This article originally appeared in the December/January 2018 issue of Canadian Music Trade magazine.
By Chris Brown
Today’s retail environment is less about the “hard sell” and more about meeting the needs of the informed shopper. With the unlimited amount of information available online, many retail customers now enter our stores believing they have as much knowledge as the sales people working there.
While this may be true in some cases, in most, you will find that just because someone has a lot of information, it does not mean they are able to filter it sufficiently through real experience like our skilled sales people.
The average drummer has had maybe two or three drum sets in their lives. They may have played on different kits while gigging, but have spent no time actually working with those kits. Their hands-on experience with different brands and different lines within those brands will be extremely limited.
Our veteran sales people, however, are unboxing, assembling, tuning, playing, and selling kits from different brands and series every day. They have the experience to be able to explain to a client how DW’s True Pitch tension rods differ from those commonly found on other kits and, more importantly, why this distinction should matter to the drummer. (DW tension rods have a 5 mm thread as compared to others who use 12 or 24 mm. This means DW has more threads per inch and that allows the user to tension the head more precisely.)
Choosing a drum set should be based less on the brand your customer’s favourite drummer plays and more about what your customer intends to do with the kit. Jeffrey Long, VP of sales and marketing at Long & McQuade, instructs his staff to “ask open-ended questions” like:
What style of music do they play?
Are they playing at home or are they gigging?
What is their current kit?
What type of sound are they after?
Of course, customers look at drummers they love and the gear they play. It is natural to think that way. But just like the rest of us, famous drummers can and do switch brands. Maybe they find their endorser can’t get them replacement gear quickly when they tour outside of North America. Maybe they moved for a better deal, or have been dropped from their previous brand. It is the music business, after all. So, your customer basing their buying decision on what their favourite drummer is playing at the moment is foolhardy.
But why should we care? We just want to make the sale, right?
If a customer buys a kit from your store and hates it, who do you think they will blame? The superstar drummer? The brand of drums? Nope. They will blame you, the person that sold them this “terrible” kit.
You do have to be careful here not to speak poorly of any brand. If you have worked retail for any length of time, you will know that all brands have great products in their lines and all have entry level kits that may leave us wishing for more. Your job is to help your client figure out what they can live with and what they cannot.
Allen Harding, store manager for Rufus Drum Shop in Vancouver, says: “Buy with your ears, not with your eyes.” He regularly sets up kits for interested customers to play and often finds this is one of the best ways to break down a customer’s well-entrenched assumptions or stereotypes.
STICKING TO BUDGET
Your first line of enquiry should be about the budget. Long agrees, noting that without the answer to this primary question, “You can waste a lot of your and your customer’s time.”
When you establish the customer’s budget, be sure to ask if this is just for drums or if they’re looking for hardware, pedals, and cymbals as well. Many customers already own hardware, pedals, and cymbals from a previous kit and are just looking to spend their entire budget on a fine shell pack.
A $500 kit will almost never sound as good as a $1,000 kit and a $1,000 will not match a $2,500 kit. So, start by working out a budget and don’t forget 75 per cent of kits do not include pedals, cymbals, hardware, or quality heads, so you may need to work those items into their budget as well. Always ask.
A good rule of thumb is that they will spend that same amount of money on hardware, cymbals, pedals, and accessories as they did on their drum shell pack. So, if they plan to purchase a $1,000 shell pack, they will likely spend $200 on stands, $300 on pedals, and $500 on cymbals to make it playable.
Beginner kits like the Mapex Tornado ($500) or the Pearl Export ($1,200) come complete with single-braced stands, pedals, and pressure stamped cymbals. The cymbals are typically sub-standard, but the drums and hardware are serviceable. I see nothing wrong with pointing out to your customer that the cymbals in these packages are useable only for practice and that before playing out, they will need to invest in better cymbals. James Burton, drum specialist at Long & McQuade Winnipeg North, agrees: “I am always 100 per cent honest with my customers, and they thank me for it.”
Yamaha’s Stage Custom Birch kit ($1,400) features all birch shells and a good entry level hardware pack that includes two cymbal stands, a high-hat stand, kick pedal, and snare stand. The customer will have to purchase cymbals before they can play, but this does get them most of the way there.
A higher-end kit like a Gretsch Brooklyn ($2,800) three-piece comes with a kick drum, single rack tom, and a floor tom, leaving the customer to purchase a snare drum (say $500), individual stands ($500),
double-kick pedal ($700), a throne ($100), and cymbals ($1,500).
Burton reminds us that it’s “important to know what kits you have in stock.” Some customers do have a dream kit in mind and are willing to wait months for it to arrive, but most want to begin drumming right away and can be brought around to a kit that will deliver on their stated needs, but may not be the original brand, colour, or size they began the discussion with.Each piece costs more money, so work out what they really need as opposed to what they dream about. Ask your customer when they were last out at a local live music venue and what did they notice the drummer playing? Most working drummers carry a four-piece kit. They do this to save time and energy transporting the minimum-sized kit they feel they can play while still doing the music justice. Purchasing only four pieces lets the pro drummer spend more on each piece, increasing the quality and sound.
Traditionally, most prepackaged drum sets are either four- or five-piece kits; however, many suppliers are now offering six- and seven-piece drum sets at competitive price points. This trade off – quantity for quality – is one of the first decisions your client must make. I had a customer who purchased two entry-level kits as he wanted that old-school double kick drum he had dreamed about as a kid. For him, quantity mattered more than quality.
How does your customer plan on purchasing the kit? Will they be paying cash, credit, or planning to finance their purchase? It has been my experience that when a customer chooses the financing option, they are less concerned about the total purchase price and more concerned about the monthly payment. If cymbals add another $600 to the overall price, they seem less concerned if they are financing.
“Many customers have a low down payment and need financing to afford a new kit,” Burton says, “so most of my customers finance their drum purchase.”
The next decision is what type of sound does your client prefer?
Do they want the punch and aggression of a maple kit? The vintage sound of mahogany or gumwood? The deep resonance of bubinga? If it is maple they prefer, then their dream kit might be a new Ludwig Classic Maple kit, a semi pro maple kit might be a Tama Superstar Hyper-Drive, and their beginner kit a used set of six-year-old PDP Concept Maple drums. All are maple kits and should provide them with the sound they love.
I suggest that, as a sales person, you spend some time ensuring you know the sonic differences between the different woods and hit a few toms to see what woods you prefer. Try to have the drums tuned the same so that the tuning does not throw you off. Don’t let your customer purchase anything yet; there’s still more to consider.
Now we need to think about the sizes of each individual drum.
Do they want a standard 22-in. kick drum? How deep should it be? Do they like a skinny vintage-style kick at 14 in. or a massive 20-in. long beast? Do they need 8-, 10-, 12-, 13-, and 14-in. rack toms, or will a single 10- or 12-in. tom do the job? How deep do they like thier toms? A uniform 10 x 10-in. or short 10 x 6-in. tom? Do they need three floor toms sized 14-, 16-, and 18-in., or would a 14- or 15-in. floor tom do them just fine?
If your client’s new kit is not moving out of their basement, then you can go wild and create a kit as large as their budget will allow; however, that’s not a reality for many. Harding from Rufus notes that, “in Vancouver, many customers require smaller kits to fit in their smaller living accommodations.”
Snare drums are traditionally sized at 14 in., but I personally prefer a more focused snare, like a 13-in. Do they want a traditional 5-in. deep snare or a deeper 6.5-in.? What about a 3-in. piccolo like David Garibaldi plays, or a massive 8-in. deep snare? What should their snare be made of? Is it the matching snare to their kit or is it a completely different brand made of brass, steel, copper, bronze, concrete, or some exotic wood?
Higher-end drums may offer different wood sandwiches depending on the size of the drum. Both Pearl and Yamaha offer this feature on their Reference and Hybrid lines, respectively, matching bright maple or birch with mahogany or other dark-toned wood.
If your older client is playing classic rock, you may want to look for a 26-in. bass drum – just ensure they can carry it and it fits in their car! Getting a 22 x 18-in. kick drum is always a wise purchase. Many of my professional customers are moving to smaller sizes for a couple of reasons. Drum technology keeps improving and the smaller bass drums today can sound as big, full, and rich as many of their larger vintage brothers. I find pros asking for 20-in. kicks and some are looking smaller yet at 18-in. even for their rock gigs. Most clubs now regularly mic the kick and snare at minimum and if mixed correctly, an 18-in. can sound more controlled and just as huge as a 22-in. Pros want lightweight gear and want to be able to handle their kit in one or maybe two trips to and from the car. A 20-in. or smaller kick will help you get in and out of the gig quickly and without a trip to the chiropractor. A 12-in. tom and 14-in. floor tom make a great combo and sound like they belong together.
Bearing edges have a huge impact on a drum’s sound. Sharp edges increase the sustain and give more head sound than shell. They provide the overtones that make each drummer distinct. Rounded edges offer more of a vintage vibe and work especially well for floor toms and kick drums. They’re also easier to tune.
Hardware is our next consideration. Does the kit’s shell hardware – lugs, tom mounts, tension rods, bass drum legs, etc. – look and feel like a quality metal? An inexpensive casting of what the industry terms “pot metal” is used in many cheaper kits and is fine if your customer is buying their first kit. As they move up the line, the hardware increases in casting quality, materials, and design. Do the tom arms and suspension system keep the drum where the drummer wants it? Are the stands single- or double-braced? Is the hi-hat stand a traditional three-leg model or a more modern two-leg, allowing a double-kick pedal to be placed right beside the high-hat stand? Does a throne come with the hardware pack? If not, you need to ensure the customer purchases one.
If you have ever tried to position a rack tom on a vintage rail mount and found that nothing you do seems to get the thing where you want it, you will begin to understand the importance of good kit hardware. I don’t like the simple bent metal kick drum claws and prefer a die-cast claw with a rubber gasket that will protect the hoop from scratches and dents.
Let’s talk pedals. Today, few double-kick drum sets are sold due to the amazing variety and quality of the double-kick pedal. Starting at about $250 and ranging up to $1,000, they can be a significant expense. Try to determine if the style of music they plan to play requires one. If your customer plays metal or alternative rock, they probably will. If they play classic rock, country, roots, jazz, or R&B, it may not be critical and their money would be better spent improving the quality of a single pedal. Most hardware packs include a single pedal that is sturdy and serviceable.
Some new drums ship with “no name” single-ply heads. They are almost impossible for novices to tune and quickly pit and distort because of their single-ply and thin nature. I always suggest that after the customer has recovered financially from the purchase of their new kit, they should plan to spring for a set of quality skins for the batter heads (tops) at a minimum. The revelation of the difference good heads make to the sound of any kit will have them falling in love with their kit all over again. I always put a time limit of three months for factory heads. Let them use the bottom resonant heads that came with the kit for the first year, then have them swap out their “no names” for a quality set.
What kind of music will they be making on the kit?
A jazz player will place less emphasis on the bass drum and more on the snare and toms. They can purchase a cheaper 16- or 18-in. kick drum and spend a bit more on their ride cymbal. Their kit will be made with a warm tone wood like mahogany or walnut.
A rock player will be looking for larger drums and a more aggressive tone and will focus on maple or birch. Many will want more than a simple five-piece kit. To add additional drums, you may have to steer them to a less expensive line.
A country player will be looking for a warm vintage vibe and look for rounder bearing edges and perhaps a poplar/mahogany/poplar shell. Usually, a four-piece kit is enough to allow the drummer to spend a little more on each piece.
R&B and pop players will want 45-degree bearing edges and higher tunings. They will be looking to add electronic pads, samplers, and maybe even work towards a hybrid set-up.
Metal guys will want dark, loud, and aggressive drums with sharp edges and little sustain. Double-kick pedals are essential and sometimes triggering, especially on kick drums, is required.
Finally, we arrive at what many drummers actually put first on their list of desirable traits for the new kit: brand and colour.
The colour of a kit is important, as the kit should put a smile on their face every time they see it and inspire them to play. Visually, a white kit on a dark stage where everything else is black just glows. A sparkle kit comes alive when the stage lights hit it. A classic piano black kit is timeless and elegant. It recedes into the background, placing the emphasis on the player. Again, beginner kits limit the colour palette available, while expensive kits offer a rainbow of colours, wraps, and finishes.
Many novice drummers look down on a wrapped finish, thinking that only drums finished naturally are good sounding; however, all kits are wrapped. That figured maple kit has a thin layer of veneer that has been glued to the outside of the shell. Plastic-wrapped kits work really well for working drummers as they can take the occasional bump and bruise while on the road that would permanently disfigure a lacquered kit.
As drummers, we are an opinionated bunch. We love our favourite brands and hate others. I have been lucky enough to work around and use all the major brands and will tell you this: all of the top-end drums are simply great drums regardless of brand. A Yamaha Recording Custom, Tama Star, Ludwig Legacy, Mapex Saturn, Sonor Vintage, Gretsch Broadkaster, DW Collectors/Jazz/Vintage, or Pearl Masters/Reference are all amazing kits.
Harding agrees that brand should play a smaller role. His “buy with your ears, not your eyes” is great advice.
But each manufacturer does have its share of kits that leave me wanting more, too. It’s a balancing act. What can your customer live with in order to get something they really need? What can they afford and what is simply out of reach?
At this stage in my drumming life, I could not be happy with an entry-level kit from any manufacturer. All of them would have me cursing in a week, but there are many mid-level kits that I quite like and, if I saw one on a stage backline, would be comfortable playing.
But, no matter how much your client spends, if they can’t tune drums, they will eventually sound terrible. As an expert, you need to ensure every kit you sell is properly tuned. Use this as a teachable moment and get your customer involved. You need to teach them to tune and not to be intimidated, knowing that if they screw it up, you can be counted on to retune and get their kit back into perfect shape.
Says Burton: “I always have the time to help a customer tune a snare drum or a stubborn tom. They need to learn and the only way to learn is through practice. I am concerned at the number of drummers who cannot tune their kits. This means we as professionals are not doing enough for our clients.”
Harding has a policy that if you buy a kit and replacement heads, he will work with you to replace and tune every drum until you are comfortable with the practice. “Tuning and tech for the life of your kit – that’s my guarantee,” he says.
Too many sales people forget to upsell. Many think of up-selling as something distasteful. I don’t agree. If your customer gets their new drum set home and they don’t have a throne or a pair of sticks to play it with, who looks like the idiot? Right. The sales person.
Make sure to ask if they need sticks, drum cases, a throne (if it is not in the hardware pack), additional cymbal arms, double-kick pedals, a splash or China cymbal… Throughout your whole interaction with your customer, keep a mental list of which accessories they might want based on their expressed needs. A drummer who confides in you that his hands sweat so much when he plays that he cannot hold onto sticks might be offered drumming gloves or dipped drumsticks.
Regardless of how much research your customer has done, it is your job to add your experience to their knowledge base, carefully correcting their misperceptions and guiding them to make an informed choice that they will love for years. You want to ensure when they need more gear that they return to the person who sold them their dream kit.
Finally, Burton reminds us to remember the lowly metronome and a good instruction book. “I see too many customers relying on YouTube for instruction. Being able to read is a skill that seems to be fading away but is essential to being a complete drummer.”
Okay. Now go sell a drum set!
Chris Brown has been known to swoon over antique microphones, vintage drums, and country Telecasters. He can’t ride a horse, but does have a weakness for cowboy shirts. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org.