s kits with thinner shells are supplied with double-ply heads to compensate for the drum’s lack of depth and tuning range. The drumhead is what resonates. On thinner drums they also use diecast hoops to compensate for the thin shell and provide rigidity.
Saga Of The Bearing Edges
We discovered early on that there is a lot of nonsense about bearing edges. We discovered large rounded edges on an old 18” Ludwig and it sounded great with new heads. What really matters is having the right amount of edge touching the head. You need more contact surface on a larger head. The degree doesn’t matter to us. The drum couldn’t care less. 45 degrees, 30 degrees — those are just router bits.
It’s about what is touching the head. If you want a vintage snare sound you make it flatter and rounder. If you want marching you cut to the outside and make it sharp. And it’s the same thing for toms if you want the warm round sound.
Finishes That You Can Dive Through
We apply vinyl sealer and three-four coats of high-grade nitrocellulose lacquer to the inside of the drum. We think nitro, or musical instrument lacquer, belongs on the inside and not the outside. After all, that’s where the sound happens—on the inside.
On the external side we apply a lacquer that costs $300 a gallon. We use two gallons on a typical kit because we want a finish that looks like you can dive through the damn thing.
It’s a lot of work, you apply a lot of material to a bass drum then you have to level it and sand it. The actual paint on the drum is polyester with urethane topcoats. The sound comes from inside the drum. You can put a laminate or wrap or anything outside a drum and it’s not going to change the sound.
I was always frustrated with the cast lugs everyone had and in three or four years the lugs would rust and some of them would break.
So we started designing lugs. I wanted a lug that would align side-to-side, front-to-back and allow the tension rod to stay straight. If the tension rod is not straight it won’t be even around the drum and so you can’t tune the drum properly. So we came up with a solid brass insert in a solid aluminum lug and everything works. It took a year’s worth of research and a fortune, but they are very easy drums to tune.
Now we start making the things and by the time we get it chromed it’s $10.50 apiece. A chrome lug out of Taiwan might cost $0.50 apiece. Does it have anything to do with sound? No. The sound happens on the inside. You could have concrete lugs and it won’t matter. It does however have everything to do with the accuracy of tuning.
Each custom drum is exactly the way it needs to be before it leaves the factory. Organic model customers are very picky about sound. These are people who have probably played everything and they want something different. They don’t want to settle since so much of what is out there are me-too products. One of our customers plunked down $11K for an organic kit—he just placed an order for 27 drums.
Most drummers who come in here are members of a tribe…the Gretsch tribe, the Ludwig tribe. So now we have people joining our tribe. Not enough but there are so many big name drummers play our drums and love them but they won’t play them out because of their endorsements and because we can’t support them. We had one drummer (he names a drummer who formerly was on a nightly talk show). He wanted to endorse but he wanted three kits on the west coast, three on the east coast, three in Europe, and three in Asia. He wanted new kits every year. And, he wanted $100,000. Twelve kits for us could be $100,000 in expense. So we have to turn these people down.
We asked ourselves, if we’re a super premium brand why don’t we do solid drums? So we studied how to bend thicker woods and now we do solid Birch, solid Bubinga etc. There are over 40 woods that make good drums. Why does everyone think maple is the best? Marketing. Also, maple can be easily bent in a mold for ply drums. It’s stable to work with so it keeps labor costs low and that is why people use it.
The notion behind it is that a less dense wood should give a lower fundamental note. That’s not true. It’s an organic thing depending on the piece of wood. We make 3/8” shells and bend them. So if you make them thinner you can get two shells out of the same wood.
Smart Ass Thrones
The idea behind Smart Ass is that most seats are not supportive and not healthy for the back. We always wanted to build one out of memory foam and we’ve done it. They’re done in a style like ‘50s automobiles with two-tone tuck & roll upholstery in dual color patterns with Swedish memory foam seats. They’re too expensive for box stores in the U.S. to stock them but we sell a lot in Europe. We also have the Phat One models (round and moto), which are thicker with even more memory foam. Play on those and you won’t be tired.
Protecting Your Investment
We came up with a line of bags in a shape that fits the drum—its actual shape allowing for mounts. We picked up what are considered to be the best bags in the business and dissected them. Okay, that’s price of entry. Let’s make a better-designed line. The snare drum bag has ears for the butt plate and throw-off, it has closed forum in it to protect the instrument, it’s a great bag that is waterproof, no plastic, everything made in the US, bass drum bags fit depths up to 22”, with handles on the side, as well as a handle on the top. One bag fits multiple depths. The hardware bags feature padded divers to prevent stands from touching and scratching.
Reaching More People
When people play our drums we want them to have an expression on their face of sheer joy. We want everyone to have that when they play a Ford instrument.
We’re introducing the Maverick series. The high end of a Ford Drum at a price point you can afford. We came up with two shell pack configurations: The Rock shell pack list price is $4,610, The fusion series will have a store price of around $3,465.
Contact Ford Drums at forddrums.com.