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  • Writer's pictureJessica Leigh Lebos

Keeping the Beat: The Gretsch drum factory's rhythm of a 136-year-old legacy

Located just over the Talmadge Bridge in the bucolic town of Ridgeland, SC, the low-slung, beige warehouse looks like it might produce something banal, like shoelaces, or maybe uncomfortable office furniture.

You could drive by it for years and never guess what tremendous magic lies within. In fact, the only clue that this humble building contains the potential to bring stadiums of 20,000 people to their feet is a small, partially rusted sign that reads “Musical Instruments.”

But the headquarters of Gretsch Drums isn’t here to win any beauty pageants. The company’s mission is to build the finest snare, tom and bass drums in the world, an effort that has earned accolades for more than a century. No matter your musical tastes, chances are you’ve grooved to a Gretsch drum:

The 136 year-old company boasts famous disciples across all genres and periods, from jazz legend Max Roach to funk superstar Stanton Moore to immortal rock ’n’ roll lord Charlie Watts. (As a matter of fact, the Rolling Stone has played Gretsch drums exclusively for over six decades.) Other names worth dropping are Taylor Hawkins (Foo Fighters), Steve Ferrone (Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers) and Tyler “Falcon” Greenwell (Tedeschi Trucks Band).

Founded in 1883 by German immigrant Friedrich Gretsch in Brooklyn, the family-run drum-and-guitar maker was sold to the Baldwin Piano Company in 1967, which relocated manufacturing to Arkansas before the Gretsch family bought back the company in 1985 and re-headquartered the drum plant in Ridgeland. These days, though the family still maintains owner/operator rights, the Gretsch Drums name is licensed by California-based Drum Workshop.

While some drums bearing the Gretsch badge are manufactured overseas, the Ridgeland factory continues to produce the company’s coveted signature lines: The award-winning Brooklyn series, the classically-inspired Broadkaster line and Gretsch USA Custom kits — garnering the ultimate percussion bragging rights with the same original, six-ply maplewood formula from the 1960s.

Production manager Paul Cooper has made the 45-minute commute from Savannah to Ridgeland for more than 21 years, overseeing the 25,000 square-foot facility and 20-person staff with a toothy grin, tousled gray goatee and ponytail to match. A drummer himself, who can often be found during his off-hours playing with local rockers Thomas Claxton & the Myth or holding down the Bayou on River Street, Cooper serves as a devoted steward of “That Great Gretsch Sound,” the company’s official slogan.

“That pure tone, that resonance, it’s because we still adhere to the same production process we always have,” he says as he strides across floors strewn with sawdust and strips of sandpaper. “And that’s a really good thing.”

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