Monthly Archives: March 2016

Civil War Drums

Minolta DSC

Regular visitors to this blog may recall that I have posted before on the history of the drummer boy. As a Civil War and American Revolution author and historian I relish the opportunity to combine both of my interests. (See past posts on the subject: Major A.H. JohnsonHistory of Drummer BoysThe Long RollOnline Photograph CollectionDrummer BoyCivil War RudimentsRevolutionary Drummers)

Today I want to shift my focus one step further and look at the actual drums that were used during the American Civil War. Drums were made primarily in the important industrialized centers of the Northeast: Boston, New York and Philadelphia. There were no standards for drum construction but the vast majority of them measured 15”-16” in diameter and were 10”-12” deep. The shells were usually made of ash, maple or similar plyable woods. Wooden hoops were used to reinforce the drum which was “tuned” by adjusting ropes that crisscrossed around the shell and provided tension on calfskin or sheepskin heads. The four strand snare was constructed from a bronze hoop-mounted strainer with a leather anchor. Each drum featured a custom paintjob that made them ornamental. According to DRUM magazine:

The crowning glory of many of these drums was their hand-painted decorations. Normally the drummer boy would receive his drum with the painting on the shell of the drum. Although there were no standards, a blue background was designated for an infantry unit, while a red background signified artillery. An American bald eagle most commonly emblazoned the Federal Army drums but sometimes the Confederates used it as well. Federal drums were also decorated with 13 stars for each of their 13 states. Confederate states were represented with 11 stars. With these beautiful decorations, it is no wonder that these drums were treasured long after the passionate sentiment of America’s bloodiest battle had abated.

Although most drums from that era are preserved in museums, Civil War drums still exist on the market as antiques. One can expect to pay up to $7,500+ for one in good condition. A quick look on eBay reveals the high cost for original drums. Regardless, to own an original Civil War drum is to possess a piece of history.

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Research and Writing

Today’s post is a long one. It is based on a lecture I gave years ago on research and writing. It was presented several times to a teacher’s group, an author’s roundtable and a classroom of students with an interest in the theme. As many visitors here are fellow bloggers and writers I thought it might be appropriate to step away from the drum set and focus on the task of composing quality writing. This goes for blog posts, books, magazine articles and essays. I will keep this resource in relation to drums as I have written books, blogs and magazine articles on the subject. Here are some excerpts from a transcript:

Good evening ladies and gentlemen. It is a privilege to have this opportunity to speak to you on a subject that is near and dear to my heart. Drums have been a constant and important part of my life for over 20 years. Today I hope to educate and inspire you to research and write about your passions. Now there is no doubt that I have been very blessed over the last few years with having the opportunity to speak on a wide variety of subjects at universities, museums, theaters and churches. This has been extremely enjoyable to me as it gives me an opportunity to combine both of my interests… historical writing and drums. Tonight’s theme will focus on the drums but these same principles can be applied to any subject.

Let’s start with the beginning of any writing project, research. Research of course is step one: obtaining reference. But how do you manage it – especially when you end up with everything from old newspaper clippings and musical recordings to photographs and archived materials. Sorting your materials for future reference is essential when combining multiple sources. I use a folder system that keeps everything organized. Each type of reference or subject material has its own folder. As I gather more and more sources I immediately store them in the appropriate folder. By the time I am done I have a stack of folders bursting at the seams with reference. Not only does this make my work easier when it comes time to write, it also helps when it comes time to credit people and refer to the sources for the bibliography. What is extra nice is that I now have an extensive collection of prepared materials that I can refer to again for future projects.

The Internet of course has opened up a whole new world of research to writers, but it must be used with caution. We can now get access to tons of cyber information, but we must always keep in mind that the facts on the Internet are only as good as the person who posted them. Therefore I always compare multiple sources whenever possible. This could also include interviewing multiple people who have experience or expertise on the subject. Not everything can be found with a computer. I tell my kids that Google is not the end all. It can be a great tool – but it does not provide all of the answers. So research is the most important aspect of the writing process. It’s the brick in the foundation of your work. Remember, sources matter. I wrote an article for a drum magazine publication that presented a historical look at Gene Krupa. My research included several of Gene’s press kits, multiple photographs, past articles and album covers. By organizing my reference media initially I was able to construct the article with relative ease.

Another technique that I use is outlining. It helps me to see the overall structure of a project. It also helps me determine what sources are required, what visuals can accompany the piece, and what I need to do in order to accomplish my goals. Think of it as a roadmap that becomes the framework for the piece. I approach the outline as a fluid document that can change according to the material as it reveals itself. Outlining can be challenging if your subject is complicated but it will be a great asset in the end. Believe me, it’s worth it. Think of outlining as a music chart which lays out everything that is required to play. In this case it’s for writing.

There are other ways you can approach any subject matter that will necessitate what kind of research and writing you will need to do. Here are some factors to consider:

  1. I know a lot about this subject: This will determine your preparation.
  2. I know very little about this subject: This will necessitate studying.
  3. This material has been covered: This will require an original angle.
  4. This material has not been covered: This will give you more freedom.
  5. I need vetting from an expert: This is an important step in the process.
  6. I do not need vetting from an expert: This may result in errors.

These key points will also necessitate how you approach your subject. These are helpful guidelines that will help make the writing process more enjoyable. Here are some factors to consider:

  1. Find your inspiration. What about this subject motivates you?
  2. Historical non-fiction requires a lot of research. Put in the time.
  3. It’s very easy as a writer to become egotistical. Get over yourself.
  4. Determine what your strengths and weaknesses are as a writer. Play to your strengths, but never stop working on your weaknesses.
  5. Remember, it will have your name on it. A book cover or byline cannot be taken away once it’s published.

Hopefully these recommendations will help you to research and write about any subject that strikes your fancy. When I write about drums, whether from a historical or technical aspect, or conduct an interview with a well-known player, I always use this approach. By taking the necessary steps from beginning to end, I am able to maintain my focus and present something that is hopefully engaging and enjoyable for the reader. If I did my job as a writer it will reveal itself. Thank you for your time and please feel free to ask any questions.

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Historical look at Brushes


Perhaps the most overlooked of all drum accoutrements is the brush. Despite this, the brush remains as one of the most unique sounding tools in the drummer’s palette. Originally referred to as “fly swatters” the first brush design is believed to have been patented around the early 1900’s. As an alternative to the drumstick, brushes enabled drummers to play quieter while still retrieving a more dynamic sound. Brushes were primarily used to soften the sound of the snare, but still let the sound be heard.

Constructed by a set of bristles connected to a handle brushes open to a rounded fan shape. The bristles can be made of metal or plastic; handles are commonly made of wood or aluminum, and are often coated with rubber. Some brushes are telescoping, so that the bristles can be pulled inside a hollow handle and the fan made by the bristles can be of variable length, width and density. Retracting the bristles also protects the brush when it is not being used. The non-bristled end of the brush may end in a loop or a ball.

Before this drum stick type, others in a band were not heard during concerts. Recording of music was also a problem as the drums tended to be too loud in the studio and it interfered with the other instruments. Brushes were mainly used in jazz and swing music whereupon the technique of “stirring the soup” was originated. Many of the big name drummers of the 30’s and 40’s to include Gene Krupa, Papa Jo Jones and Big Sid Catlett mastered the brush and developed their own styles. Later Max Roach, Kenny Clarke and Philly Joe Jones took brushes to the next level. Players like Steve Smith and Daniel Glass skillfully utilize the brushes today.

Gerry Patton has written an excellent source on the history of the brush at:

Here is a video on the history of brushes presented by our friend Daniel Glass:

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Drums in the Bible


18th-century painting, “The Song of Miriam,” by Paulo Malteis, Italy.
Celebration after crossing the Red Sea from Egypt

Today’s post looks at mentions of drums in the Bible. I’m very comfortable sharing my faith here as a practicing Presbyterian and as a drummer, I am very interested in the use of drums for celebration and worship. Drums (or tambourines) are mentioned throughout the Old Testament. According to the website PsalmDrummers: percussion instruments such as the tambourine, timbrel or tabret are mentioned. These words are translated from the Hebrew word ‘Toph’. Tambourines and timbrels are mentioned on many occasions throughout the Old Testament and, other than cymbals, seem to be the only percussion instruments referred to. The New Grove Dictionary of Musical Instruments’, says that “tambourine” in Scripture comes from the Hebrew word “Tof or “Toph (Hebrew; pl.tuppin), the other English translations being “timbrel” or occasionally “tabret”. It says that these are indeed frame drums and adds that, because frame drums were commonly used in the surrounding areas it is likely the ancient Israelites used them as well. Here are references of the instrument in scripture:

“Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister took a tambourine (drum) in her hand, and all the women followed her, with tambourines and dancing.” Exodus 15:20

“After that you will go to Gibeah of God, where there is a Philistine outpost. As you approach the town, you will meet a procession of prophets coming down from the high place with lyres, tambourines (drums), flutes and harps being played before them, and they will be prophesying.” 1Samuel 10:5,6

“When the men were returning home after David had killed the Philistine, the women came out from all the towns of Israel to meet King Saul with singing and dancing, with joyful songs and with tambourines (drums) and lutes.” 1 Samuel 18:6

“Every stroke the LORD lays on them with his punishing rod will be to the music of the tambourines (drums) and harps, as he fights the battle with the blow of his arm.” Isaiah 30:32

“In front are the singers, after them the musicians; with them are the maidens playing tambourines (drums).” Psalm 68:25

“Begin the music, strike the tambourine (drum)…” Psalm 81:2.

“Let them praise His name with dancing and make music to Him with tambourine (drum) and harp.” Psalm 149:3.

“Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet, praise Him with the harp and lyre, praise Him with the tambourine (drum) and dancing, praise Him with the strings and flute, praise Him with the clash of cymbals, praise Him with resounding cymbals. Let everything that has breath praise the LORD.” Psalm 150:3-6.

(Note: Cymbals are mentioned extensively in 2 Samuel, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah and Psalms.)

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My Setup


Always be different; don’t follow the rules. Don’t do what anyone tells you. Don’t use the same sounds as people; don’t use the same drums as people. – Benny Blanco

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“Major” A.H. Johnson


Over the last few months I have spent a great deal of time researching and compiling information about drummer boys from the Revolution and Civil War. As a historian I relish every opportunity when I can combine all of my interests in a single project. In addition to posting multiple blogs and an extensive photo library I also have a feature on drummer boys coming out in a future issue of Modern Drummer magazine. One interesting aspect of this story is found in the experiences and perspectives of African-American drummers.

Some of these young musicians marched in the ranks of the U.S. Colored Troops while contributing in their own way. Unlike their counterparts in the South, blacks, both free and ex-slave were looked upon as soldiers and not camp servants. Grateful for their newfound freedom many Southern slaves savored the opportunity to line up in the Union ranks and raise their muskets toward their former oppressors. Free men from the North took the opportunity to serve as their brother’s keeper. Throughout the war drummer boys provided essential camp and field communications.

One African-American drummer boy of particularly noteworthy service was A.H. Johnson. At the age of 16, Alexander H. Johnson was the first African American musician to enlist in U.S. military, joining the 54th Massachusetts Volunteers under Robert Gould Shaw. Johnson was adopted by William Henry Johnson, the second black lawyer in the United States and close associate of Frederick Douglass. After the war Johnson told an interviewer that he had “beat a drum every day he has been able since childhood.”

According to an article titled Alexander H. Johnson: The first drummer boy (by Meserette Kentake) Johnson quickly established himself as a talented drummer as he and the rest of the rank and file learned the art of soldiering. He was with the unit when it left Boston for James Island, S.C., where it fought its first battle.

The skirmish, along the South Carolina coast near Charleston, occurred on July 16, 1863. Johnson noted, “We fought from 7 in the morning to 4:30 in the afternoon, and we succeeded in driving the enemy back. After the battle we got a paper saying that if Fort Wagner was charged within a week it would be taken.”

Two days later the 54th unsuccessfully stormed Confederate-held Fort Wagner on Morris Island while sustaining massive casualties. Johnson recounted, “Most of the way we were singing, Col. Shaw and I marching at the head of the regiment. It was getting dark when we crossed the bridge to Morris Island. It was about 6:30 o’clock when we got there. Col. Shaw ordered me to take a message back to the quartermaster at the wharf, who had charge of the commissary. I took the letter by the first boat, as ordered, and when I returned I found the regiment lying down, waiting for orders to charge. The order to charge was given at 7:30 o’clock.”

Johnson remained in the 54th until the end of the war. In the summer of 1865 he returned to Massachusetts, bringing the drum that he carried at Fort Wagner with him. Four years later he married, settled in Worcester, Mass., and organized “Johnson’s Drum Corps.” He led the band as drum major, and styled himself “The Major.”

In 1897, a memorial to the 54th sculpted by the artist Augustus Saint-Gaudens was unveiled in Boston. The bronze relief depicts Colonel Shaw and his men leaving Boston for the South with a young drummer in the lead — a scene reminiscent of the July day in 1863 when Shaw and Johnson marched at the head of the 54th to its destiny at Fort Wagner. In 1904, Johnson visited the monument during an event hosted by the Grand Army of the Republic, the influential association of Union veterans. Many of those in attendance pointed out the resemblance of the young lead drummer and it is said that Johnson felt a great sense of pride for his participation in the war. Today the statute remains as a timeless tribute to both Johnson and the men he served.

(Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center)

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Never mind the two and four

Ever wonder what makes Charlie Watts’ sound so damn powerful on that little drum kit? Well perhaps it’s his highly original style of play that includes the omission of the hi-hat on the downbeats of two and four. A closer look reveals how he holds his right hand up on those beats, hitting the snare drum with his left hand producing a loud pop like a gunshot when the stick hits the snare. It is something that stands out in the Rolling Stones sound and it’s also an incredibly simple solution to stretching the volume of the kit. It also goes beyond any expected form of normalcy. In fact, to the untrained eye it appears that Watts is simply unable to play with both hands simultaneously. I must admit that I found it curious in my youth and have only begun to appreciate this unique approach. It’s easier said than done to discipline oneself to ignore the downbeats of two and four. It is contrary to most drummer’s muscle memory. That said, it works perfectly for Watts’ style and gives the Stones a distinctive swing. Here is a video of Watts using this technique:

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Remembering Synsonics Drums


Today I was inspired so it’s a two-post day…here at Off Beat I’ve written extensively about electronic drum kits, pads, modules, and triggers. All of these posts are about technology that is modern, relevant and used today (Search the word ‘electronic’ to access previous articles). This post however, harkens to the “days of old,” when drum machines were still in their infantile stage and primitive versions of e-drum technology were used for toys. Perhaps the most popular computerized drum machine to hit the toy market was Mattel’s Synsonics Drums. As a testament to their relevance at the time Buddy Rich, Carmine Appice and Nigel Olsen all endorsed the product. (Mike Dolbear has an excellent essay on the history of Synsonics Drums:

My recollection of Synsonics Drums is that I was very fond of the toy and played with it for more hours than I can count. The multiple sound options and recording capabilities enabled users to emulate the sounds of an actual four piece drum kit and record their playing which could be played back exactly as it had been performed. Years before I got my first drum kit Synsonics Drums were, along with a rubber practice pad, the tools of my earliest development as a drummer. Lost to the past are many recorded patterns created on Synsonics Drums which represented my first shot at production as well as drum solos. In fact, with the exception of a few times I can count on one hand, they may have been the only drum solos I’ve ever played.

Frankly, I miss my Synsonics Drums and I am disappointed that they, like most childhood toys, where either discarded or destroyed. I can’t remember their fate. It seems that I’m not the only one looking back on this vintage drum machine as you can still find Synsonics Drums on eBay. There are even websites that provide instructions for removing the internal chip boards for customization. It seems there is a whole community of drum nerds out there carrying the Synsonics banner while preserving one of the best musical toys of the 1980’s. Clearly one of the forefathers to today’s electronic sample pads Synsonics Drums were, at least for a kid, the real deal.

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Jon Farriss of INXS has used Rototoms throughout his career

You either love them or hate them…I’m speaking of the Rototom. A fixture in the 1980’s this distinctive drum is still found on the kits of some of today’s top players. The Rototom first became popular when trendsetting drummers such as Terry Bozzio (Missing Persons), Alex Van Halen (Van Halen) and Jon Farriss (INXS) used them extensively in their repertoire. Their distinctive tone rang above standard toms and expanded the options on a typical drum kit.

According the their definition: Rototoms are a drum developed by Al Payson and Michael Colgrass, that have no shell and are tuned by rotating. They consist of a single head in a die-cast zinc or aluminum frame. Unlike most other drums, they have a variable definite pitch. They were commercialized by the drumhead company REMO. Rototoms can be tuned quickly by rotating the head, which sits in a threaded metal ring. Rotation raises or lowers the tension hoop relative to the rim, which increases or decreases the pitch of the drum by increasing or decreasing the tension of the drum head. Rototoms are often used as a substitute for timpani students, as they have a very similar sound, are not as loud and expensive as timpani, and do not require as much room space.

Popular Drummers who still use Rototoms include: Tim Alexander of Primus, Travis Barker of Blink-182, Danny Carey of Tool, Taylor Hawkins of Foo Fighters, Nick Mason of Pink Floyd and Eric Kretz of Stone Temple Pilots. Dozens more have periodically incorporated Rototoms into their signature sounds. I have a friend, Mike “Woody” Emerson of Color of Fate, who incorporates Rototoms extensively in his drum solo. Some experimental drummers have gone as far as building full drum kits using nothing but Rototoms. I myself use a 12” Rototom as one of my primary toms along with a hybrid Ludwig kit that utilizes ddrum triggers. I love the crisp tone of the drum as it “sits” above the rest of the kit’s tuning. It’s perfect for accents or fills that require a unique sound. My favorite drummer is Jon Farriss so I attempted to set up my kit similar to his. Immediately I found a configuration that worked well for me. As with his drums, the Rototom rounded out the sonic palette that I use to create sounds.

For more information on Rototoms or to view a collection of nostalgic catalogs featuring the drum, visit

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