There aren’t a lot of people in the drum business who have been the right combination of bold, effective, and perhaps contrarian—and at the right time—to dramatically impact the little industry of stretched membranes on either end of a hollow cylinder. You see, for all the avant-garde-ness we drummers like to tell ourselves we are: we’re innovative, we break the norms, we forge new landscapes… we’re pretty conservative when it comes to the tools we use to create our art.
The history of drum innovation is relatively short and it doesn’t vary all that much. Our guest on this episode is one of those rare contributors who has made a lasting impact on many of the concepts and design elements we all take for granted today.
Ronn Dunnett is founder of Dunnett Classic Drums, under which—in addition to snare drums in metal and wood—he also offers a number of thoughtful hardware innovations and the exuberantly acclaimed Res-O-Tone drumheads; he is president and caretaker of the George Way Drum Company, he’s the inventor of the Remo Felt Tone drum head, and he has collaborated on drums bearing the Ludwig and Drum Workshop brands.
Dunnett is the inventor of the thin-shelled titanium snare drum, though he cites Japanese outfit Kitano as introducing a very thick-walled titanium drum in the same era. He built his brand on the backs of those handcrafted titanium shells, along with their stainless steel siblings. Made to an uncompromising set of design principles: the thinnest possible shells, outfitted with the lightest-weight hardware, devoid of rolled-over bearing edges and shell-center beads, fitted with larger-than-usual snare beds, the drums made to the original recipe codified That Great Dunnett Sound.
Those drums have a very linear response. Lacking the inherent distortion and damping that shell beads, rolled edges, and heavier hardware introduce, these drums are very honest in transforming the energy that’s put into them, and they play very “easy” with a unique low-resistance feel under the sticks.
Not much on a Dunnett or Way drum comes off-the-shelf from a factory or catalog. In addition to handmaking the shells himself, Ronn has been designing his own tube lugs, hoops, adjustable air vents, snare throwoff and butt, and more for decades.
And yet somehow, a handmade Canadian instrument from a one-man shop, that can be seen on some of the world’s highest-profile stages and sessions, that can be purchased from a wide distribution network that includes even the big chains… while he probably could raise prices significantly, these are affordable high-end–drums.
As of this writing in January 2018, Sweetwater (just to randomly choose a retailer) carries 11 Dunnett Classic Drums starting at $795 and not exceeding $1,195, with aluminum, stainless and carbon steel, brass, bronze, titanium, and steam-bent “Monoply” wood to choose from. In an era when it’s not too difficult to find snare drums that easily top $1,500, or even $2,500, it is refreshing that Dunnett has continued to deliver an instrument that is unique, genuine, and generously priced for the value delivered – despite three decades of success, broad retail distribution, and owners with household names like Carter Beauford, Neil Peart, Stanton Moore, Jason Bonham, John Tempesta, Vinnie Colaiuta, Todd Sucherman, Carter McLean, Jason Sutter, Matt Chamberlain, Joey Waronker, Will Calhoun, Ron Bruner Jr., Billy Cobham, Steve Gadd, and Matt Johnson.
And if that $795 entry price is more than you’re comfortable with, Ronn has resurrected, refined, and gently updated the George Way Drum Company, under which he’s offering snares as well as full kits that look and sound simply superb. A similar search shows Memphis Drum Shop with more than twenty George Way drums in stock, all but one selling for either $549 or $599.
Block off a couple of hours with your favorite headphones to watch Carter McLean’s YouTube channel for a lusty stroll down the George Way rabbit hole. Just try to resist reaching for your wallet. By the way, we had a great episode with Carter last season!
But what makes Dunnett unique is not only that he hand-builds innovative and outstanding drums at a fair price; it’s that he’s always working on the next thing. Yeah, you can still get a 6.5×13 titanium from him just like you could 20 years ago, but his body of work since then is astounding. He’s worked on crazy heavy-drums like his iron Sledge and his “Bell” Bronze; he’s challenged himself to question his original design framework with the 2N series of center-beaded, rolled-over-bearing-edge drums; he’s cryogenically frozen shells, he’s dipped them in chemical baths; he’s designed, redesigned, re-redesigned, and designed again his R-class throwoff and Hypervent breather hole. He’s created new types of hoops, hardware accessories, brackets, and adaptors – in many cases building variants of existing pieces and parts, assembling them in novel ways to solve drummers’ problems creatively and affordably.
More recently, he’s worked with Remo to develop the Dunnett-branded Res-O-Tone and Res-O-Two drumheads that have been near-universally praised, and he created the now-Remo-branded Felt Tone feature, which embeds a felt strip into the drumhead’s film for easy, convenient installation of the classic-yet-difficult-to-install felt-strip sound.
Dunnett has the mind of a product manager, the skill of a luthier, the vision of an inventor, and the drive of a serial entrepreneur. (And sometimes, the mouth and/or manners of a teenager!) He has undeniably pushed the industry forward and set new benchmarks. You can see his influence, his legacy, in his work, and that of his competitors: as he is fond of saying, “half of an old saying goes ‘imitation is the most sincere form of flattery.’ The lesser known other half says ‘invention is the most sincere form of criticism.'”
Ronn Dunnett is an inspirational figure who has forged his own path in drum gear, and has been rewarded with a notoriety reserved for people—like Armand Zildjian or George Way—who speak their minds, focus on serving the customer over maximizing profit, and are fearless in pioneering the next new thing to be assaulted with sticks!