The 1970s were a rich era for rock, disco, funk, country, and just about any other style that relied on a solid backbeat. But the types of drums and recording gear available had a huge impact on the recordings of the time. To get era-appropriate sounds, it’s important to know more about the elements that contributed to a golden age in music history.
From a listening standpoint, the ’70s witnessed the big shift to stereo. At the consumer level, FM radio started to take off. Many cars came equipped with stereo 8-track tape players, and home all-in-one units featuring a turntable, AM/FM receiver, and tape player became smaller and more affordable. And while AM radio (by virtue of its design) and most television broadcasts remained in mono, stereo audio was a selling point for manufacturers – and consumers ate it up. Worth mentioning was quadraphonic sound, a precursor to today’s surround formats, but the format was ahead of its time and never took off.
Fig. 1 This Slingerland stand shows the typical single-braced A-frame leg construction of the ’70s.
Fig. 2 Silver dot head on Ludwig Vistalite kit. Note the internal felt muffler visible to the right of dot.
Understanding the equipment of the era can help explain why some recordings turned out the way they did. Certain cymbals and drums were either not available or not in favor.
Drumhead makers must have been in tears during the 1970s. Why? Because single-headed toms were the rage. In fact, many kits did not come with bottom lug hardware. Like any fad, it just “happened.” There was no formal declaration of “war against resonant heads,” but lots of people point to Hal Blaine’s performance backing Nancy Sinatra on The Ed Sullivan Show in the late 1960s. Blaine, one of the most recorded drummers, took the stage with a large kit that featured single-headed tom toms. A longtime Ludwig endorser, Blaine sent a letter to the company suggesting they market the format, and the rest, as they say, is history. Soon Ludwig released a kit called the Octa-Plus, featuring single-headed “melodic toms.” Slingerland and others followed suit with single-headed “concert toms.” Regardless of the name, the direct attack and fast decay of these drums are a crucial element of the ’70s sound.
Toms were not the only drums that were different by contemporary standards. Bass drums were shallower, with the average kick being 22" x 14". Snare drums were often metal, either chrome or brass (à la the Ludwig Black Beauty), with the occasional acrylic model. If a snare was wood, it was still probably covered in chrome (I don’t know why; I just report the news). Big kits were another sign of the ’70s. I remember getting up early on Saturday mornings to watch the Bay City Rollers’ TV program because Derek Longmuir played a different massive Ludwig kit for each song. And of course, who could forget the fortress of drums surrounding Peter Criss of Kiss? It was also common to see Remo Rototoms or Tama Octobans added to kits. In addition to Ludwig and Slingerland, other makers of this era included Rogers, Premier, Pearl, Tama, Yamaha, Sonor, and Gretsch.
Stands improved in stability, moving from the 1960’s flat three-on-the-floor to a sturdier A-frame leg (FIG. 1). But it wasn’t until late in the decade that Tama introduced the double-braced Titan lines that are still in use today.
Cymbals in the ’70s were essentially Zildjian and Paiste, though Paiste was more common in Europe. Brilliant cymbals were available from Zildjian, but they were an expensive, special-order item (we would have to wait until the Sabian split for these to become more affordable and commonly available). To achieve ’70s cymbal sounds from today’s offerings, regular A Zildjian (not A Custom), Paiste 2002, or Sabian AA lines would be suitable candidates. Some drummers refused to clean their cymbals (a constant regardless of era). In that case, using vintage cymbals or K Zildjians might be the ticket.
Most drummers played single-ply or coated white or clear drumheads. The silver dot was also popular. As the name implies, it’s a clear head with a big silver or black reinforcement dot glued in the middle (FIG. 2). The dot served to reinforce the head at the expense of reducing resonance. Evans struck gold with an invention it termed the Hydraulic Head, which featured two plies of drumhead film with a thin layer of oil between the plies. The result was a head that reduced resonance and emphasized a drum’s lower overtones. These naturally muffled heads took off instantly. According to Evans, Hydraulic heads were more than half its production. Big head makers were Remo and Evans, with Ludwig also in the mix. Of course, head type didn’t matter much in the studio once you realize what the engineers did to get sounds.
Sticks were sticks. Nylon tips were available in the 1970s but the tips never stayed on – that’s since changed, but for authenticity’s sake, stick with wood-tipped models. Bass drum beaters were hard felt or wood. Kick drum pedals were notoriously noisy, as many metal parts rubbed together. A lot of players favored the Ludwig Speed King, which featured a longboard pedal (not split) connected to the cam and beater assembly by a metal strip. Other brands used leather straps, which stretched and often broke at the most inopportune times (it’s easy to see why chain and nylon strap connectors are so popular today). Brush and mallet usage hasn’t changed, but stick alternatives like contemporary bundled dowel rods (i.e., Pro-Mark Hot Rods) were rare or nonexistent.