Classic: The Birth Of Bass Drum Pedals

Downsizing – it’s a term of the 1990s, but for drummers, it began back in the 1890s. It was around this time that bands were squeezing into orchestra pits. The luxury of having a snare drummer, a bass drummer, and a cymbal player was abandoned for the new position of “double drummer” (doubling up).

At the time, it was obvious that while the snare drum and cymbals could be easily managed with drum sticks, some sort of foot-operated bass drum beater was in order. Being a creative lot, drummers came up with all sorts of inventions for a bass drum pedal. Since the initial manufacture of these pedals was accomplished in the workshops of drummer’s homes, they were generally made of wood.

The first designs incorporated a pendulum-type beater hanging from the top of the bass drum hoop. This beater was connected via a cord or rod to a foot pedal or directly to the player’s shoe. While this accomplished its intended purpose, it was unfortunately slow to respond. I’m just speculating here, but it was probably some diligent drummer observing the action of a piano key that came up with a cam-action pedal mounted to the bottom bass drum hoop. This shortened version could keep up with the quickened tempos of ragtime, the popular music of the day.

It was this quest that spawned the largest and most recognizable drum dynasty of the twentieth century: The Ludwig Drum Company. William F. Ludwig and his brother Theobald applied for and were granted a patent for an improved version of the bass drum pedal in 1909. The first production pedal was described in the 1936 Ludwig Drummer article “Twenty-five years of pedal progress” as “the foundation of the Ludwig company, and the first floor-type foot pedal with elevated shaft produced in America.” Initially, Ludwig & Ludwig Company, located in the old Omaha Building in Chicago, only produced bass drum pedals. This early pedal included a cymbal striker, an extension arm on the beater shaft that would simultaneously strike a hoop mounted cymbal. In 1913 an improved version was offered, which was lighter in weight and included a fold-out heel plate.

High demand stimulated a marketplace that spawned similar products. Almost instantly, every major drum company had its own version of a bass drum pedal. However, the Ludwig brothers had a jump on the market as evidenced by the number of second generation 1913 pedals still in existence today. These pedals, flimsy by modern standards, met the needs of early twentieth century drummers: lightweight and compact. The original Ludwig pedal was advertised as “small enough to fit in your pocket when folded up.” For drummers having to lug their equipment on trolley cars, this was an important feature.

Ludwig continued to corner the innovation market by introducing the Ludwig Speed Pedal in 1934. Touted as having “everything that a fine pedal should have,” this pedal resembled the bass drum pedals manufactured today. With twin-post construction and ball-bearing rocker arm, this new pedal was an instant success. Not content with status quo, Ludwig offered an improved Super Speed Pedal in 1936 that incorporated a compression spring “stronger than any spring of the extension type” and “enclosed so dust, dirt, and grime cannot injure the action or slow the speed. The spring can be tensioned to meet your individual preference, and locked in that adjustment with a lock-nut.” Though the cymbal striker was still offered, its popularity was falling out of favor, replaced by the hi-hat.

World War II overshadowed any improvements in drum manufacturing, but postwar ingenuity was quick to respond to drummer’s needs. Probably the most overlooked invention in the history of drum manufacturing was the DUBL-PEDL from the DUBL-PEDL Company, Madison, Wisconsin. Easily 20 years ahead of its time, the DUBL-PEDL was the first double pedal/single bass drum design. It included a hi-hat with a built-in slave bass drum pedal that attached to a double-beater bass drum pedal. Maybe because double bass drums were not yet popular (Louie Bellson had just convinced the Gretsch Drum Company to design a twin bass drum set), the DUBL-PEDL did not catch on.

Once again, it was William F. Ludwig who revolutionized the drum industry from his renamed W.F.L. Drum Company. In 1950 W.F.L. offered the “Sensation of the Drum World” – the updated Speed King Pedal. Features included twin compression springs located inside the sealed posts, twin roller bearings, an arched rocker shaft providing maximum foot clearance and allowing the beater to strike parallel to the head, and a patented reversible heel plate. This design has weathered the test of time, and 50 years later is still offered in the Ludwig product catalog.

During those 50 years, few improvements were made to the bass drum pedal, save the use of chain drives, facilitating a smoother, quieter response. Considering the abuse we drummers inflict on the lowly bass drum pedal, they have served us well for over 100 years.

Show a little respect. Pull that pedal out of your trap case, clean off the grime and lube the working parts.

Maybe we should even consider a National Bass Drum Pedal Day.