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Bedford drum restorer sees worldwide demand for service

By Bill Zeeble, KERA 90.1 reporter

Dallas, TX – Bill Zeeble, KERA 90.1 reporter: Jim Petty knows his customers. They're drummers - many of 'em fanatical, like he is. And they need help returning damaged, vintage instruments to a pristine and playable condition. Standing in his hot, open, two-and-a-half-car garage, Petty talks to an out-of-state client who needs an old drum part that allows one tom-tom to fit onto a bass drum. It's an easy fix. But here in his workshop of lathes, drills, saws and compressors, Petty can solve tougher puzzles. With solid steel, brass or aluminum, he custom-makes everything from miniscule metal parts that put the sizzle in a snare drum, to the square-head screws that hold a drum head tight.

Jim Petty, drummer, drum restorer: No, a screw isn't worth $7 or $8, but when you need one to hold your drum up, and you can't get those things anywhere, then you pay $7 or $8 for one. And that's what puts beans on my table.

Zeeble: Petty got hooked on drums as a teenager and kept playing into adulthood with various groups including this one - the Jim Petty Orchestra. Petty supplemented his income by selling and repairing drums in local music shops. Five years ago, a customer needed a drum part that was last made in the 1970's. Petty couldn't find it.

Petty: Got to looking at the part and thought, "This isn't that hard to do." So I shopped the part to several machine shops in Dallas and they basically rebuffed and rejected me. Because either A, they couldn't do it, or B, they wanted to do so many of them it was just beyond my financial ability to foot the bill for that.

Zeeble: That's when Petty decided he could fill a niche making the parts himself. He was right. These days, his mostly male customers include professional players like the Rolling Stones' Charlie Watts, and obsessed collectors, like Andy Mayer. He met Petty when he was trying to restore a 1930's marching bass drum.

Andy Mayer, drum collector: He was repairing drums and said oh yes, he could tuck the head. He had it at home, he soaked it in his bathtub, cured it there.

Zeeble: That was the beginning of a business friendship that's grown with Mayer's collection. He now owns some 600 drums. Mayer's master bedroom is crammed with dozens of drums stacked nearly to the ceiling. Nine more sets crowd the bathroom and Jacuzzi.

Mayer: It's a vintage Jacuzzi. In fact, it's a 1969, has the Jacuzzi brand. I could show you, if I could get this bass drum out of here.

Zeeble: American drum brands like Slingerland, Rogers and Ludwig used to lead the world market. Now these companies either don't exist or manufacture overseas, with varying standards, say experts. That's makes Jim Petty's parts invaluable, according to Bobby Chiasson, who runs a vintage drum business in Argyle, New York.

Bobby Chiasson, Drum Farm: He's the only guy in the country I know that's ever been serious enough to take it to any limit. He's making everything to spec. He went out looking for blue prints, looking for original sketches, data, anything he could find.

Zeeble: Chiasson, like other on-line vintage drum merchants, sends his toughest customers to Petty. So do companies like Ludwig. They consider Petty a known quantity in this highly specialized field.

Petty: I do it 'cause I love it. I love drums. I'm a drummer. It's part of me. I'm a part of it.

Zeeble: For KERA 90.1, I'm Bill Zeeble.


Email Bill Zeeble about this story.