Vintage Japanese Imports

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My first drum set was purchased for me by my father in 1971. It was an old, beat up silver sparkle Kent set made in New York in the late fifties. While it served this thirteen year old drummer quite well for a while, I soon longed for a brand new, pearl finished kit. With the most recent ’73 Kent catalog in hand, I ordered a new drum set from what I assumed was the Kent factory in Kenmore, New York. A few weeks later, a couple of large boxes arrived on my doorstep, bearing some strange writing and the words, “Hoshino Trading Company” boldly printed on them. I excitedly tore open the boxes and realized that this brand new Kent set was not what I had expected. Instead of a maple shelled, American made drum set, it was a very generic, low quality import drum kit with no badges or identifying marks other than the words “Made in Japan”.  I then realized that the sole American built, budget minded drum company was now selling drums imported from Japan.

Many of the popular drum sets and percussion accessories that are sold in the United States and Canada today are manufactured in Japan and Taiwan. Drum companies like Yamaha, Pearl, Tama and others have dominated the industry for years. But it wasn’t always this way. The early snare drums and drum sets that were available in the U.S. were mostly produced by American companies. Ludwig & Ludwig, Slingerland, Leedy and Gretsch were the leading drum manufacturers for most of the twentieth century. However, during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, the music scene was changing. The American and British popular music explosion inspired more and more young people to form Rock and Roll bands, creating a large demand for affordable instruments. In 1964, a complete top of the line Ludwig drum set cost around $700 and for a young beginning drummer, that was quite a lot of money. While most drum companies did offer slightly less expensive lower line sets, many aspiring drummers had to settle for second-hand instruments.

Sensing this need for affordable low cost drum sets, Japanese musical instrument companies began building drums that could be exported and sold for a fraction of the cost of American drums. In 1954, the Pearl Musical Instrument Company of Japan began exporting their drums to American musical distributors in an effort to capitalize on this increasing need for affordable drum sets. By 1961, the company was churning out thousands of drum sets in their modern factory and soon appeared in American music stores, giving drummers on a budget the opportunity to own a beautiful brand new drum set at a relatively low cost.

Around the same time, another Japanese company called Hoshino Gakki began producing inexpensive drums under the name “Star Drums” for export to America. The company would later change the name to Tama.

Both Pearl and Star drums also bore numerous brand names such as Majestic, Apollo, Dixie, Del Ray, U.S. Mercury, Whitehall and dozens of others which often reflected the distributor’s name. These drum sets, known as “stencil brands”, were imported by American distributors like C. Bruno & Son, Zim-Gar, Saint Louis Music, and others and were sold in music stores alongside the name brands and even in Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogs. Every imaginable percussion instrument was produced from timbales to tambourines.

At first glance, these imported drums looked quite similar to drums produced by American companies like Slingerland, Gretsch, Ludwig or Rogers.  Most of the drum hardware like lugs, hoops and strainers closely resembled that of American made drums, especially Slingerland. In the early sixties, Hoshino went so far as to duplicate Slingerland’s Radio King extended snare strainer assembly. Throughout the 1960’s, hardware designs would change but they were almost always fashioned after American designs. Even Hoshino’s drum catalogs looked very similar to those of Slingerland.

Japanese drum sets in the 1960’s came in a huge variety of wild, exotic pearl finishes. Multi-colored Tiger stripes, swirling three dimensional pearl patterns, and many other unique finishes gave these bargain drum sets a very bold, distinctive appearance.

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While these drums may have looked quite beautiful, their beauty was mostly skin deep. In order to offer them at such a low cost, the construction quality in most cases was very poor. Instead of the higher quality maple and mahogany woods that American companies used in the manufacture of their drum shells, the Japanese built theirs from very thin, inexpensive plywood or Luan. The metal components such as snare strainers, drum stands, and other hardware were often of very low quality. Upon close examination, there was no mistaking these Japanese drums for the real thing.