For all the claims that can be made by competing drum makers, the spiritual home of the modern kit clearly lies in the USA. And yet, by the 1980s, the US drum industry was in tatters. Ludwig, Rogers and Slingerland, where they existed at all in anything but name, were mere shadows of their former selves, their crowns now worn by the Japanese giants Yamaha, Tama and Pearl. So given the widespread belief at that time that Western manufacturing industry was more or less doomed in the face of Japanese competition, who could have guessed that anyone could re-establish the supremacy of the American-made drum? Even more preposterous, who would have believed that such a company could come from nowhere, without huge financial backing, begun by a mere drum teacher and his pupil? But it happened and today that company, Drum Workshop - DW - is the probably the most aspirational brand in drumming.
The drum teacher with an inventor’s mind who got the company under way is Don Lombardi - and his former pupil, who has turned into a world expert (not to say ubergeek) about drums and tonewoods, is his business partner, John Good.
Despite the success and his need to become a pretty serious businessman, Don Lombardi is clearly still passionate about his craft - that’s passionate as in pretty obsessive. Get him talking on the subject of hardware, whether early DW pedals on which their success was built, or ideas for the future, and he’s away - consumed by enthusiasm, still full of ideas. It’s not hard to see why, even though day to day, DW is run by Lombardi’s son, Chris, Don Lombardi remains crucial to the operation, working at the heart, thinking up the next ideas, the next moves to keep the brand ahead. So how did a former drum teacher end-up one of the world’s most prestigious drum makers?
‘I started a teaching studio in Santa Monica in 1972, having got to the point where I’d decided I wanted to stay in town and cut down on the travelling I’d been doing as a professional drummer, more or less since I left high school,’ he says.
This was at the original Drum Workshop (workshop in the theatre workshop sense) and was where he conceived his first product - an canister/cylinder drum seat, that could be adjusted for height.
‘I had the opportunity on a couple of occasions when I was working in Las Vegas and Buddy Rich was playing across the street, to sneak over there and sit behind his drum kit for a bit and similarly when Ed Shaughnessy was on a TV show I did the same, and neither was at the industry standard 24”. Of course the drum companies made them specially to whatever height a player like that wanted - in Buddy’s case, quite a bit higher - so I came up with an adjustable version, using two cylinders sliding together. I put an ad in the Musicians’ Union magazine and absolutely to my surprise I started getting what seemed to me a lot of orders - four, five cheques a month from people who had seen my little ad.
‘That experience taught me a lesson. If you can make a product that fills a need, whether you have a name or not, you will be successful. And in my case, people we’re be trusting enough to send me money in advance to make their product’.
Sales began to grow and eventually one of Lombardi’s pupils, John Good, joined him full-time to help keep up production. Then came what turned out to be a major break in DW’s history - Lombardi got the chance to buy Camco’s production equipment. Camco was another US brand that was languishing - passed from corporation to corporation, the name eventually being sold to Hoshino (Tama’s parent) but the moulds and dies being offered to Lombardi. And why he was interested was because the one product Camco was selling was its bass drum pedal.
‘The Camco pedal was pretty much the go-to pedal for all the studio and Jazz players,’ he says. ‘And that was of most interest to me.’
Purchasing the tooling was an smart move for the fledgling company. Tooling represents a prohibitive start-up cost and it enabled Lombardi to start experimenting with more and better innovations. DW was on the way, its early reputation being made among the Jazz and session fraternity with a succession of advanced pedals, designed by the inventive Lombardi from a player’s perspective - and it was that player’s eye view that was already setting DW apart from its competitors.
‘In the early years, the company was excitingly successful in that everybody was happy with our products, but dismally unsuccessful because it was a financial disaster! You couldn’t make enough pedals for Jazz drummers to pay the rent’.
The answer was to produce products for the greatly larger Rock market - and the first product was a bass drum pedal that could stand the pace. Indeed, it proved good enough for Motley Crue’s Tommy Lee - and his interest in the company was later to prove pivotal.
Up until this point, DW’s products, though a few had been sold overseas, were mostly being channelled through specialist US drum shops, which, like drum shops the world over, were part of that mystical drumming fraternity, feeding opinions and ideas back and forth and helping product development along. But still there was no big time distribution - nor could there have been, Lombardi says, as they were making all they could - if not producing huge profits so doing.
‘Even back in 1980 or ‘81, John and I would make a drum set every couple of months and they would go to professional players who would use them as their garage or studio drums. But we didn’t have any endorsees, because we weren’t in a solution to support an artist around the world and do all the things you do when you have an endorsee. But surprisingly, as time went by and we got into the mid-80s the fact that we'd been making a set or two a month meant quite a few kits were around - and all of a sudden we had calls from our pedal dealers saying customers had been coming in asking if we were going to look at making drums seriously.
‘So with the studio drummers in LA we asked if they would endorse the product, because they weren't travelling around the world, so only needed one or two drum sets, and we ended-up with a small but very credible list of well-regarded drummers: a good 10 or 15 artists who were in the trenches, playing travelling shows or with major acts, or in the studios. It was enough to give me a feeling that we could maybe make a go of it. But like the pedals, these were all well-respected studio/jazz working drummers and to really be financially successful you’ve got to make a drum set that will appeal to popular Rock music’.
Enter, Tommy Lee.
‘He came up to get his pedal worked on, around ’87 or ’88 and while we were working on it, we happened to have a drum set next to John’s desk in his office. He sat down and started playing and he played it for hours, absolutely taken back by the sound. Now this as a sound that was in my mind from the products I grew up with - the heritage of the old Ludwig and Slingerland drums, made in small quantities. I thought here was a generation (he was in his early twenties then), that hadn’t had that experience - it was the first time he’d ever hard this.’
The kit was soon being used on the Motley Crue album Dr. Feelgood, but with Lee already signed to a serious financial deal with his current supplier, there was no chance of Lombardi stepping in. ‘I as having enough trouble paying my employees,' he laughs.
‘Then, out of the blue in 1989 I got call from his manager. They wanted to come out and talk with us. The next day we had lunch, shook hands and he was officially a DW endorsee. I couldn’t have been more shocked. The number one heavy metal band is going out with DW drums!
‘So we went to the NAMM show in 1990 and the decision was, no I’m not getting a new car - we’re doing a catalogue instead. The goal at that show was to get maybe our top 15 or 20 dealers who we had a great relationship with to buy one kit each. It was a three day show and my son, Chris, had just taken over sales. John and I were nervous, hoping we could sell 15 drum sets, which we could just about handle by borrowing a local woodworker’s spray booth. It took me 15 years to get the company to grow to where it was so I figured it would take us another five or ten years to be successful making drums. At the end of the first day of the show, Chris said to John and me, “we have a big problem”. So we’re hanging our heads, thinking they were just too expensive. But he said: “No. We’ve sold 60 drum sets”.
Modestly, Lombardi says that timing played a great part in this sudden success - but then he’s a drummer, he would, wouldn’t he? ‘Well, there had been nothing new for a few years and certainly no American company doing very much. From there it took us two years to catch up. We had to move into a bigger facility with everything under one roof. But everybody was unbelievably kind to us. Dealers would wait eight or nine months before they would get their drum set, but nobody cancelled and everybody understood we were doing all we could.’
Between 1990 and 1994, the company grew to the point where it as able to supply the domestic market and start to expand abroad, but a ceiling has now been imposed. In the late ‘90s Good and Lombardi decided not to increase production, due to the high costs of manufacturing in California, the need to keep DW a boutique product and to maintain the all-important traditions it had established - like John Good personally timber-matching the shells and then selecting every single drum that goes into a set. Expansion, where it came, was not to be with $2,000 plus sets, nor trashing the prestige DW brand with cheap versions, but by launching the Pacific line, which in itself set new standards - not least of which was using maple on a less costly product, due to some very smart manufacturing and design techniques.
But where many others would have gone hotfoot to China, Lombardi and Good set-up a car journey away, in Ensenada, Mexico, so as to retain total control over quality. Today there are a few entry-level products from China, but the majority of Pacific kits still come from within DW’s own production facilities.
Looking back in the light of his revival of the art, does Lombardi feel there was anything the big three US makers of the past could have done to have avoided near-obliteration by their Japanese rivals?
‘You know, I saw Ringo playing last night - he was just in town, and I was thinking how when the Beatles came here and sales doubled, how everyone sold out to large corporations. They were kind of staid in the way they did things, but when foreign companies came along looking at labour rates of under $1 an hour, while Ludwig was paying $7 or $8 an hour, what could they have done? Maybe they were a bit on their high horse, too - being number one and thinking you’ll always be number one. But when you can get a drum set with heavier duty hardwear, that sounds good for under half the price - well they just didn't know how to react.
‘But those companies were divisions of divisions at that time. I look at it today, where there are companies blatantly losing money, but the corporations behind them are putting more and more into them, trying to see if it’s going to turn around. But it isn’t like that for us. If we lose our shirts one month, we’re walking around without shirts. We’ve always been hand to mouth - and I wouldn’t have done it any other way.’