The Fine Art of Setting Up Drums - by Anita Bloom
Drums. Seem simple, no? But in July at the Mohegan Sun Casino, Willie Leacox showed me the finer points of setting up a drum kit so it plays to perfection.
Willie's been a drummer for more than four decades, working with America for over 32 years. His musical proficiency also extends to the piano and several other instruments. But it's the drums where he's really in the zone. Watch him carefully during a show sometime: he's in his own world. He might appear to be looking straight at you, but he doesn't see you at all. He's in drummers' nirvana.
When Willie arrives for soundcheck, the local crew has already assembled his drums on stage for him. Of course they mean well, but everything is not exactly as Willie would like it for maximum performance. Not only do the positions of the drums and cymbals need tweaking, but he needs to tune the drums to be sure nothing has become out of tune during travel.
Firstly, the cymbal stands needed to be squared away. There are boom stands and straight stands. The only cymbal on a boom is the 16" crash. He lines up the wing nuts on the right side for convenience. The 16" (small) crash cymbal goes on the left side. The large crash cymbal (18") goes on the right. The high hat is two cymbals facing each other, operated with a pedal, on the left. The ride cymbal is on the right. Willie endorses Sabian cymbals.
Willie uses four types of drums (his drums of choice are Ludwig). The toms had been mounted in their stands by the crew, but had to be removed for tuning. Also the mikes had been placed and were in the way of the toms, so they had to be removed too (the toms can be tuned in place but it's easier when they are off, because Willie prefers to tune the bottom head first). He put the larger of the toms on the right. The congas are called the conga and the tumba (there is a quinto which is even smaller). Congas are used on Horse With No Name, Company and Three Roses, for example.
What is the difference between a tom and a snare? A snare has wires on the bottom that give it that distinctive sound. It's the main drum for rock n roll, according to Willie and is used to play rolls and backbeats.
The all-important drum key, essential for tuning the drums. Willie starts with the largest tom head (the tom-tom). The idea is to get the same pitch all the way around the drum head. Initially, you put your finger in the middle of the head and begin to tap all the way around. If the sound isn't consistent, you use the key to loosen or tighten the lug nuts around the head to even out the pitch. Then the drum can be mounted. The drum should be a C or C sharp or D, next should be an A, next one should be an E. Willie tunes by ear. He tuned one drum to a C by listening to the sound made by the slot machines, since he said they are in the key of C. These days drumheads are made of mylar, which is more weather-friendly and lasts longer than the old-fashioned calfskin. Drum companies used to be in Chicago, as that's where the stockyards are. Now drum companies are located where wood is harvested.
Willie uses a double pedal on the bass drum which gives double the options. Additional percussion includes a small tambourine which sits atop the high hat, a cowbell and a go-go bell.
The subject of sticks. There are sticks, brushes, mallets, and dowel rods. Rods are used for a softer sound, like on Don't Cross the River. Willie endorses Vic Furth sticks.
It takes about 30 to 45 minutes start to finish.
Now the secret to Will's fantastic playing after all these years is finally out: special Italian drummer shoes. Just ask him.
Author's note: Willie gave me this interview July 7, 2005, at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Connecticut.
Last Revised: 24 October 2005