Leedy & Ludwig Knob Tension Drums
By Mark Cooper
In the early 1950’s, Post war Americans were hungry for new inventions and gadgets to make life easier and more exciting. Soon, everything from cars to telephones to household appliances was equipped with an array of futuristic push buttons, knobs and dials. Hoping to cash in on this modernistic craze of the fifties, the newly-formed Leedy & Ludwig Drum Company introduced a new and innovative line of drums called the Knob Tension Drums.
The man behind this launch into the future was George Way, veteran design engineer for Leedy & Ludwig. Mr. Way hoped to revolutionize the drum set and make a name for the company by offering a completely new concept in design and construction. For the first time in history, tuning a drum set could be accomplished simply by turning a few knobs. A special internal tensioning system allowed the drummer to tighten or loosen the heads without the aid of a drum key. Or as the promotional advertising stated, tuning the new Knob Tension drums was “…as easy as dialing your own radio…” and guaranteed, “No more clanking drum keys to fumble with.”
The Knob Tension drums had a totally unique appearance and were like nothing the modern drummer of the 1950’s had ever seen before. Sporting huge chrome plated hoops, large round knobs, and no tension rods or lug casings, they looked more like flying saucers than percussion instruments. While they were very unconventional in appearance, the drums were actually quite beautiful. Most Knob Tension drum sets left the factory dressed in White Marine Pearl or Black Diamond Pearl finishes. However, they could be “special ordered” in other finishes. Duke Ellington’s flamboyant drummer, Sonny Greer had a very special custom designed kit made for him, finished in White Marine Pearl with sparkling multi-colored “SG” initials applied to each drum.
Leedy & Ludwig’s 1951 product catalog invited the potential customer to enter into “A new world of modernistic beauty”. As it turned out, that “modernistic beauty” was only skin deep. Upon removal of the drum head, a complicated labyrinth of toggle links, aluminum rings and rods were revealed. These mechanical parts enabled the drums to be tuned from outside the drum. By turning the twelve large knobs on the drum shell, the internal toggle links pushed up on the metal rings upon which the drum heads rested, increasing their tension.
While Leedy & Ludwig boasted that their Knob Tension drums were “scientifically engineered and precision built”, they proved to be neither. New owners of the drums soon discovered that they were hard to tune, unreliable and that the internal mechanical parts were prone to breakage. Often, the pressure produced by turning the knobs caused the wooden reinforcing hoops to break away from the shell. Changing drum heads was difficult and time consuming, requiring the removal of several smaller threaded knobs and exact placement of the huge, razor-sharp hoops.
While they may not have been well made and were difficult to maintain, the sound of the Knob Tension drums is quite a different story. The tom toms, which came in sizes 9x13 and 16x16, have an extremely warm and musical sound when properly tuned. The drums will accommodate modern plastic heads and produce a very deep, resonant tone. The bass drums deliver plenty of punch and volume and are perfect for any musical setting. These fat sounding drums were made in both 14x22 and 14x24 sizes. Because tom toms and bass drums generally do not require high tuning, the shortcomings of knob tensioning are not really a factor. The snare drums however, suffer most from the poor design and are difficult to tune. High tension is nearly impossible to achieve and will most likely damage a sixty year old drum. A limited range of low to middle tuning can be safely achieved and will definitely appeal to some drummers. The Knob Tension snare drums were produced in sizes 4.5x14 and 5.5x14 and came equipped with the unusual looking “Feather-Touch” strainer. While it actually performs quite well, like most of the Knob Tension components, the strainer is somewhat fragile.
Inventor, George Way filed the patent for his innovative Knob Tension drum designs in April 1950 and the patent was issued in September 1952. However, internal snare drum tuning was not a new concept. In the 1930’s, the L&S drum company of Chicago had designed a snare drum called the Master Tension. These drums could be quickly tuned by turning two key shaped handles - one for each head. A standard drum key was necessary to set the initial tension and then the two key handles quickly raised or lowered that tension. Like the Knob Tension drums, the inner workings were quite complex and were based on older pedal tympani technology. Unfortunately, the Master Tension drums were short lived and the L&S company ceased production by the late 1930’s.
Another attempt at internal tensioning was made by the William F. Ludwig Drum Company (W.F.L.) during World War Two. Due to the metal shortages and government restrictions, creative methods were often necessary in the design and manufacture of wartime drums. Ludwig’s “Victorious” models employed inner curved wooden strips that pushed against the heads and increased tension. This was accomplished by means of a standard drum key which was inserted in several openings in the sides of the shell. The Victorious drums, while serving an important function, were discontinued by the end of the war.
1940’s W.F.L. Victorious drum
What was intended to be a ground-breaking revolution in modern drum design became a huge disappointment for both Leedy & Ludwig and its customers. Due to the lukewarm reception they received from the drumming public, the Knob Tension drums proved to be an expensive fiasco; the entire line was dropped by 1954, followed by the departure of George Way. This was the beginning of the end for the Leedy & Ludwig Drum Company, which was liquidated in 1955. Due to the relatively short production period and the fragile nature of the Knob Tension drums, not many pristine examples have survived. Today, these beautiful and unique drums are highly prized by collectors.
Leedy & Ludwig’s admirable attempt to revolutionize the drum set failed to set the drumming world on fire. Drummers of the 1950’s were resistant to this “reinvention of the wheel” and the futuristic Knob Tension drums faded into history as another doomed invention. The surviving examples of these beautiful and unusual drums however, serve to remind today’s drummers of a very exciting time in history; a time when a man and a company sought to propel the drum industry into the 21st century.