In 1964, Ringo Starr’s decision to use a branded bass drum head while playing with The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show changed the fortunes of a Chicagoan drum manufacturer forever.
But even before this huge milestone in the company’s history, Ludwig had built a reputation as one of the oldest and most established brands in the business, producing quality and reliable drums for customers around the world.
Ludwig Drums: Humble Beginnings
In 1909, William F. and Theobald Ludwig, two sons of German immigrants, decided to start a drum company which they would name Ludwig & Ludwig.
William was a professional drummer who usually played circus and vaudeville gigs, but he wasn’t getting as much work as he would have liked. As a result, he decided to work with his brother and start a drum shop in Chicago.
They immediately started designing and manufacturing drum products, beginning with a bass drum pedal. By 1916, they had added snare and timpani drums to their catalogue as the business continued to grow. Like many other manufacturing companies in the early 20th century, they were recruited to produce goods for the war effort, and in 1917 Ludwig & Ludwig signed a deal to build rope drums.
Ludwig Drums: Tragedy, Growth, & Acquisition
Tragically, Theobald Ludwig died in the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, so William took full control of the business. By 1923, the factory employed 240 people and was the biggest drum manufacturer in the world.
Ludwig & Ludwig’s continued success appealed to a large instrument company called C.G. Conn, to whom William agreed to sell Ludwig & Ludwig to while staying on to run the company for them.
The subsequent period was an incredibly innovative one for Ludwig & Ludwig drum company, for both drum sets and for concert percussion.
Most notably, the legendary ‘Black Beauty’ snare drum was introduced to the market. This brass drum was the most popular Ludwig product to date and featured hand-engraved ornamentation with a choice of enamel colorings. There was even a gold-plated option known as the ‘Triumphal Model’, but black was by far the most popular.
Although production of the Black Beauty snare drum was halted around the 1930s, it made a return to catalogues in the 1970s. New models are still being made today, and it continues to be one of the most sought-after snare drums for drummers with money to spend.
Ludwig Drums: WFL, Leedy & Ludwig, & Post-War Innovation
The arrangement between Ludwig and Conn didn’t last long, as William Ludwig left to start his own company. In 1937 he decided to buy a factory building and start The WFL Drum Company (C.G. Conn still owned the ‘Ludwig’ name, so William opted to use his initials for his new venture).
The first great innovative product of this era was the inaugural ‘Twin Spring Speed King’ bass drum pedal. The version of this pedal that emerged in the 1950s is essentially the same Speed King pedal that is produced today – at least, from a mechanical point of view. For example, it still uses a sealed double-post stand that holds the compression springs, as well as the ball bearings in which the rocker shaft that holds the beater rotates (a design that has remained successful for over 60 years).
Sometimes known as the squeak-king, Ludwig’s bass drum pedal can be heard squeaking in some well-known recordings, like Led Zeppelin’s Since I’ve Been Loving You. Put on some headphones and listen closely, you’ll hear it starting from around the 13-second mark and sqeaking right across the first part of the track…
Despite some squeaking problems, WFL drum company continued to operate at a small but steady rate throughout World War II. When the war was over, William returned to the idea of building a global company once again.
In 1947, Ludwig produced their first post-war catalogue which featured the most famous drummer in the world – Buddy Rich – on the cover.
In the early 1950s C.G. Conn went through some changes, first combining their drum brands into one by creating the Leedy & Ludwig brand name, and then later shutting down operations and exiting the drum business completely.
This opened the door for William and his son Bill Jr (who he was now working with) to purchase the Ludwig trademark back from Conn, allowing the company to transition to being known by their birthname once again.
Ludwig Drums: A Starr is born
A steady growth in sales and reputation continued for Ludwig into the 1960s, but nothing could have prepared them for what would come next. In 1964, a little-known British outfit called The Beatles made their international TV debut on The Ed Sullivan show and changed popular culture forever. The drummer, Ringo Starr, chose to play a Black Oyster Pearl Ludwig drum kit, with the Ludwig brand logo visibly plastered across the 20” bass drum. It has been said that this choice was made purely because he loved the color and finish of the kit, but William F. Ludwig’s grandson has a different theory,
“[Ringo] put our name on the front of his bass drum head … [because] he was so proud that he had an imported drum set from America, especially from a famous company like Ludwig, that at the time of purchase he insisted on having the Ludwig name painted on the front of the head!”
Wherever the truth lies, one thing is for certain – it changed the fortunes of the Ludwig drum company forever.
An audience of around seventy-three million people now associated Ludwig with the most famous band the world had ever known, and sales immediately reflected this. Ludwig’s revenue doubled to $13 million almost overnight and production was now being carried out on a 24/7 basis.
During this time the Ludwig drum company was selling the most popular snare drum in the world, the “Super Ludwig 400” (which had its name changed to the Ludwig “Supra-Phonic 400”, along with a few other design changes).
In 1966, Ludwig acquired Musser Mallet Percussion and began marketing their brand as Total Percussion. This move would begin decades of dominance in the lucrative school percussion market, and for the next twenty years, Ludwig would be one of the foremost drum manufacturers in North America.
Ludwig Drums: The 1970s and Bonzo
The 1970s continued to be incredibly prosperous for the drum company now known as Ludwig Industries.
The school market was continuing to explode, with Ludwig at the forefront of sales in this area. After the initial global exposure provided by Ringo Starr’s endorsement, more and more key artists began using and promoting Ludwig products.
Perhaps the most notable and famous of artists promoting Ludwig drums was John Bonham of Led Zeppelin. His preference for huge drums (he used a 26X14 inch bass drum) along with his incredibly popular and innovative playing style, added priceless credibility and exposure to the Ludwig brand.
Bonham even pioneered the use of the distinctive plexiglass-shelled Vistalite kit which was released in 1972. His amber-colored version of it is arguably the piece of kit he is best remembered for – along with his Paiste symphonic gong – as it is the set he plays in the acclaimed Led Zeppelin film The Song Remains The Same.
John Bonham, of course, wasn’t the only influential Ludwig-endorsed drummer of the time. In fact, drummers across many genres helped to raise the profile of the Ludwig brand, while showing what was possible with the innovative drum gear.
Another celebrator of the large drums Ludwig produced was Mick Fleetwood of Fleetwood Mac. He told Express about why his first Ludwig kit was his dream kit:
“My next set of drums was my dream kit, made by Ludwig. At the time, Ludwig was the only company that made military, marching-sized bass drums, so a lot of the London drummers back then would configure kits to include the bigger Ludwig military equipment, using oversized tom-toms and bass drums.”
Of course, the ‘drum gods’ of the time could showcase the wide variety of gear Ludwig produced. In particular, the careers of Neil Peart (Rush), Ginger Baker (Cream), Alex Van Halen (Van Halen), and Keith Moon (The Who) included lavish Ludwig double bass drum kits with extra percussion and toms, which showed how the gear can be applied to progressive and rock ‘n’ roll settings.
But there were also the minimalists who did just as much for the image of Ludwig. In the early days of The Rolling Stones, for example, Charlie Watts played Ludwig kits which included only a 12″ x 8″ mounted tom, 16″ x 16″ floor tom, 22″ x 14″ bass drum, and 14″ x 5″ snare. This minimal set-up has been replicated many times since by players such as Mitch Mitchell (The Jimi Hendrix Experience), Marky Ramone (The Ramones), and more recently Meg White (The White Stripes) and Fab Moretti (The Strokes).
Ludwig Drums: A Move Away from Home
In 1981, William F. Ludwig II retired and the Ludwig drum name was sold yet again – this time to The Selmer Company. This culminated in a huge operations shift in 1984 (the 75th anniversary of Ludwig production) as they moved from their home in Chicago to Monroe in North Carolina.
This could be seen as the first step towards the modern Ludwig that we know today, as it aims to cater to drummers of all ages and abilities from all around the world. From the Classic Maple Series kit released in 1998 to the low-cost drums released in the noughties, the products are arguably as accessible and reliable as they ever have been.
Ludwig Drums: Today’s Products
Today, Ludwig offers a range of drum sets that suit players of varying needs and wants.
Ludwig Vintage Select Drum Kit
If you are looking for something most resembling the famous Ludwig kits of the 1960s, then the Ludwig Vintage Select Series has you covered. This recently released range is even completely finished in nickel-plated classic hardware – the first time Ludwig has done this in over 50 years.
Ludwig Legacy Drum Kit
The most popular Ludwig drums range (and arguably the one held in the highest regard by players) is the Ludwig Legacy Series. It comes in both mahogany (3-ply Mahogany/Poplar/Mahogany shell with solid 1/4″ thick maple reinforcement rings) and maple (1/16″ Maple Outer Ply, 1/8″ Poplar Core Ply, 1/16″ Maple Inner Ply with 1/4″ Solid Maple Reinforcement Rings), combining the classic Ludwig shell designs with a modern twist. Like the Vintage Select Series, these Ludwig kits come in a variety of finishes, including the sparkle and oyster pearl finishes which have become synonymous with Ludwig drum sets.
Ludwig Vistalite Drum Kit
The Ludwig Vistalite kit made famous by John Bonham is still being made today. It is available in a range of colours including amber, blue, yellow, clear, smoke, pink, and Red-Yellow-Green Island Sunset. They feature the classic blue/olive-style badges from the 1970s, large classic lugs, classic brackets, curved spurs, and vibra-band suspension tom mounts. The older Ludwig Vistalite range has had issues of drums cracking in the past, and Ludwig claims to have solved this issue with stricter manufacturing guidelines, a fully stabilized shell, and dual reinforced seams.
Ludwig Pocket Kit Drum Set
Of course, as with most world-renowned drum manufacturers in the 21st century, it is imperative that they offer suitable kits to kids, beginners, and intermediate players. To this end, Ludwig offers the Pocket Kit Series which is designed for 4-10-year-old drummers in mind. This was created as a result of a collaboration with Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson, the drummer from the legendary hip-hop group The Roots. It comes with a 16” bass drum, 12” snare drum, 10” rack tom, and a 13” floor tom, as well as hi-hats and a crash/ride cymbal – quite simply an affordable and accessible way for kids to get started on their drumming journey.
Ludwig Accent & Evolution Drum Kits
For older beginners and intermediate players, the Ludwig Accent Series and Evolution Series are good options. The Accent Series is an out-of-the-box solution for the new drummer that needs everything at an affordable price. The Evolution Series is an upgrade on the Accent, as it offers double-braced hardware and is shipped with Zildjian I-Series cymbals included. It also boasts a choice of set-ups, including a 6-piece option with a second 14×14 floor tom. Both of these ranges come in a variety of colors.
Ludwig Breakbeats Drum Set
Another fruitful result of Ludwig’s collaboration with Questlove is the Ludwig Breakbeats Series. According to Questlove himself,
“I wanted to build a device that was apartment-friendly and compact for the street musician, but also something that was quality-sounding. A gritty, raw, ‘break-able’ kit for gigging in clubs that you can fit in a cab. Breakbeats by Questlove does it all.”
The kit comes with a 14×16” bass drum, 7×10” tom, and 13×13” floor tom. It is also equipped with multi-purpose bags which are not only for transporting the kit easily but also for muting the drums to suit your setting. It comes in three sparkle finishes and is perfect for the busker on-the-move, as well as those with limited space to practice.
Ludwig Drums: A History Spanning 100+ Years
Since its humble beginnings in the early 20th century as a side-hustle for a pair of German immigrant brothers in Chicago, Ludwig has gone through many technical and commercial changes.
While ownership of the drum company has changed hands on many occasions over the decades, it remains defined by the quality, range, and innovation of its products, as well as the great drummers of the 20th century who endorsed them.
Although the drum manufacturing industry has become more competitive than ever, Ludwig’s prestigious history and reliability seem set to continue to set it apart going forward.