Interview with Custom Drum Builder Troy Townsley

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MDP 002 – Interview with Drum Builder Troy Townsley

Had a great interview with Troy Townsley. He had some great insight for drummers looking to get sponsored by a custom drum company since he has been sponsored by some great drum companies as well as some great insight into his building process.

Mentioned in this Podcast:

Check out the drum set that Troy Just got done building:


Philip: Hey, this is Philip Ellis. I’m here with Troy Townsley who has recently emailed me to show me some of the drums he’s built and I just wanted to bring him on this call to check out and get some more information from him and learn a little bit about what he has learned from building some custom drums. So Troy, thanks for being here.

Troy: Of course man, thanks for having me.

Philip: Let’s just get started. How long have you been a drummer and how long have you been interested in drums?

Troy: I’ve been playing since I was about 10. I’m 22 now, so 12 going on 13 years playing. I started out playing bluegrass with my family and just kind of started developing my own sound and my own feel for drumming. I’ve been able to play out on tour a little bit in my career. During that time I received an endorsement through Risen Drums out of Minnesota and at that time I was really just taken aback by how the drums sounded and how good they felt, really everything about them and it really spiked my interest in why these drums were, in my opinion, so much better and different than other drums. So I really started talking to Keith from Risen Drums and finding out what was different about them. And then I started experimenting on my own, making my own snares. I really had a desire to start building my own kits and found your book online on how to make drums and recently just put out my very first drum set, which in my opinion was a huge success.

Philip: Awesome. Yeah, I’m looking at the picture right now, it looks really great. I mean, if this is your first drum kit…

Troy: Yeah, it is, absolutely.

Philip: And you’ve made a couple snare drums, right?

Troy: Yeah, that’s right. As of right now, I’m working on my fifth one. I’ve made and sold three of them, hung on to one of them and I actually have an order for some more shells to be coming in in the next week or so, and I hopefully can start busting those out.

Philip: Who have you been selling those drums to? I mean, you obviously haven’t been making drums for that long and you’re already selling drums like crazy. That’s pretty amazing, in my opinion.  For me, it took me quite a while just to build up my target audience, my target market – so if you could tell us a little bit about that and how you’re doing that, that would be great.

Troy: Well, my goal and dream right now is to start my own drum company. I’ve created a Facebook page and kind of started to network with the people that I’ve had the privilege of playing with and knowing in my music career. They really helped push this product and got behind these products, and also a huge resource for me in selling a lot of my snares has just been Craigslist. I live in Colorado Springs and I had a guy drive down from Boulder, which is a pretty decent drive to come pick up a snare.  I’ve been very blessed and very fortunate thus far in how well things are taking off.

Philip: That’s great. If you don’t mind me asking, what’s your profit margin on these snares you’ve been building?

Troy: A couple of them I made a little over 100% profit. I built it, got all the hardware I wanted – I pretty much just built a snare that I would play, if that makes sense. That’s kind of how it started, and I threw it up on Craigslist for what I thought it could go for, and it went really fast. So yeah, it’s been really cool.

Philip: Can you tell us a little bit about the snare drums that you built?

Troy: Yeah, most of them are just, I’m a really big fan of maple snares and most of them have just been 14 x 7, 14 x 7.5 snares. A couple 10 lug, a couple 12 lug systems – changed the venting a bit on a few of them. Some Trick throw-offs, some die cast hardware, some hardware – just kind of messed with it all. I’ve been really excited with what I’ve been able to put out thus far.

Philip: Yeah, awesome. What kind of designs have those snare drums been?

Troy: One of them I put out was just a real natural finish, with a high-lac gloss on it – it looked really clean. I put one out similar to the axis series kit with the two-tone, but it was black and white. Most of the designs have been fairly simple, I really haven’t mastered how to do inlays and stuff like that yet so I’m trying to keep them really simple and just focus on putting out a good drum.

Philip: Very cool. This drum kit that you built, you call it the axis series. Where did you get the inspiration for that design? It’s blue with white stripes.

Troy: That’s correct. To be honest, man, I don’t know. I grabbed a sketchpad and I laid down a lot of different designs.  I’m no artist by any means on paper. I asked my wife, “Well what do you think looks cool?” And honestly, she wasn’t really any help at all. I kind of just went with what I thought I could do fairly quickly because they needed it pretty soon. This has been about three or four years ago now, I had a Gretch Catalina kit that was really similar, black with white racing stripes on it. The racing stripes were in a little bit different place. So I kind of just took that and some of the designs I’d laid down and just went with it. For my first kit, I’m really happy.

Philip: Yeah, it looks great. So I don’t see any vents on the drums. Is that just something you chose to do, to just not vent it or is there a secret venting system on there?

Troy: Yes, there actually is venting there. It’s just not a big hole in the side like pretty traditional drums. I took a lot of that design from Keith at Risen and vented underneath the tension rods. You can’t probably see it in the picture, but if you look really closely at the kit you’ll see little holes all the way around underneath pretty much every tension rod, which gives it a lot of attack, it helps the drum breathe better and it sounds really great. But yeah, there’s definitely venting on there, it’s just a lot different than most drums.

Philip: Very cool. You got me interested, what band did you get the endorsement deal with?

Troy: I was in a band called Life after Napoleon. We were never really anything super special but we played a lot, we played over 250 shows in 2009. I was very blessed to be able to earn several endorsements because of that, they obviously wanted me to get their product out there. The band is no more, but I’ve been able to keep my endorsements. I still play a lot in front of enough people, they think I’m a good source of getting their name out there. But yeah, that’s who I was able to get a lot of my endorsements with.

Philip: So kind of a side note, this is probably a tip for just drummers in general, but what would you say were the major factors in helping you get those endorsement deals?

Troy: Playing shows, to be honest. I don’t say this arrogantly, but skill level – they do care. They’re not just going to endorse a kid who started playing three months ago in his garage. Playing out a lot and playing with some bigger national names will get you some attention and they want to hear you. So when I got my endorsement, it was kind of like a job interview, I had to send my references and my music, almost a musical resume. It was a fairly extensive process to get into it, but once I did, in my opinion, I’ve been backed by some of the greatest drums and cymbals and sticks out there today, and I’m really fortunate to be a part of their families.

Philip: Cool. So, since you’ve kind of seen both sides – you’ve been on the side of a drummer trying to be endorsed by a drum company – when you get your own drum company in full swing, how do you think you’ll set up your own endorsement deals or sponsorship deals?

Troy: I’ve thought about that and I actually have a friend who’s in a band that’s getting ready to kick off on their first tour and he’s all, “Man you should endorse us, you should endorse us,” but honestly just to get my name out there and to let people know I have a solid product to offer, I might just have to build a couple kits and just get them out on the road and not really have to focus on making money off of it. And that’s cool. I want to play drums and I want to make drums and I want to make drums that other drummers want to play. I think that’ll speak volumes when you go over to a drummer who’s touring and he’s like, “Man, Advent really puts out some great kits, you should check them out.” That’s probably how I’m going to approach it, just build a couple kits and put them out and say, “Hey I’d love if you repped me on the road and represented Advent on the road.” Kind of just take baby steps.

Philip: Can you tell us, whenever you were getting started with drum building, what were some of the obstacles that you had to overcome and what were some of the initial drawbacks to actually getting started to building your own drums?

Troy: I tell you what man, my biggest drawback was just that I live in a little apartment. And I have a little deck but it was hard for me to find space to sand and paint and all sorts of stuff, lack without fogging the house up so bad that my kids can’t breathe. That was probably the biggest obstacle. There’s a lot to learn, even now. I’m excited to start on my next kit. You can’t tell in the picture but if you get up really close, you can still see some brush strokes in the lacquer, which I’m not very excited about. It’s just things that I think I’m just going to learn with time. It’s definitely not as easy. I’m really excited because I’ve talked to people about this new venture in my life and people are like, “Oh, what’s so hard, you just get a piece of wood and you paint it,” well, there’s quite a bit more to it than that and I think people as they get into building drums will figure out a lot of those little things. I love working with my hands when I get off of work that keeps my mind going and my hands going. And I love being able to put something out that’s going to be a blessing to someone else. I’ve really enjoyed taking this on and I’ve learned a lot from your book – it’s like my Bible, almost. I carry it with me every day, with my computer, just looking at it and seeing what I can learn.

Philip: Very cool, man. Well thanks for that. That’s encouraging to me because it’s great to hear actual feedback from people who’ve read the book and are happy with it. That just makes me feel like I’m doing my job so thanks for letting me know. Obviously, Risen is one of your favorite drum companies but what are some other drum companies that you have learned from, that you have looked at and kind of gotten inspired by?

Troy: Before I was with Risen, I was with Truth – Truth Custom Drums, and that was my first custom drum company. Obviously, Truth has kind of taken the world by storm for a little while and they were just putting out solid, solid, solid products. I’ve been able to play on some SJC Custom Drums and some Shine Custom Drums, and they’re all different and they all do a lot of cool things but just taking the creativity from a lot of them and just mushing it all in my mind – SJC does crazy stuff with hoops and how they tension. I saw a kick drum they released the other day, it was rope tension which was crazy but it looked really cool. I’d say some of my favorite drums are vintage Gretch or vintage Ludwig, obviously. That old wood sounds great and those guys knew what they were doing back in the day. Unfortunately I think a lot of more commercial drum companies have just focused on just putting out product and not caring really what it is they’re pushing.

Philip: Yeah, definitely. If you go to Guitar Center or any music store, they’re gonna have the really low-end drums, which they’re going to get the job done, but they’re never going to be the most amazing sounding drums. Some of them are actually starting to look really cool and be really cheap, but the sound quality that you sacrifice for the price you’re paying is probably not worth it. Until you start getting up to the really high-end drums which are mass-produced, I think they start putting more attention to details into those and definitely with the sound quality.

Troy: Sure, like with DW. DW makes a lot of kits and they sell a lot of kits but if you pay a decent amount of money, you’re going to get a really great kit. I’ve really never played a real DW kit that I didn’t like. It’s not a $400 kit that you go pick up from Guitar Center, as you said.

Philip: Right, right. So you talked about building drums and you’re in a small apartment. So where did most of the actual building take place? Was it out on your deck or was it a shop somewhere?

Troy: Most of it was out on my deck, a little bit of it of it was – I’ve got to be careful what I say about this because I don’t know how many people know about it – but at my church, they’ve got a big fenced-in part and I talked to my boss and said, “Hey man, I really need to lacquer out this kick drum and I cannot do it at my house, is it cool if I just do it here?” So I kind of made a makeshift curtain system with some dropcloth and just kind of went at it after work several times. It was challenging hauling back and forth wet drums and figuring out where to be able to store them because I couldn’t just leave them outside, obviously. My house smelled several times because I just put down wax paper and had to let them sit on my table for a while, kids OD’d on the floor – no, just kidding. Yeah, it was challenging but I think that was a lot of the fun of it, to be honest with you. There were a few times I got frustrated but man, it’s all part of the learning process.

Philip: Yeah, definitely. Well, is there any tool – specific tool – that you would recommend to any custom drum builders that are thinking about getting started?

Troy: It depends on how in-depth you want to get with it. If you’re going to order your shells with the edge already cut and holes already drilled, it makes your job a lot easier, to be honest.

Philip: Is that what you’ve been doing?

Troy: No. No, I did it all. I had to borrow a lot of stuff, I don’t own it all. But I was able to borrow it and get the job done. But I would really highly recommend, and I’ve seen you hit on this a hundred thousand times on Twitter, but a 90 degree drill to get all the hardware off – that was a pain. All I had was a big drill, and I ended up taking out the hardware by hand several times. That was a big pain. Tons of sandpaper is also really cool, as I learned from the book, being able to go up into really, really high-grit sandpaper to get the look you’re looking for. The files were really great, I used a lot of the files on the edge and whatnot. To be honest, when I was first looking into it and I hadn’t bought the book, I was kind of nervous about how much money I was going to have to spend on just tools. To be honest, yeah, you’ve got to get things, but once you get them, you have them. None of them are super expensive and you go over in really good detail how to build a router table. It’s really not as bad as I was expecting to get all that stuff put together and pieced together. Like I said, I had to borrow some tools from some friends and I had to have a buddy help me build the router table and stuff like that. But now, we got it, so we’re ready to go.

Philip: Actually, yeah, I should probably mention that in the book, that you can hit up one of your friends that has tools.

Troy: Absolutely. Yeah, I have a good buddy that’s a mechanic, so he’s got tools out the ears. Not necessarily a lot of woodworking tools, but I was still calling him almost every day, “Hey, man, I really need to borrow this thing, could you help me build this?” He’s just a smart guy and he was there for me.

Philip: I bet he enjoyed that, too.

Troy: Oh yeah, it’s really kind of funny. Like I said several times, I work at a church and there’s a lot of musicians in the church and they’ve gotten to play a couple, I’ve taken them my Risen kit a couple times and now it’s really kind of funny because they’re all like, “Hey man, can I start building with you?” They want to get in on it because they see how much fun I’m having with it and my passion for drums. So yeah, it’s kind of funny, I’m like, “Man, if you want a job you can sand.”

Philip: Yeah, exactly. That’s the most boring part and kind of monotonous part. It’s kind of funny, I just started working with a guy who’s potentially going to be my first employee for P. Ellis Drums which is kind of exciting for me. It’s cool because for me, all these years I’ve been building drums by myself for hours out of each day and I just get so bored and I just kind of lose sight of the end result. I’m going to have this great custom drum, but in order to build that I have to sit here and sand for a couple hours and that’s really boring. So most of the time I would just pass the time by listening to podcasts or listening to music or whatnot, but especially with a guy from your church – that’s pretty cool because you can take him in there and that seems like a really good time to kind of invest in that person, you know, and kind of build up and disciple that person to be a helper in building drums, but also to have those conversations that wouldn’t come about if you weren’t spending time with that person one-on-one.

Troy: Absolutely, man, absolutely. You’re absolutely right, it gives you an opening when you find something that someone else is passionate about and kind of just go at it with them. It’s kind of a great tool in and of itself.

Philip: Very cool. Is there anything else that you want to share, maybe a little piece of wisdom or a quick tip for other drum builders?

Troy: I think you were scratching on it a little bit just now but, again, I’ve seen you Facebook and tweet it a couple times, but patience, man, is a big virtue. I’ve found myself when I was waiting for lacquer to dry when I was just going to have to sand it down and do it again, I felt like I kind of wanted to rush it and say, “oh well, it’s dry enough, let’s go ahead and do it.” But if you do that, it’s going to compromise your overall goal. So patience and consistency, and man, just love what you’re doing and good luck to anybody that’s out there doing it. This is a stupid cliché, but if I can do it, anyone can do it. I’ll be real honest, I’m not very smart but I can take this book and put out a drum set that I’m really, really proud of. I think it speaks volumes about you and your company and your drums and yeah man, a big thanks to you and all you’ve provided me in building this. I know several other drum builders and drummers, and yeah man, I’m really excited about the future.

Philip: Cool. Well, thanks so much for being on this interview with me. I think we learned a lot from just listening to what you had to say.

Troy: Thank you so much for having me, dude. I really appreciate it.

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