The poor, misunderstood, pigeonholed-in-the-disco-era, and oft over-muffled and mis-mic'd concert tom. It's an unfortunate rep for a drum that's so easy to tune, and capable of a pure, punchy sound. It's a sound that's ingrained in the musical hearts and souls of anyone who's turned on the radio, or watched classic TV shows. Who can forget or deny the great sounding fills on Cracklin' Rosie, Indian Reservation, I Am I Said, We've Only Just Begun,
Up Up & Away, and many, many more. Didn't we all wait for that concert tom fill in every Barry Manilow song? How about TV themes like the Mary Tyler Moore Show, Bob Newhart Show, and SWAT. And what would the Hawaii Five-0 theme be without John Guerin's incredible concert tom fills?
Perhaps we've also forgotten how many famous drummers used concert toms: Keith Moon, Jim Gordon, Chester Thompson, Peter Criss, Phil Collins, John Guerin, Steve Gadd, Carmine Appice, Vinnie Appice, Russ Kunkel, Jeff Porcaro, Nigel Olsson, Ron Tutt, Larrie Londin, Danny Seraphine, Jerry Carrigan, Eric Carr, Queen's Roger Taylor, Joey Waronker, Jason Sutter, Shelly Manne, Stix Hooper, Harvey Mason, Carl Palmer, Gerry Conway, Chris McHugh, Steve Schaeffer, Taylor Hawkins, Jim Riley, and Neil Peart just to name a few, not to mention countless drummers who simply removed the bottom heads from their regular toms. And there's the man who first brought concert toms to countless pop & rock recordings, Hal Blaine. Two sets of 7 fiberglass concert toms were custom made for Hal by Allen F. Blaemire, and they were the most sought-after studio drums in their day.
Concert toms were available from most manufacturers in the '70s and '80s: Slingerland, Rogers, Camco, Sonor, Premier, Pearl, Tama, Yamaha, Gretsch, North, Staccato, Corder, and even DW offered them when they first began making drums. The most revered was Ludwig with their famous Octa-Plus kit, available in wood, Vistalite, and stainless steel.
But that was then, and this is now. It was a sound whose time came and went within a scant dozen years or so. Who would want to use concert toms in the new millennium, and why? Well, consider some basic technological differences between yesterday and today:
Shell construction - especially the detail to edges - is far more consistent and precisely engineered than it was back in the day, and drums have the potential to sound purer today than ever before.
Audio engineering is an evolving art. When close miking drums started to become popular in the late '60s, an engineer's approach was to mike toms on the batter side. That was fine for a double-headed drum, but miking a concert tom from the top exaggerated its inherently drier sound. Today's experienced engineers know that the secret is to mike from underneath, just past the bottom edge of the shell. This gives a full, punchy attack, with a nice resonance. It's light years away from the sounds that most everybody associates with concert toms, and you might even mistake it for a double-headed tom.
Probably the most significant change since the '70s is the improvement in head technology. In addition to the emergence of Aquarian in the '80s, Evans' and Remo's offerings have expanded ten-fold, with heads that are often very specific in design and application. Compare that to the limited selection of heads available during the original concert tom era. Of course if you want to take a trip back in time, Evans still makes Hydraulics.
In short, with improved shells, superior heads, and better miking techniques, concert toms (and stainless steel and acrylic kits for that matter) can sound like they never could when they were introduced in the '70s.
Some of today's most forward-thinking drummers are using concert toms again, and they're being offered again in kit form by Ludwig, Tama, Craviotto, Taye, Dunnett, Yamaha, Premier, Crush, Gretsch and Canopus (and most major manufacturers continue to offer them for concert percussion and marching applications.)
For some time, I've felt that concert toms would make a well-deserved, long overdue comeback. Not in the retro 'everything old is new again' way, but because they're truly great sounding, easy-to-work-with drums.
Jon "Bermuda" Schwartz
The "Weird Al" Yankovic Band