Rock music significantly changed in the early 1970s. It moved from the underground youth culture into the mainstream media, egged along by big business and even bigger profits. In the process, rock and roll shows transformed practically overnight into huge theatrical productions that were presented in baseball stadiums rather than mid-size theaters and small clubs. Many bands of the time – such as Kiss, the Stones, Alice Cooper, Yes and Led Zeppelin – cashed in on this new idea and presented spectacular shows filled with special effects and pyrotechnics.
In 1973, I was one of many young drummers who got the opportunity to check out John Bonham on tour with Led Zeppelin. I was at Tampa Stadium (the “Big Sombrero”) watching Bonham, dressed as an iconoclastic Buddha in an Asian kimono and British bowler, playing a now-legendary set of Ludwig Vistalite drums.
Vistalites were made from a sheet of either translucent or opaque acrylic plastic that is formed into a drum shell. The hardware designed for mounting and tensioning heads was made out of standard chrome-covered steel nuts, washers and screws. Bonham’s drums for The Song Remains The Same tour were amber Vistalites in 14" x 26", 10" x 14", 16" x 18" and 18" x 20" sizes. This is, without a doubt, the most famous and collectible Vistalite kit one could find. A facsimile of this set in excellent condition can sell for as much as $3,000.
Vistalites were introduced during this period as a way to enhance the visual importance of the drummer. The transparency of the drum shells seemed to play with the special-effects lighting and dry-ice fog that frequently enshrouded rock bands of the era. But in fact, Fibes was actually the first American company to produce clear acrylic drums in 1972, which were played and promoted by Billy Cobham with the Mahavishnu Orchestra. Other companies began to follow suit, but in the end, the Ludwig Drum Co. made the largest contribution to the world’s supply of acrylic drum sets.
Vistalite drums began rolling off the assembly line at Ludwig in 1972, although they didn’t appear in a Ludwig catalog until edition number 75-1, which was distributed beginning in 1974. Inside this catalog was a choice of translucent colors that included amber (orange), the most common varieties of clear and blue, plus other available colors, including yellow, red and green. In these colors, Ludwig offered the Big Beat kit featuring a 22", 12", 13" and 16" with a 5" x 14" snare drum in matching finish or 5" x 14" chrome Supraphonic. The Pro Beat kit consisted of 24", 13", 14", 16" x 16" and 16" x 18" floor toms. The ultimate Vistalite kit presented in this catalog was the Jellybean Quadra-Plus set. The Jellybean kit had either a 22" or 24" bass drum and carried four melodic (single-headed) toms ranging in size from 13" to 16" and a 16" x 18" floor tom, each in a different color. A 5" x 14" chrome Supraphonic and a hardware package rounded off the kit.