Buddy Rich’s Perfect Snare Drum

SKF NOTE: This excerpt is from one of the best drum interviews I’ve ever read. It was a two-part Down Beat interview of Buddy Rich by his long-time friend and fellow musician, Mel Torme. Both interview parts were published in February 1978.

So good was this interview, I was let down by Torme’s biography of Buddy, Traps, The Boy Wonder, published years later in 1991. The book I had long hoped would offer more of the insight displayed in this interview, instead never rose to the exceptionalism of this interview.

If you can get your hands on the original interview — do so. Meanwhile, here’s Buddy Rich talking with Torme about what makes a great drum, and Buddy’s once in career perfect snare drum. The original interview refers to a “Slingerland Rail King.” I’m betting that was a interview transcriber’s boo-boo, and it should be “Slingerland Radio King.”

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Torme: You used to say that all drums were alike, exactly.

Rich: There’s no difference.

Torme: You’re an endorser of Slingerland Drums.

Rich: I like ’em because I play ’em. And they feel good. But if I were to use Vingerland tomorrow, or fried boots, I would take the heads and I would put heads on. I use a Diplomat head. And so I would take whatever drum I’m using and put that head on, and I would tension the drum to where I feel comfortable, and that would be my sound. I mean, it’s no big deal, you know.

Torme: You mean to say there’s no difference in construction?

Rich: I suppose all construction is different. Some is good, some is bad, but unless a drum is totally unplayable, it can be playable.

Torme: What about this quest that is rivaling the search for the Holy Grail, the search for the perfect snare drum? I have never known you yet to like a snare drum.

Rich. I only played on one snare drum in my whole career that I really loved and that was an old Slingerland Rail [sic] King. And I’m not saying that because of the Slingerland title. Whether it was the aging of the wood, or the processing, or the shellacking, or the density of the wood or whatever, it was the finest drum I have ever played. Why I don’t have it today is something I’ll never understand. It’s gone down the deep with several hundred sets of drums that I’ve had.

Torme: Are you saying that specific snare drum, or that model, the old Buddy Rich rail [sic] model? Maybe it was an old Gene Krupa.

Rich: Listen, it could have been a Gene Tierney, for all I know. The construction of that drum was perfect for the kind of drum sound that I’m looking for.

Torme: Have you ever asked Slingerland if they’ve got any of the old Slingerland snare drums?

Rich: The die was thrown away or it was destroyed or whatever. And they come up with some cockamamie excuses that are unreal to me. They simply….

Torme: You may have been right about the fact that the age of the wood in those days….

Rich: For ten grand you can recapture all that. You can make the die again, get some engineers, spend a little more bread for some aged wood, and you make a more expensive drum — but you make the best drum. It’s just that simple. If you want to make the best in anything, you’ve got to spend some bread. If you don’t, it’s going to be good for six months, and the lugs will drop off, or be good for a year and you’ll find out that it’s warped. I just don’t think there’s good workmanship today.

Torme: You know the snares used to constantly fall off, and you had to continually re-tighten the snare control.

Rich: Yeah, but you do the same with a $400 drum today. When you play the drums as hard as I play them, it’s bound to loosen up. So I’m constantly turning the wheel to pull the snares up. I don’t like loose snares. But the perfect snare drum means more involvement in the making of it: a little more money, a little more aging of the wood, the correct density — so the drum just sings. You don’t have to play hard on a good drum because it will project itself. And this is what’s lacking today.

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