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Vintage View - Nick Hopkin - Ludwig Supraphonic


So last month I looked at the Slingerland Radio King to kick off a series on what I consider to be the classic vintage snare drums. This month I’m going to look at the Ludwig Supraphonic. 

I recently suggested elsewhere online, that this is the most recorded snare drum of all time, which some people genuinely found surprising. This snare drum is without doubt on more hit records than any other snare drum. Period. It’s easier to make a list of people who don’t / haven’t used one than those who do!

Many name players through the decades have played one at some time, from jazz to rock, both live and in the studio. In the 1960’s & 1970’s, Hal Blaine and Earl Palmer played on most of the hits coming out of the USA, both being key members of ‘The Wrecking Crew’ (link HERE). Hal Blaine played on over 150 top ten singles in the USA with 40 number 1’s. Earl Palmer played on just about as many, undertaking a mammoth 450 sessions in 1967 alone. They both used a Ludwig 400 snare drum.


A Brief History:

Ludwig produced this drum from the early 1960’s right through to today with very few changes in design, in a 5.5” and a 6.5” model. The drum was available as a standard snare drum or as a Super Sensitive model.

Ludwig introduced a chrome over brass shell snare drum, the ‘Super Ludwig’, in 1960. Due to increasing demand and high production costs Ludwig kept the design but changed the shell to chrome over aluminium around 1962. By 1964 it had a new name – the ‘Supraphonic 400’. Mid 1960’s models featured a keystone badge and ‘baseball bat’ muffler, alongside a P83 snare strainer. Drums produced in the late 1960’s and into the 1970’s saw minor changes – a blue/olive badge, a round knob muffler and the classic P85 strainer. Everything else about the drum has remained the same to this day (the only change being the badge over the decades).

Featured in the 1962 catalogue, Ludwig described the Super Sensitive as ‘An instrument of Ultimate perfection’. The shell was essentially the same as the recently introduced Super Ludwig 400 (which became the Supraphonic 400); a one piece, seamless metal shell with a centre bead, 10 double ended imperial lugs, triple flange hoops and internal tone control dampener. The main difference was this drum had a parallel snare mechanism which Ludwig referred to as its ‘dual throw off release’. This allowed the snare wires to be released at both sides at once, by operating a lever on one side of the drum. On the all Super Sensitive’s produced in the early 1960’s, each snare strand could be individually adjusted for perfect snare alignment and tension balance. 

At some point in the early 70’s Ludwig changed the design of the snare wires to a one piece wire – one could no longer tension individual wires. The keystone badge became Blue/Olive and the tone control changed back to a round internal muffler. But essentially these were still the same, classic drum introduced in the early 60’s.

The Super Sensitive was favoured mainly by Jazz players due to the sensitivity this drum allowed with the wires, and many greats played one (most notably Joe Morello). It wasn’t uncommon to see rock drummers using them too, both live and in the studio. I’ve provided a couple recording studios with a Super Sensitive, which gets regular use on the sessions that come through.

The 6.5” model was named the 402 and was made famous by John Bonham. Many rock drummers have followed in his footsteps, preferring a 6.5” drum for ‘added volume and crispness.’


The Sound

So, was it the sound of that snare drum that makes the backbeat on many of those records so special or was it the player? Some suggest that in the 60’s there weren’t many alternative snare drums available, so the Ludwig Supraphonic was an obvious choice for the professional (hence the number of hit records the drum features on). 

I don’t go along with this at all; Ringo, for example, always played a Jazz Festival. Gene Krupa always played Slingerland Radio King. I think that the reason it was the choice of so many drummers was purely down to its definitive sound.

What is this unique voice it has, I hear you ask? Is it so different to other metal shell snare drums on the market? Ludwig claim the drum ‘produces a bright, crisp attack with the perfect balance of full resonant tone and snare crack’. They’re not wrong, but let’s put that into English! Tune it high, tune it low with some dampening, tune it in the middle – the drum sounds great every time! A great backbeat crack, every time. The fact that the essential design has changed in over 50 years and it’s still a bestseller speaks volumes. And yes, they can be loud!

Today I regularly see them used live by name players at festivals and on music shows on TV. In the recording studio they remain many drummers’ go to snare drum; they are regularly requested for recording studio hires and are a number one seller at Nick Hopkin Drums. Today, unless a drummer officially plays Ludwig, many won’t admit to using one as they are endorsed by other drum companies. The snare drum does, however, remain many players’ ‘go to’ snare drum.

I agree that there are many factors that influence the sound of a drum both live and in the studio, but there is no denying that the Ludwig Supraphonic 400 snare drum has a classic, unrivalled sound that has remained popular for the last 50 years. Today, with thousands of alternatives, the Ludwig 400 remains a bestseller and a firm favourite live and in the studio. 

Most drum companies have tried to replicate the drum, some coming close, but for me the 400 remains the drum that defines rock’s backbeat.

Nick Hopkin

December 2016

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