The Collector's Key: A Guide To Tuning Hardware

It’s an overworked cliché, but an undeniable truism that “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” Those cluttered trap cases that show up in your local music store or at the neighborhood estate sales with old used drum kits often contain some valuable items. It’s worth taking the time to sort through the jumble of paraphernalia and separate the true collectables from the junk. Pair up the sticks and brushes, but keep in mind that even individual sticks or brushes may be collectable if they carry the right brand name. Don’t be too quick to throw anything away!

Slips of paper may turn out to be receipts. Become a detective and try to make sense of that seemingly random pile. You know what a repository your own trap case is; now you are going through someone else’s belongings with an eye only a fellow drummer can possess. Dig through the piles of tilters, clutches, springs, felts, and so on, and you might just uncover what is often the most easily overlooked, and surprisingly valuable item in the collection – the drum tuning key.

Context Is... Key

Don’t be too quick to separate out the drum key from its surroundings. Like the archeologist deciphering the origins of an ancient skull fragment by examining surrounding sediments and fossils, drum keys are often found amidst other telling artifacts. Does the key match any of the drums? Are there clues that it belonged to a celebrity? I recently sold a drum key that had belonged to Cozy Cole. It came to me with a Leedy & Ludwig outfit that I sold on consignment for Cole’s family. Although it was a fairly generic key from the 1920s and did not match the 1950s-era kit that it was with, I had clear provenance (documentation) that the key did in fact belong to, and was used by, the late Cozy Cole. (There were letters from Cole’s family, and the weathered brown fiber cases still had shipping tags addressed to the Gene Krupa/Cozy Cole Drum School in New York City.) If you buy or sell any item on the basis of celebrity attachment, be sure to give or receive a signed and dated “letter of provenance,” which includes photos and all other documentation proving the claim of prior ownership.

When you really think about it, the drum key is perhaps one of the most personal items a drummer owns. A favorite key will often outlast favorite drums, cymbals, and hardware. I am reminded of a story that I once heard from Ludwig’s Jim Catalano. When the Ludwig family sold the drum company to Selmer in 1981, it was a very bittersweet event for William F. Ludwig II, “The Chief.” This was, after all, the second time in the same century that the Ludwig family had created the world’s largest drum company. His father had done it the first time, and The Chief did it again in the 1960s. Now the family era was drawing to a close. The Chief had met with all the new Selmer executive staff, and done as much as he could to insure a smooth transition. One of his last acts was to take Catalano aside and offer him a talisman. He pulled his own personal drum key out of his pocket and presented it to Catalano, explaining that he was entrusting the future of Ludwig to him. There were keys to the locks on the buildings, but this was the real key to the company, and he was confident that with the heart of a percussionist, Catalano would carry on the Ludwig tradition.

New Fangled Tuning Gadgets

Tired of tuning and turning to tighten that troublesome tension rod? Give you wrist a break with the Robokey 4X. This 4", 4.3 oz. wonder uses an inline ratio gear system to transfer four times the twisting action of every taxing turn straight into the lug screw. You can even have your own logo embossed along the length of the handle so you can try to keep your key from turning up in someone else's trap case.

$29.95
robokey.com

Achieve levels of torque to die for with the Randall May Mikey, while at the same time re-establishing your 1950s greaser street cred. The Mikey's sweet switch-blade action isn't just for show, though. The sleek, spring-loaded Thandles on this streamlined stick of stainless steel and precision-cut aluminum fold cleanly out of the way into recessed side grooves to turn this high-torque tool into a slim-line pocket weight. Forget tuning — we bet you'll be flipping for the fun of it in no time flat.

$40
randallmay.com

{pagebreak}

Take total control of your tuning with the Evans Torque Drum Key, the key that answers only to consistency. Boasting an adjustable handle release set to spring loose at a specific tension, the Torque Drum Key allows you to turn your tension rods to exact evenness, and ou rhead to perfect pitch. A knurled knob up top speeds up head changes, and a magnetized tip keeps loose screws from giving you the slip.

$42.99
daddario.com

A Key Or Not A Key? That Is The Question.

Early drum keys do not always resemble what comes to mind when today’s drummer thinks of the term. The crude piece of iron I have in my collection is one case in point. For years I had this bulky chunk of metal kicking around in an old trap case full of odd sticks, mallets, and brushes. One day I happened to notice that the end was milled out. I have no idea what the age of this monster is, but the stuff it came with was from the 1940s – decades before the current generation of high-tension marching drums with Kevlar heads that actually require this kind of high-torque tuning tool. This key is truly unique – one-of-a-kind and hand-made. Does that make it valuable? Probably not.

The Chief himself once gave me an odd-looking key that resembles the “mini-key” on the previous page. He explained that it was originally a roller-skate key, which the company had bought in quantity from a roller-skate manufacturer in the 1920s and packaged as banjo keys for Ludwig banjos.

Another oddball that might not be immediately recognizable as a drum key by today’s drummers would be the “slotted” keys used by Leedy in the 1920s and by a number of British companies well into the 1960s. (The tension rods that utilize these keys look like they can be turned with a screwdriver. In fact, they can, but in doing so, you run the risk of damaging the head of the tension rod. That’s where this specialized key comes in.)

The Business Of Assessing Value

Like any other percussion specialty item (drumsticks, catalogs, etc.) the value of the drum key is determined not only by its rarity, but also by demand. I feel that the “monster” key described above is one of the world’s rarest drum keys, but that does not make it one of the most valuable. Rarity means little if no one wants the thing. I doubt this key would bring $20 on eBay because of limited interest.

What are the most valuable keys? It has been my experience that the most valuable keys are good-condition American drum keys from the 1920s to 1960s: Leedy, Camco, Waybest, Slinger-land, Rogers, and Ludwig keys from those decades regularly sell for $35—$80 – more if a bidding war breaks out. I have seen a number of keys fetch in excess of $100 in the last year alone. It can be tough to predict when and why that will happen, because there are so many reasons why certain individuals will want a certain key – anything from sentimental attachment to the desire to “complete a set.” Other keys that can be expected to bring high prices would be unique keys such at the 3-way Gladstone-style key, even if it is not an original Gretsch Gladstone or Billy Gladstone key. The relatively current Lang Gladstone keys are still fairly expensive pieces of hardware.

The only way to determine a drum key’s true worth is to document what someone is willing to pay for it. Try first searching eBay for current auctions and click on “watch this auction” when you find a match. The results will be cataloged in your list of “watched auctions” even after the bidding ends. Also try clicking on “advanced search,” which takes you to a new menu where you can select “completed auctions” to view auctions that have recently ended. Unfortunately, eBay does not go very far back with those completed auctions, so don’t consider that search a comprehensive answer. You can also try listing your key with a high reserve price but a low opening bid; stand back and see how high the bidding goes – that is the clearest indication of what people are actually willing to pay for the key in question.

Finding The Diamonds In The Rough

A challenge that can only be met with experience is identifying certain keys by eye. Many unique keys do not have a maker’s name or trademark. Also keep in mind that most trademarks were stamped into the key at a final stage of the production. I have handfuls of keys that belonged to the late George Way. Many are from the 1940s to 1960s and look nearly identical. If, however, you take the time to examine them carefully, you find a very light etching: Leedy, Leedy & Ludwig, Rogers. These were all companies that Way worked for at various times, and the markings on these keys are very faint. (A former Rogers employee once related that during the era when Way worked there, the staff often went to lunch together at the local diner. It was not unusual for one of the group to issue a “key challenge” when it came time to pay the bill – anyone who could not immediately produce a drum key had to share the cost of the entire lunch bill!)

{pagebreak}

Watch for future collectables. Any unique key that has been specially cast is pretty much by definition a “limited supply” item. I recently spent some time looking into having a custom key cast for the Chicago Drum Show and quickly learned that such a project involves an investment of at least a couple thousand dollars. (I looked to the CAD-assisted machined and powder-coated aluminum keys as well and came to the conclusion that it just doesn’t make sense to produce a custom key unless you can afford to invest a couple grand.)

If you find a custom key from an independent custom drum company, stash it away as an investment! Even though the custom keys from the “larger” companies such as Craviotto are now produced by the tens of thousands, I predict that one day they will be worth some serious bucks! And you know what they say: it’s never too early to start planning for retirement.