Eames birch drum shells, handcrafted by Joe MacSweeney in Saugus, Massachusetts. I’m fortunate to have known Joe since 1989, and have a few different Eames sets to work with. Most of the time I prefer to play a set that consists of four or five drums. One of the many nice things about a custom set of drums is the ability to specify the sizes, as the drums are built to order. Here are the general specs for the set (shown in the below photo) that I lovingly refer to as “The Work Horse”, as it’s used for many performances throughout New England:
12″ x 20″ bass drum
8″ x 12″ mounted tom
12″ x 14″ or 13″ x 16″ floor tom
6.5″ x 14″ snare drum
This Eames finish is called Cherry Wine. Joe MacSweeney is a true artisan in every sense of the word. From hand-selecting the birch, to the last coat of satin urethane, Joe’s hands are the only hands involved in the process. I’ve often told Joe “I hope to be able to play these drums almost as well as you’ve built them.”
- Bass drum = 9-ply ‘Naturaltone’ series;
- Toms / Snare = 6+6 ‘Vintage E’ series (6-ply shell, 12-ply edges).
I chose to have them outfitted with Ludwig lugs, lightweight triple-flange hoops, Yamaha tom & bass drum brackets, Pearl LB-40 floor-tom leg brackets, standard Gibraltar spurs on the 20” bass drum, and a Tama Starclassic MTB30 bracket used for fixing the ride cymbal arm to the bass drum. Most of the time the 20” bass drum is outfitted with solid heads (no front head port), though I’m not totally against using a ported resonant head if the situation calls for it. For muffling, a felt strip is used on the resonant head, and an Evans EQ pad lives at the bottom of the shell & very lightly touches the batter head. I like the EQ pad because it’s not bulky and doesn’t kill the tone.
A Shure Beta 52 microphone is suspended on the inside of the 20” bass drum by a Kelly Shu internal microphone shock-mount system. I had Joe drill & install an extra air-vent grommet on the lower portion of one side of the shell, so a microphone cable can pass through. This microphone set-up seems to work fine for live situations; the isolation pleases most front-house sound engineers. In a recording studio, I tend to double-mic the bass drum, using a combination of signal from this internal mic, with an external mic located somewhere out in front of the drum. This particular kit was built with a shallower-than-standard bass drum & floor tom, mainly for portability. Eames drums tend to sound a size bigger than they actually are, and over the years I’ve learned that this opinion is shared by many other Eames veterans. This 9-ply 12” x 20” bass drum sounds fantastic. It puts out a suprising amount of low-end, and is extremely resonant – especially with the solid front head – but it also offers a little extra punch due to it’s 12″ depth. On my Eames ‘fire red’ set (which to me looks more like ‘fire engine red’; see photo at the bottom of this page) that 20” bass drum is the traditional depth of 14”, and is 3 plies thicker – the 12-ply Mastertone series. The timbre of the 12-ply shell is beefier, with even more low-end resonance & strength. I’ve been told by several audio engineers that my Eames 20” bass drum produces a sound that seems more like the common 22” size. That’s fine by me – a 20” provides the kind of feel, response, and tonal focus that I’m after – and it’s such a joy to play! The other element to the bass drum sound that I’ve been working on for a long time comes down to foot technique: I avoid “burying the beater”. Burying it on a 20” striking surface really chokes that batter head and limits low-end response. The smaller the striking surface, the more the sound chokes should one leave the beater buried on the head after the note. It’s taken me a long time, but I’ve found that letting that batter head vibrate freely after impact makes a big difference in sound quality.
As the snare drum is the most important drum in the set (for the way I play), I have a few different models to choose from – depending on a variety of factors… musical situation, room, venue, etc. One of my beloved is a 6.5″ x 14″ Eames ‘Vintage E’ model, finished in Golden Oak Satin. This beauty has 8 centre-mounted lugs; 2.3mm triple-flange hoops; a Pearl strainer & butt plate; & Puresound 16-strand classic snare wires. ’Vintage E’ is also referred to by Joe as 6+6, as 6-ply reinforcement rings are crafted into a 6-ply shell (so the batter & resonant edges = 12-plies). This particular drum has such depth and warmth, and that spongy vintage feel, but it also has the cut/clarity & snare sensitivity that I love. Here’s a closer look:
If I’m not playing one of my Eames wood-shell snare drums, the chances are very high that I’m playing my favourite metal-shell drum, the Jimmy Chamberlin model by Yamaha (now discontinued, sadly). It came outfitted with their awesome aluminum die-cast hoops. I’m not a fan of heavy zinc die-cast hoops on snare drums. That said, Yamaha’s aluminum version is light enough not to overly colour the sound, yet rigid for easy tuning & a fabulous cross-stick sound. This snare drum is surprisingly versatile for a steel shell. There’s a unique satin coating on this shell that seems to mellow some of the harshness that is usually associated with steel. The end result is a sound that’s a bit warmer & perhaps more reminiscent of a brass shell, yet it’s able to cut thru amplified music without losing it’s character. Prior to finding this gem, I’d typically grab one of my ‘vintage’ metal snare drums when I wanted that sound, as I’d yet to come across a modern one that did much for me. That all changed when this instrument arrived. It easily handles any of the old-school bases, and “boldy goes beyond…” Some snare drums only respond well when dialed into a specific tuning range. This model is consistently great no matter where it’s tensioned. It truly is a drum that can do it all. My modifications: I swapped out the original Yamaha 20-strand hi-carbon steel snare wires for a set of Puresound 16-strand custom wires. I like the original snare wires (& currently use them on a Ludwig 400), but I felt that the Puresounds were a little friendlier on this particular drum. I also had an internal knob-style muffler professionally installed on the inside of the shell. The internal muffler offers a variety of dampening options – or none at all. I wish more ‘new’ metal drums would offer the internal muffler as standard equipment again like the old days. But I digress…
….and a couple of others, worthy of note:
- 1969 Gretsch ’round badge’, chrome-plated brass shell (thanks to Dave Mattacks), 5″x14″. This Gretsch “COB” has their classic rounded bearing edges, & produces a beautifully warm “bark”.
- 1980 Ludwig Supraphonic model # 402, 6.5″ x 14″ (made famous by John Henry Bonham). My modifications: I had the crusty, pitted chrome plating completely blasted off, and then had the shell powder-coated in ‘Appliance White’. It’s now outfitted with black chrome tube lugs, & black 2.3mm hoops. It’s Bonzo meets 2001: A Space Odyssey. I also call it Oreo Cookie Double Stuff.
My snare drums are usually outfitted with either Puresound 16-strand or Pearl 20-strand snare wires – though I’ve recently discovered Puresound’s 12-strand model, and really love how they sound on certain drums. Snare cord is the orange Ludwig type, which I buy in bulk from Jack Lawton of Lawton Drum Company.
In my chameleon-esque musical world, my cymbal set-up changes depending on the type of music I’m playing, and whether it’s a live gig or a studio session. That said, here’s a configuration I feel especially connected to as it can cover lots of musical territory:
13″ K. Zildjian Hi-Hats;
17″ A. Zildjian Medium-Thin Crash (from the re-worked ‘A’ line released in April of ’13);
19″ K. Constantinople Crash/Ride.
18″ A. Pang (from the ’90s i think).
Yamaha single-braced snare stand. Canopus or Yamaha single-braced hi-hat stand. Ludwig 1400 flat-base cymbal stands (1960s-era, with a few mods’), except for the main ride cymbal which is mounted on the bass drum using a Tama Starclassic MTB30 bracket, a custom-made stainless steel L-arm, and a Danmar 1038 holder. My throne is actually an entry level Tama HT25, which is light & easy to pack into the trap-case, yet sturdy enough. However, I did have it modified with some extra nuts & bolts (literally) which permanently locked it’s height, and also serves to prevent any ‘internal wobble’. I also had the seat reupholstered by my friend Angelo who’d recently done the same for the seats of his vintage Porsche. Angelo had some leftover Porsche leather, so now my buns feel… Schön! “So, why not just by a better throne?” I did, and I keep it at home on my practice kit. It’s too heavy to lug around! I find that much of today’s popular hardware is excessively heavy. Unless you are playing on a very bouncy stage, and/or you have a lead singer who relies on gymnastics, you really don’t need that double-braced 1500 lb. boom stand!
The beater I use is a Danmar square felt beater (Zoro model) – but occasionally I’ll switch to a Yamaha rubber beater. I play a single pedal, and while I have nothing against those who creatively use twin bass drums or a double-pedal, these days I have no interest whatsoever in “going there”. My left foot loves the hi-hat!
I normally prefer medium-weight coated single-ply drumheads – both batter & resonant. There are several good brands out there…you know who the popular contenders are. Over the years I have experimented with other types of heads, but almost always return to coated single-ply. I find that this type of head provides the perfect combination of snap [due to the coating] and resonance. Sometimes different types of drumheads (clear; double-ply, etc’) might be what is called for on a particular drum or a particular session, so I’m not totally against them.
And… a little Eames story from yours truly…
I was first introduced to the Eames Drum Company over twenty years ago, during my senior year at Lynnfield High School. That year, our school music program had the good fortune of receiving a superb ‘student teacher’ from Berklee College of Music by the name of John Thomas. John was originally from Michigan, and came complete with a healthy dose of bright midwestern affability. He had moved to Boston four years prior, specifically to study at Berklee. John was required to log a certain number of hours ‘student teaching’ in an assigned public school music program, as a prerequisite for a Music Education degree from Berklee. John was also a percussionist, so this situation was of enormous benefit to me during my senior year. As I was to enroll at Berklee the following autumn, and as John was a fellow drummer & undergraduate there, I sought John out quite a bit. John had a set of Eames drums, and while I didn’t get to play them at the time, I did attend John’s senior recital at Berklee and heard his drums from afar. Impressive, though at the time I was so blown away by the recital hall at Berklee, the anticipation of my enrollment there, and John’s amazing night of music, that it was difficult to really focus on much else. Oddly enough, I knew very little about the Eames Drum Company, despite the fact that they were located in the next town over, in Saugus Massachusetts. I remembered that our junior high school had a very old Eames marching snare drum in the closet. It had been heavily neglected, and its tattered condition left me apathetic.
After graduating from high school and moving on to Berklee, John and I stayed friends, and I credit John with recommending an instructor who essentially changed everything for me (and countless others) – Bob Gullotti. While still a freshman at Berklee, I began studying privately with Bob at his studio in Waltham. My studies with Bob continued off & on (though more on than off) for the next fifteen years of my professional development. I could write a novel about the enormity of Bob’s influence on me and my drumming. The first set of Eames Drums I ever played was the set that Bob has in his teaching studio. There are many reasons why I’ll never forget my studies with Bob, but the one most appropriate to this chronicle was the extraordinary impression I had from playing his Eames kit for the first time. I got to play those drums during my lesson every week, experiencing their rich, unequaled tonality right from the drum chair (or hot seat) – and – I got to hear Bob play them (far better); either me standing next to him from behind the kit while he demonstrated something, or me moving out in front of the kit and hearing them from that vantage point. The experience was astounding, to say the least. My youthful ears had Bob’s incredible musicianship and wisdom to cope with, and the sound of these gorgeous handmade drums was simply awesome. I learned that Bob had a couple of Eames kits – one to teach/practice with in his studio, and another to gig with. I soon began going out to hear Bob play with his band The Fringe, on Wednesday nights at The Willow Jazz Club in Ball Square, Somerville MA. Those experiences of live music played by these masters were [again] something I could write a novel about. Nevertheless, hearing Bob and his Eames kit sparkle in that setting was the clincher for me: I had to meet Joe and order up my own set of Eames drum shells.
I think back often on my first visit to the Eames Drum Company, and meeting Joe MacSweeney. The excitement I felt, and the way I demonstrated to both Joe and me that I knew so little about drum shells (though I thought I knew a lot) must have been both familiar and taxing to Joe. I’m grateful to Joe for having the patience of Job! I remember Joe showing me the top floor of his shop, and I felt like a kid in a candy store. Several Eames drum sets of differing configurations lined the walls of that old barn building – and I played them all! We talked about the physical and tonal differences between his six-, nine-, and twelve-ply shells, as well as how a drum’s depth affects the air column & timbre (particularly important & evident with unstuffed bass drums). I was able to hear those differences by playing the assortment of drums he had on display. Theory + testing = proof… I was psyched!
At that time, I didn’t have the money to order up a complete set, so for my very first Eames adventure, I planned on having the shells made piece-by-piece, as I could afford them. I already had a set of drums whose shells I swiftly learned were substandard in many ways, but on the flip-side there was absolutely nothing wrong with that set’s hardware. As Joe is a drum maker and not a metal worker, I knew I’d either have to purchase new hardware for his shells, or use the existing hardware from my current set. [In those days Joe did not stock his own ‘house’ hardware, though today he does and it’s an excellent option]. Financially and expediently it made the most sense to slowly transform the drum kit that I had. Joe would mount the hardware I already had onto Eames shells, again, drum-by-drum, as I could afford them. I was a full-time college student, but I had a part-time job on the weekends, and during the summer I worked full-time. In those days I also played percussion in the pit for several civic theatre productions – which were paid jobs [though not very well]. By my senior year at Berklee, I finally had my first full set of Eames Drums. Twenty years and several sets later, I’m still proudly playing Eames drums, and remain very grateful for the fact that I need not look any further than “my own backyard” for the finest handmade drum shells.
It is an indisputable fact that Joe is a master drum maker. This type of vocation is considerably beyond basic woodwork. While I have little-to-no natural aptitude for carpentry, I’m fairly certain I could be taught to nail 2x4s together with a slight (very slight) degree of success. In the field of carpentry, I’ve heard that cabinet making is reserved for the most talented. I presume that the craftsmanship required to construct drum shells from scratch is on par with that of the most practiced cabinet maker. I’ve seen the flat stack of birch on the shop floor, and I’ve seen the finished shells on the workbench, and it baffles me that the entire process at Eames is done by hand — Joe’s hands. Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to play drum sets from virtually every major manufacturer out there, as well as many of the ‘boutique’ brands. While there certainly are many fine drums out there to play, I’ve yet to hear anything that rivals the sound of Eames. This, my friends, is the most important piece of the puzzle: you’ve got to enjoy what you play. The instrument needs to talk back to you, and you’ve got to love what you are hearing. I love the sound of Eames drums, and am reminded of this every time I play them.
- 05/25/13 Steve Chaggaris in PORTSMOUTH, NH at THE PRESS ROOM
- 05/26/13 Steve Chaggaris in AMESBURY, MA at UNITY ON THE RIVER
- 05/26/13 Steve Chaggaris in SOMERVILLE, MA at Sally O’Briens
- 05/31/13 Steve Chaggaris in PORTSMOUTH, NH at PRIVATE EVENT
- 06/01/13 Steve Chaggaris in Harwich, MA at PRIVATE EVENT