W.W.II Classics: Drums Without Metal

W.W.II Classics: Drums Without Metal


The late ’30s were a tumultuous time. Still struggling from the economic disaster of the stock market crash some ten years earlier, weary Americans were now keeping a watchful eye on the ominous rumble of guns in Europe. The War had begun with the invasion of Poland by a powerfully equipped German war machine on September 1, 1939. Two days later France and Britain declared war on the Reich. The American people sympathized with the Allies, but were firm in their belief that the war was an unpleasant, but remote tragedy far across the Atlantic. As the German Blitzkrieg continued to smash its enemies on many fronts, Americans began to wonder if the Atlantic was an adequate barrier to an invasion. Although sentiment was divided on the question of entering the conflict, most Americans saw the need for a strong national defense. Congress quickly approved Franklin D. Roosevelt’s request to build a huge air force, a two-ocean navy, and a large army – the “Arsenal of Democracy,” as the president called it. In 1940 the Selective Service Law passed, making 16,600 men between the ages of 21 and 36 subject to military service.

While all eyes were on the conflict in Europe, on December 7, 1941, Japanese planes and warships attacked Pearl Harbor, severely crippling Roosevelt’s new war machine. Within days, America declared war on both Japan and Germany. By January 1942, Roosevelt announced that U.S. factories would build 60,000 airplanes, 45,000 tanks, 20,000 anti-aircraft guns, and a phenomenal 8,000,000 tons of shipping. Every effort was channeled toward this defense effort. As a result, the government created the War Production Board (WPB), the regulatory watchdog of all U.S. industry. Military production took precedence above everything else, and as a result, all non-war related manufacturing was limited to ten percent metal content by volume.

This restrictive measure, known as “L37,” put a tremendous damper on the non-essential drum industry. Accordingly, drum companies substituted wood for most metal parts. Slingerland Rolling Bombers, Ludwig Victory, Leedy Dreadnought, Gretsch Defender, and WFL Victorious drums with wooden lugs, hoops, and throw-offs were the result. Accessories like hi-hat stands and bass drum pedals were also offered in wood. Brushes with wooden handles were an industry standard since the turn of the century, however WFL’s conservation measures included manufacture of brushes with natural fiber reeds replacing the commonly used piano wire. Their sales literature noted the Soc Brush also “will not smudge your drumhead,” a common effect of wire brushes on a batter head.

WFL Drum Company saw L37 as an opportunity for also launching their new Key Tension line of Victorious drums. Rather than simply replacing metal parts with wood, WFL Key Tension drums were a complete departure from conventional drum design. In a flyer titled “Meeting Uncle Sam’s War-Time Demands” WFL claimed, “You’ll be amazed at how quickly the new [Key Tension] Victorious drum outfits set up for playing – actually three times faster than the old style hardware-laden outfits. The tension is applied by internal expansion hoops controlled by key-tension rods, which adjust the head tension just the way you want it. The whole line was perfected and produced under the supervision of William F. “Bill” Ludwig who, for 30 years has paced the drum world with revolutionary and practical helps and advancements. You help yourself AND your country when you purchase WFL Victorious drums and outfits, built to conform with Government regulations.”

What the flyer failed to mention was this tension system was actually the brainchild of Cecil H. Strupe. Strupe had unsuccessfully tried to market his system through L&S (Leedy And Strupe) Drum Company prior to the war. Bill Ludwig Sr., thinking the system effective, hired Strupe as an engineer, applied for and was granted a patent on July 10, 1942 with Strupe as “assignor to WFL Drum Company,” and arranged for the largest Armed Forces musical instrument contract ever written. Thousands of field drums, like the one pictured above, were sold to the government, solidifying the fledgling WFL Drum Company. The system, however, was flawed.

The heads were semi-permanently attached to the shell with wooden hoops and wooden brackets. The internal wooden expansion hoops mentioned in the flyer were connected by flexible wooden bows that ran from top to bottom inside the drum. As the center-mount tension rods compressed these bows, the expansion hoops were forced against the underside of the heads, thus tensioning the drum.

Herein lies the first flaw: the drum is single tension. Separate tension drums (drums that are designed so that the top and bottom heads tune separate from one another) were developed during the nineteenth century. This facilitated the use of a thinner, more sensitive bottom head, which resulted in improved snare response. Single tension drums by World War II were relegated to the economy line of most drum companies. Second flaw: since the expansion hoops were fitted inside a shell made with glue rings, the diameter of these hoops was a little less than 13". The volume from this resulting 13" x 10" size drum is hardly a match for a typical 15" field drum. The last flaw was the mechanical wooden apparatus within the drum. It not only would sometimes hang up, but it also restricted the sound waves within the drum.

The Screw Tension drums fell out of favor, but not before Bill Ludwig cashed that government check. WFL was now a contender, and Bill Ludwig regained the drum empire he had lost when he sold his Ludwig Drum Company to C. G. Conn Company in 1929.

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