How Many Drummers Does It Take To…
…supply the city of Chicago with drums? Apparently just one. Meet Dave Cohen: Dead-head, drummer, vintage drum dealer, and owner of the coolest collection of drums (and cymbals, and hardware, percussion stuff, and…) that I’ve ever seen.
It was a dark and stormy night (really, it was), and I was at the Celtic Knot to see Sexfist. I was looking to buy a couple of cymbals at the time, and I was talking to Gus about how there’s absolutely nowhere in the whole entire city of Chicago to buy drums (Guitar Center doesn’t count). Gus, of course, knows every musician and music-related person around here, and he told me about his friend Dave who has an amazing collection of drums and sells them out of his apartment right up the street. Gus proceeded to call him and tell him that we were coming over. So, at half-past midnight, I was on my way over to some guy’s apartment to bang on a bunch of cymbals.
And what an apartment it is–I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves. If you get anything from this post, get Dave’s contact info, and get in touch with him for all of your drumming needs. Whether you’re looking for vintage stuff (read on to see and hear about some really cool vintage stuff), or just reasonably priced non-vintage stuff, he’s got it: 847-UNI-STIK or http://drumshtick.com/drumshtick.html.
But he also happens to be a really cool guy, and he was nice enough to talk to me about stuff like being a founding member of the Dark Star Orchestra, working in the legendary Frank’s Drum Shop downtown, and building this amazing collection. Read on to see the interview, more pictures, and my embarrassing lack of knowledge of Chicago music history.
Dan: How did this all get started?
Dave: Well, I started playing drums when I was ten. I took lessons in school and I got in the school band like everyone else. I had a lot of friends even at age 10 that were into drums, so I was always into drumming. We got here when I was 12, from New Jersey. I continued playing; I played in the Evanston Township high school band, and I played in many rock bands around the area, then the clubs as I got older.
Then, I got sick for a while… I had to re-learn how to play the drums after a bad illness. When I started to play again, and when I started to tour again, I found that wherever I went, there were drums. What do you do on your day off when you’re on the road? You go to the music store, right? So I would see all these drums that I liked, and I started bringing them all home [laughs]. I went to one estate sale where an older drummer had passed and had almost as many drums as you see here today–
Dan: I can’t imagine…
Dave: Yeah, and I bought a couple of 1920’s Ludwig snare drums without knowing too much about them, without really knowing their value. I knew they were collectable, and I thought I was getting a fair price. Turned out I did get a very good price.
From there I started looking into the whole vintage drum ‘category’ and saw that that was an interesting thing. In the middle 80’s or so, the American companies, Ludwig and Slingerland and Gretsch –they were all doing really poorly against the imports of the Japanese Tama Rockstars and the Pearl ‘Export’ drums. And they were wiped out pretty much, these companies. I remember when Biasco music was selling Ludwig kits out the door for $199, just to get rid of them.
Dan: What’s Biasco music? Is that a shop around here?
Dave: There were a bunch of them around here. The equivalent of a ‘Guitar Center’ today.
You saw the demise of the American companies, and then the Japanese take over. So then a few years later, there started to be a demand for good old American
Ludwig, Slingerland, Gretsch, Rogers, etc. drums. And so I started collecting.
I’ve got a whole room in the back there filled with sets, and I’ve got the twelve that you see out here. I’ve got about thirty or forty snare drums of different vintages. So that’s how I got into it.
Dan: Where do you find stuff?
Dave: In the progress of this thing, there were only a couple of us out there who were actually collecting vintage drums, although maybe more than I knew. Then Ebay came along and all these hard to find drums that you couldn’t find in your neighborhood, or in your city, now were right in front of you on your computer. So that kind of put a nail in my business [laughs]. But it also opened up parts of the business for me, so I could find parts I needed: a drum that I’m missing to finish up a set, or parts for a drum, something like that. And now Craigslist is a very good source for finding used equipment, trading stuff. I used to look in the newspapers every day to see who’s selling what–in the want ads. Now it’s mostly on computer.
Dan: Do you find anything from newspapers anymore?
Dave: Very rarely. And even then, I don’t look in the newspaper, I look in the online version of the newspaper. You know, the Sun Times site, or the Chicago Reader site.
But a lot of my business is word of mouth. People come looking for something. I do have a website. It’s not totally happening, but I get some business from that.
Dan: Do you deal mainly with other collectors, or do you deal a lot with guys like me that may just need a cymbal, or a drum throne, or a stand or something?
Dave: A lot of my business is really not the vintage stuff. It’s just a good used drum set, like that beautiful Pearl Export like that gray one right there which is probably two years old, which was maybe played for 6 months and given up. Those are the kind of people that I look for, because you find great drums in great condition, and you can buy them at a discount. So I can offer them to a young drummer at a reasonable price compared to what they’d have to pay in Guitar center to get the drums, then the hardware then the cymbals, you know… I try to make a good package deal for people, and get them going.
And then again, I have the more vintage drums that usually will sell on Ebay or though my website.
Dan: How many years have you been building up this collection?
Dave: Well I’ve been in this space here for I think 12 years, and I started before that, so probably 15 years.
Dan: Wow, it’s quite a collection.
Dave: And you’re only seeing about half of it [laughs].
Dan: I’ve gotta ask: we’re in an apartment right now–
Dave: Right, ‘how do you play drums in an apartment?’ Veeerrrrry quietly [laughs].
Dan: Have you ever had any complaints about noise?
Dave: Well, I worked it out with my neighbors. Condo living has taught me a lot about working with your neighbors on issues, and as ‘the drummer’ in the building [laughs], I’ve found that communication is the key. And I don’t really play in here… much. When someone comes to see a set, I’ll set it up and let them play it, and I usually do this in the afternoons when most neighbors have gone to work, or are not sleeping. Sometimes if I have a drum set that’s set up to sell, of I’ve been tuning it up for a customer, I’ll sit down and I’ll play it for a while, and nobody complains, so that’s nice.
Dan: Do you still play? Do you play in a band?
Dave: I don’ play out anymore, I’ve had some hearing issues and some tendinitis issues (which I’m trying to resolve), so it’s difficult for me to play. I’m always itching to play, though; sometimes I’ll sit in somewhere and play.
Dan: What kind of stuff?
Dave: I’m basically a rock drummer; most of my gigs were playing classic
rock and Grateful Dead music. I was with the Dark Star Orchestra when they first
started out. Now they’re huge! But yeah, I was the first drummer in that band.
I’ve played all styles of music; I’ve played with all the community bands around here, percussion in those concert bands. I’ve played a lot of very interesting music in them. I played with the Highland Park symphonic winds, it was a very good ensemble. A grade above your average community band.
Dan: One of the reasons that I’m so excited about what you do is that I can’t find anywhere else in the whole entire city to buy drums. I go to Guitar Center, and there’s really nowhere else. Did there used to be more shops around here?
Dave: Well, let’s see… Yeah, there used to be. At 19, I got a job at Frank’s Drum Shop downtown. Now, Frank’s Drum Shop is the legendary, the best, you know, the coolest drum store ever in the world, basically. Started early in the 19th century by Frank Gault. And then passed on to my boss, Maurie Lishon, I think in the 50’s or so, I don’t really know the history exactly. But I got a job there in 1979, and was just knocked out. Not only did they have all these drums that they were selling, but they had teachers giving lessons, they had a workshop in the back (like I do in my kitchen). There was a guy named Clarence, I forget his last name, who could fix anything. He could fix anything! And if he couldn’t fix it, he would make it for you. They had a rental department, which I eventually started working in. I would take the rental orders, and then go take the stuff out. And that was fun; I would go to Poplar Creek with a set of tympani and set them up for the rock bands that were playing [laughs]. So I got a lot of free passes to be in there. I got a great education on drumming and drum parts. I spent weeks in the drum parts room. Maybe, half the size of this room [gestures to his living room] filled with just bins of parts. When I got there, it was in total chaos [laughs]. I spent hours just trying to get things arranged so you could find something. But all that experience has helped me do what I do now.
Dan: Frank’s Drum Shop eventually closed down?
Dave: Right. They had a competitor next door: Bill Crowden’s Drums Unlimited. This was on 200 South Wabash Street. So that was basically the two big stores down there. And there were other stores that were music stores, that had pianos, guitars, drums… most of those are gone as well. That’s kind of what gave way to the collection thing, because there weren’t all these drums available anymore. And people started collecting them.
Dan: Why are all these places gone? Is it because of the big giant Guitar Center stores, or the online thing, or what?
Dave: Oh, it’s too hard to compete with the big guys like Guitar Center. Look at Flatts and Sharpe down on Sheridan. They can hardly stay in business. So the small guy is pushed out. The only guys who can sustain it are specialty. My specialty is the vintage stuff.
Dan: Do you have anything really cool in here right now? I mean, besides everything…
Dave: [laughs] Let’s see… Super cool? I would have to dig something out… but lets just look at this set right here. See these here, these mahogany Ludwigs? That’s all one drum set.
Dan: How many pieces is that?
Dave: Twelve piece kit.
Dan: Where did you find that one?
Dave: That was from a fairly local suburban guy who had this giant kit in his basement; it took up his whole basement. He had like 20 cymbals and all these stands and everything, and he wasn’t even there. His dad was selling them, because he was out in California, not playing them, not using them, and so I said ‘deal or no deal’… He wanted them out of his house, so I got them at a reasonable price. But I don’t have the room to set them up and play them [laughs]. I’d like to set them up and play them, I’d like to get the Kieth Moon thing going here…
Dave: This is some of my snare collection. These are all Dynasonic Rogers snare drums. If you want to learn something about Rogers, I’ll tell you right now, for when you’re out there looking. See all these drums here, with five center lines, this one with seven is one of the earliest ones, the most collectible. Mine is serial number 6424; that’s pretty low.
Dave: Below that, are my oldest drums, the most collectible drums I have. Those three scrolled drums are Ludwig Black Beauty drums. They are gun metal shells, and engraved. That’s how I started collecting. I got those three drums at a sale, and I said “Wow, I’m a collector!” [laughs]. And now it’s grown to this.