The Slingerland Radio King
by Mark Cooper
The 1936 swing classic “Sing, Sing, Sing”, with its primal opening tom tom beats and furious snare drum finale introduced an exciting new approach to drumming. This powerful drum sound was being hammered out by the legendary Gene Krupa. His instrument of choice was the newest offering from the Slingerland Banjo & Drum Company: The Slingerland Radio King. First introduced in 1936, the Radio King line was revolutionary in that double headed, tunable tom toms were available to drummers for the very first time. Krupa collaborated with the drum company in the development of these thunderous new instruments. Soon, drummers all over America were buying up Radio King drums as fast as the Slingerland factory could churn them out.
The Radio King snare drums of 1936 were practically identical in design to Slingerland’s 1935 “Broadcaster” models. When the Broadcaster name was dropped because of trademark conflicts, the Radio King name was adopted. There has often been confusion among collectors as to what makes a drum a “true” Radio King. Many people assume that a solid maple shell is required but numerous Radio King drums were assembled from three ply wood shells. Another misconception is that a snare drum must have the Speedy Snare Strainer and extension brackets to qualify as a Radio King. While more simply designed, the 1939 “Buddy Rich Radio King Swingster Model” was equipped with the Speedy Strainer but it had no extension brackets. Radio King snare drums come in so many different shell and hardware combinations that there really is no singular definition.
Like the Broadcaster, the new Radio King drums were beautiful works of art, available in a dazzling array of pearl and sparkle finish options. Due to the huge popularity of Gene Krupa and his gleaming White Marine Pearl drum set, most drummers opted for that finish. For the more adventurous drummers, the 1936 Slingerland catalog invites them to “dress up your outfit in the modern way” by ordering drums in exotic colors like Peacock Pearl, Abalone Pearl or Sea Green Pearl. Sparkling finishes could be ordered in red, gold, silver or green. Adding even more elegance was the “Full Dress” treatment, consisting of tri-colored sparkling diamonds which could be applied over any finish. The economy minded drummer also had the option of “Duco” or “Antique” lacquer finishes in a variety of two-tone or solid colors. All drums could be ordered with either nickel or chromium plating. The earliest drums had the Slingerland Radio King name hand engraved into every top hoop. By the late 1930’s, the hoops were machine stamped.
The 1936 Slingerland catalog describes their new Radio King snare drum as “The Drum That Has Everything”. At that time, all Radio King snare drums came equipped with eight Streamlined lugs which gave them quite a majestic appearance. Slingerland’s most popular drum at that time was the Gene Krupa Model which was designed under Krupa’s specifications and was dedicated to him exclusively. The drum was offered in one size and one color with chromium being the only plating option. Today, this 6.5x14 White Marine Pearl drum is considered to be the quintessential Radio King snare drum and is highly collectable.
The Gene Krupa model had what Slingerland referred to as “a radical departure in snares and strainer assembly.” The extended snare wires covered the entire bottom head and were controlled by the “Speedy Snare Strainer” and a pair of Radio King snare extension brackets. Slingerland catalogs mention several other Radio King models in the 1930’s and early 40’s and each one had its own special features. The “Ben Pollock Model” Radio King was outfitted with pearl inlaid solid wood hoops, while the “New Ray McKinley” Model had a wooden top hoop and a metal bottom hoop. The use of the wooden hoops enabled a drummer to achieve a warmer, less metallic sounding rim shot. A one piece metal Radio King snare drum was also listed in catalogs for years.
Many studio engineers swear by the sound that a Radio King produces. The warm, thick tone of the drum fills up plenty of space on a track, providing a very big drum sound. Aged wood is known for its desirable tonal qualities and the Radio King’s nearly seventy-five year old maple shells have improved over the years like fine wine, giving these old drums their deep, rich tone. Usually built from one piece of solid American maple and strengthened with thick reinforcing rings, the drums offer a very unique sound. When tuned down low with the snare tension a bit loose, the drum produces a thick, meaty tone for a heavy and satisfying back beat. Under higher tension, the drum really sings and is capable of the most searing rim shots imaginable. As with any drum, every Radio King has its own “sweet spot”, the point at which it reaches optimal tuning. When that particular sweet spot is found, the drum comes alive with tone, power and projection.
In 1940, Slingerland introduced a newly designed snare drum called the “Super Gene Krupa Radio King” which really was a radical departure in snare strainer design. Known to collectors as the “Clamshell”, this beautiful new, rectangular shaped strainer had a decidedly “art deco” appearance. The “Super” strainer snare wires were attached at both ends with a single screw, eliminating the need for string. A long telescopic throw-off handle was used to raise or lower the extended snare wires and an adjustment knob controlled the snare tension. While this strainer had an attractive design and functioned quite efficiently, it has proven to be somewhat fragile and many surviving examples often have broken handles.
The Super strainer had quite a long life and was used until 1962. The Super Gene Krupa Radio King snare drum also featured a new smaller tension casing called the “Radio King Modernistic Lug”. Each snare drum was equipped with 16 of these new lugs and they were also available as an option on tom toms until 1955.
During World War Two, U.S. government metal restrictions inspired a very special Radio King. Patriotically named “Rolling Bombers”, these Radio Kings were fitted with beautiful, hand carved rosewood or walnut lugs. Slingerland even designed a hand carved wooden Super strainer. The use of mostly wooden parts gave these Radio Kings a warm and mellow tone. Because of the fragile nature of the wooden parts, the Rolling Bomber drums are scarce and highly prized by vintage drum enthusiasts.
Slingerland’s Radio King drums have enjoyed huge popularity for more than two decades and thousands were produced. Today, they are considered to be among the greatest sounding drums of all time and are highly revered by players and collectors alike. Thankfully, many have survived and drummers of today have the opportunity to experience a truly legendary instrument.