This article appeared in the March 2016 issue of Modern Drummer Magazine.
If you’re like most drummers, you prefer to hear, play, and inspect a drum before buying it. But for the best comparison-shopping and to get gear that’s in the choicest condition, the Internet is usually the place to do it. Yes, there is degree of risk in purchasing pre-owned goods online, but there are ways to reduce that risk. As founder, owner, and restoration tech for Vintage Drum Center, I’ve purchased thousands of vintage drums. Almost all were bought “absent-style” by phone, email, or the Internet, and then shipped to us from hundreds of miles away. To avoid potential problems in buying this way, I’ve always followed certain guidelines–you’ll find these and more in this article, which I’ll share with you here.
1. Do the Research and Get Knowledgeable
The time to learn about vintage drums is long before you buy them. Here are some ways to plan ahead to save time, money, and avoid mistakes.
a. Study manufacturer catalogs–they’re the best source for information. I highly recommend Drumarchive.com. This website offers free online PDF scans of hundreds of vintage drum catalogs from all the major and some not-so-major drum manufacturers. You’ll learn to identify brands and models, pinpoint production dates, and get familiar with sizes, finishes, and features.
b. Read books about vintage drums and browse e-commerce websites. Get familiar with gear and pricing.
c. Browse vintage drum reference websites. Here are a few of the most popular:
-vintagedrumguide.com Identification, history, restoration tips, links.
-vintagedrum.com This is my website featuring an extensive vintage drum photo gallery, technical and historical articles, and restoration tips.
-coopersvintagedrums.com Historical formation, photos, and catalog images.
-polarityrecords.com/vintage-drum-kits-1920s-and-30s.html Entertaining and historic images of vintage drum kits from the 1920s and 1930s.
d. Visit vintage drum forums. Two excellent ones are: vintagedrumforum.com and drumforum.org. Industry professionals, collectors, vintage drum experts and novices frequent these. Facebook groups are another source. Whatever forum you’re visiting, keep in mind:
- No single person knows it all.
- Distinguish opinions from facts.
- Be aware of the experience/knowledge level of the person whose post you’re reading.
e. Subscribe to Not So Modern Drummer, a free monthly email newsletter. It features articles and photos from top vintage drum authorities. To sign up see notsomoderndrummer.com.
2. Use Keyword Search Strategy
When you’re on a search engine, type in a variety of keyword phrases. This can be the difference between finding and not finding the gear you want. Suppose you’re looking for a vintage Ludwig white marine pearl snare drum and you do three separate searches using the following keyword phrases: Ludwig white marine pearl vintage snare drum; buy 1960s vintage white marine pearl Ludwig snare; and 1960s vintage wmp Ludwig snare. Not all of those phrases might result in a find. Doing multiple searches using various keyword phrases improves your chance of success.
If irrelevant listings crowd your results pages, Google’s verbatim tool can help. Enter the keyword phrase in the text bar as usual, then click “enter” to get the search results page. You’ll then see a Search Tools button on the right side below the main search bar. Click it and go to the drop-down menu titled All Results, and select Verbatim. You’ll find listings for only the specific terms you entered. The results won’t be 100% “clean,” but a number of unwanted listings will get weeded out.
3. Find Out What’s it Worth
is no single source, online or elsewhere that will instantly dial in vintage drum prices. The way to gauge the market is by browsing a broad range of website types, such as e-commerce sites, blogs, auctions and marketplace-style sites. As you do this, you’ll discover that prices for an item (in the same condition) can vary greatly from one website to another. So how do you know which price is correct? A solid rule of thumb is that when an item consistently sells in the same price range for at least three to six months, that range is a reliable indicator of worth. Some vintage drums seldom get listed due to their rarity, so you might not find them online. In that case, seek out opinions from as many vintage drum experts and collectors as you can. Be sure to ask them what criteria their opinion is based on and why.
Before we leave vintage drum pricing, let’s talk about false price indicators. Over the years, I’ve talked with thousands of buyers. I’ve found that some used erroneous drum pricing methods. That resulted in their overpaying or not buying a drum because the price looked too high. (Some sellers also use false price indicators resulting in overpricing and underpricing their gear). When buying vintage drums online here are four things to avoid:
a. Using eBay asking prices
Some buyers think an asking price on eBay is what the seller will get when an item is sold. But the final selling price could be higher or lower than the original asking price. A far better way to use eBay as a pricing tool is via the Sold Listings filter. This shows strictly items that have actually sold, and at what prices. But don’t rely on it as your sole price gauge since eBay prices can be much lower or higher than prices on other e-commerce venues. Read on and you’ll see why.
b. Using low and high eBay prices
Some eBay sellers don’t know the value of their vintage gear, and they auction it off with “no reserve” which results in low selling prices. If the most interested buyers aren’t browsing eBay within the time window of that auction, the item could sell for far below it’s worth due to bad timing and little or no bidding competition. An item could also sell for an excessively high amount because two buyers get into a bidding war and one or both of them would rather pay more than lose. The competitive eBay atmosphere tends to drive prices higher than they would otherwise be in a less competitive venue.
c. Believing too much in it’s worth whatever someone will pay for it.
This economic concept sounds simple, but its logic falls apart depending on the time, place, and circumstances of the sale. Consider this example: A zealous snare drum collector has to have a drum that’s snugly at home in someone else’s collection. To entice its owner to sell it to him, he makes an excessively high offer, an amount no one else would pay; his offer is accepted and the drum is sold. But does the price he paid become the benchmark for everyone else? It does not. That’s because exceptions, with their peaks and valleys, do not set standards; what does, as mentioned before, is consistent selling prices over a span of time.
And just as one person can perceive a drum’s value as high, another can also perceive it as low. Say Collector A tells Collector B that he purchased a 1920s Ludwig snare drum for $1500. Collector B says, “You paid too much! I would have paid $750.” Does this mean the drum is worth only half of what Collector A paid for it? Again, the answer is found by tracking the selling price over a period of time.
d. Checking price tags but not condition
The same model in the same finish can sell for very different amounts due to its condition and degree of originality. So when you’re monitoring online values, never rely on photos alone, no matter how good they look. Always read the descriptive text. Are there modifications such as re-cut bearing edges, extra holes or repainted shell interiors? Anomalies like these are not always depicted in photos and often explain why two drums or drum sets that appear to be in equal condition are priced so differently.
4. Consider Whether You’ll Have Restoration Wok to Do
If you’re thinking of buying vintage gear that’s in need of restoration, first ask yourself these three questions:
- What is the cost of the restoration?
- Am I willing and able to pay that cost?
- If I decide to sell the item, could I recoup the cost?
5. Buying From a Dealer vs. a Private Party
If you’re new to vintage drums, it’s good to start your buying from a reputable dealer. A private seller may have honest intentions to give you an accurate assessment of the gear, but could fall short of the mark due to a lack of knowledge and experience. Misinformation that might have been unintentionally or intentionally passed on to him by a previous owner could be passed on to you. Also, if you’re dealing with someone that has no verifiable reputation, you could be taking a risk.
But whether you’re buying from a dealer or a private seller, check the seller’s reputation and feedback rating. Make sure the gear can be returned for a refund if you’re not satisfied with it. Always get the seller’s email address, street address, phone number, delivery date commitment, and tracking number.
6. Consider Modified Gear
If you’re a drummer who wants to save money, and to whom “vintage sound” is more important than vintage originality, buying modified vintage drums might be your answer. If you take this route, keep in mind that while some alterations don’t affect the sound of a drum, others can, such as re-cut bearing edges that are unsuitable for a shell type or a poor rewrap job, to name a few.
7. Ask the Seller to Do an Inspection
This is where I’ve seen even experienced collectors get into trouble. Here’s a scenario: you see a vintage snare online, and you know it won’t be there long because of the great price and condition. So you ask the seller a few quick questions, the answers sound good, and you buy the drum. After it arrives, you install new heads, try to tune it up, and wince when you hear the bad overtones. And that’s not all–the tension knob slips when you torque up the wires.
Problems like these are invisible in a photograph, and they’re not flushed out in a quick inspection. So play it safe when you buy online. Ask the seller to do an in-depth inspection using our free online guide How to Inspect Vintage Drums. It’s a compilation of inspection processes and techniques I’ve developed that buyers and sellers use worldwide.
Even if a drum or set looks brand-new, ask the seller to print and use our inspection guide. Why? Any drum, vintage or otherwise, must do more than look good. I’ve seen my share of vintage drums in unused, new condition but with serious factory-original structural, functional, and acoustical problems. Have the seller use the inspection guide to reveal hidden defects before you buy the item. When it arrives, re-inspect it yourself.
When possible, talk with the seller by phone before you buy. This gives you a chance to learn who you’re dealing with. Does the seller sound sincere and knowledgeable? Do you get direct, straightforward answers to your questions, or are responses evasive and vague? Trust your instincts. Ask for additional photos if necessary.
9. Pay Safely
No matter what online venue you use to make your purchase, the most secure way of paying is with a credit card. In case of non-delivery or the seller’s refusal to resolve a disagreement, you can dispute the charges with your bank. In a large majority of cases, credit card banks will reverse the charge and refund the account. Using an online payment service like Pay Pal is an excellent payment alternative and gives you a layer of protection.
10. Watch Out for Scammers on eBay and Craigslist
10. Watch Out for Scammers on Ebay and Craigslist
Fraudsters are always on the prowl for unsuspecting eBay and Craigslist buyers. Check out www.newlifeauctions.com and www.fraudguides.com for excellent tips on how to protect yourself.
Editor’s note: Click here for details on Vintage Drum Center’s Appraisal Service.