Early Drumsets

Early Drumsets


Bellson the Tech Innovator
DRUM! WEEKLY’s (3-5-2022) Story of the Week “Double Bass Legends: A Short History” leads with Louie Bellson, inventor of the double-bass drum setup. (Tap pic for story)

For Update: Double-bass Revisited


At age 15, Louie Bellson invented the double bass drum set-up.

The double-bass, including conception (Bellson), first embodiment (Bellson w/Ted Fio Rito Band, early '40s), contemporary use (Ray McKinley) and eventual manufacture (Gretsch).

Excerpts from comprehensive Bellson interview by the Smithsonian Institute.  <--(Click for full document; go to p. 15-18.)

Bellson: I got the idea in 1938. I was in high school. I made a drawing of the doublebass-drum kit, the one that you see on this [?]. My teacher said, “What are you doing?” I said, “This is a diagram of a new drum set, a new kind of a drum set.” I explained to him that most drummers only use one bass drum. I’ve got two bass drums. He said, “Work on that.” So he passed me on that. I was interested in taking my idea to the various drum companies, but they thought I and Buck Rogers should go to the moon. “You’re crazy.” 

“I know I’m crazy, but that’s my idea.” 


That’s a Gretch drum set, the first one that I made. From that point on – the reason that I joined the Gretch Drum Company is that Benny Goodman had a contract with Gretch. 

All I had to do was tell Benny, “No, I’m [with] Slingerland.” But he – I was afraid he’d fire me if I said I don’t use Gretch drums, because they gave me about five or six sets of drums for nothing. So I cooled it until later on. Then I left Gretch and went with Slingerland. 


Brown: When did you actually have your first double-bass-drum kit? You already came up with the prototype in 1938. You had already started designing it. So when did you actually have one? 

Bellson: That set was made – the first band was Ted
 FioRito. I had that when working with Ted FioRito for six months, before I joined Benny. That was an oddity. I took up half the bandstand with that kit. 


Brown: And it’s all your own design, especially with that large tom in the middle? That’s all your design?

Bellson: I got rid of that drum eventually, because it made my leg span too great. My legs were sore by the time I finished the gig at night with that drum set.

Brown: How did you negotiate working a bass drum and the pedal with your left foot?  I mean the sock cymbal – the hi-hat cymbal.


Bellson: I took the tripod off of the hi-hat and made a connection between the bell of the hi-hat and one of the rods in the bass drum, so that brought it right – this was the bass drum, and the hi-hat was right next to it, by getting rid of the tripod.

Brown: So you had be an engineering designer as well. 

Bellson: Yeah. In those days I was playing toe with the bass drum and 

heel with the hihat, or both together.

Brown: So you had to come up with your own technique and approach.

Bellson: Yeah.

Click image or here for full Smithsonian interview.


The Gretsch Connection

Excerpt from Gretsch website.

It Started as an Idea

Louie Bellson with his 1946 double bass kit

Louie Bellson with his 1946 double bass kit

Louie’s return to the Ted Fio Rito band in 1946 marked his first use of two bass drums. But he’d actually had the idea back in 1938, when he was still in high school. That idea was at least partly prompted by the fact that Louie was completely ambidextrous.

“One thing in the drummer’s favor,” Louie told Robyn Flans in 1980, “is to be able to manipulate the right hand or the left hand equally as well, and vice versa with the legs. I didn’t go out for sports much because they kept me so busy in bands while I was in school. But I did go out for track. I was an exceptionally fast runner, and my track coach, who was also the football coach, said I’d be a great halfback. I couldn’t leave band to do that, but I did fool around some with a football, and I discovered that I could kick with either foot. This caused me to sit down one day and think, ‘How would it be to have another drum over there . . . to still utilize the hi-hat, but have another bass drum?’ So I drew up a design of the double bass drumset.”

When Louie first took his design to various drum companies in 1939 and 1940, they were-to put it mildly-not very receptive. “I was just getting started as a player,” Louie told Robyn Flans in 2004. “When I approached one drum company, they told me, ‘You and Buck Rogers ought to go to the moon. You’re crazy.’”

A Drum Kit Is Born

The kit that ... Gretsch team created with Louie in 1946 featured two 20x20 bass drums, in accordance with Louie’s original concept. But it went further than that. It also featured a unique combination of tom-toms. The center tom was a 26×18 floor tom placed directly in front of the snare drum. Symmetrically mounted on either side were 9×13 and 7×11 toms, with the whole assembly connected and supported on legs. The floor toms were 16×16 and 16×18.


Louie Bellson with a later double bass kit



The Kit on Stage


Louie Bellson with Duke Ellington.

Louie’s futuristic configuration would be right at home on many stages today. But it didn’t catch on immediately in the big band era. Louie debuted the kit with Ted Fio Rito’s band in 1946, but the bandleader didn’t choose to feature it. And Benny Goodman, with whom Louie next worked, preferred a more standard drum kit. But when Louie joined the Tommy Dorsey orchestra in 1947, things were different.


“Tommy made a big thing out of the kit,” Louie told Robyn Flans, “because Tommy liked drummers. He had had Gene Krupa and Buddy Rich, and he wanted a guy who could swing with the band and yet be a soloist. When he saw my two-bass drum idea, he flipped out. We came up with the idea of a revolving platform. Tommy would press a button and the platform would go around in the middle of my solo. That way, people could see and understand what I was doing.”

Louie’s revolutionary kit established him as one of the most creative and imaginative drummers on the big-band scene. It also launched a twenty-year association with Gretsch Drums. Over those years Louie would continue to develop as a drum superstar, and his drum kit would continue to evolve. When he played with Duke Ellington, the bass drums were bigger, and the toms were fewer. By the advent of the bebop era in the early 1950s, the bass drums were largeer, and the toms fewer still. But he always retained the double bass design that had become his trademark.

“I had a wonderful relationship with Gretsch,” Louie told Chet Falzerano. “Twenty years, that’s a long time! Their drums always had a great sound.”

Click for full Gretsch Article.

"Louie Bellson of the Duke Ellington orchestra tests out drums at one of the big drum makers in the USA, Gretsch of Brooklyn." (from a 1955 article)







Here's the drumset played by Red Hot Chili Peppers' Chad Smith at Superbowl 2014.

Q: Where'd they get the idea for this drumset from???  Hmm . . .


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