Keeping the Beat

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The Gretsch drum factory in Ridgeland maintains the rhythm of a 136-year-old legacy

Located just over the Talmadge Bridge in the bucolic town of Ridgeland, SC, the low-slung, beige warehouse looks like it might produce something banal, like shoelaces, or maybe uncomfortable office furniture.

You could drive by it for years and never guess what tremendous magic lies within. In fact, the only clue that this humble building contains the potential to bring stadiums of 20,000 people to their feet is a small, partially rusted sign that reads “Musical Instruments.”

Photo by Beau Kester

But the headquarters of Gretsch Drums isn’t here to win any beauty pageants. The company’s mission is to build the finest snare, tom and bass drums in the world, an effort that has earned accolades for more than a century. No matter your musical tastes, chances are you’ve grooved to a Gretsch drum: The 136 year-old company boasts famous disciples across all genres and periods, from jazz legend Max Roach to funk superstar Stanton Moore to immortal rock ’n’ roll lord Charlie Watts. (As a matter of fact, the Rolling Stone has played Gretsch drums exclusively for over six decades.) Other names worth dropping are Taylor Hawkins (Foo Fighters), Steve Ferrone (Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers) and Tyler “Falcon” Greenwell (Tedeschi Trucks Band).

Dustin Williams. Photo by Beau Kester

Founded in 1883 by German immigrant Friedrich Gretsch in Brooklyn, the family-run drum-and-guitar maker was sold to the Baldwin Piano Company in 1967, which relocated manufacturing to Arkansas before the Gretsch family bought back the company in 1985 and re-headquartered the drum plant in Ridgeland. These days, though the family still maintains owner/operator rights, the Gretsch Drums name is licensed by California-based Drum Workshop.

While some drums bearing the Gretsch badge are manufactured overseas, the Ridgeland factory continues to produce the company’s coveted signature lines: The award-winning Brooklyn series, the classically-inspired Broadkaster line and Gretsch USA Custom kits — garnering the ultimate percussion bragging rights with the same original, six-ply maplewood formula from the 1960s.

Paul Cooper. Photo by Beau Kester.

Production manager Paul Cooper has made the 45-minute commute from Savannah to Ridgeland for more than 21 years, overseeing the 25,000 square-foot facility and 20-person staff with a toothy grin, tousled gray goatee and ponytail to match. A drummer himself, who can often be found during his off-hours playing with local rockers Thomas Claxton & the Myth or holding down the Bayou on River Street, Cooper serves as a devoted steward of “That Great Gretsch Sound,” the company’s official slogan.

“That pure tone, that resonance, it’s because we still adhere to the same production process we always have,” he says as he strides across floors strewn with sawdust and strips of sandpaper. “And that’s a really good thing.”

Photo by Beau Kester

The process at Gretsch is as old school as it gets. No robots here — human hands touch every single component of every drum, helped along by tools you might find in your grandfather’s woodshop. Among the whirring contraptions still in use today are a hand sander from 1952 and a cutter table from the 1940s from the original Brooklyn factory.

“I’ve taken every one of these machines apart and put it back together,” Cooper says with a modest smile.

Hillie Magwood. Photo by Beau Kester.

Fittingly, the factory elicits a syncopation all its own: The whoosh-whoosh of the sanders, the tzz-de-zip of lug nuts being tightened, the badunk-thunk of mallets securing the Mylar heads to the hoops. A single drum can take up to three months to create; after the maple shells and bearing edges are sanded smooth and coated with silver on the inside, they receive their rich color finishes, which can take weeks.

“Staining is funny. Sometimes it takes three coats, sometimes it takes nine,” shrugs Cooper. “You have to understand, all the wood isn’t from the same tree.”

Adam Dycus. Photo by Beau Kester

Next comes the sealant: While many companies use polyurethane to coat their drums, Gretsch continues to use nitrocellulose lacquer to impart a shine that lasts for decades. This means more drying time on the shelf, and during down times staff members — several of whom play drums in  local bands — like to blow off steam on the special employee kit against the back wall.

Robert Saunders. Photo by Beau Kester.

Finally, it’s time for assembly.

“Oh yes, I love my job,” says lug nut tightener Barbara Fennell, who was hired “temporarily” in 1992 to screw on metal hardware and at this point can’t see herself doing anything other than building drums for a living. “I don’t play, but I do my best to make sure everything is perfect for those who do. I’m known for being meticulous; if there’s a nick in the finish I’ll send it back.”

Barbara Fennell. Photo by Beau Kester

Fennell also enjoys the occasional perks of meeting the famous musicians who visit the factory, and she’s seen a little more than most fans on at least one occasion.

“One time Steve Ferrone was here for a photo shoot and decided to change his clothes in the office,” she recalls.

“All of a sudden I looked up and he was down to his boxers!”

After a few rat-ta-ta-tats on the inspection table, the pearly masterpieces are packed onto pallets and shipped to distributors in Chile, Australia, South Korea and beyond. While exact production numbers are closely guarded, Cooper avows that the unassuming warehouse is producing more drums than it ever has.

Photo by Beau Kester

“We’re fortunate that we’re still here. It’s a testament to what we do and to the techniques that make the brand what it is,” he muses, though he’s not surprised at the popularity and longevity of the brand. “A Gretsch drum really has an identifiable sound. It’s got the mojo built in.”