Gearhead: How Gene Krupa Kicked the Drum Kit into the Jazz Age

The legend took the drum kit from "contraption" to classic

Gene Krupa at the 400 Restaurant in New York, June 1946. (photo: William Gottlieb/Library of Congress)

In 1909, Chicago was the site for two events that would forever change the role of percussion in popular music: The brothers Ludwig launched their eponymous instrument company by releasing a bass drum pedal, and Anna and Bartłomiej Krupa welcomed to the world their ninth child, Eugene.

The pedal, along with other innovations, allowed one percussionist to assemble a small set known as the “traps” (short for contraption). With a single player now able to handle bass, snare, a tom-tom, and some cymbals, the traps saved space and manpower. It became an efficient, though unglamorous, timekeeper for a new rhythm-heavy musical genre then emerging in small clubs and speakeasies.

By 1927, jazz and Gene Krupa had both come of age. On the other hand, the traps were like an awkwardly shy youth covered in spots and hiding a smile marred by braces. Few recognized the potential beauty hidden within.

Krupa would change all that when, as a young veteran of the Chicago jazz scene, he joined Benny Goodman’s outfit in 1934. More than 80 years on, his groundbreaking solo drum breaks in Goodman’s 1937 studio recording of “Sing, Sing, Sing”—and subsequent Carnegie Hall live recording—remain among the most important percussion performances in history. 

“It’s no exaggeration to say that Gene Krupa can be considered the founding father of modern drum set playing,” says noted swing drummer, author, and historian Daniel Glass. “Combining superb technique with swaggering showmanship, he brought legitimacy and a new kind of ‘cool factor’ to the traps.”

Krupa hit the skins (then actually made of animal hide) with power, swing, and imagination. Plus, he was a treat to watch behind his signature kit, built by Ludwig’s crosstown rivals, Slingerland. Reportedly, Krupa didn’t just lend his name to his drums: He pushed Slingerland to refine tom-tom design with tunable top and bottom heads and worked with the Avedis Zildjian company to develop the crash, ride, splash, and hi-hat cymbals we know today.

“He also made drumming look like a hell of a lot of fun,” Glass says, adding that Krupa’s looks and flamboyant style caught Hollywood’s attention. “They typically showcased him performing ingenious routines like a solo with a pair of matchsticks, stick twirls, and other tricks—which inspired budding drummers for decades.”

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Eventually, his star power would cause friction with Goodman. By the late ’30s Krupa left the King of Swing, formed his own band, and updated his Slingerland gear. Decades later, Krupa’s Goodman-era bass drum (pictured here) would find its way into the American Music collection at the National Museum of American History, still bearing his signature drum head. It’s an iconic artifact that reminds all who see it of how Krupa literally kicked the drum set into the modern age and showed that drummers could become stars.

Emile Menasché

Musician, journalist, and author Emile Menasché has composed soundtracks for Oscar- and Emmy-nominated documentaries. He is jealous that his dog Hudson gets more attention from passersby whenever they’re seen in public together.