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Vintage Views - Kent

We’re back on slightly more familiar territory this month with an American drumset, but not one as we know it Jim! Kent drums were made at 1189, Military Road in a town called Kenmore which is in upstate New York, close to Buffalo on America’s East Coast. According to some sources they were the worst produced drums of the 20th Century but that said, they were, I’m told, the standard ‘garage band’ drums of the area around where they were built, and many successful drummers got their start on them.

The business was called the EW Kent Manufacturing Company and owned by two brothers, Ed and Bill. Bill evidently having worked for Gretsch  claimed 25 years experience of making drums when they started their own production in the late forties. The story goes that while working for Gretsch Bill tried to persuade them to build an entry-level kit which, when they refused to countenance the idea, persuaded the Kent brothers to produce their own. There is a school of thought which says the Kent shells were simply Gretsch ‘seconds’ but, since they claim to have made 1000 sets and 700 marching drums, that accusation seems a little far-fetched to me. Even if the kits were only four pieces that’s an awful lot of rejects and to cause that many, someone at Jasper, where the shells came from, must have been doing something seriously wrong!

Kent drums were sold mostly through ‘Mom and Pop’ music stores and, perhaps more importantly, through one of the mail-order catalogues which was the way many, many people once shopped in America. If you lived in the middle of nowhere (say) and wanted a lawn mower, or a record player, a bike, television (or possibly even a drum kit), rather than trekking miles into the nearest town, you’d buy it from a coloured catalogue (which was as thick as a telephone directory and equally comprehensive) and UPS or US mail would deliver it PDQ.  So Sears Roebuck sold Kent drums as, I suspect, did Montgomery Ward and possibly JC Penney, the other big general merchandise mail-order companies of the time.  The drums they showed though weren’t always called by Bill and Ed’s surname - they also had Revere, Paramount and Musketeer which were simply rebadged Kents still with foil decals.  One of the sets was actually brass-badged (a serious step up) and called ‘Vibratone’.

Evidently just about everything about the set was ‘cheap and cheerful’ with the exception of the covering which made it look like everything their more-illustrious competitors were putting out - but at a fraction of the price. This price saving could only be achieved by cutting corners, which I’m told they did enthusiastically.  This is the reason for their reputation of being the worst-produced drums of the 20th Century and it seems they frequently spoiled the ship for a ha’porth of tar by fitting nutboxes and strainers crookedly to the shells and not bothering to properly finish (or in extreme cases even include) bearing-edges and snare-beds.  There were also problems with pressed-steel parts like their ‘Rapid’ long-levered, throw-off that soon broke. It seems no two Kent drums were ever alike!

Apart from the Rapid, there was another throw-off called ‘Paramount’ with a ‘trigger fast’ action which reminded me of a Regency door knocker. It was substantial and looked solid and fool-proof - so perhaps it was. However, as I’ve learned from researching this month’s Vintage View, there is no guarantee it did!

Kent shells during the fifties and sixties were very like Gretsch (hence those rumours as to the origination of the shells) ie two plies of maple for mounted toms and snare and six plies of the same wood for the basses, floor toms and hoops. They started out with a hoop mount tom holder with a spade-fitting on the tom itself which looked exactly like Gretsch’s, so will have been made by Walberg and Auge, who also provided stands to finish-off Kent sets. The cymbal stands often supported Kent cymbals which turn out to have been made by Meinl.

Eventually though they came up with their own (?) patented ratchet tom holder and cymbal arm receiver block called ‘Adjust-o-matic’ which was along the lines of Rogers ‘Swiv-o-matic’ and it too also had hexagonal steel posts which I suspect over time will have had its own inherent problems. It operated via a ‘ball and cage’ with a slit in the ball and a hexagonal hole to grip the tom holder or cymbal stand. This cymbal holder was mostly inconveniently set in the middle of the bass drum. The drum sizes were in line with those all the other manufacturers produced: the only anomaly seeming to have been a 15 x 15” floor tom standing on double bent legs. 

There were actually three Kent nutboxes, the first being a simple eye-post bolted in the middle of the drum with extra-long tension screws on either side of it. The second was very much like Leedy’s elegant nut box and the third was sort of diamond-shaped but with six sides. All these lugs were solid with springs inside and self-aligning - although it wouldn’t be able to do that successfully if they weren’t in line with one another! Some snare drums had six tensioners per head although others had the more professional eight.  Their double-ended snare-drum nutboxes were called ‘coffins’ because in plan elevation that’s what they looked like. There was a diamond-shaped throw-off to match that third generation of nutboxes.

Kent offered a set called ‘Bob Cat Combo’ which probably didn’t have anything to do with Bob Crosby’s band of the same name. It had pretty much the usual sizes of the period 20 x 14” bass drums, 12 x 8, 14 x 14 toms with a 14 x 5.5” snare which was on offer in 1950 something for $247.50. Of course you could also get 22 x 14, 13 x 9 and 16 x16” sizes and these were as usual used in their various sets.  

Another set which Kent produced (and to my way of thinking a highly collectible one) had an 18 x 14” bass drum with triple-flanged, metal counterhoops. To enable them to take the jaws of a bass pedal, the clamp for a cowbell or woodblock they had plates welded to the hoop and set at the 12 and 6 o’clock positions. That set was called ‘Jet Set’ and was a 4-piece with a 12 x 8 and 14 x 14” toms and a 14 x 5” snare drum.  

In 1967 they made a cocktail unit too called ‘Combo’ which measured 15” in diameter and 25” high. There was a snare under the top head, floor tom legs and the usual bass drum pedal hitting upwards on the bottom head.  

The produced-in-America ‘T-handles’ were reminiscent of Gretsch, as were the disappearing spurs, while the pressed steel bass drum claws were more like Ludwig.  

While almost everybody else in America was making their badges from brass, Kent were making theirs from what they called ‘foil’ which was paper-based and not at all permeable. This is evidently the reason why lots of their drums are without badges - they’ve torn or worn off leaving just the air hole grommet, but if you are in need, I actually found a company which makes replacement decals for them if you’re interested. While I’m on the subject, Walberg and Auge used similar foil badges on their own ‘Perfection’ drums.  Bill and Ed used white and gold badges flower-shaped badges in the fifties and blue and gold in the sixties emblazoned with ''W and E Kent Kenmore 17, NY''.  

I have never actually owned any Kent drums although in my days of foraging through pawn shops all over America I certainly saw quite a few of them. I resisted the temptation to buy them, something which, having seen immaculate Kent sets at Rob Cook’s Chicago drum show, I sort of regret.  I really liked the look of them and, providing you (or I) buy a good one with a retro finish at the right price, we’ll be quid’s- in and everybody will think we’ve got a vintage Gretsch.

While I’m on the subject of finishes Kent sets were available in: Black Diamond, Red Oyster, Capri Black, or Marine White Pearl; as well as red, gold, silver, green, capri-black, orange and blue sparkles, and Pink Pearl champagne.  I’m told a finish called Red Oyster is very rare and made exclusively for Kent but to me it looks suspiciously like the Burgundy Ripple covering Ajax used for their drums in their sixties heyday .

All Kent drums came as standard with ‘Weather King’ heads which was of course how Mr Belli’s products were known when the first came out. Nowadays of course they’d be called Remo Ambassadors. 

So what one should be looking for in a Kent drumset is one with a blue ‘flower’ badge covered in red oyster pearl with nutboxes that line up, bearing edges that work and a snare throw-off in working order.  If you can find that for a song I suggest you chop the seller’s arm off!  You’ll have a pretty good-looking not to mention good-sounding drumset.

Their published information from Kent, at the time that Japanese drums were really taking hold, stated their drums were made from “10 plies of ‘ply by ply’, with no bending of plywood”. Their metal parts were ''diamond chrome plated'' - copper, nickel, chrome. They also had “extra-thick covering laminated over the shell and not tacked on like the imports”.  

Kent  stopped making their drums in the US in 1972 but continued the marque with ‘stencil’ drum sets made with luan shells and otherwise available as ‘Royal Stars’ with glue-rings. They now offered steel shell snare drums, some with parallel-action mechanisms. Initially the first of these sets were put together in the US from shells produced by Pearl in Japan but eventually they turned to the dark side and moved all manufacture to Japan - lock, stock and barrel. By 1977 Kent drums were effectively out of business - ‘Bill and Ted’s excellent adventure’ was over.

Bob Henrit

October 2015

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