Early Bass Pedals: Speed King & Beyond
It seems that every decade or so, a company declares that it has created a bass drum pedal that revolutionizes the function, quickness and balance of all previously slow and cumbersome predecessors. In the ’90s, the Axis pedal has earned the distinction of being state-of-the-art. Yet many companies such as Drum Workshop and Tama have held their own in the down-and-dirty winner-take-all pedal market.
The lineage of popular bass drum pedals almost reads like the “begat” section in the Bible. (Imagine Moses playing double-bass Tama Cobras!) So let’s travel back in time to the very first pedal, patented in 1885 by George R. Olney. Before this, at least three drummers had to be hired for most gigs: one for the snare drum, another to play cymbals and a third to strike the bass drum. Olney’s invention was a wooden overhead swing pedal mounted on the top hoop of the bass drum. A rawhide thong attached the foot pedal to the beater ball.
It was the first evolutionary step in the right direction, but it wasn’t very useful. Other bass pedal designs followed into the 20th century, including the Frisco heel pedal and a Leedy overhead model that was mechanically complicated and not very efficient. Then a drummer by the name of William F. Ludwig recognized the need for a practical bass pedal that could play ragtime tempos, and he began hand-carving prototypes out of wood. In 1909, one of his prototypes turned into a production model, and an empire was born. He created a simple, functional, cast metal pedal that worked well enough for the time and could be disassembled and placed in your coat pocket.
Approximately 30 years later, due to a number of setbacks, Mr. Ludwig was faced with the prospect of having to start his company again. One of the first new products that he marketed was the Twin Spring Speed King. This pedal was slightly revamped in 1950 to become virtually the same Speed King pedal that continues to be sold by Ludwig today (see photo above). It has a sealed double-post stand that houses the compression springs and the ball bearings in which the rocker shaft that holds the beater rotates. It’s an efficient design that has worked for 60 years, but it is not without some inherent problems. The tension on the springs in the shafts is adjustable only by a screw at the bottom of the upright posts, and sometimes it just doesn’t work very well.
The other major problem is that air has a tendency to leak into the sealed compartment where the ball bearings and lubricant are located. When this happens, the lubricant can dry out and the pedal either begins to squeak or becomes gunked up to the point where the pedal simply doesn’t work. Still, I remember salvaging my restaurant gig one evening by lubricating my Speed King Pedal with salad oil.
Camco originally produced only drum hardware in the 1950s and ’60s, including bass drum pedals. (It wasn’t until ’61 that the company began to manufacture drums, but that’s another story.) Camco’s pedal design was unique. Though it was based on a spring design, which already was common in its day, it utilized a kidney-shaped camshaft that increased the velocity of the beater shaft’s throw, and that was a revolutionary idea.
Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, Camco was subcontracted by the Gretsch Drum Company to produce the Gretsch Floating Action Pedal, which coupled all of the Camco pedal features with a strap drive. These pedals were so successful that when Camco gained control of the George Way Drum Company in ’61 and renamed it Camco, the identical floating action pedals continued to be made with the Camco stamp on the footboard.
Both the Gretsch and Camco pedals are very popular collector’s items today. When Camco was sold off to DW and Tama in ’79, both companies continued to use the technology in its pedals that was pioneered by the original company. Today Tama has profoundly changed their pedal designs, but in the vast array of DW pedals, one can still see vestiges of the original Camco design, even though the overall construction has been drastically improved.
Also – primarily in the ’50s – most drum companies that developed a cocktail kit had to devise a pedal that would be able to beat the bottom head of an upright drum with an upstroke rather than the traditional side-stroke. Some companies did this by merely bending the shaft of the pedal, while others removed the pedal’s rocker arm and reversed it.
In the ’70s and ’80s, the Caroline pedal was manufactured in France by the Asba company. These pedals achieved a cult status after it was discovered that such diverse players as J.R. Robinson and Mitch Mitchell were using and endorsed them. Known for their smooth action, the pedals are no longer in production but are still sought after by some collectors.
During the ’60s (some say the ’50s, but I can’t find evidence of that), the Ghost pedal was developed in the Midwest by a small manufacturer. It had a bulky design that featured two 3"-diameter circular housings that each contained an inner coiled spring. When the footboard was depressed, the spring contracted, throwing the crossbar with the beater shaft into the contact point of the head. The Ghost pedal also achieved cult status for a while, especially among double-bass players such as Carmine Appice. (I remember seeing him using a set at a Cactus show.) Eventually, the Ludwig company purchased the manufacturing and marketing rights of the Ghost pedal and sold it successfully for several years.
Compared with other technologies, the evolution of the bass drum pedal is a rather humble tale. Nonetheless, it’s interesting that these various designs and improvements, false starts and epiphanies, agonized over by a long line of inventors whose histories span decades, all were dedicated to finding an answer to the same question: What’s the best way to hit a bass drumhead with a beater?