Premier Drums: From the 1920s to Today
By Callum Rollo
The very first drum kit I ever played was an old battered Premier APK kit that lay mostly dormant in my school’s music room. I was 14 years old and it was by far the most inviting musical instrument I’d ever come across.
I used to get told off for playing guitars and xylophones too hard, but this looked designed for it. The worn-out drum skins, the chipped bass drum shell where the heavy-duty chrome of the toms had dug in, as well as the gaffer’s tape all over the snare and floor tom gave me that impression.
Then I saw the video for ‘Town Called Malice’ by The Jam. Drummer Rick Buckler was playing an amazing Premier drum kit, and I got quite excited. As a result of all this, I have quite a strong affinity with the brand and thought it would be worthwhile to dive deep into the company, its history, and its innovations.
Premier Drums in the 1920s & 1930s: The Premier Collaboration
Premier drums has a long and proud history dating back to 1922, when drummer Albert Della Porta joined forces with renowned English drum builder George Smith. The company was formed, and they opened their first factory on Berwick Street in London.
In the beginning, they did not brand their instruments, instead manufacturing for other companies (most notably John E. Dallas and his ‘Jedson’ trademark). However, as the company grew stronger, and with the addition of Della Porta’s brother Fred as sales manager, Premier began producing its own drum kits mainly consisting of a bass drum, a snare, a stand, a cymbal and sometimes a woodblock and small tom.
Timpani drums also played a large part in Premier’s early growth, as they were sold to silent movie theatres to be used for sound effects. Unfortunately, this market rapidly declined with the introduction of talking pictures, but it did not halt the growth of the company.
In the 1930s, they were producing not only drums but clarinets, brass instruments, and even a solitary solid body guitar called ‘Premier Vox’ which came with an amplifier.
The production of this plethora of new instruments was enabled by the operation of two factories which ended up in Park Royal in West London. During this period came many early endorsers of Premier Drums. Known as ‘Ace’ drummers at the time, players such as Ray Ellington, Max Abrams, George Fierstone, and Max Bacon helped to promote the equipment in Premier catalogues which proudly declared ‘9 out of 10 stars play Premier’.
Premier Drums in the 1940s & 1950s: Wartime Duties & Postwar Production
By 1940, world war two was having a monumental impact on the company in a number of different ways. Firstly, the West London factory was bombed by the Nazis.
The impact of the bombing meant Premier had to relocate to three small factories in Wigston, just south of Leicester in the English midlands. And despite producing drums and other instruments for the British Army, the government ordered the new factories to be used for the production of gun sights and electrical plugs and sockets for radar equipment, effectively halting the production of musical equipment until the end of the war.
With increased post-war American influence, the latter part of the 1940s saw the boom of the ‘big-band’ era in Britain, which had truly peaked by the 1950s. This period saw rapid progression and development of equipment. Most notably perhaps, was the evolution from the ‘console’ or ‘trap’ kits to the neater, simpler layout drummers are familiar with today.
Products such as the 250 bass drum pedal and Zyn cymbals, along with kit developments like chrome hardware and tilting hi-hat cups, were extremely innovative at the time and helped now-legendary players like Ray Ellington, Eric Delaney, Tony Crombie, and Norman Burns to become household names in Britain.
Around 1958, Premier became one of the very first companies to produce its own plastic drumheads. Premier Everplay heads were made from Melanex, and were mechanically clamped into the self-hoop around a square bar, rather than glued. Since then, they continued to produce heads to keep up with musical developments, including the Premier Powerplay (which had a central doughnut) and Premier TwinSkin (with a larger but narrower doughnut between two plies, for a much thicker sound).
Premier Drums in the 1960s & 1970s: Rock ‘n’ Roll Ambassadors
By the time of the ‘beat boom’ in the 1960s, Premier was producing a much wider range of drums with a variety of colours and setups available. The ‘54’, ’58’, and ‘duroplastic’ drum sets were proving to be incredibly popular, not only because of their neat and simple setups but also because of the legendary players who endorsed them.
Premier was at the forefront of the rock ‘n’ roll revolution in Britain, with Keith Moon (The Who), Bobby Elliot (The Hollies), and even Ringo Starr (The Beatles) all using their products. But it wasn’t just in Britain where Premier was popular, as many of the American Be-bop drummers like Art Blakely, Kenny Clarke, and Philly Joe Jones also choosing to play the now world-famous drum brand. And it’s no surprise given some of the innovations of the time, for example the legendary Premier 2000 snare drum which was launched in 1966.
The 1970s brought a further expansion of the Premier drum company, with a new purpose-built factory in Leicester. This allowed for some radical innovations. Not least, the Resonator ‘shell-within-a-shell’ concept which was designed by drum builder Alan Gilby. These outfits suited a wide range of genres, from the classic jazz trio to stadium rock.
But it was the emergence of a new genre that had a considerable impact on the image and branding of Premier in this decade. Punk rock was exploding onto the UK music scene, and it brought with it a lot of nationalistic pride. The musicians in the movement typically chose to play instruments manufactured in their home country, and as a result, Premier became strongly associated with it.
Paul Cook (The Sex Pistols), Rocky Rhythm (Revillos), and Rat Scabies (The Damned) were some of the early adopters of Premier drums in the scene. As the genre expanded into sub-genres like ‘New Wave’ and ‘The Mods’, Premier expanded with it. Clem Burke (Blondie), John Maher (The Buzzcocks), Paul Thompson (Roxy Music), Rick Buckler (The Jam), and Billy Docherty (The Undertones) played prominent roles in Premier’s drum advertisements. They joined the established stadium rockers like Phil Collins (Genesis) and John Coghlan (Status Quo) in becoming the faces of the company, aiding the evolution and growth of Premier drums to whole new levels.
Premier Drums in the 1980s: Premier’s Drum Kit Innovation & Reinvention
The 1980s saw Premier truly capitalize on its wide and diverse reach into the various popular genres of the time. Carl Palmer (Asia), Charlie Morgan (Elton John), and John Keeble (Spandau Ballet) were some of the new ambassadors the company brought on board.
It was an incredibly productive period for Premier in terms of drum innovations, seemingly creating kits for drummers of every conceivable style. No matter what kind of drummer you were, Premier Elite, Resonator, Soundwave, and Club kits had you covered. Hardware ranges were also expanded to meet the demands of the modern styles of playing. Although the Lokfast hardware remained ‘standard issue’ for jazz drummers, the new Trilock range and 252 bass drum pedal (which used a compression spring similar to the Trick Pro 1-V) offered a more robust and heavy-duty option for the heavier players of the time.
Continuing their innovation in drumhead manufacturing, Premier was one of the first companies to produce bass drum heads with pre-cut holes. These were called ‘Polo’ and released in 1984.
Exciting new snare drum options were also created by Premier, including the Heavy Rock 9 range and The Project One. The ’80s was also a time for a revolution for drumming consumers as Premier spearheaded the ‘value-priced’ market with the APK and XPK kits. This equipment was much more affordable for the general consumer but did not sacrifice on Premier’s established drum kit quality.
The decade also brought electronic music to prominence across many different genres. The use of electronic drum kits and sample pads became quite common, and the creation of the Premier PowerPack electronic kit reflected this.
Despite being a decade for renowned innovation, Premier also encountered financial difficulties. After entering receivership in 1984, the company was bailed out by a consortium headed up by The Royal Bank of Scotland. In 1987 they actually merged with Yamaha for a period of five years, before buying themselves out of it at the end of 1992.
Premier Drums in the 1990s & 2000s: A Modern Success Story
The 1990s brought about the birth of two exceptionally popular new drum kit ranges: The Premier Signia and Genista. The Signia kits are famous for their low-end, warm sound due in part to their thin maple shells with rings. Premier Genista drum kits produce a brighter and punchy tone from birch shells with no rings. These kits have proven to be timeless and are still in demand even to this day.
In 1997, Premier decided to commemorate its 75th anniversary with a special collector’s edition drum kit of each range. The company honored its tradition by having some of the biggest British drummers of the time endorse its products, like Nicko McBrain (Iron Maiden) and Philip Selway (Radiohead). In the USA, Brad Wilk (Rage Against The Machine) was flying the flag for the drum brand.
With the new millennium came perhaps the greatest modernization of Premier’s drum products since the 1980s. Along with the Modern Classic, Cabria series, and Artist series, the decade brought the emergence of a new flagship kit: The Premier series. Its unprecedented availability of specification options and reliable performance has proven popular with some of the most diverse contemporary players from Donovan Hepburn (Take That), Chris Sharrock (Oasis + Robbie Williams), Steve Barney (Annie Lennox), and Matt Helders (Arctic Monkeys).
Premier Drums Today: Drum Kit Buying Guide
Whatever your ability is, today’s Premier drum kit range offers renowned quality across entry, mid and high-end drum sets.
Premier drum kits for beginners
For beginners, the Premier Olympic and Powerhouse drum kit ranges have proven to be some of the most popular kits in the world.
Premier Olympic Drum Kit
The Premier Olympic range is created from handpicked 6 ply basswood and various durable wrap finishes are available. Sturdy double-braced hardware comes in either black or chrome, and 1.5mm triple-flanged steel hoops give the drums a strong and consistent sound. There is also a junior model for younger players.
Premier Powerhouse Drum Kit
The Premier Powerhouse range is made from poplar wood and offers classier wooden bass drum hoops (as opposed to the metal hoops on the Premier Olympic). The Premier Powerhouse drum set also features triple-flanged steel hoops on the toms, along with a selection of retro wrap finishes, delivering more in quality, looks, and feel than the price point suggests.
Premier drum kits for intermediate drummers
Premier APK & XPK Drum Kits
The Premier APK and XPK drum sets have become popular choices among intermediate players and working drummers alike.
Both ranges come are made with 100% birch shells, and these kits are known for a bright and easily tuned sound right out of the box. They’re also equipped with an ISO mounting system designed to increase the sustain of the drums (sidenote: see here for more on how drum construction and mounting influence your sound!).
Although the shells and hardware are pretty much the same on each, the APK comes with a steel snare drum as opposed to the matching birch snare featured on the Premier XPK.
Other than this, the main difference between the Premier APK vs. XPK is the available finishes. By paying a little more for the Premier XPK, you can choose from 4 available lacquer finishes. In comparison, the APK offers similar wrap finishes to those available on the Premier Olympic range. If looks are even more important, the higher-level Premier XPK Exclusive range features a satin finish option.
Premier Heritage Drum Kit
The Premier Heritage range allows Premier to show off its legacy. Here, they offer a quality vintage style kit at an affordable price.
The Premier Heritage is available in a classic 4 piece configuration or a concert tom configuration. Whether it’s the 60’s or 70’s that resonate with you more, you can choose the look and feel that suits you best (all the way down to clear retro black-dot drumheads similar to a Remo CS!).
The Heritage’s retro-style classic wraps and vintage bass drum spurs are another nostalgic nod to Premier’s legacy. Overall the Premier Heritage drum kit range is worth checking out if you’re looking for a classic-looking and great-sounding drum set.
Premier drum kits for advanced drummers
When it comes to high-end drum kits, Premier offers the Genista and Elite series.
Premier Genista Drum Kit
It was one of the best-selling drum kits of the ’90s, and today’s Premier Genista regeneration has become just as popular.
Premier offers a choice of maple and birch internally lacquered shells, in sparkle and high gloss or classic wraps. These choices ensure owners are getting both the wood and look that they are aiming for.
The undersized toms are designed for clearer sound quality, and the brighter, harder diamond chrome hardware provides an iconic, durable, and unmistakable design.
Premier Elite Drum Kit
The Premier Elite series is the modern flagship drum kit on offer from Premier. It has been designed using the highest quality materials available, and with the intention of giving the owner the most flexibility in terms of configuration and personalization.
Each tom is fitted with 2.3mm triple-flanged steel hoops. Rack toms are fitted to a flush-fit ISO mount, which creates a clear separation of the mount from the drum (for increased sustain and tonality), and a smaller mount profile (the “flush-fit”) to allow for closer placement of drums.
Most intriguingly, this kit comes with three different shell options – birch, maple, and Gen-X. Birch and maple are common offerings from drum makers, but if you can’t decide, the Gen-X shells are a 7 ply hybrid of the two kinds of wood.
The Elite range also offers a seemingly endless list of potential finishes including woodgrain lacquers and sunning sparkles in even-coat, fade or burst applications. If you can picture your ideal drum kit, the Premier Elite has a finish that will get you there.
Premier Drums Innovations & Legacy
Since its conception in the 1920s, Premier has been one of the most respected drum manufacturers in the industry. It has its roots placed firmly and proudly on British soil, and has evolved in sync with popular music for over a century.
Drummers at the forefront of jazz, be-bop, big band, rock, punk, glam, brit-pop, and more have all endorsed and worked with Premier drums to create some of the most iconic and innovative products in the history of the industry.
The company’s ability to both create and adapt to trends means that to this day it remains one of the most established drum brands in the world.
They are responsible for so many crucial innovations, many of which drummers take for granted today.
The three-legged 245 drum throne with a saddle seat for example, with its special quick setup lock for its twin struts. Long high-tension drum lugs were also a Premier invention, designed to evenly distribute stress across the drum shell. Although this change was met with criticism upon release, it proved to be ahead of its time as many other drum manufacturers opted for this design in the hard-hitting ’70s.
Premier can also claim to be one of the main developers of the modern hi-hat stand. All other companies ended up copying the side-pull hi-hat with tilting bottom cymbal cup, and the double-locking nuts on the underside of the clutch.
From its humble nameless beginnings as a collaboration between a drummer and a drum builder, Premier has grown into one of the most recognizable and renowned percussion companies in the world.
With some of the most iconic drummers – both past and present – endorsing their gear, its place in the history of popular music is undoubtedly secured. While Premier is an instrument manufacturer often associated with terms like ‘vintage’, they are also a company that has innovated in countless areas and can claim to be heavily influential in the way modern drum sets play, look, and feel.
Despite a history dotted with some difficult periods financially, it seems certain that this priceless combination of tradition and progress will continue to serve the drum industry well for many years to come.