Author: Dawson, Michael
Date published: March 1, 2013
Monroe, North Carolina, is a small, historic city located about thirty miles from Charlotte. Named after the fifth president of the United States, James Monroe, the city of Monroe was established in 1843 and had an original population of 200. Nearly 40,000 people call Monroe home today, and there's some clear evidence of urban sprawl, via stretches of chain restaurants and strip malls along U.S. Route 74, the main artery heading south out of Charlotte. Still, Monroe retains that classic laid-back Southern American feel, where the landscape is sweet and the people are warm, welcoming, and sincere.
Just off Route 74, through a neighborhood of modest homes, playgrounds, and small businesses, you'll find the discreet industrial complex where all of the drums, snares. Speed King pedals, heads, mallets, and timpani are made for Ludwig USA, one of the world's most legendary drum manufacturers. We recently visited the Ludwig factory to get a better feel for how things are done down there, but first we had to get an answer to the simple question: Why Monroe?
The well-documented history of Ludwig Drums begins in Chicago in 1909, after two brothers, William F. and Theobald Ludwig, went into production with their revolutionary new invention, the foot-operated bass drum pedal. The company thrived and eventually began manufacturing drums, drumheads, and other types of hardware.
Economic hardships in the early twentieth century led William F. Ludwig to sell the company to C.G. Conn in 1929. (Theobald passed away in 1918.) C.G. Conn merged Ludwig with another of its acquisitions, Leedy, and created the new brand Leedy and Ludwig. In 1936, William F. Ludwig left Conn to take another shot at owning a drum company. This new brand was called WFL (Conn owned the Ludwig name), and it did very well. When William F. finally reacquired Ludwig in 1960, business continued to boom. This is the era when the 3-ply Classic molded shell was developed and subsequently became the most sought-after drum after being played by Ringo Starr on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964.
In the 1970s, under the direction of new president William Ludwig II, the company continued to develop new ideas, like the 6-ply maple shell, and expanded production by acquiring the old Ludwig and Ludwig building at 1611 N. Wolcott Avenue in Chicago. But in 1981, Ludwig was sold to the Selmer Corporation, a company best known for manufacturing woodwind and brass band instruments. It was at this point that the Ludwig factory was relocated to Monroe, North Carolina.
The factory was moved to have better access to materials and experienced woodworkers," says Ludwig marketing and artist relations manager Kevin Packard. "North Carolina was the furniture capital of the nation, so they wanted to have better access to those materials and also to the people that have the skill set to work with wood."
HANDCRAFTED FROM START TO FINISH
Tools from the Chicago plant, including shell molds and drill presses, went to Monroe in order to keep the time-tested "Ludwig sound" as true to the original as possible, and most of them are still in use today. "Many things are being updated, but there are some things that we don't want to update, specifically the shell molds," Packard says. "The combination of the bladder press, the Radio Frequency Shell Technology molds, and our exclusive adhesive is what gives Ludwig its sound. So those had to be brought down from Chicago."
The person responsible for manning these crucial shell-making machines is longtime Monroe plant employee Earnest Threatt. Like all members of the Monroe team, Threatt takes great pride in his work, and he has a very specialized skill set that has been honed by years of experience. Most of the Monroe staff has been with the company for over two decades, and, like Threatt, each worker possesses unique talents for various steps in the drum-making process that can't be easily duplicated. For instance, Ann Ross, a twenty-five-year Ludwig veteran, is responsible for putting on all Wrap-Tite finishes. If you own a Ludwig USA drum made anytime since the late '80s, Ross is the one who wrapped it.
If you own a Ludwig USA metal snare, then your drum went through the skilled hands of another irreplaceable expert, Dennis Ledbetter. Led better hand sands and buffs every Ludwig metal shell in the plant. To see him in action, working the drums back and forth on the high-speed buffer, is awe inspiring. It's intense and dangerous work, yet he manages to do it all with the grace, power, and beauty of a champion matador wrestling a raging bull. Ledbetter, who's also a part-time pastor, is largely responsible for the vibrant, beautiful quality coveted in Ludwig snares. (Rumor has it that Dennis also blesses each shell before sending it off for assembly.)
And so the story goes on down the line at Monroe, with each craftsman using gifted hands to instill a bit of personalized magic into what ultimately becomes a Ludwig instrument, from selecting the wood to cutting the edges to sanding, finishing, assembling, and packaging.
THE SELMER/MONROE CONNECTION
To clarify the relationship between the Ludwig team at Selmer's corporate headquarters in Elkhart, Indiana, and the manufacturing specialists in Monroe, we asked Kevin Packard to explain a bit about who does what. "It's a very collective effort," he says. The team in Elkhart, which is thirty-two-year Ludwig legend Jim Catalano, sales manager Robert Henry, product engineer Josh Allen, and myself, spearheads concepts for new products with input from Ludwig dealers and key artists. From a U.S. standpoint, the development of those ideas goes to Rockie Hinson and his team in Monroe."
Hinson plays a vital role at Ludwig USA, from choosing wood for new shells, like the 5-ply maple/oak Keystone, to creating new finishes. "For the Keystone," Packard says, "we explained to him the sound we were looking for, and he was the one who hunted down the wood and created the formula for the shell. We wanted to come up with a different twist on the Ludwig sound, and originally we thought about working with luan or different types of mahogany, but he suggested Kentucky red oak. We tested it, and it worked perfectly. Rockie is our secret weapon."
The other side of Ludwig is the American-designed import lines: Club Date, Epic, Element, Accent, Black Magic, and Supralite. Those were developed between the Elkhart team and manufacturing partners in Taiwan and China. "For instance," Packard explains, "the cherry/ gum Club Date shell was developed by Josh and me on the factory floor in Asia when we were experimenting with different woods. We knew we wanted a more vintage sound, so Josh suggested a full round-over bearing edge. That ended up being the key to unlocking that shell's full potential."
When asked why the Club Date wasn't sent to Monroe for production, Packard boils it down to a simple reason: cost. "We wanted something with a vintage Ludwig vibe that could be accessibly priced," he says. "However, keep an eye on Ludwig USA over the next couple years. There is a lot in the works at Monroe that will blaze a path forward with William F. Ludwig's spirit of innovation well intact."
The first thing you see when you walk into the Ludwig factory in Monroe is an impressive showroom displaying all types of drums, from custom kits for top endorsers, including Bun E. Carlos, Ed Shaughnessy, Butch Miles, Alan White, Jon "Bermuda" Schwartz, and Questlove Thompson, to new offerings in the 3-ply maple/poplar/ maple Legacy Exotic, 5-ply oak/maple/oak Keystone, 7-ply Classic Maple, acrylic Vistalite, and 6-ply cherry/gum Club Date lines, plus some prototype snare drums that are too top-secret to reveal at this time.
A few new things that we can talk about, and that everyone at Ludwig is very excited to put into production, are new cast bass drum claws; new badges for Keystone, Legacy, and Classic Maple drums, made in Elkhart from recycled trumpet brass; and the Atlas mount, which is a slick suspension system that connects to the shell using the existing lug holes. The claws and badges are subtle changes that up the overall value and classiness of Ludwig USA drums, while the Atlas mount is sure to gain a lot of attention for a streamlined design that increases drum resonance without adding bulkiness and can be retrofitted to drums from almost any manufacturer.
For fans of classic models, the Ludwig Configuration Generator on ludwig-drums.com allows you to build your own drumset to whatever spec you like, including vintage-style hardware, torn mounts, spurs, badges, and finishes. So if you're after a brand-new kit that looks like it was made in the '60s, complete with 3-ply shells, black oyster pearl finish, a rail consolette torn mount. Classic Curved spurs. Classic lugs, and Legacy Vintage Keystone badges, you can get it. Since Ludwig USA drums are made to order, you can essentially build any type of kit you want. The company is even allowing for further customization so that customers can mix and match shell types, such as Legacy Classic toms and Classic Maple kicks, to create the ultimate dream kit. Combine those features with the supreme hands-on craftsmanship that goes into every drum coming out of the Monroe facility, and you end up with a musical instrument thaf s completely personal yet deeply tied to the Ludwig traditions that helped define what the modem drumset is all about.