News / Arts & Entertainment

155-Year-Old Drum Company Marches On

Drums made the old-fashioned way are popular with professional musicians

Noble & Cooley's solid wooden snare drum shells are made from a single plank of wood and bent with steam - the way drums used to be made in the old days.
Noble & Cooley's solid wooden snare drum shells are made from a single plank of wood and bent with steam - the way drums used to be made in the old days.

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Noble & Cooley is the oldest drum-making company in America.

During its 155-year history, the company has evolved from making toy drums for children, to drums for the American Civil War and finally, to classic snare drums for professional musicians worldwide.

The company is still in its original building in the northeastern U.S. town of Granville, Massachusetts.

Professional drums made the old-fashioned way

Noble & Cooley makes the kind of drums professional musicians love to play.

Their drum shells are crafted from a single plank of wood and bent with steam - the way drums were made generations ago. In fact, they're made with the same machinery the company used when it was founded in 1854.

Noble & Cooley president Jay Jones says this gives their snare drums a clean, full sound.

"All the recording artists were looking for this style of drum; the one-piece, steam-bent wood; has a much better sound; goes to tape better than a ply [plywood] drum," he says.

Jay Jones is a sixth generation descendant of James Cooley, whose company evolved from making toy drums to classic snare drums for professional musicians.
Jay Jones is a sixth generation descendant of James Cooley, whose company evolved from making toy drums to classic snare drums for professional musicians.

Toy Drums a big hit

The founders of the company - Silas Noble and James Cooley - didn't start their company to make instruments for professional musicians.

When they founded the company in 1854, they set out to make high-quality toy drums and drum sets for children. And they became very good at it.

According to Jones, the great-great-great grandson of James Cooley, Noble & Cooley toy drums soon became a big hit.

"The first year together they made 631 drums. Shortly after the Civil War, they were making 80,000 drums a year," he says.

Role of Drums in American Civil War

When the American Civil War broke out in 1861, Noble & Cooley cut back on its toy production to make marching drums for the Union army.

Drums played a major role in the war, since they were used on the battlefields for communication before the advent of radio.

A Noble & Cooley drum that is believed to date back to the Civil War.
A Noble & Cooley drum that is believed to date back to the Civil War.

"The different drum beats would signal retreat or charge, or right-flank; all the different rudiments had different meanings, and so the drums were the communication out on the field," says Jones.

Noble & Cooley continued making military drums through 1920. But, up through the 1980s, its main product remained it signature toy drums.

Rock'n Roll in America

Peak sales for the company came in the 1970s during the golden age of rock 'n roll.

When The Beatles came to town, says Jones, everyone was all hyped up on rock 'n roll. "Every kid wanted to be a drummer. So we really rode that wave and produced an awful lot of drums."  

The company employed between 60 and 80 people every year and produced between 80 and 100 dozen drum sets every day from May to November, according to Jones.

Paul McCartney's drummer used a Noble and Cooley drum set during their U.S. tour in 1994.
Paul McCartney's drummer used a Noble and Cooley drum set during their U.S. tour in 1994.

By the early 1980s, competition from overseas had started to impact sales of toy drums, and Jones -  who was working alongside his father in the business - turned his attention to professional musicians.

Turning to classic snare drums

Jones began making solid shell drums using the same steam-bending equipment his ancestors had used 100 years before.

The company's high-quality snare drums soon earned a reputation for excellence among musicians the world over, giving Noble and Cooley a substantial foothold in the music industry.

George Carroll, a professional drummer and music teacher, is a longtime fan of Noble & Cooley drums. He uses them regularly when performing traditional military music and classics of the swing band era.

"It's a superb snare drum," says Carroll. "It works just like the best snare drums in the world are supposed to."

Professional drummer George Carroll says Noble and Cooley's snare drums are 'simply superb.'
Professional drummer George Carroll says Noble and Cooley's snare drums are 'simply superb.'

Notable musicians use Noble & Cooley drums

Jones says Noble and Cooley customers range from freelance musicians like George Carroll to popular recording artists like Paul McCartney, whose drummer Chris Whitten used a Noble and Cooley drum set during their U.S. tour in 1994.

Other musicians include Phil Collins - who's been using playing their drums since 1985 - Dire Straits, Billy Joel, John Mellencamp, Sting and Tré Cool from Green Day.

Today, you can still buy a Noble & Cooley toy drum, but the bulk of the company's sales are now the high-end snare drums for which it has become famous.

Good drums, says musician Carroll, are ultimately defined by their craftsmanship.

"That standard of excellence that the old-time makers lived by, still marches on with that drum."

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