Posted January 2020
The drums. That beautiful set of hardware that is often under rated, cursed by parents, and seen as easy to play. Author Shannon L. Adler is quoted as saying, “Music is the beat of a drum that keeps time with our emotions.” If so, then drums are directly or indirectly an integral part of who we are emotionally.
For me, music was a part of who I was and became, but purely as a listener. I just wasn’t born with good musicianship in me, as much as I would’ve liked to. I plunked on a guitar but just couldn’t get to where I wanted to be. Two of my cousins and one of my closest and dearest friends played drums in their youth. All three played Ludwig drums.
Ah, the name says it all. Ludwig. The name is as ingrained in the soundtrack of our youth as Gibson and Fender and all the stars who played their instruments and sent many aspiring drummers down the path of rhythmic musicianship.
In the history of that brand of drum, there was an actual Ludwig. William F., in fact. Ludwig was lauded by the departed Neil Peart of Rush, who said of William, Sr., “When Mr. Ludwig invented the bass-drum pedal, that’s what made the drum set possible.” Many famous drummers played Mr. Ludwig’s drums, especially after seeing Ringo Starr play them on the Beatles’ historic appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. In fact, that TV appearance led Ludwig Drums to be THE drum manufacturer for many years.
As with other instrument makers, through a series of twists and turns, the Ludwig family sold the family business to a large corporation. Eventually, there wasn’t even an actual Ludwig family member manufacturing drums . . . until recently.
The grandson of William F. Ludwig, William F. “Bill” Ludwig III, pounded his way back into the drum making business. Obviously, the vagaries of business and copyright law keep him from using “Ludwig” on his beautiful sets. The name of HIS company is WFLIII Drums.
It’s rare that Boomerocity interviews anyone who isn’t a musical artist or author. However, the story of WFLIII Drums and its owner intrigued me and the opportunity to chat with him presented itself, so I pounced on it.
Calling me from his Chicago office, Bill and I hit it off immediately. Kind, engaging, and personable, we got to know each other quickly and drilled into the story of his latest venture. To that point, I asked him to share the back story of why his family sold the original Ludwig company what happened afterward, and why he is back into the business again.
“Well, there's a lot of why's in there, but I'll try to hit them all.
“As you know, my grandfather started the company in 1909 and in the mid-30s, like all businesses, he was being affected by the Great Depression. At that time, a large portion of his business was sound effects for the silent movie era. You had to make train sounds and there'd be three percussionists watching a movie from behind the screen and added all the sound effects to add realism to that.
“All of a sudden, they come out with talky movies. So, every drummer is out of work the next day. That got my grandfather's attention and he thought, you know what? This business is struggling. I'm going to sell it to keep it alive. And he did. After a couple of years, he wasn't happy with the new people that bought it and said, ‘You know, I'm going to start my company over again and they said, 'That's nice, but we own your name.' So, he said, 'I'll use my initials, WFL Drum company. But then he put real small under that, “William F. Ludwig, President’. So, everybody knew, ‘Oh, the Ludwig guy’, which he was associated with top quality products and customer service.
“So, now we fast forward to the late 70s, early 80s. My father and I were running the company and having some difficulties with unions and some other business issues and decided, for the best of the company, we should sell to a larger conglomerate that would protect us, so to speak. The same thing happened. You know, after 10 years, I decided that I wasn't happy with the way it was going. And we parted company and that was that. I was all of a sudden out of the drum business, which was quite a shock to my system.
“I worked various office jobs for 14 years or so. Then five years ago, I had moved with my daughters to a new place. At the same time, I just lost a job and I thought, ‘Well, what am I going to do now?’ I was looking at this picture of my grandfather in the factory testing drums, and he looked so happy and so proud. And I looked at the date on the picture and I realized he was fifty-nine. I was fifty-nine five years ago. I thought, ‘Well, if he can start over in 59, so can I.’ And for some reason, I took the picture off the wall and in my father's handwriting on the back, it said, ‘Senior starting over.’ So, he started over from nothing at age fifty-nine and lived to be ninety-three. He was in the factory every day until two weeks before he passed away because he was doing what he loved.
“And, so, that's what pushed me over the edge. I started researching what other companies were doing in the industry and I saw everybody was going to thick ply shells, you know, six-ply, eight-ply, 12 ply and all these exotic woods. And I thought, well, it doesn't really improve the sound - and it's all about the sound. So, I said that I'm going to go back to the basic three-ply shell that my grandfather made, which was maple poplar maple with a steam-bent support ring. That's what I'm going to do!
“Lo and behold, after coming out with the snare drums first and, now, wood shell kits everybody that plays the kits, within seconds, says, 'Oh! The classic sound!" Because they're just so resonant and they have such good tonal qualities about the shell. Again, it's a quality made shell and we finish it and do all the edging and snare band work at our own factory in Kansas. It comes out in the sound. I mean, they look beautiful, they sound better. That's kind of how it evolved.”
Circling back to his career in drums, Bill shared:
“Ok, well, to go back to the beginning of how I first started working full time at Ludwig: During the summers from a very young age, like third grade. I would work in various departments in the factory. Then, when I got out of college, my dad had just fired the advertising manager and said, ‘Here, I want you as advertising manager’, which I didn't study for. I studied to run the factory. I thought I would be in that position. All of a sudden, Dad plunged into advertising.
“So, I'm trying to learn that position and about three weeks later, he walks back and says, 'I just let go of the artist relations person. You're gonna do that, too.' I'm, like, 'But, I'm still just trying to learn advertising.' I'll never forget this as long as I live. He just turned to walk out of my little cubicle area, leaned over his shoulder and said, 'You'll learn.'
“So, I started going through our artists relations - our endorser list - and weeding out the not so popular ones. I was a drummer since a very young age. I played in a rock band in high school and marched and I played in a symphonic band so I could go to concerts and meet drummers and relate immediately about, 'What kind of heads are you using? How do you like that stand? How do you like the high-hat pedal?' I would go to these concerts and it would amaze me that I would talk my way backstage and all of a sudden, the manager would usher me into the dressing room of, let's say, Aerosmith. And they're all like, 'Oh, man, nice to meet you!' Nice to meet me? Nice to meet YOU.’ It was pretty amazing how the name opened some doors. I got to know all the guys and became friends with a lot of them - and girls. We had a couple of female endorsers, too, and it was just a great experience.
As I said, they would always try to get me to sit upfront. 'You know, I'll get you a good seat up front.' But I'm like, ‘No, I want to be sitting next to the drum tech. I want to watch you and I want to see what you're using and abusing and what I suggest you change or try.' That's how I did it. It really was a lot of fun and very productive for the company to have that inside track.
“As far as endorsers now: Yes, I'm looking for the next Ringo, that would be great. But in the meantime, I've got some great endorsers. Have you heard of the band, Get the Led Out? They're one of our endorsers.”
When I asked if they were a tribute band I had heard about, Ludwig replied:
“Exactly. Yeah, but they're bigger than the basic tribute band. I mean, they play like 2000 seaters and they travel with their own lights and P.A. and equipment. They're really professional and dedicated to playing it note for note. And the drummer, Adam Ferraioli, loved my snare drum. And then I said, 'well, if you like that, you should try a kit.' So, we worked out an endorsement deal and he came on board about a year and a half ago.
“I'll never forget this one: I go to the venue when they delivered the kit. They already had it set up and the sound man comes up to me and says, 'Thank you!'. I said, 'Why? What did I do? I just got here.' And he goes, 'I had an hour and a half set aside to get the new kit up and dialed in. We were done in five minutes.' So, if you can get the sound guy happy. You know, that's a good sign right there. And the drums are so resonant and the shells have so much tone, they're just simple to tune and to get sounding good so you don't have to muffle them or try a different head or get a different microphone. They just work great live or in the studio.”
I told Bill that I think it's interesting that, when the electronic drums came out back in the late 80s or so, everybody thought, ‘Well, there goes traditional drumming and where is it now?
“Exactly. And I was one of them. That's one thing, when they came out with the Lin machine – the Lin drum machine, I went into my father's office because I heard all the studios were getting them out in L.A. I said, 'Dad, well, we have a problem here. We’re going to get buried by this electronic thing.’ He goes, ‘Don't worry. It's happened before.’ And I said, ‘What are you talking about?’ He told me the story about senior with the sound effects and them coming out with talking movies that DID put every drummer out of work the next day. However, the sound effect business then turned into the foley business - the foley artist that we have today for movies and television. They then put all the sound effects in of people walking or a door slamming. That just came back. That was my dad's point, is everything is a cycle and that's what happened with the Lin machine. It had pretty much faded out into the background and everybody realized nothing like a live drummer with a real drum.”
Being the business geek that I am, I was curious just how high tech WFLIII Drums’ production process is.
“We're high tech, handcrafted. We've got as much of the new technology that we could possibly have, which is a lot in drum making, but it's nothing like hands-on. We have craftsmen that have specialty areas of woodworking and woodworking woods. Then, others that are more the technical side for the machinery of the drilling and the bearing edges, which is so important for a good drum sound.
“We're American made. I mean, everybody said when I started this project, 'Oh, yeah, go to China. That's where everybody gets their drums made.' I don't want to go to China. I don't want to go where everybody else goes. I wanted to do this in the USA ourselves. So that's what we set out to do and it was a challenge. But we're getting there. As I said, it was everybody loving the sound so much. I know we're on the right track.”
Hearing all of this makes me want to buy a set and I don’t even play! In all seriousness, though, I did ask Ludwig how readers can purchase a WFLIII snare or complete set of drums.
“Well, if you go to the web site, it does list our dealer network, which is small but growing. I'm trying to focus on drum shops or music stores with a really strong drum department, which are getting harder and harder to find these days. But they are out there. One that we have that comes to mind is the Drum Center in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, which is just an amazing store. And we've got Nelson's drum shop in Nashville. We have Music and Arts enterprises in Fort Lauderdale, which is a great, great store. One in Canada, Drumland. It's also available online through Sweetwater or direct from our website.
“Yeah, I would say we just started to make this direct buy available. You know, at first, I was a little hesitant, but then I realized that's what everybody's used to these days at Amazon or whatever. If you don't like it, we say send it back within 30 days. No questions asked and the way things have been going, I know nobody's going to send it back once they play them.”
Any new WFLIII Drums products coming down the pike?
"Yes! Next month is the NAMM show out in L.A., and we're introducing a whole line of painted shells. We're experimenting with automotive paints like real high gloss, like a candy apple red, and then putting metal flake in it. We have a spray booth in the factory and that kind of lets me get my mad professor side out and say, 'Let's try this and let's try that'. Sometimes, I think I drive my partner nuts! But it's the experimenting process that I loved so much from the old days. Then we get to go out in the factory and say, okay, let's try this. Some great ideas come out that way. So, to answer your question, some new finishes and that's the focus of this NAMM show.”
When I asked Bill if he was going to be in my neck of the woods (Nashville) anytime soon, his answer illustrated just how hands-on he is in promoting his drums and building a bond with their players.
“I was just there in August for a week. We did a series of videos that came out real nice in some studios down there. But I'm going to be going back. Nelson's drum shop is going to do an in-store with me. I'm hoping March sometime in March. It will be a Meet Bill Ludwig Day, which is really kind of cool because anybody's considering buying a drum or a kit and we get them in the store that day and meet me, 'Gee, if you buy it. Now, you've got a picture with Bill Ludwig, the only Ludwig in the drum business and your picture.
“I did one where a guy bought a kit. There's a lot of people in the store to meet me and take a picture or whatever. I saw a guy at the store, people boxing up the kit and getting ready to take it out. I went out and helped him take it out to the guy’s car in his trunk for him. The guy couldn't believe it. He said, 'I can't believe Bill Ludwig is carrying bags for me.'.
“Just to get back to your other question. Sorry, I don't mean to bounce around. But getting back to the endorsers, the other endorser we have that I'm really happy about is Ginger Baker's son, Kofi. And Kofi Baker, Jack Bruce's son, and Eric Clapton's nephew are on the road doing the Music of Cream. They just do a great job. They played Nashville a couple of times. But yeah, you got to keep an eye out for that.”
“Actually, you know, Ringo had kept in touch with me over the years while I was out of the business. Every time he'd come through Chicago with Ringo and the All Starrs, I get a call from his drummer tech, get an invitation to the show, and I'm the only one allowed backstage, which was pretty cool.
"I go, 'Wow! I'm not in the drum business now but Ringo still says hi.’ With this idea to start my own drum company. I told him and he said, 'Oh, well, that's fantastic. I wish you the best of luck.' And I said, 'I want you to have the first snare I make. And he said, 'Well, then we have to take a picture like your father and I.' Because I don't know if you saw this iconic picture with my father handing Ringo a snare drum in 1964. I think. I'm not sure, but it was about a year or two after that, they were on tour, coming through Chicago, and Dad had a snare drum gold plated. Every nut, bolt, washer, and even the snare strands on the bottom were gold plated to give Ringo as a thank you. So, yeah, there's a picture of dad handing Ringo this snare drum. And when I got my first drum out ready, the closest place they were playing - that Ringo was playing near Chicago was Milwaukee. So, I drove up there, went backstage at soundcheck, and I got a picture of me handing Ringo the number one drum off the line. So, that's pretty cool. My father and Ringo and myself and Ringo. It really makes me happy.”
It makes Boomerocity happy to consider Bill Ludwig a friend and, if you’re a drummer – or want to be a drummer – you’ll be happy to pick up a set of American-made WFLIII Drums. Check them out at WFLIIIDrums.com.