By Salman Haqqi Published September 21, 2009
Shinichi Usuda’s focus on drum manufacturing began in 1977, when he transformed his small Tokyo music shop into Canopus Drums. After seven years of struggling to get the business off the ground, Usuda designed and released the Zelkova One-Piece Hollowed snare drum, which featured a shell carved from a single, hollowed-out tree trunk, with bearing edges cut to unusual angles. By 1987 the company was offering complete kits, which quickly became known for their quirky 16" “baby” bass drums.
Today, Canopus is one of the world’s leading custom drum builders. Thanks to endorser Brian Blade, many in the U.S. consider Canopus a “jazz drum company,” but in Japan, Canopus is recognized for all types of sets. Usuda takes pride in constructing only high-end drum kits for professionals and dedicated drum aficionados, whatever their playing style. “Our first purpose is to make the very best sound,” he says. In addition to seamless, solid-shell snare drums, the company makes ply shells from mahogany, birch, and maple, as well as acrylic and, as of recently, carbon fiber. This last, says Usuda, is a result of drummers’ demands for a bigger sound and higher projection.
DRUM! When did you first establish your business?
USUDA I established my company as a music shop in 1977. At that time my company was just a dealer of musical instruments in Tokyo and not a manufacturer.
DRUM! When did you start thinking about constructing drums?
USUDA A couple of years later, I decided to focus on selling drums because I was a drummer as a university student. At the time I did not have the money to get original hardware, so in 1980, I bought shells from Keller and using other company’s hardware such as Pearl, Yamaha, Tama, I just made snare drums.
Then in 1984, I designed the Zelkova snare drum. That snare has a very special shell construction. Usually a solid shell implies a one-ply seam. But in this there is no seam, we just scooped out wood from the trunk of a tree. At the same time I had imported vintage drums from America and I studied bearing edges and shell construction by looking at several types of vintage drums. I started thinking about what bearing edge I would use on the Zelkova snare drum. Usually companies use a 45° or 30° bearing edge. I tried those but I couldn’t get any good resonance from the shell so I tried changing the bearing edge and finally got the resonance I was looking for from a very sharp bearing edge of 22°.
The reason I decided to make a whole drum set was because in 1997 we used to be DW Drum distributors in Japan. But we lost that distributorship because another company took over. I realized that if I made an original product, nobody could take it away, so I decided to make a whole drum set, on the basis that I already had a reputation from the Zelkova snare drum and maple snare drum in the Japanese market.
At the beginning of making a whole drum set, I thought the ideal sound is recorded sound with the desirable hi and low pitch frequency. I asked a drummer what our drums sounded like and he said they sounded “Already EQ-ed”.
When I had my music shop, we had a good relationship with Pearl. Back then I used to get a lot used Pearl drums. Every drummer liked the Steve Gadd style 10”, 12”, 13” and 15” floor toms. We could sell the used Pearl drums to our customers as a dealer, but we couldn’t sell the 15” tom toms, because the fusion boom was over and nobody was interested in the 15” toms. So we had 20 pieces of the 15” toms in my warehouse that we couldn’t sell. I almost threw them away, but one of my employees, Takashi Suzuki, who is now our chief designer, asked me if he could make a 15” bass drum because some drummer wanted a small but professional drum set. He built a drum that sounded great using the 15” tom. Right around then we lost the distributorship with DW Drums, but having made that small drum set I got the confidence to make an original drum set because I had plenty of new ideas regarding bearing edges and about getting the best sound.
Right now we mainly make drums with two other guys, Naoya Hasegawa who is the factory manager and Takashi Suzuki who is chief designer. After we test the drum, we discussed how we could change some parts to get the best sound.
After we entered the American market, we could not get a good relationship with a dealer, because nobody was familiar with our company name. One company became our dealer in 2000, but they couldn’t get a good response for our product in the American market.
DRUM! When you started making drums, were they initially just sold in your shop?
USUDA Yes. It’s difficult for anyone to sell their own product to another dealer because dealers usually compete for sales. At the beginning of my business having a shop was not good for sales in the Japanese market, but we managed it because we got a good endorser who appeared on TV, stage and studio and after that other dealers wanted to have our drums.
DRUM! So what endorser was most important to helping your marketing?
USUDA The first endorser was Koji Miura. He appeared on satellite TV. We also had Leon Taylor, the son of Mel Taylor from The Ventures. The Ventures are really popular in Japan and they have between 50 to 100 shows a year. But in 2005, Brian Blade started to use our drum set and after he became our endorser, all dealers wanted to do business with our company.
DRUM! By this time you had already made great snare drums, so was the drum business growing more than the music shop?
USUDA Yes. The drum business started growing more than the music shop. Our target eventually is to do business with up to 200 countries. See I’m not interested in making low-end drums. I only make high-end drums.
DRUM! If you want a special drum do you have to go through the drum shop?
USUDA Yes. Sometimes we may have a problem with something, if we take an order from a customer, we always have to think about whether we should sell this drum or not.
DRUM! So its, not just about the cost, its about your relationship with your dealers and maybe other issues like who the drum is for?
USUDA Yes. For example, if the customer wants to put color on the hardware, like red, purple or green, I believe we will lose quality in the sound vibration if we put on paint. And I always concentrate on making the very best sounding drums. So if the customer is only looking for appearance, we might lose resonance and so I cannot sell that even if we can make the drum. Our first purpose is always about the sound.
DRUM! You make kits with many different woods and also carbon fiber?
USUDA I have three drum lines. First one is the regular line with reinforcement maple and birch. Then there is the vintage line, 60s M1 and M2. Then we wanted to try something new in sound and looks and we made the acrylic drum using carbon fiber. Again I do not make any drum with only appearance. We always think about how the material sounds.
DRUM! What are the different challenges with carbon fiber?
USUDA I totally understand the loud music scene wants to get a bigger sound with better projection. So I used a Rocket shell and then put a special bearing edge on the carbon fiber.
DRUM! How did you branch out outside the Japanese market?
USUDA I had almost given up on entering American market. But one day I got an e-mail from a studio owner in Detroit. He had gotten a Zelkova snare drum from an artist who had recorded in his studio. He wrote us a letter about how he loved the Zelkova snare drum sound and he suggested that we sell it in the American market because he thought our drum sounded the best. He was a key person in our success in the American market.
DRUM! What do you think is the next step for your drums in North America?
USUDA We do our business by ourselves for the American and world market now. I’m not interested in big business. Not many people can buy our drums because of the price. But I believe if we can sell a couple of sets a month in each country, in over 100 countries, we’ll be making up to 200 sets in a month.
DRUM! Outside of Japan, is America your best market right now?
USUDA Yes. But now the European market is expanding step by step. Because they say, to expand in the European market, you have to get a good reputation in the American market.
For more information, contact Canopus Drums.