I’m going to kick off this series of articles about drum equipment from the ‘twenties – and more specifically those few period instruments I’ve managed to find or make, and use day to day – with the one piece of kit which has had the biggest impact on my working life and which always causes a stir of interest wherever I take it: the Barry Drum Company of Philadelphia’s ‘Collapsible’ bass drum, from 1919.
Around 2010, as I began to really specialise in early jazz drumming, I realised that if I wanted to mimic the same sounds I was hearing on records, and be taken seriously as an authentic period musician, using modern drums and cymbals just wasn’t an option. One of the first pieces of kit I sought after was a really big bass drum (28” diameter or more) like I’d seen in the photos of all my favourite ‘twenties drummer heroes. I eventually found one (a nice old Premier marching drum) and, being a non-driver and then still an idealistic young man of twenty-six or so, would happily pack it in a softbag and schlep it around on the London Tube to and from gigs. If double bass players do it, I told myself, there’s no reason a drummer shouldn’t either. However, several old boys I’d met in various bands had expressed amazement that I could put myself through this ordeal and mentioned drummers they had known in the past who had similar-sized bass drums which would fold up ‘into a suitcase’. This intrigued me and I began to search for information. I discovered that the idea for a folding bass drum had first been patented by the ingenious William A. Barry in 1917, who had gone on to form a company to manufacture them specially, based in Philadelphia, beginning production in 1919. Barry sensibly reasoned that at the time, all but a very few drummers used public transport to get to gigs (just as I did!) and as the Jazz craze swept America and then the world in the following years, large bass drums would be an essential part of the drum set, not just for their own sound but simply as a large and steady object on which to mount smaller instruments.
As Barry’s drums proved popular and other drum manufacturers began to offer their own variations on Barry’s innovative design, the company branched out into making various other, more conventional models of drums, including some fine snare drums which are highly prized today. During their heyday Barry drums were used and endorsed by Sonny Greer and Chauncey Morehouse among other ‘name’ drummers. Sadly, however, the Barry company went bust along with many hundreds of others in the Great Depression of the early ‘thirties.
After exhaustive searching for several years I found a few extinct eBay auctions, a few photos and a nice print of Barry’s original patent (see above, which now hangs on my wall) but little else. For a while I considered attempting to build my own model from scratch, using Barry’s patent as a blueprint, but luckily, someone elsewhere in the UK finally listed one (with its original case and heads, but in a fairly bad state of repair) on eBay. I eventually managed to acquire the thing, then spent a good week restoring it back to smart playing condition.
As soon as I began to gig with Barry, as ‘he’ has been referred to ever since, I was delighted. The vulcanized case is beautifully-made and fits the drum snugly whilst offering considerable protection. The original clasps for the lid had gone by the wayside, but I fitted a leather strap over the top to do the job instead. The drum’s shell is constructed of wafer-thin aluminium, so it’s extremely light to carry. With the heads tuned up tight, the drum has a fat, round sound which rings considerably and usually requires some damping to control it. Despite the horror stories I’d heard of collapsible drums folding up mid-gig, I’ve never had any concern about such an occurrence (with the model I have at least, I don’t see how this could even happen). There are just two main drawbacks to the drum. The first is its single-tension tuning system: you can’t adjust the tension of just one of the heads individually. However, considering the additional weight that dual-tension tuning would involve, it’s a trade-off I’m willing to accept. The second complication is that the heads remain attached to the counterhoops – fixed down under thin brass strips running along the length of each folding section – and specially designed to fold into quarters along with the hoop. The system works beautifully until you need to replace a head, which I have done just once, after about three months of using the drum. Of course there’s no data available on how to do this, so I decided to just buy a very large piece of calfskin and have a go at it myself. Whether through luck or judgment I don’t know, but it worked out absolutely fine. I then copied the original and put some reinforcing stitches with a needle and thread at each corner where the head folds.
With a small external spur added on each side to steady him, Barry proves a sturdy mount for ‘trap table, cymbal arms, tom-toms and all sorts of extra ‘traps. I’ve been lucky enough to record with him on many occasions and he always sounds great. He’s also frequently accompanied me on aeroplanes for various trips to Europe, packed inside his case, then that packed inside a large suitcase and checked in the hold.
Finding the Barry drum has completely revolutionized my working life. No longer do I suffer intermittent back pain and opprobrium from fellow Tube passengers from lugging a conventional 28″ drum around. Fellow musicians, stage crew and audience members at gigs are always fascinated to watch Barry being assembled or packed down and usually want to take video or photos. The questions I get asked most frequently (after ‘where did you find it?’) are ‘Where can I get one?’ and ‘Why did they stop making them?’ Several times people have half-jokingly suggested I ought to found a company and put them into production again (if only I had the capital!), but of course there’s little demand for huge bass drums that fold down today, for the simple reason that as the decades have passed, drummers have found an alternative solution to the problem – apart from me, they’ve all got cars!