Bringing a Deagan Back from the Dead

I’ve come across a few Deagan Century of Progress marimbas online over the past few years.  A couple have been in beautiful shape, with bright green laminate and gleaming brass resonators.  More often than not, though, they’ve started to show their age.  Missing plaques, dented resonators, deep patina on the metal frame.  The green laminate on my own instrument has faded to a green-brown (perhaps one of it’s previous owners was a smoker?), and a few of the bars have water rings from when it was used as a coffee table.

I’ve never seen one that looked as bad as the one I found on the Fall Creek Marimbas Facebook page, though.  The highly-regarded mallet instrument builders and restoration experts posted a series of photos of a 3.5 octave Century of Progress marimba that obviously had seen better days.  I have no idea what the story is behind this instrument, but from the first photo, it looks like it’s been to Hell and back.

Deagan Before

It’s hard to see what had become of the beautiful Art Deco resonators.

Tarnished Resonators

The work that the team at Fall Creek did is nothing short of remarkable.  I’m sure I don’t know half of what was involved in restoring it to its original beauty – certainly new laminate for the frame had to be cut and reset, bars refinished and retuned, a new plaque designed and engraved, resonators re-plated (or some kind of alchemy).

Restoration Underway

The result is a Century of Progress marimba that looks as good, if not better, than it did when it debuted back in 1933.  Makes me wonder what my own ugly duckling might become with a little / a lot of TLC.


Finished Deagan 2

Finished Deagan

Finished Deagan 3

Brass Plate

Guard History: The Champagne Breakfast vs. The Beer ‘N Steer

The following is a short article I wrote for the latest edition of the Guardsmen, the official newsletter of the Fort Henry Guard Club.

At the heart of the Guard is the not-so-subtle rivalry between the Drums and the Squad.  While friendly in nature, the divisions between the two units have deep roots, and upon joining one or the other you immediately inherit decades of tradition…and broad stereotypes.

It was something we all played up to some degree.  Members of the Drums didn’t seem to mind being cast as sensitive, enlightened artistic types, while some in the Squad appeared to take pride in being the complete opposite – not quite Neanderthals, but definitely closer to that side of the evolutionary chart.

Perhaps one of the clearest illustrations of this divide is the Champagne Breakfast vs. the Beer ‘N Steer.  Built around camaraderie, food, and an appreciation for alcohol, these long-standing annual events were among the most highly anticipated mornings each summer.

As one might expect, the Drums’ Champagne Breakfast was an elegant affair.  In the early hours before work, men in blazers and women in dresses gathered for an elaborate spread of quiche, pastries, canapés and fluted glasses filled with orange juice and champagne.  With classical music playing in the background, conversation would range from Dostoyevsky’s influence on Chekhov and Sartre to Chopin’s early piano work.

It’s my understanding that the Beer ‘N Steer, on the other hand, was a more hedonistic celebration.  While I was never actually lucky enough to attend one, it’s easy to picture members of the Squad enjoying hunks of rare red meat, washed down by pints of Canadian to a soundtrack of Rage Against the Machine and Jane’s Addiction.

Of course, all good things must come to an end eventually.  By the late 1990s, drinking before work was viewed by management more as a potential liability than a novelty, and the ill-fated decision to sneak the keg into the locker room after one memorable Beer ‘N Steer was the final nail in the coffin for both events.  They joined other Guard traditions, including Zulu and ditching, that failed to make it through the 90s unscathed.

FHG 1691

There’s A Deagan In My Attic

The search for vintage percussion instruments often leads to funny places.  An antique store in Wisconsin selling a Century of Progress marimba.  An old Ludwig Black Beauty found buried in newspapers and sheets in the back of a garage.  An estate sale in Guelph that includes a 1930 Deagan marimba that used to belong to a long-forgotten virtuoso.

My brother sent me a link to Kijiji ad from Kitchener for a “1919 Degan Xlophone” (sic).  It was almost a collector’s cliché – a dust-covered vintage instrument, apparently stored in an actual attic.  It definitely got my attention.

Deagan Xylophone 1Deagan Xylophone 2

Although it’s hard to tell for sure, I think it’s a Deagan xylophone, model 262 – the rounded bars are a good indication, and the range of the instrument makes sense.  And if that’s the case, it’s a pretty desirable instrument.  Made in the 1920s with the name Artist Special, these instruments are coveted by some of the world’s top mallet players.  For example, Bob Becker bought his first 262 back in 1972, and I believe he owns at least four of them in various sizes.

Deagan Xylophone 4Here’s a Deagan model 262 with considerably less dust and grime.

Deagan Xylophone 3

And here’s another one that’s been completely restored.  Looks very pretty, and can be yours for only $4,700 USD.

Of course, I was hoping that the gentleman selling this old treasure had no idea what he had and might be willing to part with it for a bargain price.  Such are the dreams of the vintage collector – always on the lookout for naive sellers and lucky finds.

Alas, that was not the case this time around, as apparently the seller had it appraised at some point for $3,000 – perhaps a fair price for the right person, but definitely too much for me.  So now I’m just left to wonder how he came to own such a nice xylophone, and why it’s in an attic gathering dust instead of being played regularly by someone who can appreciate it.  Hopefully it finds a good home soon.

1968 Ludwig Acrolite

One of the surprising things I learned as I started to read about collecting vintage drums is how much people like the plain old Ludwig Acrolite.  That staple of high school music programs and community bands seems to be considered a must-have in any collection.

The reasons they’re so desirable are pretty straight forward – they sound really good, and they’re really cheap.  Ludwig has sold thousands of them over the past 50 years, and they are easy to find on eBay, garage sales, flea markets, etc.

Ludwig first started selling the Acrolite in 1962 (dimpled shell that some consider a prototype) and 1963 (smooth shell).  Those early catalogues referred to it as a student drum and played up the revolutionary light-weight aluminum (Ludalloy) shell, eight lugs, triple-flanged hoops.  It was during that period that Ludwig also stopped using brass shells for the Supraphonic line and went with chrome over aluminum instead (of course, a few chrome over brass drums showed up in subsequent years as I mentioned in my last post.)

Acrolite CatalogueSo as a first step in buying vintage drums, I decided to look for a 1960s Acrolite.  I much prefer the shiny anodized shell of that period to the dull powder-coated versions that came later, and I’m a sucker for the baseball bat style muffler, the P-83 strainer, keystone badge, etc.

It didn’t take long to find one on eBay, and I lucked out on a beautiful Acrolite from a seller in Nova Scotia.  Made in November 1968, it also came with a molded plastic case and vintage snare stand.  I’m pretty sure everything about it is original, including the Weather Master heads and the snare wires.  At only $200, it was an easy decision.

IMG_1968Photo from the eBay listing. I liked the red backdrop and elegant use of the stone.

IMG_1973The vintage Ludwig drum case.

IMG_1971Aside from a few small scratches, it looks practically brand new. Not bad for a 46 year-old drum.

1971 SS V2

1971 Ludwig Super Sensitive Chrome Over Brass

In recent months, I’ve been bitten by the vintage drum bug. I suppose all drummers are naturally collectors – there’s always another cymbal, drum or toy to add to your arsenal. And while I certainly don’t need another drum at this point, the hunt for rarities and curiosities, the chance to own a small piece of history, is proving to be pretty irresistible.

I got pretty lucky the other day with my latest acquisition. The local drum shop (which is a fantastic place) has a steady stream of used and consignment drums for sale, and a very nice 1971 Ludwig Super Sensitive (SS) popped up on the store’s Facebook page last week. It’s essentially the same drum as the Supraphonic, which many consider the most-recorded snare drum in history. Ludwig sold thousands of these snares, and you see them for sale all over the place.

1971 SSI stopped by the store after work to check it out, and the drum looked practically brand new. The chrome on the shell didn’t have any of the usual pitting or flaking that you often see with older SSs and Supraphonics. I’ve seen a lot of these drums on eBay over the past few months, but none of them looked this good.

I didn’t buy it immediately (because I’m an idiot), but after an evening of obsessing about it, I returned the next day to pick it up. It’s a classic drum that should be in every drummer’s collection, so I figured I might as well buy it now as it was unlikely I’d come across one in better condition anytime soon.

This is where things get interesting. I took the drum back to my office and looked it over more closely. In particular, I looked behind the muffler knob, and was stunned by what I saw:

Muffler KnobIt turns out that little “B” is pretty important. It indicates that instead of being aluminum, the shell is actually made of brass. What I thought was a fairly common SS is actually a significantly more rare Chrome Over Brass (COB) SS.

1971 SS V2A bit of sleuthing online sheds some light on its history. In the early 1970s, Ludwig made a small number of Supraphonics and SSs out of spare brass shells that were left over from the 1960s. They look exactly like their aluminum counterparts, with a couple of exceptions:

  • Small “B” or “BR” stamped on the shell – usually behind the muffler knob
  • The bottom part of the B/O badge is cut down to fit the shell, which had been made to fit the older 1960s badge (important to note that not all drums with the cut down badge are COB)

BO BadgeThese brass-shelled versions don’t appear in the Ludwig catalogs in the early 1970s. Some say they were special orders for Ludwig endorsers who wanted the sound of a brass shell instead of aluminum. I’ve also read that a few were made solely for L.A.’s Professional Drum Shop. In fact, a quick search of the Pro Drums page on Facebook turned this up:

Hollywood Pro Drum“Behind Maurie are the famous Brass Ludwig chrome snare drums that Bob made Bill Ludwig make us after bitching about not making the brass shells since 64’…only 100 made in 5 and 6.5 x 14 ..they have a “B” under the tone control with the blue and olive badges…still see a few every now and then….. circa 1972”

A few more facts about this drum:

  • It weighs 9.0 pounds – definitely heavier than the aluminum version
  • The label inside indicates a date of November 16, 1971 – one day earlier than another Supraphonic COB someone wrote about earlier this year in this post
  • The model number on the label is 416 – same as the brass-shelled Black Beauty. The aluminum SS is LM410

LabelNot a bad start to my hobby as a collector.  Hopefully the next drum I pick up will be equally as interesting…but I doubt it.