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The Evolution of the Bass Drum


João Cardita | ESMAE- Jazz History

Jazz Drumming Brief History

Percussion has always been an important part of art and culture, but
the development of modern percussion instruments, including the drum set,
is recent, spanning a time period of only a little more than a century ago. Jazz
music is one of the few musical styles developed in America’s cultural past.
Ethnic music played in the New Orleans area is generally cited as the origin
of jazz. The drum set was developed alongside the evolution of jazz music
through different styles and approaches. Jazz was not simply developed from
this one tradition. Much of the influence came from military bands at the
time. New Orleans was settled with a large amount of French influence, and
military bands were very popular in the late 19th century.
Drums, as we know it today, just came into existence in 1930, but how
was it before that? Until the late 1800’s drums were divided by a snare, a bass
drum and cymbals. It required two or three musicians to play each instrument
and off course, a lot of space was needed. The change or the reorganization
in the drums playing came with the necessity of reducing the space that band
occupied in the stage. The bands were playing more and more frequently in
tiny crowded clubs and it was imperative to take some musicians or
instruments off the stage, so instead of taking the instruments, some
drummers had the idea of just taking the musicians, and gather the drums in
a practical way. For a percussionist to play three instruments with just two
hands was a little difficult so a lot of drummers thought in ways to use their
foot creating a bass drum pedal. In the beginning of Jazz drumming the main
function of a drummer was to keep time in dance bands who played ragtime

tunes but with evolution of music and jazz, drummers like, for example
Warren “Baby” Dodds, were having more importance in musical sense and in
the sense that they started to inspire other drummers because of the creative
way they played drums, so the drums started involving to, just like the bass
drum pedal.


The history of the foot pedals starts in 1800’s with their first version
appearance around 1850. Initially the idea was to use the pedal in a Litophone
and it was invented by Cornelius Ward, a famous woodwind instruments
maker. The pedal was eventually put into use by Victorian era bands like the
Till Family who literally named their group “The Till Family Rock Band”,
named for the stones they used as notes on their Lithophone like instrument.
The first bass drum pedal was born in 1885, patented by George R.
Olney. Olney’s invention was a wooden overhead swing pedal mounted on
the top hoop of the bass drum. A rawhide thong attached the foot pedal to
the beater ball.
An 1896 photograph (shown below after the text) shows Edward "Dee
Dee" Chandler seated with a kick drum and snare set up. At the time Chandler
was playing with the John Robichaux Orchestra, one of many Creole brass
bands that would develop a new style of music that would eventually come to
be known as Jazz. Around 1894 Chandler invented in New Orleans a wooden
pedal, such that he could play the bass drum with his foot while playing the

snare drum with his sticks. This style of playing would later become known
as “double drumming” in the New Orleans Jazz scene. Early bass drum pedals
fell into two categories, those suspended from the top edge of the rim, and
those mounted to the bottom edge of the rim. The suspended models were
operated by a cord, rod, or cable, to the pedal on the floor. Since the most
commonly used size of bass drum was 26” or larger, the beater shaft length
made the action rather sluggish.

Many pedals from the late 1800s right up to 1910 were made of wood
and were quite awkward to operate like the 1900 version of a kick pedal. By
1908 William F. Ludwig’s brother in law sees a market to mass produce bass
drum pedals in Chicago and in 1910 the Ludwig & Ludwig Company is formed
to meet that need. William F. Ludwig recognized the need for a practical bass
pedal that could play ragtime tempos, and he began hand-carving prototypes
out of wood. In 1909, one of his prototypes turned into a production model,
and an empire was born. He created a simple, functional, cast metal pedal
that worked well enough for the time and could be disassembled and placed
in your coat pocket.
The appearance of a double kick pedal came in 1924 with the advent of
the heel operated Frisco double bass drum pedal. The roaring twenties also
saw the invention of a few very short lived but unique pedals.

Approximately 30 years later, due to a number of setbacks, Mr. Ludwig
was faced with the prospect of having to start his company again. One of the
first new products that he marketed was the Twin Spring Speed King in 1937.
This pedal was slightly revamped in 1950 to become virtually the same Speed
King pedal that continues to be sold by Ludwig today (see photo above). It
has a sealed double-post stand that houses the compression springs and the
ball bearings in which the rocker shaft that holds the beater rotates. It’s an
efficient design that has worked for 60 years, but it is not without some
inherent problems. The tension on the springs in the shafts is adjustable only
by a screw at the bottom of the upright posts, and sometimes it just doesn’t
work very well. The other major problem is that air has a tendency to leak
into the sealed compartment where the ball bearings and lubricant are
located. When this happens, the lubricant can dry out and the pedal either
begins to squeak or becomes gunked up to the point where the pedal simply
doesn’t work.

A Hardware and Drums Company named Camco founded in 1954,
originally produced only drum hardware in the 1950s and ’60s, including bass
drum pedals. Camco’s pedal design was unique. Though it was based on a
spring design, which already was common in its day, it utilized a kidney-
shaped camshaft that increased the velocity of the beater shaft’s throw, and
that was a revolutionary idea. Throughout the ’50s and ’60s, Camco was
subcontracted by the Gretsch Drum Company to produce the Gretsch
Floating Action Pedal, which coupled all of the Camco pedal features with a
strap drive. These pedals were so successful that when Camco gained control
of the George Way Drum Company in ’61 and renamed it Camco, the identical
floating action pedals continued to be made with the Camco stamp on the
footboard. Both the Gretsch and Camco pedals are very popular collector’s
items today. When Camco was sold off to DW and Tama in ’79, both
companies continued to use the technology in its pedals that was pioneered
by the original company. Today Tama has profoundly changed their pedal
designs, but in the vast array of DW pedals, one can still see vestiges of the
original Camco design, even though the overall construction has been
drastically improved. In the ’70s and ’80s, the Caroline pedal was
manufactured in France by the Asba Company. These pedals achieved a cult
status after it was discovered that such diverse players as J.R. Robinson and
Mitch Mitchell were using and endorsed them. Known for their smooth
action, the pedals are no longer in production but are still sought after by
some collectors. The seventies recharge an idea previously attempted fifty
years earlier as the Sleishman, Zalmer Power Drive Shaftesbury twin pedals
hit the market. Steve Gadd experiments with the Zalmer line of double kick

pedals. The eighties and nineties bring about the popularity of double bass
playing. During this time companies like Pearl, Tama, DW and Axis all release
their own brand of twin pedal setups.

Throughout the years of jazz evolution, drum set players have been a
crucial role in the band. In the past century and more, revolutionary artists
have brought the drum set from its secondary role in the jazz band, to one of
utmost importance in establishing energy and communicating complex
rhythmic and melodic ideas. Jazz is a combination of genres, including
ragtime, blues, marches, Dixieland, swing, bebop, cool or west coast, hard
bop, avant-garde, fusion, and much more. Becoming familiar with the
evolution of drums and more specifically the bass drum pedal, is important
to understand the necessity of drummers to push their own boundaries and
the necessity of creating efficient tools to help their musical and technical
capabilities speak for its own.