Some words about tuning keys

Let me use here the article by Rob Cook, which was published in September 2010 issue of DRUM!Magazine:

by Rob Cook

It´s an overworked cliché, but an undeniable truism that „one man´s trash is another man´s treasure“. Those cluttered trap casesthat show up in your local music store or at the neighborhood estate sales with old used drum kits often contain some valuable items. It´s worth taking the time to sort through the jumble of paraphernalia and separate the true colectables from the junk. Pair up the sticks and brushes, but keep in mind that even individual sticks of brushes may be collectable if they carry the right brand name. Don´t be too quit to throw anything away!Slips of paper may turn out to be receipts. Become a detektive and try to make sense of that seemingly random pile. You know what a repository your own trap case you are going through someone else´s belongings with an eye only a fellow drummer can possess. Dig through the piles of tilters, clutches, springs, felts and so on,and you might just uncover what is often the most easily ovelooked, and surprisingly valuable item in the collection - the drum tuning key.


Don´t be too quick to separate out the drum key from its surrroundings. Like the archeologist deciphering the origins of an ancient skull fragment by examiningsurrounding sediments an fossils, drum keys are often found amidst other telling artifacts. Does the key match any of the drums? Are there clues that it belongedto a celebrity? I recently sold a drum key that had belonged to Cozy Cole. It came to me with a Leedy & Ludwig outfit that I sold on consignment for Cole´s family.Altough it was fairly generic key from the 1920s and did not match the 1950s-era kit that it was with, I had clear provenance-documentation that the key did in factbelonged to, and was used by, the late Cozy Cole. There were letters from Cole´s family, and the weathered brown fiber cases still had shipping tags addressed to the Gene Krupa/Cozy Cole Drum School in New York City. If you buy or sell any item on the basis of celebrity attachment, be sure to give or receive a signed and dated "letter of provenance", which includes photos and all other documentation proving the claim of prior ownership.
When you really think about it, the drum key is perhaps one of the most personal items a drummer owns. A favorite key sill often outlast favorite drums, cymbalsand hardware. I am reminded of a story that I once heard from Ludwig´s Jim Catalano. When the Ludwig family sold the drum company to Selmer in 1981, it was a verybittersweet event for William F. Ludwig II, "The Chief". This was, after all, the second time in the same century that the Ludwig family had created the world´s largestdrum company. His father had done it the first time, and The Chief did it again in the 1960s. Now the family era was drawing to a close. The Chief had met with all theSelmer stuff and done as much as he could to insure a smooth transition. One of his last acts was to take Catalano aside and offer him a talisman. He pulled his ownpersonal drum key out of his pocket and presented it to Catalano, explaining that he was entrusting the future of Ludwig to him. There were keys to the locks on the buildings, but this was the real key to the company, and he was confident that with the heart of a percussionist, Catalano would carry on the Ludwig tradition.


Early drum keys do not always resemble what comes to mind when today´s drummer thinks of the term. The crude piece of iron I have in my collection is one case in point.For years I had this bulky chunkf of metal kicking around in an old trap case full of odd sticks, mallets and brushes. One day I happened to notice that the end was milled out.I have no idea what the age of this monster is, but the stuff it came with was from the 1940s - decades before the current generation of high-tension marching drums withKevlar heads that actually require this kind of this high-torque tunning tools. This key is truly unique - one-of-a-kind and hand-made. Does that make it valuable?Probably not.
The Chief himself once gave me an odd-looking key. He explained that it was originally a roller-skate key, which the company had bought in quantity from a roller-skatemanufacturer in the 1920s and packaged it as banjo keys for Ludwig banjos.
Another oddball that might not be immediately recognizable as a drum key by today´s drummers would be the "slotted" keys used by Leedy in the 1920s and by a number ofBritish companies well into the 1960s. The tension rods that utilize these keys look like they can be turned with a screwdriver. In fact, they can, but in doing so, you runthe risk of damaging the head of the tension rod. That´s where this specialized key comes in.


Like any other persuccion specialty item - drumsticks, ctalogs etc. - the value of the drum key is determined not only by its rarity, but also by demand. I feel thatthe "monster" key described above is one of the world´s rarest drum keys, but that does not make it one of the most valuable. Rarity means little if no one wants the thing. I doubt this key would bring $20 on eBay because of limited interest.
What are the most valuable keys? It has been my experience that the most valuable keys are good-condition American drum keys from 1920s to 1960s: Leedy, Camco, Weybest,Slingerland, Rogers and Ludwig keys from those decades regularly sell for $35 - $80 - more if a bidding war breaks out. I have seen a numbers of keys fetch in excess of $100in the last year alone. It can be tough to predict when and why that will happen, because there are so many reasons why certain individuals will want a certain key - anything from sentimental attachment to the desire to "complete a set". Other keys that can be expected to bring high prices would be unique keys such at the 3-wayGladstone-style key, even if it is not an original Gretsch Gladstone or Billy Gladstone key. The relatively current Lang Gladstone keys are still fairly expensivepieces of hardware.
The only way to determine a drum key´s true worth is to document what someone is willing to pay for it. Try first searching eBay for current auctions and click on "watch this auction" when you find a match. Te results will be cataloged in your list of "watched auctions" even after the bidding ends. Also try clicking on"advanced search", which takes you to a new menu where you can select "completed auctions" to view auctions that have recently ended. Unfortunetaly, eBay does not go very far back with those completed auctions, so don´t consider that search a comprehensive answer. You can also try listing your key with a high reserve price bu a low opening bid;stand back and see how high the bidding goes - that is the clearest indication of what people are actually willing to pay for the key in question.


A challenge that can only be met with experience is identifying certain keys by eye. Many unique keys do not have a maker´s name or trademark. Also keep in mind thatmost trademarks were stamped into the key at a final stage of the production. I have handfuls of keys that belonged to the late George Way. Many are from the 1940sto 1060s and look nearly identical. If, however, you take the time to examine them carefully, you find a very light etching: Leedy, Leedy & Ludwig, Rogers. These wereall companies that Way worked for at various times and the markings on these key are very faint. A formar Rogers employee once related that during the era when Way worked there, the stuff often went to lunch together at the local diner. It was not unusual for one of the group to issue a "key challenge" whe it came time to pay thebill - anyone who could not immediately produce a drum key had to share the cost of the entire lunch bill!
Watch for future collactables. Any unique key that has been specially cast is pretty much by definition a "limited supply" item. I recently spent some time looking intohaving a custom key cast for the Chicago Drum Show an quickly learned that such a project involves an investment of at least a couple thousand dollars. I looked to the CAD-assisted machined and powder-coated aluminium keys as well and came to the conclussion that it just doesn´t make sense to produce a custom key unless you can afford to invest a couple grand.
If you find a custom key from an independent custom drum company, stash it away as an investment! Even thoug the custom keys from the "larger" companies such as Craviotto ar now produced by the tens of thousands, I predict that one day they will be worth some serious bucks! And you know what they say: it´s never too early to start planning for retirement.

DRUM! September 2010

With the kind permission of Mr. Cook. Thanks, Rob