EP 145 - Ludwigs Role in Drumhead History with Bill Ryder
Bill Ryder is a longtime listener of the podcast that decided to step up and do extensive research on Ludwig drumheads and the important role that they played in the history of modern plastic drumheads. Ludwig's crimped style of drumhead was unique and different from how Remo and Evans connected to the flesh hoop with a resin epoxy and how they arrived at the use of Mylar is an huge part of drumhead history. The crimped style was quickly stolen by Slingerland which may be the catalyst that started the legendary feud between Slingerland and Ludwig. Bill got help from Jim Catalano (former Ludwig dir. of Marketing) and Herbie May (Remo R&D Director) on this episode which helped create a very thoroughly researched and fun episode.
Here are the other Drumhead related episodes that I mentioned:
History of Remo with Herbie May - https://www.drumhistorypodcast.com/post/ep-26-the-history-of-remo-drumheads-with-herbie-may
A Look at Animal Skin Drumheads with Jeff Stern - https://www.drumhistorypodcast.com/post/ep-115-a-look-at-animal-skin-drumheads-with-jeff-stern
The History of Drumheads with Ben O'bryon Smith - https://www.drumhistorypodcast.com/post/ep-15-the-history-of-drumheads-with-ben-o-brien-smith
Here is Bills full Article that he wrote for this episode:
Ludwig’s Role in the Development of Plastic Drumheads
Bill Ryder, March 2022
I thought Ludwig’s plastic drumheads were great. Starting out as a ‘Ludwig drummer’ in the 1960s and into the 1970s (my first two drumsets were Ludwigs), I played on Ludwig heads most of the time. As far as their sound goes, I never felt they were much different from Remos, especially in the 1960s-70s. Occasionally, I found that Ludwig heads worked better on some drums: my Yamaha stainless steel snare drum worked better with a Ludwig ‘Rocker’ head than an Ambassador, due to the slightly shallower collar molded into the Ludwig heads. For a time, Ludwig’s heads were widely used; From 1964 into the 1970s, no one sold more drums than Ludwig and they all came with Ludwig heads. As Ludwig’s dominance began to wane around the mid-70s Remo’s dominance increased: most of the up-and-coming drum manufacturers were using Remo heads, e.g., the new Fibes set I bought in 1975 and the Yamaha set I bought in 1979 both had their company logos on the heads but it easy to see they were Remos. Plus, Ludwig drumheads were available only through Ludwig dealers, and there was usually just one per town; Remo heads were in all the music stores.
Ludwig heads’ main difference from Remos was the way Ludwig fastened the Mylar to the flesh hoop; Ludwig used a mechanical interlock system, which was eventually named ‘Headlock’.
The outer flesh hoop was a J-shaped channel of aluminum. After the collar was molded onto the mylar head, the edge of the mylar was wrapped around a smaller square metal flesh hoop, which was inserted into the channel of the J-shaped flesh hoop; then the outer flesh hoop was crimped around the square metal ring and mylar, locking it in. Ludwig guaranteed that the Mylar would not pull out.
And in my experience, no Ludwig head ever pulled out of the flesh hoop. However, in the first 15 or so years of plastic heads, I saw heads that were secured to the flesh hoop by epoxy resin pull out of the hoop a few times. Once, saw the whole channel of epoxy came out of the aluminum hoop. Haven’t seen anything like that since the 1970s; Remo’s original resin formula has changed a lot over the years and they currently use different resins for various applications, like their very thick conga heads and heads for world percussion.
Who really deserves the credit for plastic drumheads?
Chemical engineers! Lots of ground-breaking chemical engineering was going on in the 1920s-30s, especially in plastics.
Building upon the research of Wallace Carothers at Dupont in the late 1920s-1930s, British chemists, John Rex Whinfield and James Tennant Dickson, employees of the Calico Printer's Association of Manchester, patented "polyethylene terephthalate" (also called PET) in 1941, which was the basis of synthetic fibers. Whinfield and Dickson along with some help created the first polyester fiber called Terylene in 1941, which was first manufactured by Britain’s Imperial Chemical Industrie. It was created as a substitute for the cellulose film used by Allied reconnaissance aircraft doing wartime surveillance work. The cellophane film was prone to breaking, which would ruin the mission. The war department requested an all-out effort from chemical engineers to create a movie film that would be impervious to heat and cold during reconnaissance flights. DuPont purchased the US rights to Terylene in 1945 for further development. Dupont's polyester research led to a whole range of trademarked products – the second polyester fiber was Dupont's Dacron, introduced in 1950 and Mylar made its debut in 1952. Even at that time, DuPont stated that one of the applications could be as a drumhead. In 1955 Eastman Kodak used Mylar as a support for photographic film and it quickly was adopted for motion picture film, audio recording tape, weather balloons and even space suits: Five layers of metallized mylar film in NASA's spacesuits made them radiation resistant and help regulate temperature for the 1969 moon mission.
Early Mylar drumheads:
Jim Erwin, a chemical engineer for 3M, was the first to use Mylar as a drumhead. Jim had started working with polyester film at 3M in the mid-1940s. Around 1952 or 53 he went to see his brother’s band at the Cafe Metropole in NYC. Duke Ellington’s former drummer, Sonny Greer broke a drumhead that night, and Jim told him that he thought he could make a head that wouldn’t break. He went back to Minnesota and made one up by serrating the edge of a piece of Mylar so it could be bent around and attached to the flesh hoop of a calfskin head. Erwin took it to Sonny in New York, who used it and said that it was the best head he’d ever played on. Jim had no desire to commercially produce heads but he did approach some major drum manufacturers with his idea.
Around 1953, Joe Grolimund at Selmer switched saxophone pad production to Mylar because of its moisture resistant qualities, and then began experimenting with Mylar for drumheads. His head was made by tacking polyester film to a flesh hoop. Joe, who was also a drummer, was Ludwig’s first advertising manager in the late 1920s and then moved on to work for Selmer in 1930 as their advertising manager, eventually becoming Selmer’s second president. He devised a mail campaign which kept Selmer profitable throughout the Great Depression. While most companies were laying people off, Selmer more than doubled its staff in two years. In 1936, while the other manufacturers were still selling at retail and were trying to maintain individual music stores as dealers, Selmer, at Joe’s insistence, switched to a policy of only selling wholesale. This was welcomed by all dealers and boosted Selmer sales significantly. Incidentally, in 1966, as president of Selmer, Joe offered to buy the Ludwig drum company.
By the mid-1950s, Slingerland and Ludwig had become interested in Mylar. Both companies showed it to Remo Belli but said they hadn’t the slightest idea what to do with it. Remo wished them luck but was not interested at the time.
Joe Grolimund and Chick Evans sent Ludwig the first Mylar heads Ludwig had ever seen tacked or stapled to wood hoops. They were weatherproof and performed well on a drum IF you didn’t over tighten the heads, which caused the Mylar to pull away from the flesh hoop, according to Bill Ludwig Jr., who claimed that Jim Erwin, Joe Grolimund, Ludwig, and Slingerland had the idea of using Mylar before Evans.
Joe suggested to Ludwig Jr. that they try to develop his idea, but Jr. wasn’t convinced. Nothing happened until Jr. found out that someone else was going to show a Mylar head at a trade show. Then, according to Joe, “...he got excited and got one together for the show”.
Evans filed his patent in 1956 and in March 1957 sent a letter to dealers, including Drum City, half owned by Remo, announcing his new heads. But by early 1957, Remo and chemist Sam Muchnick had developed the first version of a Mylar drumhead that didn’t tack the film to the flesh hoop. In May 1957 Remo attended the Tri-State Music Festival in Oklahoma, where he showed his head to Ludwig Jr., among others. Jr. said that his company had been trying to create a plastic head as well. In June 1957, Remo, Inc. the company was created to market the aluminum channel drumheads. Ludwig became one of Remo’s first OEM customers, with more to follow, including Slingerland.
According to William F. Ludwig Sr., 1957-58 were the years of plastic head development at Ludwig. They also tried tacking and stapling mylar onto wood flesh hoops. They tried hot and cold adhesives and chemical mixtures, all of which they found to be unreliable.
Ludwig Sr. visited Basel, Switzerland in 1958 and stopped by the shop of Oscar Bauer, who was using Mylar to make 14” high-tension heads for Basel drums. Bauer had a method for crimping the edge of the Mylar into the flesh hoop but never filed a patent for his design. Remo claims to have seen this dry crimped design before Ludwig Sr. and claimed the design had its flaws because it did not make a good sounding two-ply drumhead.
After Sr.’s return, Jr. found his father in his office bending the long leg of a channeled aluminum hoop over an inner hoop in the channel, holding a mylar head with pliers. Ludwig secured a patent on this process, which was immediately copied by Bud Slingerland. Plastic heads first appeared in both Ludwig and Slingerland catalogs in 1960.
Ludwig built a two-story stand-alone brick building on two cleared lots behind their factory to produce mylar heads. They designed and built 24 high-compression presses, which heated and formed mylar into drumheads of all sizes. In 1964, Ludwig doubled the size of their head-making facility and connected it to their main plant and a standalone building next door. At the peak, Ludwig was producing 3,000 heads a day. The ability to fill their own drumhead needs at their Damen Avenue factory was a big advantage for Ludwig’s production. In the old days, it was often difficult to find enough quality calfskin heads to mount on all the drums they produced.
Ludwig Jr. did a terrific job promoting the new heads: during a drum and bugle contest that was halted by a sudden downpour, he strapped on a parade drum with a plastic head and marched the length of the football field. Jr. would sometimes drop one of his snare drums into a vat of water, remove it, wipe it down, and the head would respond as if nothing had happened. He’d also drop a bowling ball four feet onto the plastic head and the ball would bounce back into his arms. Audiences loved it but the head was dished every time, so he removed the dent by applying heat with a hair curler.
Marching drum units were the biggest early adopters of the mylar heads. Ludwig invested in heavy ply mylar and eventually 2 sheets glued together in what quickly became known as mylar ‘parade’ heads.
Slingerland came out with their own plastic heads soon after Ludwig’s head hit the market. There was no doubt that Slingerland copied the way Ludwig made heads.
Slingerland’s Chicago factory had been unsuccessful duplicating the Ludwig head, so Bud Slingerland took a Ludwig head to William Conner, who owned a machine shop in Shelbyville, Tennessee, and asked him to copy it. Around 1959 Slingerland started making about 1,000 plastic heads a day according to Conner, and he sold his shop to Slingerland, which named the company Solar.
Conner had a visit from Ludwig Sr. in the winter of 1962. Sr. said they shouldn’t be making heads since he had a patent. Conner said that he was aware of the patent but understood there were problems with the patent and believed he was in the clear. A month or so later, Conner was served with papers to appear in Federal Court.
The case took a year to come to trial and the trial lasted five days. Bud Slingerland admitted to the court that he told his people to copy Ludwig’s design but claimed the Ludwig patent was invalid because of ‘prior art’. Bud had heard that Ludwig Sr. had seen this type of drumhead in Switzerland a couple of years before he filed his patent. Both Bud and Jr. went to Oscar Bauer’s shop in Switzerland, attempting to determine what had been seen and discussed back in 1958. Statements to be entered into the trial were taken through the American consulate in Zurich.
The Nashville judge ultimately supported Slingerland’s claim that the patent should not have been issued because of prior art. The process cost Ludwig $180,000 ($1.6 million in today’s dollars) and the mechanical interlock system became common property of the industry.
Today, most drum companies, including those in Taiwan, Korea and China now supply drumheads with interlocking hoops. These crimped heads are cheaper than resin heads because fewer steps are needed in their production, and they do not require specialty chemical processes and expertise. Remo has a manufacturing facility in Taiwan because it’s more cost effective to be close to the Asian drum makers; Remo also makes crimped heads in the US.
William Conner thought the whole lawsuit could have been avoided if the two sides had agreed to share the technology, letting Ludwig’s patent stand and Slingerland entering into a licensing arrangement. However, Bud Slingerland was determined to destroy the patent. Conner claims Slingerland and Ludwig Jr. nearly came to blows during negotiation attempts.
Ironically, fighting over drumheads played a large role in initiating the Ludwig/Slingerland 50-year feud back in the 1920s. The major drum companies were based in or near Chicago because it was a center for the cattle industry and the source of hides for calfskin drumheads. There were great variations in the quality of the skins and experienced buyers, often Ludwig Sr. and Henry Slingerland, carefully examined the skins for imperfections like salt stains, scars, and pinholes. Thus, the drum companies aggressively competed to be the first to the stockyards when new shipments arrived. Providing the finest quality calfskin heads was a major selling point and source of pride for both Ludwig and Slingerland. Plus, sometimes they couldn’t get enough skins to finish drums that had already been made so ordering backlogs would occur.
In 1971, Ludwig expanded its drumhead line by offering several more thicknesses. Also that year, in an attempt to differentiate themselves from Remo, instead of using Mylar, Ludwig started using a film called ‘Thermolene’. This was the same type of polyester film as Mylar but was not produced by DuPont. Ludwig said that Thermolene was discovered in 1941 and was later developed and applied exclusively by Ludwig to drumhead construction. In 1973 Ludwig introduced their TI series of heads, in which a ‘special treatment’ was applied to the underside of the head to give it ‘more tonal center and eliminate unwanted partials in the overtone series.’ This was around the time Remo started offering their black dot heads. Ludwig’s 1980 catalog introduced Silver Dot drumheads and also introduced heads for ‘every kind of music’: Rockers (rock ‘n roll was here to stay), Striders (marching), Groovers (jazz) and Ensemble (concert). Groovers were the same as Ensemble and were mostly gone by 1983. Rockers and Striders continued through 1998 but then were changed to Weathermasters because it was too expensive to make different boxes for each type of head. According to Jim Catalano, Ludwig had a ‘gentlemen’s agreement with Remo to sell silver dot heads without paying licensing fees, while Remo exclusively sold black dot, white dot and clear dot heads. Soon after that, Jim came up with Power Collar heads, which used a self-adhesive black ring around the edge of the head, similar to Remo’s Pinstripe head.
Slingerland stopped making heads in 1977 and used Remo heads on their drums and in their catalog
Ludwig retired most of their drumheads in 2017-2018 except for coated medium and heavies in common sizes. They may have brought back some silver dots. Today, most Ludwig heads are made by Remo except for Weathermaster medium coated snare drum heads and Ludwig white timpani heads.
75 years a Drummer / My Life at the Drums, William F. Ludwig Sr.
The Making of A Drum Company, The Autobiography of William F. Ludwig II
The Slingerland Book, Rob Cook
Jim Catalano, Herbie May
Catalogs from my personal collection and Drumarchive"