Hear for yourself: Jason Sutter plays Ludwig drums
Tucked away past the chicken plant near the railroad tracks sits an unassuming cluster of buildings with beige aluminum siding. Step inside and you’ll find the one place in the world that makes drums for Ringo Starr.
Welcome to the home of Ludwig.
The century-old company has made Ringo’s drums since the dawn of Beatlemania.
Ludwig also provides drums for the likes of Alex Van Halen, Questlove and even Paul McCartney, to name just a few. And when Taylor Swift rocked Time Warner Cable Arena in June, her drummer was wailing on his Ludwig kit.
Ludwig’s clients are well-known, but their presence in Union County is not. Yet for just over 30 years, this iconic company’s custom-made drums only come from Monroe.
“People are definitely surprised we are here,” plant manager Ernie Benton said.
Ludwig employs about 50 people, including a core who have worked their craft there for a quarter century or longer.
They produce drum shells using the same type of formulas from the Beatles’ heyday. Their drums sport names such as Vistalite, Black Beauty and Classic Maple, titles that fans and stars recognize as easily as “the Ludwig sound.”
It’s a crisp, full-bodied, snappy tone, drum experts say, providing the backbeat for bands from Led Zeppelin to Concord’s Avett Brothers. On Ludwig’s YouTube channel, Avett Brothers drummer Mike Marsh called the sound of his Copper-Phonic snare drum “really controlled, really dry and it’s really, really phat. And I can hear every nuance of my playing.”
Ludwig’s warm, classic sound fits every style, said Michael Dawson, managing editor of Modern Drummer Publications. It’s a sound, he said, that “defined rock and roll.”
A couple years ago, Dawson visited the plant where the self-proclaimed “most famous name on drums” are made.
“If I lived across the street from Ludwig, I’d be there as often as they’d let me in,” he said. “For me, it’d be like living next to a piece of American history.”
‘A real artist’
In the early 1980s, Chicago-based Ludwig was sold to an Indiana firm that made instrument cases in Monroe and band instruments in Albemarle.
Battling Japanese imports, the company shifted drum manufacturing to Monroe to save money, streamline production and tap into North Carolina’s skilled workforce in the furniture and woodworking industry.
Monroe, a city of 34,000 with a thriving aerospace industry, sits about 25 miles southeast of Charlotte.
Just inside the Ludwig building is a lobby awash in vibrant green, silver, white, brown and black striped drums, gold cymbals, autographed drum heads and even a drum covered with “Weird Al” Yankovic’s face.
Drums typically take about four weeks to build.
They are sold in kits that include the big round “bass” kick drum that sits in front of the drummer, plus a floor tom drum on the side and a rack tom often mounted on the bass. Ludwig also makes snare, tympani, concert and marching percussion drums, drum heads and other accessories.
Its drums are found in specialty music stores, where people can buy kits starting at around $700.
Major artists deal directly with Ludwig for custom orders that can run many thousands of dollars. No matter who buys them, a small badge on the drum holds a simple message of pride: “Ludwig Monroe NC, USA.”
Seventeen craftspeople typically guide the drums through half a dozen stations, including molding, woodworking, paint and finishing, and assembly.
Much of the specialty work starts with Rockie Hinson.
A 58-year-old Wingate resident and 24-year plant veteran, Hinson leads shell research and development, working with different woods, grains, colors and machines to customize the sound the artists want.
Alex Van Halen wanted a drum with deeper depth so Hinson designed a way to create a drum shell that was the size of two standard shells. Enter the Thunder Bass.
Ask Hinson what he’s most proud of and he’ll mention the time Cheap Trick drummer Bun E. Carlos approached him during a factory tour. “He told me that I was a real artist,” Hinson said.
Bless these drums
Dennis Ledbetter, 53, sands, hammers, buffs and polishes metal drum shells by hand. The 28-year employee from Monroe also happens to be an ordained minister.
About a decade ago, a drum flew out of his hands and gashed his shoulder. From then on, Ledbetter decided, he’d bless and anoint every drum he touches.
He dabs olive oil on the drums before reciting from the fifth chapter of the book of James, which references anointing people with oil. Let me be safe back there, Ledbetter asks the Lord. And bless whoever uses the drums, he says, no matter if they are playing in a church or a nightclub.
“The prayer,” he said, “is from the heart.”
He delivers about 20 blessings a day and never had another accident.
Modern Drummer’s Dawson met Ledbetter on his tour.
“It ultimately adds a humanity that some of the other major companies don’t have,” Dawson said. “At Ludwig, you can feel someone spent all day on it ... Every fan of music should be aware that they make drums here.”
That’s a wrap
Its drums all start as flat boards stored in a climate-controlled area. Next they get sliced into three panels that will be molded into a cylinder to form the body of the drum.
Those drums are hand-sanded and sealed by the time they reach wrap specialist Ann Ross, 61. The Marshville resident has spent nearly half her life cutting and applying the PVC, acrylic or acetate wraps for the outer shell of the drums.
Often when she’s done wrapping, she’ll walk upstairs, gaze out at the production floor and admire the finished drums waiting to be packed up.
By then, they have been lacquered, buffed, inspected and drilled for hardware assembly. “That’s what really makes me happy,” Ross said, “how good it looks.”
She beams while noting she wrapped every Ringo drum since the mid-’80s. He always wants some new color. The latest was a silver glass sparkle look.
“I want him to see the shells and the drums, and I want him to say, ‘Wow, isn’t this beautiful.’”
A lad in a drum shop
It was right before the Beatles first came to the states in 1964. Ringo and Beatles manager Brian Epstein were walking down a London street when a Ludwig kit in a shop window caught Ringo’s eye. “I loved anything American,” he explained in a video for the hall. “It was that black pearl (wrap). I just loved that.”
So Ringo tried out the drums. They sounded great. As he’s about to buy them, the guy in the shop goes to rip off the Ludwig sign.
“I said, ‘No, no, no. You gotta leave that on. It’s American,’” Ringo recalled with a laugh. “And the rest is history.”
And there for all to see sat the Ludwig name emblazoned on Ringo’s drums. The revolution had begun.
Demand for Ludwig drums soared. To keep pace, Ludwig expanded its Chicago plant, added a shift and churned out nothing but copies of Ringo’s black oyster pearl wrap for 3 1/2 years.
“I’m the best advert Ludwig ever had,” he said.
‘They are very special’
Ringo never visited the Monroe plant, but lots of other artists have, including Taylor Swift drummer Matt Billingslea, Jon “Bermuda” Schwartz with “Weird Al,” REO Speedwagon’s Alan Gratzer and Matt Frenette of Loverboy.
They all signed drum heads displayed in the lobby. On his, Frenette wrote, “Thank you all for everything you’ve stood for in music.”
Ludwig welcomes stars and fans alike on its tours.
North of Boston, 48-year-old Realtor Lawrence Figliola has played Ludwig drums ever since high school when he first jammed with local rock bands. After his wife, Brenda, 49, learned about the tours on Facebook, they planned a January vacation to Monroe with their boys, wanna-be drummers Gino, 9, and Rocco, 7.
They loved it, and even got a glimpse of Ringo’s drum kit being packed up.
It was an honor, Lawrence said, to see where his drums come from. “I’m very proud to play an American-made drum,” he said. “I’ve got three Ludwig kits now, and I’d never sell them. I want them to stay in the family.”
Questlove’s love affair with Ludwig drums stretches back to childhood.
Another out-of-town guest wanted to tour so badly that he put it on his bucket list before having open-heart surgery.
Then there’s Tom Singleton.
For most of his life, the 69-year-old retired computer programmer has played Ludwig drums. A friend in his church band near Charleston suggested they visit the North Carolina factory, and Singleton quickly said yes.
Just over a half century ago, when Singleton was 16 and just getting into Ludwig, he visited its Chicago plant. In April, he found “the same warmth and magic” in Monroe.
Near the end of the tour, he mentioned he was trying to restore an old Ludwig marching drum but couldn’t find the right part. An engineer happened to overhear the conversation, found the small piece and handed it to him. “Truth is,” Singleton said, “I teared up that they’d do that.
“The people that make the drums, they are very special.”
Later this week, Singleton plans to drive back to the plant to pick up a five-piece Legacy Mahagony drum kit he bought for his church.
Singleton is getting the drums autographed. But not by musicians. By the workers who, day after day, craft Ludwig drums in the Monroe plant few know exists.
Want a tour?
Free plant tours are offered on the first and second Friday of the month; to book a tour, contact Ludwig a couple months ahead. For details, email Wade Carpenter at email@example.com.
You can click on the links to see drum solos by the artists on their Ludwig kits. Top artists signed by Ludwig to play their drums include: Ringo Starr, Questlove with The Roots and “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon,” Alex Van Halen, Lenny Kravitz, Patrick Carney with The Black Keys, Matt Billingslea with Taylor Swift, Alan White with Yes, Bun E. Carlos with Cheap Trick, Matt Flynn with Maroon 5, Jim Riley with Rascal Flatts, Meg White with The White Stripes and Carl Palmer with both Emerson, Lake & Palmer and Asia.
The Monroe plant has produced drums since the mid-’80s. Prior to that, drums were built in Chicago. Top historical endorsers include: John Bonham with Led Zeppelin, Karen Carpenter, Buddy Rich, Mitch Mitchell with Jimi Hendrix, Ginger Baker with Cream, Ed Shaughnessy of “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” and Joey Kramer with Aerosmith.
Drumming up business
In 1909, brothers William and Theobald Ludwig launched their business with a concept for making a functional bass drum pedal. They specialized in sound effects that served live musical performances accompanying silent movies and soon moved into drum-making. After several permutations, the company was sold in the early 1980s.
Ludwig began operating full time in Monroe in 1985, where it has a 106,000-square-foot facility. Ludwig also purchases products from manufacturing sites in China and Taiwan for its entry-level kits.
Ludwig is a subsidiary of Conn-Selmer of Elkhart, Ind., which makes instruments for students, amateurs and professionals. As a private company, Ludwig does not disclose sales or production numbers. Conn-Selmer is part of Steinway Musical Instruments, the famed piano-maker now owned by hedge fund billionaire John Paulson’s company.
Drums remain big business. Last year, 139,000 drum kits were sold in the U.S., accounting for nearly one-fourth of $377 million in percussion sales, according to the National Association of Music Merchants trade group.
There are around a dozen major drum manufacturers in the world, said Michael Dawson, Modern Drummer Publications managing editor. In addition to Ludwig, two others are in the United States. They recently combined: Drum Workshop in California bought the rights to make and distribute Gretsch Drums, which has a plant in Ridgeland, S.C., near Savannah, Ga.