Ringo’s drums — and music history — are made in a Charlotte-area town

Ringo’s drums — and music history — are made in a Charlotte-area town
(Jeff Siner | The Charlotte Observer)
(Jeff Siner | The Charlotte Observer)

CHARLOTTE, NC (Adam Bell/The Charlotte Observer) - Tucked away past the chicken plant near the railroad tracks sits an unassuming cluster of buildings with beige aluminum siding. Step inside and you'll find the one place in the world that makes drums for Ringo Starr.

Welcome to the home of Ludwig.

The century-old company has made Ringo's drums since the dawn of Beatlemania.

Ludwig also provides drums for the likes of Alex Van Halen, Questlove and even Paul McCartney, to name just a few. And when Taylor Swift rocked Time Warner Cable Arena in June, her drummer was wailing on his Ludwig kit.

Ludwig's clients are well-known, but their presence in Union County is not. Yet for just over 30 years, this iconic company's custom-made drums only come from Monroe.

"People are definitely surprised we are here," plant manager Ernie Benton said.

Ludwig employs about 50 people, including a core who have worked their craft there for a quarter century or longer.

They produce drum shells using the same type of formulas from the Beatles' heyday. Their drums sport names such as Vistalite, Black Beauty and Classic Maple, titles that fans and stars recognize as easily as "the Ludwig sound."

It's a crisp, full-bodied, snappy tone, drum experts say, providing the backbeat for bands from Led Zeppelin to Concord's Avett Brothers. On Ludwig's YouTube channel, Avett Brothers drummer Mike Marsh called the sound of his Copper-Phonic snare drum "really controlled, really dry and it's really, really phat. And I can hear every nuance of my playing."

Ludwig's warm, classic sound fits every style, said Michael Dawson, managing editor of Modern Drummer Publications. It's a sound, he said, that "defined rock and roll."

A couple years ago, Dawson visited the plant where the self-proclaimed "most famous name on drums" are made.

"If I lived across the street from Ludwig, I'd be there as often as they'd let me in," he said. "For me, it'd be like living next to a piece of American history."

'A real artist'

In the early 1980s, Chicago-based Ludwig was sold to an Indiana firm that made instrument cases in Monroe and band instruments in Albemarle.

Battling Japanese imports, the company shifted drum manufacturing to Monroe to save money, streamline production and tap into North Carolina's skilled workforce in the furniture and woodworking industry.

Monroe, a city of 34,000 with a thriving aerospace industry, sits about 25 miles southeast of Charlotte.

Just inside the Ludwig building is a lobby awash in vibrant green, silver, white, brown and black striped drums, gold cymbals, autographed drum heads and even a drum covered with "Weird Al" Yankovic's face.

Drums typically take about four weeks to build.

They are sold in kits that include the big round "bass" kick drum that sits in front of the drummer, plus a floor tom drum on the side and a rack tom often mounted on the bass. Ludwig also makes snare, tympani, concert and marching percussion drums, drum heads and other accessories.

Its drums are found in specialty music stores, where people can buy kits starting at around $700.

Major artists deal directly with Ludwig for custom orders that can run many thousands of dollars. No matter who buys them, a small badge on the drum holds a simple message of pride: "Ludwig Monroe NC, USA."

Seventeen craftspeople typically guide the drums through half a dozen stations, including molding, woodworking, paint and finishing, and assembly.

Much of the specialty work starts with Rockie Hinson.

A 58-year-old Wingate resident and 24-year plant veteran, Hinson leads shell research and development, working with different woods, grains, colors and machines to customize the sound the artists want.

Alex Van Halen wanted a drum with deeper depth so Hinson designed a way to create a drum shell that was the size of two standard shells. Enter the Thunder Bass.

Jason Sutter, who has toured with Marilyn Manson and Smash Mouth, emailed Hinson to thank him for the best drums he ever played.

Ask Hinson what he's most proud of and he'll mention the time Cheap Trick drummer Bun E. Carlos approached him during a factory tour. "He told me that I was a real artist," Hinson said.

Bless these drums

Dennis Ledbetter, 53, sands, hammers, buffs and polishes metal drum shells by hand. The 28-year employee from Monroe also happens to be an ordained minister.

About a decade ago, a drum flew out of his hands and gashed his shoulder. From then on, Ledbetter decided, he'd bless and anoint every drum he touches.

He dabs olive oil on the drums before reciting from the fifth chapter of the book of James, which references anointing people with oil. Let me be safe back there, Ledbetter asks the Lord. And bless whoever uses the drums, he says, no matter if they are playing in a church or a nightclub.

"The prayer," he said, "is from the heart."

He delivers about 20 blessings a day and never had another accident.

Modern Drummer's Dawson met Ledbetter on his tour.

"It ultimately adds a humanity that some of the other major companies don't have," Dawson said. "At Ludwig, you can feel someone spent all day on it ... Every fan of music should be aware that they make drums here."

That's a wrap

Its drums all start as flat boards stored in a climate-controlled area. Next they get sliced into three panels that will be molded into a cylinder to form the body of the drum.

Those drums are hand-sanded and sealed by the time they reach wrap specialist Ann Ross, 61. The Marshville resident has spent nearly half her life cutting and applying the PVC, acrylic or acetate wraps for the outer shell of the drums.

Often when she's done wrapping, she'll walk upstairs, gaze out at the production floor and admire the finished drums waiting to be packed up.

By then, they have been lacquered, buffed, inspected and drilled for hardware assembly. "That's what really makes me happy," Ross said, "how good it looks."

She beams while noting she wrapped every Ringo drum since the mid-'80s. He always wants some new color. The latest was a silver glass sparkle look.

"I want him to see the shells and the drums, and I want him to say, 'Wow, isn't this beautiful.'"

A lad in a drum shop

In April, shortly before Ringo's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction for individual excellence, he retold the story of the day that changed Ludwig forever.

It was right before the Beatles first came to the states in 1964. Ringo and Beatles manager Brian Epstein were walking down a London street when a Ludwig kit in a shop window caught Ringo's eye. "I loved anything American," he explained in a video for the hall. "It was that black pearl (wrap). I just loved that."

So Ringo tried out the drums. They sounded great. As he's about to buy them, the guy in the shop goes to rip off the Ludwig sign.

"I said, 'No, no, no. You gotta leave that on. It's American,'" Ringo recalled with a laugh. "And the rest is history."

On Feb. 9, 1964, in the Beatles' first of three appearances that month on "The Ed Sullivan Show," more than 73 million people tuned in to watch – a record 60 percent of all TV sets in the country.

And there for all to see sat the Ludwig name emblazoned on Ringo's drums. The revolution had begun.

Demand for Ludwig drums soared. To keep pace, Ludwig expanded its Chicago plant, added a shift and churned out nothing but copies of Ringo's black oyster pearl wrap for 3 1/2 years.

"I'm the best advert Ludwig ever had," he said.

'They are very special'

Ringo never visited the Monroe plant, but lots of other artists have, including Taylor Swift drummer Matt Billingslea, Jon "Bermuda" Schwartz with "Weird Al," REO Speedwagon's Alan Gratzer and Matt Frenette of Loverboy.

They all signed drum heads displayed in the lobby. On his, Frenette wrote, "Thank you all for everything you've stood for in music."

Ludwig welcomes stars and fans alike on its tours.

North of Boston, 48-year-old Realtor Lawrence Figliola has played Ludwig drums ever since high school when he first jammed with local rock bands. After his wife, Brenda, 49, learned about the tours on Facebook, they planned a January vacation to Monroe with their boys, wanna-be drummers Gino, 9, and Rocco, 7.

They loved it, and even got a glimpse of Ringo's drum kit being packed up.

It was an honor, Lawrence said, to see where his drums come from. "I'm very proud to play an American-made drum," he said. "I've got three Ludwig kits now, and I'd never sell them. I want them to stay in the family."

Another out-of-town guest wanted to tour so badly that he put it on his bucket list before having open-heart surgery.

Then there's Tom Singleton.

For most of his life, the 69-year-old retired computer programmer has played Ludwig drums. A friend in his church band near Charleston suggested they visit the North Carolina factory, and Singleton quickly said yes.

Just over a half century ago, when Singleton was 16 and just getting into Ludwig, he visited its Chicago plant. In April, he found "the same warmth and magic" in Monroe.

Near the end of the tour, he mentioned he was trying to restore an old Ludwig marching drum but couldn't find the right part. An engineer happened to overhear the conversation, found the small piece and handed it to him. "Truth is," Singleton said, "I teared up that they'd do that.

"The people that make the drums, they are very special."

Later this week, Singleton plans to drive back to the plant to pick up a five-piece Legacy Mahagony drum kit he bought for his church.

Singleton is getting the drums autographed. But not by musicians. By the workers who, day after day, craft Ludwig drums in the Monroe plant few know exists.