Flat/Jacks: An Early Stab At Portability


Flat/Jacks were highly portable and distinctive-looking American drums that emerged in the very early ’60s and rather surprised the conservative drum world. The company broke new ground with their single-headed, rim-less, shallow metal-shelled concept, where all the drums telescoped together and packed into one case. Sounds familiar doesn’t it? Prior to this companies had tried to make drums as portable as they could by shrinking the bass drum while devising ways to permanently attach cymbals, toms and spurs to it, and single-heading the toms so that they’d nest inside one another. (Gretsch’s aim in the early ’50s had been to devise a whole set that a drummer could easily transport in a New York taxi.)

The drums were the brainchild of a guy named Ralph Kester, and as far as I can ascertain, they originated from Elkhart, Indiana, around 1962 and were accepted in the U.S. by reputable jazzers. However, their appearance in Britain coincided with the “beat boom” a couple of years later, and the main band that used them was Freddie and the Dreamers! (This fact alone should have been enough to kill them stone dead, because Freddie Garrity’s Manchester-based band was not exactly famous for its music. They specialized more in zany antics, ridiculous dances and tight suits.)

Like ’em or not, Flat/Jacks were well designed, visually stunning and they really worked. The 3"-deep shells were pressed from something like 8-gauge sheet steel with a concave reducing bead formed near the top (cleverly designed to arrest and retain the hoop of the head) and an inverse roll-over to shape the rim. They had no external lugs, but instead had solid bosses fixed inside that were simply threaded to accept the usual American square-headed tension rods. The secret of the drum’s operation was a circle of 1/4" square-section steel that fit snugly inside the trapped head. The internal tensioners screwed against this, thereby pressing on the membrane, pushing it upwards and increasing the pitch of the drum.

It wasn’t at all sophisticated, having no springs to maintain tension, but the tolerances between boss and screw were good and it worked reasonably well. Otherwise, the toms had an adjustable internal felt damper, which was also fixed to a slotted rail so it could be moved inwards from the edge to adjust the muffling. These were heavily sprung, drumkey-operated and by far the best internals I’ve ever seen. Uniquely, Ralph Kester used drumkey-operated screws all over the set, not just for tension adjustments, but actually for attaching fixtures and fittings!

All Flat/Jack drums worked in the same way except for the snare drum, which was a great deal more unusual. It too had the 3" deep shell, but with two smaller cast ring-pieces fixed inside to form a secondary shell. Both parts were L-shaped in sections – one fit inside the hoop of the head and was held there and tuned using the same method as the other drums. A half-dozen small threaded bosses were fixed around it to locate square-headed screws. These tuned the snare head using what was ostensibly another cast double-flanged L-section hoop that telescoped snugly over both the head and the other ring-piece. An ingenious swiveling snare mechanism was bolted to this last ring with an L-shaped on/off lever that extended around the outer shell and was joined by cord to short, coiled-metal snares. Oh, and they also found time to fit a tricky little damper to the snare drum and a turned boss to mount it via a tom holder arm. (Unfortunately only 1/2" or so of this arm was able to penetrate the drum, so it wouldn’t have taken any real battering!)

Ralph Kester’s Zoom tom support systems might appear somewhat Mickey Mouse to us now, but 40 years ago they were pretty comprehensive and revolutionary. They bore a resemblance to Rogers’ old Swiv-O-Matic ball-and-cage stuff (although they incorporated a ratchet system, too), all based around hexagonal steel arms and receiver blocks. The bass drum had two pairs of hexagonal spurs, 14" and 18" long, attached high on the side of the 20" bass drum, which did their level best to support it front and back. A block attachment located the foot pedal, which was actually situated inside the shell. (A loose damping strip was fitted inside too, which for obvious reasons couldn’t be positioned dead center.) A wide steel ring encircled the bass drum shell onto which a box-section rail was fixed with nine hexagonal holed bosses brazed to it. This retained tom and cymbal arms and locked them with a single drumkey-operated screw. (The floor tom fixed to the rail too, but also boasted a single balancing leg for safety.)

Sound-wise, the drums didn’t have much warmth (their metal shells gave them something of a “clang”), but because they were so very heavy, they actually had plenty of volume. They weren’t quite as clattery as Roto-Toms and certainly had more penetration because of their shallow shells. (To my ear Flat/Jacks sound similar to those shell-less Melanie FanToms used by Trilok Gurtu).

Their appearance must have been absolutely revolutionary 40 years ago, although nowadays they don’t look quite so avant-garde. The sets I’ve seen had 12", 14", 16" and 18" toms, 20" basses and a snare drum with a 12" outer shell. I’m pretty sure that the drums all were meant to nest inside one another for portability and lock together in that position (through their tom holder bosses) with one of the pieces of hexagonal steel supplied with the set.

It hasn’t been at all easy to run down the original price of Flat/Jacks and I’ve had to work from the dollar price and add a bit for postage and packing. But I’d guess they were priced in the region of £350 in the UK in the early ’60s. I realize it’s like looking for the Holy Grail, but, if you do find a set, chop the guy’s arm off if he only wants $300 for it.