Written by Brett Levine
Photo by Jerry Siegel
For drum customizer, rebuilder, and, at times, custom builder Matt Brennan, every old drum shell is an opportunity. “It is all about the process,” he explains, standing in his workshop, which contains the skeletons of numerous deconstructed drums. “I never modify drums that have value,” he continues. “If they don’t, I can take old field snares and turn them into something someone can play today.”
The approach is not for the impatient or the fainthearted. Brennan meticulously removes each drum’s hardware, and then peels away the old wraps—the decorative materials that cover each drum’s exterior. “This one is like the one from Ringo’s first drum set,” he says, pointing to one of many carefully rolled tubes of what are essentially plastics and laminates that decorate the maple drum shells.
For Brennan, every aspect of a drum contributes to its unique characteristics and sound. At times, it is the unexpected flaws that come from customizing that give the drums their character. “Here is a hole that someone interested in restoration would have probably filled,” Brennan explains, pointing to a small penetration just above a redesigned snare’s badge. “The reality is that the amount of air that escapes from that hole probably can’t affect the pitch or the tone of the drum in any significant way, but for a purist something like that would be maddening. For me, it is simply a visual reference for the history that each drum has, and what it has become.”
Brennan has a history as both a performer and a customizer. He began playing at age 13, building a decade of love for drumming before he customized his first kit. “I actually got into the idea of custom drums by having Joe Partridge, a master craftsman who has literally taught me everything I know about making drums, make me a set in the early 1990s. What was so surprising was that at the time, the cost of custom drums and an off-the-rack kit was not that different.” By going the custom route, Brennan was able to get precisely what he wanted, but he also got much more. “What happened as part of the process was that I built a relationship with Joe that has continued to this day,” he says.
Passion underpins both Brennan’s playing and his building. “I was recently at the Chicago Vintage Drum Show,” he says, “and I had the opportunity to speak with someone who makes a particular drum I have always been interested in playing. In reality the structure of drums really hasn’t changed in a long time—they are tubes with skins stretched over them—so it becomes a matter of materials, hardware, and craftsmanship that make each unique.”
Brennan’s crowning achievement is also his most passionate project. Brennan has created a walnut snare made from two armoire doors that has segmented construction, which he cut and pieced together section by section. In the workshop, a miniscule template illustrates how labor-intensive the process is. “You shape each segment,” he explains, “then form the rings. They are offset in a brickwork pattern, then turned on a lathe.” What makes this drum particularly special is that the doors were salvaged from a family home. Brennan wrote personal passages on each ring before gluing them together. The result is something that is both beautiful and functional. “I always take the approach that I try to combine a good quality build with a shell that is true. Then I ask myself, ‘Will it sound good when it is played’?’ That’s really the question,” he says.
Brennan is focused on the quality of what he redesigns, refurbishes, or builds far more than the quantity of instruments he can make. “For me, everything about drumming revolves around the idea of my love of the instrument and my love for playing,” he shares. “When you divorce yourself from what is specifically marketable and focus on what is enjoyable to play, you find yourself in a space where you can make art.”
If you want to hear Brennan playing his creations, he performs with Andy Spain and Lost Astronaut and works with local jazz musicians as well. But he finds just as much pleasure behind the kit in his home studio, testing out a recently finished snare. “To me, playing music is not just about playing gigs. It is also about reflection and having the space to learn,” he says.
His drums combine knowledge of material history with a desire to salvage something that would otherwise be lost. “In most instances the majority of the drums I work with really don’t have many other purposes. They’re too big to be snares in kits. So by reworking them I can help to give them another life,” he says. “I think every drum I work with has its own unique qualities, and that is one of the reasons I do it. I love playing drums. I know every drummer plays a little differently and it is the drum itself—the type of feedback it gives informs how you play.”