…weren’t crap. Some were…brace yourself…pro, seamless Phenolic! A TBruceWittet.com Exclusive
The truth under those tacky, beautiful wraps could drastically bump up the price for sale–on eBay, Craig’s List, retail, and private–of Pearl drums, especially the 1960s so-called stencil-brand rickety budget drum kits. Some of the shells, oh yeah, were gorgeous! Some of them are not what you think.
I’m breaking wind on the commonly-held assumption that all first-wave sixties Japanese-made drums were crap. You were given fair warning. I described my experience acquiring such a drum kit in these pages. Remember me ranting at length and in wonder of the tone emanating from the budget Coronet drumset, the one that cost me well under $50 US?
Very, very few of you—and I’ve checked thoroughly the forums and print media—have any idea, any inkling, as to what’s coming in a few moments. Over the years, you’ve roundly dismissed those 1960s unashamed copies of prominent American brands as worthless. The look was interesting, granted, but the metal was soft and prone to crack; the shells were porous second-grade Asian softer-woods, overly flexible, and often untrue or out-of-round. If you were playing drums back then, as I was, you’ll recall throwing away such drumsets. They had no value as trade-ups to prestigious brands they emulated: Slingerland, Gretsch, and occasionally Rogers. If you’re new to drumming, you’ve probably already spotted a few of these drum kits and your elders have taught you to identify them as junk; steer away from them.
Truth be told, for the most part, those stencil brand kits were dodgy and, if not outright junk, they rarely peaked the VU meters.
Well, by way of introduction to an exciting find, I’ll summarize my reaction to a Pearl-made 1960s Japanese drum kit carrying the brand name Coronet. There were, perhaps, 100 such stencil brands emanating from the Pearl and Hoshino (later Tama) factories in the sixties. Today, my research suggests strongly that I limit myself to a discussion of Pearl 1960s shells, specifically the good that resides alongside the bad and the ugly. The good we never would have imagined possible. I know I certainly missed the point all these years. All I know is what I heard…when playing these budget kits in moments of weakness. Sometimes the tone defied preconceptions, repeat sometimes. I remember writing some vague forecast, in a Canadian, American, or German magazine, to the effect that the first wave of Japanese-made stencil brand drumsets would become the next object of affection for those who seek out anything smacking of “classic” or “vintage”.
Although the drum status quo revelation I’m about to reveal (it’s coming shortly, honest!) dates back decades, my in-depth research into one facet, the shells, began mere months back. That spoken, I’ve had the advantage of overserving these drums for a lifetime. I was paying attention, or so I thought! I’ve always kept an eye peeled (do not take this literally), looking closely at drum shells, heads, hardware, wing screws…the whole sordid lot. The sound, of course, was the deciding factor but, hey, the details were fun to assimilate! Occasionally one sixties Japanese drum or drum kit would emerge as a winner, at least referring to the sound. And that sound derived from the decidedly spindly, fragile shell. All along I mistakenly assumed that the “better shells” were those bolstered by extra plies of Asian Luan and so forth.
As for the cheap hardware, I ought to add that my Coronet/Pearl kit gains from modest metals. For example, my Coronets feature a paltry 6 lugs/tension rods per 14″ drum…2 less than the accepted industry standard. For the longest time I considered this unnacceptable, despite experiencing occasional romantic liaisons with, say, WFL 6-lug snare drums (Hey, Johnny C., remember our local version of “We Are the World”, ie before you moved to LA? That backbeat, all airy and ringy, was a WFL 6-lug snare). Nowadays, I realize that my Coronet 14×14 floor tom featuring a mere 6-lugs is open and ambient in the extreme, partially due to the reduction of resonance-choking metal bolted to the shell. But that’s not our point today. There’s more.
Coronet Special Shell Kits: Something you Have to Hear to Believe
I’d invite you over to my house but it’s all of 1300 square feet. We’d have to wait until BBQ season and you could spill out onto the lawn. The thing is, were you to hear these drums—I’m working on acquiring proper audio/video—you’d curse yourself for dismissing them outright as disposable. You’d react as I reacted when, before Christmas, I set sticks to the newly acquired. arguably tacky-looking old Coronet drumset. Your jaw would drop as mine did, just as your ears would attempt to gate down as a result of the explosion of tone that saturated the room—the same room in which I’d conducted all of the initial tests (pre-gig) of all those drums and cymbals for Modern Drummer magazine reviews, itemizing all the “what’s hot” and “what’s not” features. The Coronet toms delivered such a blossoming, hearty tone, the bass drum such a Bonham-like cannon blast, that I was blown away. And perplexed. How could this midget roar like a giant? It was obviously more than a matter of my replacing existing heads, top and bottom, with second-hand but serviceable skins and a quick-fix tuning job.
No, this was a case of the sixties Coronet shells speaking to me. But what were they saying? It took me three months and my colleague and drum technician Tommy K to comprehend the message. Until he revealed what he’d discovered, I figured I’d gotten the luck-of-the-draw…an unusually good Coronet kit, round and with true bearing edges. Perhaps my modest kit reaped the benefits of a better grade of Asian wood and unusually meticulous workmanship. As we all know, a good wood shell is the key.
Ahh, but the Coronet shell is not wood.
You read correctly! Each shell in that Pearl/Coronet kit is a composite: a perfect circle, unimpeded by seams, comprised of resins, wood chips, and what not. It is the forerunner of the Phenolic shell that took Nashville and LA by storm ten years subsequent to the birth of my Coronets.
In case you haven’t bothered to go back to the original tale, I’ll reiterate that the drums cost me nothing. They were a gift from Tommy K, who, aside from his technical facility with drum modification and inventiveness, is a great player who knows. Tom paid under $50US for the entire kit. I reported this to you pre-Christmas and I wasn’t fibbing. Believe me, I’ve built my reputation (arguably good) on relaying truths, not pandering to companies. Case in point: I was never a huge Pearl fan. I reviewed the original Pearl Reference series in Modern Drummer magazine. I gave it five out of five. It amazed me, defied my preconceptions. A few of you actually purchased a kit directly as a result of my comments, just as you’ve purchased cymbals pursuant to my reviews on this website. During my long tenure with MD I felt—and I feel it today even stronger—the obligation to get it right when discussing gear and to remain unimpeachable in my objectivity and honesty. There is no other way, trust me. That’s what I do on this website; it’s what you’re hearing today.
I never dreamed I’d be uttering a unqualified praise about Pearl drums—especially these Coronets, exported from Japan to points across the globe, tagged with a diverse lot of badges: Crown, Coronet, Stewart, Univox, Bolero, and so on. Truthfully, most of those drums were substandard. But not all.
Background: Peeling the Wrap
As a youth all I couldn’t afford Ludwigs, or the more expensive Rogers. All I could count on were the cheap imported drums made by Pearl and Tama, branded with those exotic, evocative, occasionally silly names. On this website, I’ve shown you my pristine Gracy snare drum, another stencil brand that turned out just fine. Sure, the shell is a soft Asian species resembling mahogany and the reinforcing rings primitive, but it’s assembled immaculately and has stood the test of time.
These sixties Japanese drums were made in the image of great American drums but fell short on several counts, most notably shells and hardware. Before I hit age 20, I’d seen many a shattered, cracked, or crumpled Japanese-made drum tossed into the trash bin. As I recall, they were well under $200 and represented a bargain, especially since, from a distance, they might be giants.
Sometimes a drummer would luck out, as in the instance of Randy Mitchell, a disgustingly talented and visionary classmate down the street. His mother had bought him an amber tiger-striped Pearl kit (stamped Bolero), which he’d muffled discretely around the circumference of each drum. He’d literally removed each head and affixed a two-inch wide cotton strip extending from the bearing edges an inch into the playing surface. In retrospective, it’s obvious Randy had tweaked to the Pinstripe and EC formula—except that, in those days, there were no such pre-damped, or circumference EQ-ed heads, only Diplomats, Ambassadors, and Emperors. Randy’s drums sounded, in my opinion, cool beyond cool—perhaps I was hearing with my eyes. That retro bronze-tiger striped finish was a killer.
Consumers of sixties budget drums tended to pledge allegiance to one stencil brand and disparage the obvious inferiority of the other. In my neighborhood, word was that Stewart drums, another Pearl mainstay, were superior; indeed, most of them boasted thicker, rounder shells.
Today, what we’re looking for is not so much brands but a detail I failed to notice back in the day. We’re discussing those Japanese kits that came without reinforcing rings and featured interiors sprayed silver-gray lacquer.
The Shell is not Wood!
That’s the punchline. I’m admitting that my Coronets represent an exception to the rule. Catalogs and empirical evidence bear out this conclusion. But I’m equally convinced there are other “exceptions” out there, rotting in basements and garages. They are not simply mis-badged prototypes for the soon-to-debut Pearl President line.
I long suspected greatness when playing these drums as I’ve related to you. A week ago, when Tom K phoned me, he could barely contain his excitement. He’d taken the 6-lug snare drum to his workshop for closer examination. He’d removed the great sheet of blue pearl wrap. The plastic finish, in Pearl tradition, came off easily: it wasn’t glued all the way round. This was the moment of truth. The bare Coronet shell lay before Tom, devoid of glue, revealing its secret. “They’re not wood,” Tommy exclaimed. “They’re Phenolic!”
Tom had legitimate cause for excitement. So did I. And in that instance, that glimpse into the crucible of truth, we both realized what a huge dent we could make on perceptions and, in fact, on the vintage market, which had previous excluded such drums from considerations, notwithstanding a couple of excellent websites dedicated to Japanese stencil brands. We also realized that we’d passed up such kit—the heavier, more substantial ones, with the silver inner sealer and straight-walled shells countless times. We’d let truly greats-sounding drums slip through our fingers.
So the Coronet shell is synthetic! It is a, perhaps rare, example of an early Pearl laminate shell, the forerunner of the Phenolic composite shell that would take Nashville and LA by storm in the mid-1970s, alongside Rogers-style gray-sealed wood, wood/fiberglass, and all-fiberglass shells. This third wave of Pearl drums followed the chronology: Pearl stencil brands > Pearl President series > Pearl professional drums.
Phenolic shells, to me, are analogous to Remo Acousticon, the shell I’ve reviewed favorably in my Modern Drummer past life. Say what you want when comparing the merits of wood vs. wood resin shells but the fact of the matter is that a resin shell is seamless. Strip off the hardware and hold it up. Strike it with a mallet. Odds are you’ll get a low, rumbling sustain.
No wonder my Coronet drums sounded so good! Most of us neglected Coronets and the like in past, focusing our hopes and dreams on scoring a desirable Ludwig or Rogers kit. Thus, we neglected to change heads, invariably replacing broken batters with bottom heads. You see an awful lot of open-ended Japanese toms lying about for this reason. You’ll also see cracked shells, especially at the junction of spurs and shell. I’ve seen spurs collapse and retreat into the shell, leaving a gaping hole.
An early Phenolic, resin composite shell on a Coronet drum kit, though? An upscale Pearl Phenolic shell? If people knew this, I thought, the prices would skyrocket! And so I quietly made the rounds, calling up old acquaintances who’d owned sixties Pearl, Bolero, Coronet, or Stewart drumsets. Most of them were long gone but a few survived. To be honest, of the three or four kits I located, only one drum boasted a similar, composite shell. But one is significant. Really significant. One is enough to get a trend snowballing.
Phenolic Shells on Cheapo Sixties Pearls? Impossible!
Must be a fluke, a freak of nature, you’re saying. I hear you. I mean, what are the chances of finding a Pearl Phenolic shell, an upscale resin shell that stays in-round, on a Coronet or Stewart kit? The odds are the proverbial camel through the eye of the needle.
Or maybe we weren’t paying attention, our eyes cast beyond at WMP Ludwigs, which incidentally, barely hold a candle to the tone I’m getting out of these Coronets! Although Pearl launched the President line in 1966, which cataloged wood and composite shells, the President series didn’t travel to the USA or Europe, from what I can tell, until the very late sixties and very early seventies. I remember the latter clearly.
Some of the early President drums resembled my Coronets, no question about it. But there is a mass of statistical evidence to the effect that Pearl President was a line unto itself and the whole point was not to borrow from the stencil brands that Americans, British, and Swedish (to cite an experience I’d had in a Goteborg recording studio with a similar “Vespa” stencil brand 12” tom…sounded wonderful).
I called Pearl USA in Nashville and spoke to the authority on these matters, Gene Okamoto, who, as it turns out, has been busy in his spare time scanning old Pearl catalogs dating way back. He kindly emailed ten of them in PDF format. Since Coronet claimed its own catalog, I went to it first. I spotted my kit immediately.
The Coronet catalog, and indeed all of the stencil catalogs, indicate that shells were, “9-ply “laminated under heat and tremendous pressure….Wood is still the best material for drum shells for rich warm tones” (emphasis added).
Nobody knew about Phenolic composite shells during the Pearl Coronet era. Gene Okamoto admitted he’d never seen a Pearl stencil brand fitted with Phenolic shells. Fact is, nobody bothered to investigate to the depths, to the core of the issue, as did Tommy K, who tore of the blue pearl wrap and beheld what wasn’t visible from the interior due to the silver-gray sealer paint.
A New Fad? Scouring for the Good Japanese Stencil Brands?
I have no final statement, no conclusion on this. I’m still investigating. Examples of composite resin shells are rare in budget sixties Japanese drums. I ought to add that Tommy K is investigating and he’s discovered that the bullet-shaped tension casings—the lugs—are a step or two beyond the white-metal variety we’ve come to know and loathe. So it’s not just shells. Oh, and that seeming copy of a Rogers Swivo-Matic tom holder? It’s a little on the wobbly side but it hasn’t failed me I four months of use.
I think my shell revelation (credit my suspicion, but, truthfully, Tommy K’s diligence and forensic examination) may rock uWorld—not only your world but perhaps eBay and Craig’s List.
Imagine it, avid drum nuts combing the planet for some regional strain of 1969s Pearl drums. It’s shades of The Great Ludwig 400/Super Brass Shell Scare, which saw collectors probing old Ludwig metal snare drums with files and magnets, hoping the truth would become plain to them.
I think it’s exciting. I remember spying a drum kit branded Coronet, displayed high on a mezzanine in my local music shop, Sam’s ABC Music. They were splendid in a black zebra stripe vs white background, a wrap almost identical to what Rogers cataloged as onyx (offered in white, red, blue). I wonder now if those beautiful, shimmering Coronets, which resembled Mitch Mitchell’s Premiers (the UK company, recently revived, cataloged the same wrap under another moniker), were built with soft Asian Luan/mahogany/beech of the day—or whether further inspection might have revealed a sturdy composite that would survive to have the last laugh at all those collectors who dismissed Coronets, and the like, out of hand.
When I’m successful at hooking up audio-video to my standards, I’ll deliver a clip that’ll have you convinced. In the meantime, I know you will join me…in looking a little more carefully and closely at the next cheapo Japanese throwaway kit of sixties heritage. Honest, I’m not trying to fire up a fad. It’s there for the taking, or so it seems.
Hmm, just think for a moment: What if you could purchase a set of drums for $100 US, give it a spit and polish, replace the heads, and have it sound like a recording kit—in my opinion better than many of the benchmark Ludwig drums of the day? Maybe I am trying to start something!
Footnote: Tommy K researches, restores, customizes, and invents solutions to problems with old drums with considerable facility. He also has a nice touch with sticks in hand. He has no website and, until now, little web presence. I can’t link to his email, since email linking is fraught with hazards. I’ll spell out his address here: email@example.com