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Vintage View - Leedy and Ludwig Knob Tension Kit

There have been various attempts to make a drum which tuned by way of screws set in the shell rather than above it. Leedy & Ludwig’s offering which came out in May 1950 certainly wasn’t the first, nor I’m prepared to bet, is it likely to be the last. 

My interest in ‘Knob Tension’ was re-awakened at the 2015 Chicago Drum Show when I spotted the first one I’d seen in the flesh. It was available with an asking price of $1200! I often say a particular set had my name on, meaning I was interested in buying it, but this one really did – it actually was painted with ‘ Bob H’ on the front head!

I suppose I should own-up to the fact that I probably know more about the subject of ‘progressive-single-screw-tuning’ than most because of my involvement with Arbiter’s AT project. And in retrospect, to my way of thinking, it’s always been the answer to a question which no end-user was actually asking. It seems it’s a solution to a problem which doesn’t exist and therefore nobody cares about it.

Photo courtesy of Mark Cooper - www.coopersvintagedrums.com

However Leedy & Ludwig’s came out when everybody was looking with hope to the future which was going to change all our lives and the knob tension set was indubitably set to rule the world. In America space exploration was very high on the agenda and anything futuristic was good including aeroplanes, cars, guitars, television, fridges and of course music. L & L’s brochure trumpeted of it being: “a new world of modernistic beauty and advanced styling”!

Drums though hadn’t really changed as far as the casual observer was concerned  - until Knob Tension came along that is. And like it’s contemporary, the solid electric guitar, it looked very space-age.

There was nothing unusual about its sizes though: 13 x 9” and 16 x 16” toms, 22 or 24 x 14” bass drums and a choice of snare drums: 14 x 4.5” and 14 x 5.5. Their tuning was described by Leedy & Ludwig’s brochure as being “as easy as dialling your own radio”.  A necessary and satisfyingly large turned and screw-threaded knob (very reminiscent of a Gretsch damper control) with knurling on the edge, was attached to the outside of the shell in six places and mated with an aluminium cantilever inside which looked and acted like an old-fashioned  European car jack. Tightening up the outside knob acted on the cantilever arms inside the drum and moved them and the ring they were attached towards the inside of the head and pushed against it. The head was stopped from moving upwards and arrested by a  flange at the top of and inside the counterhoop.

Photo courtesy of Mark Cooper - www.coopersvintagedrums.com

Of course it only increased the tension on the head and raised the pitch at one of the six positions I mentioned earlier.  You could change the pitch of the top and bottom head independently and you could tell which head you were tuning because the six knobs for the batter head had a ‘bump’ on their edges and the six others for the reso didn’t. Unfortunately changing the heads was Knob Tension’s Achilles heel. You had to loosen the big knobs and release the smaller ones which held the rolled-over and inverse-flanged extra-deep brass counter-hoops in place and lift the whole unit off. This was evidently time-consuming. The hoop had a centre bead to strengthen it and stop it buckling much like a Ludwig 400 shell which of course had yet to be invented.

According to Bill Ludwig II these drums almost bankrupted the Leedy & Ludwig company and since it gave up the unequal struggle in 1955, the unsuccessful knob tension may well have contributed to the Ludwig family’s ability to escape from the clutches of Leedy and get on with WFL.

As I said the set was meant to rule the world and change the face of drumming but besides being expensive and complicated to produce it may well have been the first piece of equipment to prove that drummers are ultimately conservative with a small ‘c’. Even though ostensibly it offered drummers a better product they perversely avoided it because among other things, they didn’t like the way it looked. As with Jimmy Reno and Ivor Arbiter’s sets they missed the pretty nutboxes which added to the visuals and broke up the otherwise large unremitting expanse of shell.  (Jimmy went as far as fitting dummy nutbox-shaped plates to his ‘Pressure Ring’ drums and Ivor jokingly talked about doing it to AT!)

Photo courtesy of Mark Cooper - www.coopersvintagedrums.com

To my mind some of the reasons that they published at the time to persuade you to buy L & L’s revolutionary product were spurious in the extreme: “no more clanking drumkeys to fumble with” was one of them. Another was prosaic but more acceptable: “streamlined, clean cut appearance for new drum beauty”. A third was “the air chamber is increased by tightening the heads and decreased by loosening, thus creating a suspended, or floating cushion of air – greatly improves ‘drumistic sound’ and playing ease”. 

While we’re on the subject of Jimmy Reno, he always claims his internal-tension method of tuning was ripped-off by Leedy & Ludwig because he took his invention to an American music show after the war and the next thing he knew was that ‘Knob Tension’ was released. Now it’s certainly not for me to speculate on this but quite some time earlier during World War II, when there was an embargo on essential war materials (like metals) being used for non-essential purposes, WFL brought out their ‘Victorious’ line. It had no nutboxes but instead featured bowed wooden staves inside - which while not under tension were very slightly shorter than the depth of the shells. The curved slats were held under tension by bolts through the shell and their centres and as you tightened any of the drum-key operated screws set in the side of the shell with your regular drum key it decreased the bow of the relevant slat and moved the end of it slightly up so it put pressure on the very edge of the inside of the animal skin drum head.

Photo courtesy of Mark Cooper - www.coopersvintagedrums.com

It’s fair to say that Victorious, knob tension and pressure ring drums would have worked better had the plastic head have been invented when they came out. Since plastic is more malleable, pliably, resilient and has a memory which returns to rest - and animal skins don’t - Mylar is a much better material for the purpose. But unfortunately while it existed as a film which wouldn’t burst into flames for photographic reconnaissance purposes at the time, no one had suggested any other use for it. Its use for drums wouldn’t be for a few years. 

There were other problems with ‘Knob tension’ drums though besides the heads. They were hard to tune and unreliable because the internal links were prone to breaking and often the pressure produced by turning the tuning knobs caused the wooden reinforcing rings to break away from the shells. This was more serious for the snare drum which needed its heads to be extra tight to produce a crisp snappy sound - whereas the toms and bass drum didn’t. They sounded fine at normal tuning tensions  –  fat and drummy. Unfortunately changing drumheads wasn’t quick at all either and necessitated dismantling  the drums.

Knob Tension drums were available in white marine or black pearl; sparkling gold, green, red or blue, as well as Tri-tone blue and silver lacquer. I’ve seen pictures of other sets like Sonny Greer’s with his initials inlaid on the shells and a black set with large gold stars on it like Carlton’s. Obviously these were to special order. 

The snares came in black or white pearl finishes or basic chrome and were fitted with Leedy & Ludwig’s new precision ‘Feather touch’ strainer which had rocker-arm attachments at each end and were joined to 18 strand ‘snappi’ snares. Knob Tension bass drum shells were fitted with mounts and arms for the 15 and 18” cymbals along with a rail for the 13” tom.

Bob Henrit

July 2015

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