I’m not a lucky guy. Give me an important business decision with only two possible choices and I’ll pick the third one. Don’t laugh – I’ve got a track record to prove it. However, there is one area in which I did indeed get lucky. A long time ago, when I was just becoming interested in vintage drums as instruments (before I’d even begun to think of them as collectible) I had the good fortune of stumbling across a truly remarkable drum. Having been a “new drum junkie” for many years, it surprised me that this funky old drum could possibly sound better to me than my brand-spanking-new drum (model and brand omitted to protect the high-paying advertiser) that I had been so proud of. I thought it rather ironic that I had spent all of my hard-earned money on the newest, best, most expensive drum available at the time (and spent all that time figuring out which new drum was the best), only to find my “treasure” in a drum shop in Memphis for $350.
I had already been dabbling in vintage snare drums, purchasing the occasional Supraphonic 400. I worked my way through dozens of them before discovering that the drums from the early ’60s were vastly different (and superior in my estimation). In talking with one of my drum-collecting buddies, I mentioned this, and was quickly informed that “if you like that, you’ve got to try the 1920s version”. Well, there weren’t a whole lot of ’20s Ludwig drums floating around the pawnshops of Tulsa at that time, so I started networking to find one to see what all the hubbub was about. When I was finally able to talk Jim Pettit out of a spare 14" x 5" ten tube lug model, all my suspicions were confirmed. This truly was the drum for me.
But one was not enough. I began craving all of the different sizes, and lusting after the Deluxe model, with faux gold—plated hardware and a blackened, engraved shell. Even then, these drums were hovering between $600 and $800 – prices that were virtually unheard of for a used drum. Despite what appeared to be a huge waste of money (at least to my wife), I began purchasing every one I could find. Before it was all over I’d pounded, stroked, caressed and played with these pulsing, throbbing ... uh, wait, wrong story. I purchased, played and sold over 100 of these jewels in the course of the next ten years, always looking for that one drum that would capture my aural heart forever. Finally I settled upon the 14" x 4" eight-lug model as my personal favorite.
In all fairness, there are a lot of other snare drums that have reached legendary status among collectors and players. The Radio King, Gladstone, Leedy Broadway, Black Beauty, and Gretsch Max Roach drums have become so popular that many non-collectors are at least aware of them even if they’ve never seen or heard one. But over the past 15 years, the vintage Ludwig/Ludwig Deluxe/Black Beauty snare drum has emerged as sort of the holy grail of studio instruments, and one of the most consistently popular vintage drums around. As new variations on this model have come to light, a definite pattern has emerged. By sheer numbers, it has become very apparent that one particular size was just as popular in the 1920s as it is today.
The most prolific model of the Ludwig Deluxe (commonly called a Black Beauty) had ten tube lugs, and a two-piece brass shell with the 12-point flower pattern engraving. This pattern was featured on all of the Deluxes of this period (1926—’31). Ironically, the Black Beauty name wasn’t officially applied to the drum most people think of as the quintessential vintage drum until 1931.
I was lucky enough to procure the example shown here from the old man himself (actually, the old man’s son). This particular drum spent a good portion of its life being played. Made by Ludwig & Ludwig around 1926, this drum was probably purchased by a professional and played for many years before finding its way back to the Ludwig Drum Company and into the William F. Ludwig, Sr. collection, displayed in the factory on North Damen in Chicago.
Mr. Ludwig (Sr.) collected drums from the Revolutionary War all the way up through the 1940s. Having been one of the leading drum manufacturers of the 20th century, it had to have been a matter of pride to have one of his own products recognized as being representative of the pinnacle of drum building. His son, William F. Ludwig II, developed the same appreciation for drum history and took over the collection when his father passed away. Unfortunately, William F. Ludwig III didn’t have the same inclination. Recognizing this, William II decided in later years to put the drums into the hands of the folks who would share his love for drum history and cherish these instruments forever. He sold a few pieces from his collection to me and to a few others, then apparently had a change of heart and decided to keep the rest of the collection intact for possible future generations of the Ludwig clan who might be more appreciative of their historical significance.
I bought this drum from William II around 1990, and for several years it was the focus of my collection. It soon became apparent, however, that I would never play it due to its history and the fact that I preferred an even older version. As my financial situation changed, it became even more of a luxury to own, and finally I sold it to a good friend who had bugged me about it for a while. A year or so later, he traded it to another friend of mine (for another Black Beauty), who in turn sold it to its current owner, Mike Curotto.
This drum is a prime example of the most common Black Beauty from the ’20s. It’s in average condition (normal wear and tear, but mostly original parts) and has no structural damage or wear. The average price for a similar drum would be somewhere in the $2,000 to $2,250 range. If it were in better condition (excellent to mint) it could bring as much as $3,500 on today’s vintage drum market. However, since the drum can be documented as having once been a part of the Ludwig collection, it has significant and unique historical value (kind of like getting a baseball that was owned by Babe Ruth).
If you’ve considered adding a Black Beauty to your snare drum arsenal, this model would be an excellent one to start with. Whether you choose the warmth and incomparable low- and mid-range response of a two-piece late ’20s shell, or the overall range and focus of the one-piece shell of the early ’30s, you’ll have the thrill and privilege of playing one the most sought after snare drums ever built. Fortunately, among the ranks of Black Beauties, this particular model seems to be the most common configuration in existence today.
Some of the identifying characteristics to look for in a late ’20s Black Beauty are:
Shell Construction: Sealed bearing edges and a two-piece shell. The seam between the top and bottom halves of the shell will be visible on the inside of the shell. This is the open edge of the interior bead. The overlapping outer bead of the top half of the shell is arranged to be invisible when the drum is in playing position. Later versions feature one-piece construction with no horizontal seam.
Tuning System: Ten tube lugs, collar hooks, single flanged hoop construction. Flared snare gates (no holes).
Strainers: Super Ludwig (parallel 1926—’35), Ludwig Standard (#338 until 1927, Professional strainer from 1928—’37).