When Rolling Stone did their “100 Greatest Drummers of All Time” they did it right when they recognized the far too often overlooked Levon Helm. He was ranked impressively at #22. Helm was known for his unique Dixieland-influenced drumming style but also for his country-soulful voice and multi-instrumental playing. Backing some of the greatest musicians of all-time to include Bob Dylan, Helm is best known for being a founding member of The Band.
His deep pocket playing laid down the foundation for the rest of the group and became an intrical part of their signature sound. Helm’s moderate drum sound and tasteful playing stood out among the drummers of his time who tended to overplay and drown out their bandmates. Helm was never much into the latest gear. He found some of his drums in a pawn shop. Whether live or recording he made some interesting choices. His unique sound was also antique in many ways. According to multiple sources:
His snare was first and foremost at the root of his sound. It was a 1920s/30s 4×15 with wood hoops, single-tension lugs and calf heads (in later years he would use Fyberskins and vintage ambassadors). It was also muted on top. The drum sets he used in the 1970’s were an assemblage of 1930’s sets with single-tension lugs, possibly Ludwig, Slingerland or Leedy. It had a 14×28 bass drum, apparently with calf heads. The rack tom was a 10×14 marching snare that was converted. The floor toms looked to be tenor drums or larger snares, probably 12×15 and 14×16.
Helm used two different kits for The Last Waltz film. The drums for the soundstage songs from The Last Waltz were a combined instrument that used pieces of his older set as outlined above and pieces of two more modern Ludwig kits added in. The snare drum was a 9×13 matching “Cub” which was Ludwig’s cheapest snare at the time. The wood finished Ludwig kit also had single-tension lugs. The kit he used for the other parts of The Last Waltz was a black diamond Gretsch with a 20” bass drum, 13” rack tom and 16” floor tom. He used his older snare as described above. He never used more than two cymbals. Usually Zildjans. The left side was usually a 18″ ride with rivets and the right side would likely be a matching crash that he would use as both a ride and a crash.
In the years to follow Helm often used vintage Slingerlands but it was Yamaha kits when on camera for his instructional videos. All of Helm’s drum sets were tuned in the spirit of Dixieland drums, muted in some places, wide open in others. Regardless of what combination of drums he was using it was Helm’s original style that made them sound great. Even more impressive is the fact that he was usually singing while playing. Years after The Band split Helm’s health declined after he was diagnosed with throat cancer. Never wavering as a musician he held concerts in his own barn in Woodstock keeping the spirit of The Band alive at these so-called Midnight Rambles. He also released his own material as well as instructional drumming videos. Helm died at the age of 71 as a Gretsch artist.