Ginger Baker - Drums

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Ginger Baker recently dropped into the UK to promote his aptly titled autobiography Hellraiser and to play a one-off gig at London’s Jazz Cafe. “Stevie (Winwood) came by to play a couple of numbers which was great,” he says in a gravelly morning-after voice. “Now you want to talk about drums… Let me tell ’ya , I’m an American drum man – I don’t care for any of the others!”

That said, Baker didn’t start out with an American kit. “The first kit I had was an ‘all bits combined kit’ that I bought from Vic O’Brien’s in London in 1956. It was all different colours, one tom-tom, a snare drum, a bass drum and a cymbal. When I got the Terry Lightfoot gig, I got Vic to make up a matching kit which was all white.” This clearly wasn’t hip enough, neither was it giving Baker that unique sound that he was looking for, so he decided to change all the shells to perspex. Why perspex? “It was a great thing for sound – smooth on both sides, rather than being painted like normal drums – it didn’t sound like anything else,” Baker elaborates.

“I made the perspex shells myself and decided to change the sizes of the drums to an 11-inch thick bass drum shell, a 7-inch tom-tom and a big tom-tom that was about 14-inches. So I went and bought some strips of perspex and measured round the drum to see how long each strip needed to be. I bevelled the two edges then heated the strips up over a gas ring before carefully bending them round, bolting the bevelled bits together and putting the hoops on the top. As it turned out, they weren’t perfectly round, but of course it didn’t matter too much, as in those days I was using calf heads.” Baker used that kit for about seven years. “But the problem we found with perspex kits is that with time, the perspex used to crack around the fittings which is why they stopped making them. They might have worked very well but they just weren’t very practical. I remember, Ludwig made me a perspex kit and that sounded beautiful.”

Baker used that original self built perspex kit right through his heady days with the Graham Bond Organisation and Alexis Korner (“Graham was crazy – Alexis was a gentleman”) and right up until the beginning of Cream.

So how did the double bass setup come about? “Every drummer that ever played for Duke Ellington played a double bass drum kit. I went to a Duke Ellington concert in 1966 and Sam Woodyard was playing with Duke and he played some incredible tom tom and two bass drum things, some of which I still use today and I just knew I had to get a two bass drum kit. Keith Moon was with me at that concert and we were discussing it and he went straight round to Premier and bought two kits which he stuck together. I had to wait for Ludwig to make a kit up for me, which they did – to my own specifications. So Moonie had the two bass drum kit some months before I did.”

Baker’s association with Ludwig lasted for about 30 years. “I had three or four kits,” he starts. “You see, I knew the Ludwig family very well and they were really good drums. The original Ludwig shells were superb – the ones that were made in Chicago. They’re not made there any more. The company fell apart when they sold out to Selmer and the whole thing changed somewhat, it wasn’t a good move on their part.” Baker continues: “That situation became very apparent when I was at a gig in New York and Ludwig didn’t come up with a kit for me. Drum Workshop were contacted and they immediately supplied a kit. I was so impressed with it I’ve been with them ever since.”

“All my cymbals are Zildjian,” he says. “I first went to the factory in 1966 and chose a load of cymbals – all of which I didn’t pay for – they gave them to me. I’m still playing the Hi-Hats and the 22inch riveted ride cymbal today. The youngest cymbal in my kit was made in 1975. When I play a gig, they just ask me what sizes I need and they’re there. They’re a wonderful company.” Baker also uses his signature 7A Zildjian sticks. “I feel very good with them.” As for brushes he ‘doesn’t know’. “They’re standard wire ones – I don’t like the plastic ones … and anyway, I don’t play brushes very often.” Drum heads are always Remo.

Having spent sometime in West Africa, I wondered whether he’d taken to traditional African drums. “The only African drums I have were given to me by Guy Warren, the Ghanaian master drummer – he gave me a set of Ghanaian drums. The only other African drum I ever had was a batakota which is a real Yoruba drum and was given to me in Nigeria – but my daughter’s got that one.”

So looking back, what does Baker consider to be his favourite kit. “The one that I’m using now,” he says, without a moment’s thought. “My DW kit is a one off – there’s not another one like it. There are four tom-toms: a 10inch, a 12-inch, a 13-inch and a 14-inch. Then I have a 13-inch snare and two bass drums with 11-inch shells – one’s a 22-inch and the other’s a 20inch. The great thing about DW is that they make all their shells to be in tune with one another – to a G. It’s an amazing kit.” I ask whether he has any other kits. “Why would I need more than one?” he retorts. “I just have mine at home.” So what happened to all those other kits? “I really don’t remember.”