A Tale of Two Coasts: How Cali's Blackwood Drums found its home in Philly - WXPN | Vinyl At Heart

Philadelphia has always marched to the beat of its own drum, fostering creatives and oddballs from all over. The music scene is vibrant and diverse, with no one artist sounding too much like any other. It is a tight-knit community of people making music and actively supporting each other.

From The Wonder Years and Circa Survive to Japanese Breakfast and Kurt Vile, there are countless successful artists who have emerged from the Philly scene. And Will Yip of Studio 4 Recording has worked with some the best of the best in local music. The acclaimed producer started out as a drummer, influenced by hip-hop records, which has shaped his style and taste when it comes to making records.

“I’ve been chasing the perfect snare drum since I was 12 years old,” Yip says. “I’m very picky and particular about not just the instrument itself but how you voice them, the range and dynamics.”

It just so happened that he found that perfect snare — and it was made by a relatively undiscovered company called Blackwood Drum Co.

When Blackwood founder Travis Morgan dropped off a seamless brass snare drum, Will professed that it was a game changer. “It became the most valuable instrument in my studio. It has influenced so many records. We called it the ‘magic snare.’” Together, they built a seamless aluminum drum kit that has since been featured on countless records.

Morgan didn’t start out with the intention of creating a business. He began woodworking for fun, making furniture. He decided to make a drum kit for himself, and the first he crafted was a standard maple stave kit. He realized he enjoyed the process of building drums, and in 2016 Blackwood was born.

“I love being able to create drums out of just about any piece of lumber,” Morgan says. “Whether it’s an expensive piece of ebony or broken skateboard decks.”

photo courtesy of Blackwood Drums

So, what makes Blackwood drums so unique?

For one, the company offers multiple types of drum shells, including ply, stave, and seamless metal, to give people a range of options. The majority of other drum companies only offer plywood, the most common method of drum shell construction. Plywood is cheap to produce and fast to construct, so it works for mass production.

“Ply shells are the cookie-cutter drum that we all know today,” Morgan said. “Typically they are made with a lot of glue, which really affects the sound of the wood. Being able to alternate the wood grain of each ply helps allow for a thinner and stronger shell.”

Blackwood initially only offered stave shells, which are more expensive, labor intensive and time-consuming to construct. However, many prefer the sound they produce. Stave shells can be more resonant, and allow the tone of the actual wood to be more pronounced. The company also offers seamless metal shells, which not many other drum companies do because it isn’t cost-effective to mass produce them.

“I only focus on doing the highest-quality versions of anything,” Morgan said.

Morgan comes off as genuine and deeply passionate. He seems to be somewhat of a perfectionist when it comes to building drums, never turning in work that feels incomplete or flawed. He puts in the time and work, valuing fine craftsmanship and delivering an exceptional product that his clients will fall in love with. Morgan described himself as “having my blinders on” when it comes to comparing Blackwood to other custom drum companies. He’s hyper focused on making Blackwood as unique as possible, and creating a beautiful and artistic product like no other.

photo courtesy of Blackwood Drums

For example, there’s the level of customization of a Blackwood kit. “Another company would offer just ply shells and you just customize your finish, color, sometimes hardware,” Morgan explained. “But we take a step further with having different shell options, hardware and finishes. We have more variety for drummers to choose from and customize almost every aspect. It’s the equivalent of buying a house or building it from scratch and designing everything yourself.”

While the drums are built in San Jose, CA, Blackwood has established deep ties to the Philadelphia music scene. Morgan first visited Philly in 2017, and during that visit he ran into Nicky Palermo of NOTHING at Ortlieb’s. After making a connection, Morgan was later introduced to the band’s drummer, Kyle Kimball, who began playing on a Blackwood set.

This one interaction snowballed, helping the company gain exposure in the Philly area. Teddy Roberts of Tigers Jaw and Casey Getz of Turnover are among the prominent artists that play on Blackwood sets, and the company has been backlining This Is Hardcore Fest for three years running. The drums are carried exclusively by Philadelphia Drum & Percussion, located in Fishtown.

Teddy Roberts of Tigers Jaw | photo by Josh Ray

“Philly has a great local music scene with bands we enjoy, and the connections just happened organically, slowly networking with different people,” Morgan said.

Will Yip became a partner and co-owner of Blackwood in 2020. Will says he’s never done exclusive deals with brands — as a producer he simply seeks out the best instruments that he can get his hands on, and that tends to be multiple brands.

“I want the most inspiring instruments, because the more inspiring the instrument, the more inspired the artist is going to be to make great music,” said Will.

What many people might not realize is that the slightest detail can have an impact on the way an instrument sounds. From the size of a gasket, to the weight of hoops and lugs, every element of the design will affect the tone and volume of how the drum sings. When a band takes a drum kit made from wood on tour around the country, the changes in temperature and humidity and how they’re being played every night fluctuates the tuning. On the other hand, a seamless metal shell is tougher and more durable, so it sounds great from arid Colorado to the swamps of Florida.

photo courtesy of Blackwood Drums

So where does a small company like Blackwood fit into the larger drum world? Yip believes that paying attention to quality will inspire the drum world and force other companies to find their own innovative ways to fix common issues drummers deal with.

“What we’re focusing on is forward-thinking but still classic drums,” he said. “That’s the key to great songs, fashion, everything. Innovative, but classic.”

Blackwood is currently working on a signature Will Yip snare—a dream come true for the producer. For the material, he chose aluminum because it has a bright sound and responds musically like wood. The aim is to make the snare more affordable and accessible to drummers and producers, but still top of the line in quality. The main goal for the company is to get Blackwood drums in front of as many faces and players as possible, and inspire others to make great music.

“Everyone should get the chance to play a custom shop drum,” Yip said. “Just like how everyone should experience a custom-made suit—it just fits differently.”

Will Yip on Blackwood Drums
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