For 23 years I’ve been playing drums with the Hollywood Stones, America’s premier Rolling Stones tribute band. But it’s been way more than just a gig in a tribute band for me. I’ve gone on this eye-opening journey, digging deep into the man behind all those great drum tracks from so many iconic rock songs that are now part of our DNA. I’m talking about Charlie Watts, who’s been drumming for the Rolling Stones for over 50 years. The thing about Charlie’s drumming is that he makes what he does look easy and effortless. But I can assure you from my years of experience playing the Stones catalogue (and sitting 5 feet behind him at Stones rehearsals), that he’s one bad ass drummer. It’s all about his groove and feel, and he certainly has that swing. I’ve also had the honor and the pleasure of meeting and photographing Charlie many times throughout the years. I can honestly tell you that he is one of the kindest and sweetest gentlemen you will ever meet, along with a wicked sense of humor to boot.
With that said, I’ve played over 1200 gigs on a super sweet Gretsch kit from the 80’s that closely resembled Charlie’s 1957 kit from a distance. But I decided it was time to go all out and create the ultimate Charlie Watts replica drum kit.
As a drummer, the opportunity to spend three days in the Gretsch drum factory in Ridgeland, South Carolina for the birth of my custom drum kit was out of this world! It brought me back to a time when I was 10 years old and got my first kit. That excitement is just hard to describe. The good folks at the Gretsch factory are exactly the kind of people you want building your drums. Most of them are drummers themselves, and they love what they do. The attention to detail, quality control and passion put in each drum was just so impressive to see firsthand.
With help from DW Drum’s Director of Marketing Scott Donnell (DW became the exclusive manufacturer and worldwide distributor of Gretsch Drums in 2015), Gretsch Drums Artist Relations Manager Andrew Shreve, Director of Operations at the Gretsch factory Paul Cooper, and Don McAuley, Charlie’s drum tech, we’ve built an awesome replica and tribute to Charlie’s 1957 kit.
So let’s start with the shells: 6-ply maple/gum with “Silver Sealer” interior, and an assortment of 13 tinted nitro-cellulose lacquer hand sprayed exterior coats to achieve that beautiful “vintage aged” color of Charlie’s kit. Using close-up photos of Charlie’s actual kit as our color guide, we kept adding coats of different tints until we got it right. I was extremely pleased with the results.
After drying overnight, the shells were now ready for drilling. I wanted this kit to be as vintage as possible, so in addition to the vintage build options currently available from Gretsch (bass drum spurs, floor tom legs, etc.) I also wanted to use the old floor tom lugs from the round badge kits of yesteryear. To my surprise (and forever gratefulness) Paul was willing to oblige and pulled out a set of NOS floor tom lugs! The only issue was the new drill presses are not sized for the old lugs, so Paul (again, I’m forever grateful) cranked up the old drill press that was used to drill every drum that came out of the factory since the early 50’s thru 2011! That’s right, the same drill press used on all those iconic round badge kits, including Charlie’s very own 1957 kit.
Next came the bearing edges. I was excited that Paul Cooper, the Gretsch drum whisperer himself, did my bearing edges. It just doesn’t get better than that folks. Pure magic.
Now it was time for polishing the lacquer before we installed the lugs, legs, and badges. My initial plan was to roll the shells around in the parking lot until they had just the right amount of “wear and tear” similar to Charlie’s kit, but I just couldn’t do it folks. These babies were looking way too sweet. So instead of polishing them to a full gloss, we thought perhaps somewhere in between a matte and gloss finish would be more accurate. I’m pleased with how this worked out, the shells are definitely unique and do not look shiny brand new.
Finally, it was time to install the lugs, heads, and die cast hoops and get them tuned up. Staying true to Charlie’s kit, I had a set of REMO CS Black Dot batter heads and Clear Ambassador heads for the toms, and a REMO Powerstroke bass drum batter head shipped to the factory prior to my arrival. In addition, we installed a Shure Beta 52 in the kick drum using the May Miking System. Charlie does not use this system, but it is more suitable for my gig situation. And just for the record, I did not install a ride cymbal mount or a tom mount on the bass drum. Charlie uses neither, but his bass drum has both. This was a total aesthetic decision on my part, and either mount can be added down the road if I so choose.
After quickly tuning them up, my new kit was sent off to the shipping department before I even had a chance to play them. After 3 days of complete bliss, I had a flight to catch. The next time I saw them was a week later in San Diego at the House of Blues, where I had them shipped for my next show opening for Sammy Hagar. I shared my experience of the drum build with Sammy, Michael Anthony and Jason Bonham, who thought it was a cool story. I hope you agree!
Special thanks to Scott Donnell, Andrew Shreve, Don McAuley (who patiently answers all my technical inquiries) and most of all, Paul Cooper and the awesome gang at the Gretsch Drums factory in Ridgeland, SC. I am forever grateful for your graciousness and mutual excitement in building this one of a kind drum kit.
And of course, thank you to Mr. Charlie Watts.
With love and appreciation,
13 coats of tinted nitro-cellulose lacquer for the beautiful “vintage aged” color of Charlie’s kit.
Close-up photo on my cell phone of Charlie's rack tom for color matching.
The drum whisperer himself, Paul Cooper, Director of Operations did the bearing edges.
Off to shipping department.