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The first product made by the Ludwig brothers, William and Theobaldner (who founded the original company), was a bass drum pedal capable of playing faster beats than was typical of products of the time. It was produced in a rented barn on the south side of Chicago. The Ludwig brothers next developed a hydraulic action timpani and in 1916 invented a spring mechanism—the basis for the current Balanced Action Pedal Timpani. Production then expanded into other types of drums and banjo-type instruments, especially brass snare drums and wooden drums. During the 1925-1930 period, Ludwig made two models of ukulele-banjo, each being prized by players of the instrument (Ludwig is known by collectors as being one of the three best historical makers of ukulele-banjos (the others being Gibson, and Jack Abbot)).
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, the company was forced to merge with the C.G. Conn Company. William F. Ludwig, who disliked his lack of involvement with the design and manufacture of the instruments after the merger, left the company in 1936. He opened his own company, the W.F.L. Drum Company, in 1937. The first product of W.F.L. was the Speed King pedal, a product still manufactured by Ludwig to this date. In 1955, the Ludwig division was purchased back from Conn and renamed the Ludwig Drum Company. In 1966, Ludwig purchased the Musser Marimba Company, which produced mallet percussion, including vibes, marimbas, bells, chimes and xylophones.
In 1973, William F. Ludwig, Sr. died, to be succeeded by his son William F. Ludwig Bradfield, Jr. Ludwig Industries was acquired by the Selmer Company in 1981. Today, Ludwig drums and timpani are manufactured in Monroe, North Carolina, with timpani and mallet instruments produced in LaGrange Park, Illinois. Certain lines of Ludwig Drums, marketed as the Accent, Accent CS, Accent CS Custom, and Accent CS Custom Elite Series, are manufactured for Ludwig in Asia and imported into the North American market.
Throughout its history Ludwig has introduced a stream of innovations in drum construction, particularly in the use of materials and finishes. The Black Beauty snare drum, a hand-engraved black nickel-plated brass shell drum first manufactured by Ludwig during the 1920s, is highly prized by collectors and players alike. The Black Beauty was reissued, available with or without machine engraved, in the late 1970s, and reissued again in the 1990s.
Ludwig also made gold-finished drums in the 1920s that were marketed under the name "Ludwigold". These are also highly prized by collectors because they have never been reissued.
The Ludwig Supraphonic snare drum is considered to be an industry standard for professional snares. Originally made of chrome-plated brass, it was later made of a chrome-plated aluminum alloy. Such notable drummers as Lionel Hampton, Hal Blaine, studio legend, Joe Morello of The Dave Brubeck Quartet, John Bonham of Led Zeppelin, Alex Van Halen of Van Halen, Ian Paice of Deep Purple, Ginger Baker of Cream, Dino Danelli of The Rascals, John Densmore of The Doors, Mitch Mitchell of The Jimi Hendrix Experience, Mick Avory of The Kinks, Sandy Nelson, solo artist, Gary Chester, studio legend, Carl Palmer of Emerson, Lake & Palmer, and Steve Gadd, all-around recording artist, used this drum exclusively throughout the 1960s and 1970s. Charlie Watts of The Rolling Stones also played it before switching to Gretsch drums, and Bobby Elliott of The Hollies played it after switching to Ludwig from Premier drums. The Super-Sensitive strainer was introduced in the 1960s and mounted on the same chrome-plated aluminum shell as the Supraphonic model. It was popular until the 1970s for its sensitive snare response. In recent years, some models of the company's wood shell snare drums have featured various exotic wood finishes supplied by Steinway & Sons.
Most of the drums manufactured by Ludwig were made of wood. For many years the shells were constructed of a three-ply lamination of mahogany, poplar, and mahogany, but starting in 1968 the mahogany was replaced by maple. All of these shells had a maple reinforcing ring glued to the inner circumference at each end. Six-ply wood construction was introduced in 1976. These drums did not have reinforcing rings.
Most Ludwig wood shells have had a plastic "pearl" wrap glued to the outer surface of the shell itself. The most sought-after original Ludwig finish is the 1960s Oyster Black Pearl, made famous by Ringo Starr. In the late 1960s a modified version of this finish was introduced, but it lacked the visual depth and complexity of the mother-of-pearl-like swirls and striations that characterized the original. The new wrap became known pejoratively as the "bowling ball" version, because of what it resembled. It is much less sought-after by collectors today. Oyster Blue Pearl was also offered in the 1960s but was not as common as Oyster Black. It too was replaced in the late 1960s by a "bowling ball" version, which lacked the visual depth and complexity of the original. Oyster Pink Pearl and Black Galaxy finishes—both produced between 1961 and 1962—are the rarest finishes and highly prized. Mod Orange Pearl (which was featured on John Densmore's most famous drum set during his time with The Doors) and Psychedelic Red Pearl were introduced in 1967 and produced through the early 1970s. A third psychedlic style of wrap, Citrus Mod Orange, was introduced in 1968. All three finishes are rare, with Citrus Mod being the rarest. Mod Orange, Psychedelic Red Pearl, and Oyster Black Pearl were reintroduced by Ludwig in the late 1990s. The new Oyster Black is closer in appearance to the original than it is to the bowling ball version. A newer version of Citrus Mod Orange called "Citrus Mod Glitter" was introduced in 2009, and was featured on the Bun E. Carlos Signature Legacy drum set configuration.
Perhaps the most interesting use of materials appeared in Ludwig's Vistalite drum kits. Vistalite was the trade name used by Ludwig for its line of acrylic (mostly see-through) drums in the 1970s. Ludwig was not the first drum company to sell colored acrylic drums, but its models were the most prominent because of the company's overall market presence and promotional programs. Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham was widely recognized for playing an amber-colored Vistalite drum set and singer/drummer Karen Carpenter played on Ludwig Vistalites for much of her career. Carpenter owned an entry level set, which was forest green with a gold stripe, two sets of clear Vistalites which she purchased, and numerous sets donated to her by Ludwig. The first set of clear Vistalites is on display in The Carpenters museum at the Carpenter Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles. A set of "jelly bean" Vistalites, in which every drum was a different color than the others, was donated to Karen Carpenter by Ludwig for use in a 1976 television special. A wide range of designs was offered in the Vistalite series, including different-colored bands oriented in the buyer's choice of circumferential, longitudinal, or spiral directions on a given shell, and other designs as well.
Although Vistalite sales declined toward the end of the 1970s and were discontinued, Ludwig reintroduced them in 2001. Sales of clear Vistalite and Bonham-replica amber Vistalites have been strong enough that a several other drum companies have followed Ludwig's lead and now make their own acrylic drums. In 2007, Ludwig reintroduced its classic shell design under the name "Legacy." The shell is constructed of maple, poplar, and maple wood plies with maple reinforcing rings.
Ludwig was also noted for the use of stainless steel in drum construction. John Bonham's last Ludwig kit was stainless steel. These drums were not great sellers because of their high cost and great weight. Ludwig eventually stopped making stainless steel drums owing to their inordinately high cost of production.
In the 1990s, Ludwig introduced a new line of heavy duty hardware, leaving behind the very heavy Modular System of the late 1970s and 80s in favor of a less expensive L-arm/double braced industry standard hardware system.
The Ludwig brand received its greatest boost in popularity in 1963-1966 when Ringo Starr of The Beatles was prominently displaying the trade name on his bass drumhead, immediately above the Beatles' logo. The Ludwig company expressed its appreciation to Starr in 1964 when William Ludwig Jr., Vice-President and General Manager of the company at the time, presented him with an inscribed, gold-plated snare drum during The Beatles' appearance in Chicago. Ginger Baker of Cream was another famous Ludwig endorser of the 1960s. Baker was responsible for making double-bass Ludwig drum kits popular as well as the fusion of jazz, rock, African and poly-rhythms in drumming. In the 70s, Led Zeppelin's John Bonham became the next world class drummer to use and endorse Ludwig drums, after Carmine Appice of Vanilla Fudge, and later Cactus, Beck, Bogert & Appice, and finally, with Rod Stewart, followed by Alex Van Halen of Van Halen in the late 70s and Neil Peart of Rush in the late 80s. Many other Rock and Roll drummers have switched to or began with Ludwig drums during their careers: Brian Bennett of the Shadows, Ian Paice of Deep Purple, Simon Kirke of Bad Company, Nick Mason of Pink Floyd, Ronnie Tutt with Elvis Presley, Aynsley Dunbar of Journey, Jefferson Starship, Peter Criss (before switching to Pearl) and his successor, Eric Carr of KISS, Lars Ulrich of Metallica (before switching to Tama), Herman Rarebell of Scorpions, Graeme Edge of the Moody Blues, Roger Pope of Hookfoot, Elton John and Hall and Oates, Scott Rockenfield of Queensrÿche, Carl Palmer of Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Asia, Alan White of Yes and The Plastic Ono Band, Matt Frenette of Loverboy, Steve Negus of Saga, Rick Allen of Def Leppard, Will Berman of MGMT, Rob Bennett of The Pacific Raiders, Carlton Barret (Bob Marley and the Wailers) and Baxter Mawoza of Synthesis and later Old School Bands. Although long associated with Premier, The Who's Keith Moon played Ludwig's during the band's early days, as did ZZ Top's Frank Beard in that band's earliest days; he has since been long associated with Tama.
Familiar names have returned to endorsing Ludwig. Joey Kramer of Aerosmith just returned to Ludwig, Roger Taylor of Queen and Bun E. Carlos of Cheap Trick just passed his 30 year mark as endorser. Like his father John, Jason Bonham is now a Ludwig endorser. Other notable contemporary endorsers include Rick Buckler of The Jam/From The Jam, Myles Heskett of Wolfmother, J.J. Johnson with John Mayer, Billy Kiely of Floor Thirteen, Luis Cardenas of Renegade, Jeremiah Green of Modest Mouse, Jason McGerr of Death Cab for Cutie, Fab Moretti of The Strokes, Jim Riley of Rascal Flatts, Meg White of The White Stripes, Jack White of The Dead Weather, Brian St. Clair of Local H, Rodrigo Oliveira of Korzus, Brad Morgan of Drive-By Truckers and John Fred Young of Black Stone Cherry, Alexis Ignition Rous of Salvaloyds, Jess Margera of Cky, Daniel Stricker of Midnight Juggernauts, and Brian Young of Fountains of Wayne. Studio and touring great Vinnie Colaiuta joined Ludwig in March of 2012. John Cowsill, whose family band allegedly served as the inspiration for TV's (The) Partridge Family, and in recent times, has been the Beach Boys' touring drummer, has come full-circle with Ludwig.
Since the 1990s Ludwig has produced custom products with other individuals and companies, usually in limited editions. One of its first custom products was a re-issue of the Black Beauty brass snare drum. It was available unengraved or with custom patterns hand-engraved on the shell by John Aldridge. Ludwig has also produced limited editions of John Bonham commemorative drums made of stainless steel in cooperation with the Dunnett Classic Drums company. Dunnett also assisted Ludwig in development of "The Chief," a titanium shell snare drum made in tribute to the late William F. Ludwig, Jr. Alex Van Halen is also a 30-plus year endorser and Ludwig just recently[when?] added an Alex Van Halen signature snare drum to its collection, with only 100 to be made.
- Ludwig-Musser Company site
- Itzkoff, Dave. "Ringo at 70: 'I'm Not Hiding From It, You Know,'" The New York Times, Tuesday, July 6, 2010.
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