Let it Roll
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This is my quest for a magical combination of percussive instruments to make a very small, yet expressive drum kit ideal for street beat grooves and funky organic beats. We’re talking simple here with just snare drum, bass drum, tambourine, splash cymbal, and limited percussion. That's it. Make music.
Ludwig Supraphonic 5" x 14" Snare Drum
The tradition. The anchor. The snare drum. At the heart of this mission is one of my all-time favorite percussive instruments—the Ludwig Supraphonic snare drum. Stamped as being born in 1997 from the Monroe, North Carolina Ludwig factory, this darling was a sweet little music shop find a few years ago in the Mississippi River bluffs of Dubuque, Iowa. We’ve been together ever since.
Before we met, I had owned and played a number of Ludwig metal shell snare drums including a 6.5” x 14” import entry-level model, a newer era 6.5” x 14” Acrolite, and a 5” x 14” coveted “chrome over brass” limited edition drum.
I really do understand the appeal many have for the warmth of a brass shell and Ludwig brass drums like the Black Beauty continue to be a “holy grail” snare drum for many collections. But for me, that sound sometimes comes with a boost in chunky midrange “honk” that doesn’t always sit right or becomes something that has to be tuned around in certain situations.
A little farther down the sonic spectrum is the sound of the black sparkle powder coated aluminum Acrolite. Pleasant sounding? Yes. Fun to play? Absolutely. A little thin sounding? Yeah. I’ll try to sound like a hip producer here and call it a “transparent” sound.
But sitting in between too chunky and too thin is a glorious sweet spot. This is the sound of the Supraphonic. A sound that has been chosen for decades by iconic drummers and heard on iconic recordings. With a balanced tone, always smooth and clean, this drum is classic in sound and look. It delivers plenty of quiet sensitivity and responsiveness, when you need it, and is very predictable and controllable with muffling, when you don’t. Bashed, brushed, or buzzed, this drum takes it all, effortlessly, and sends out the sounds you expect, beautifully.
LA BackBeat Drumsticks
People do unusual things here in Lafayette, LA. Unusual, that is, for a city this size if it existed anywhere else but South Louisiana. And what are these unusual, and truly wonderful, behaviors? Well, things like following your passion opening a recording studio or launching boutique companies that make guitar amps like Lullaby Sound Design and drumsticks like LA BackBeat. And you know it’s a true music town when a population the size of Lafayette can sustain its own dedicated drum shop like Scott’s Drum Center.
It was in the laid-back environment of Scott’s that I first got my hands around an actual pair of LA BackBeat sticks. I was previously aware of their story from some local media coverage and their creator, Frank Kincel was a hero for this whole endeavor, in my mind. At that time, being a recent transplant, I didn’t even know yet that he is also a real drumming hero in the region. I hope to see his playing in person soon and maybe even meet the man himself.
That man has been busy, according to his own reports via Facebook, hustling to secure enough hickory supply to keep up with the demand from his small batch operation. And that frenzied demand was evident that day in Scott’s. Another drummer was checking out several of his sticks at the same time I was, and the overall selection had already been pretty well depleted.
To give these sticks a fair review, I was originally looking for a close match to a 5A stick diameter I’ve used for years from one of the big stick manufacturers. No luck. Long gone. So instead, I went for a smaller 7A equivalent model, called the X535 model. This is considered a longer “X” variation at 16 inches, with an acorn tip, and the diameter is, you guessed it, 0.535 inches. I don’t usually like this smaller diameter and left the shop with expectations lowered. Turns out, the situation couldn’t have been better for the revelations waiting for me.
My first impressions of every stick I quickly handled in the store spoke of exceptional wood quality. Maybe it’s just me, but they even felt denser and more “solid” compared to some big names. All were precisely straight, well balanced, and with consistent tapers leading to great tip profiles, all crisply cut and smooth. Then I found out, once I got to spend some playing time with the LA BackBeat X535 model at home, that one of the most remarkable characteristics of these sticks is their unique finish.
This is nowhere near the slick lacquer finish found on most mass-produced sticks. Nor is it the raw, unfinished feel of some fairly recent stick trends. It’s somewhere in the middle and just right, as far as I’m concerned. According to the maker’s website, this is the result of an all-natural finishing process using beeswax and lemon oil. After playing the LA BackBeat’s, it became apparent to me how much the relatively slippery lacquer of other sticks was forcing and limiting my playing options. I learned that I had been likely playing larger lacquer sticks for years because I needed the extra surface area to feel like I had control of the stick in my fingers.
With LA BackBeat’s comes a new found confidence to explore sizes and weights previously off limits for me. These new sizes, and their inherent solid feel, actually fit in my hand more appropriately and provide speed (at least my modest level of speed) and control with greater ease and comfort. I can’t wait to try more sticks soon including their long taper “bounce” variations. This is downright fun; exactly what drumming should be.
I didn’t have a chance to test out the finish of these sticks in anything close to a sweaty live playing environment. But LA BackBeat has numerous professional drummers playing their sticks live, so they must be up to the job. It’s also worth noting that a strong consensus from the field, prevalent on their website, is love for their prolonged durability. Good wood, done right, I’m guessing.
I also don’t really have the ability to review these sticks in a proper jazz context where sophisticated and slinky ride cymbal playing is required. But that is definitely the playing domain of Mr. Kincel himself, according to the videos I have seen, so confidence would have to be high for those styles.
So what was another truly remarkable characteristic of these sticks? The price. They are available online and in store at roughly the same price as any other brand name. Everything about these sticks exceeds their price point. In fact, the only aspect about these sticks that would be considered an indicator that they are not already one of the big names is their rough inked markings including the website address on the shaft. But in some ways. those are charming reminders of their honest hand-crafted boutique origins.
The model naming and numbering system are also refreshing. Model numbers reference the exact diameter of the stick and not the archaic sizing system of single numbers and letters. Model variations are simply stated with logical letters. These days, there is just so much to choose from in personalized stick variables from length, diameter, tip, to weight-forward or weight-backward taper. It’s great to see a small company like LA BackBeat sitting right there in the mix with a unique, premium-quality offering and a “no brainer” price. These are my new favorites and an easy choice to be with me for this drum kit project.
Although a custom made drum may be the best option to get the desired look, size, and sound, the hunt is still on for a funky Ludwig bass drum. If anyone has an orphaned 14" x 20" or similarly sized Ludwig bass drum they would consider selling sell to a happy, loving new home, please Contact me.
My old-school “Ludwig” single-headed tambourine must be in hand for this project. Beyond that, I’m still in search of interesting, textured sounds for hands, and even feet, to add some seasoning to the groove.
The search is on for the perfect, nuanced combination of clean and dirty. Choke, swing, splash.
Once I realized exactly what stands really need to be, and not be, I settled on lightweight, flat base hardware. For this kit, select pieces of the Gibraltar "jazz" series will give me plenty of stability along with a classic and classy look. Combined with a matching Gibraltar Intruder double chain drive bass drum pedal, we are ready for downbeat.