“I always said ‘we’ because it sounded a bit more professional, but no, it’s just me.”
A few months ago, I was lucky enough to sit down with Stauffer Percussion founder, proprietor and sole employee, Dennis Stauffer. As we discussed his inauspicious introduction to the instrument, the company’s humble beginnings and the qualities that help set his brands apart from other players in the market, it became very clear that Stauffer is a man that truly loves his craft.
After we spoke, Stauffer took me on a brief tour of his diminutive, yet very impressive shop, offering a great deal of insight into what makes these drums so special. The tour concluded with a look at the one and only Phattie set he’ll never sell – a wedding gift financed by his wife after she watched him sell each and every kit he built for himself.
Stauffer is a sterling example of a successful boutique builder; an honest businessman that prides himself on craftsmanship and customer service. If you’re not familiar with these wonderful drums, do yourself a favor and spend a few minutes perusing the Stauffer website.
A Little History
DGR: Do you remember your first drumset?
DS: It’s on the shelf behind us. It’s a mid-sixties Pearl import under a generic name with a red glass glitter finish.
DGR: Still in use?
DS: On occasion, I do pull it down and play it.
DGR: Have you done anything to it?
DS: At one point I trued the bearing edges a little bit, and I pulled the lugs off and cleaned it, but nothing else. It is stock ‘as is’.
DGR: With the original finish.
DS: Yes. It is cracked and peeling and sun faded, but I think that’s the best part about it. Clearly I could rewrap it if I wanted, you know. That’s not out of the realm of possibilities, but it’s too perfect. You can see under the lugs, the finish cracking on the bass drum, but it’s perfect as is.
DGR: What got you into playing drums?
DS: This is good. You’re going to like this. This is the first time this has ever been captured on tape.
Sixth grade, open house night at band. It’s at the school, you go and meet your teachers, and if you want to be in band you go to the band room and sign up for whatever you’re going to play. So, we get in there – I was with my mom – and it’s sixth grade, so everything’s already awkward, right? I wanted to play trumpet because all the jazz greats played trumpet, and all the cool kids played trumpet. But, the band director said, “The trumpet sections full, but how about trombone?” He pulled a trombone out of the case and I said, “No, I don’t want to play that,” because I thought it looked a little silly, you know?
Well, I was kind of a chubby kid at the time, and the band director sized me up and said, “Oh, we’re going to put you on tuba.” So, he pulls a tuba out, and my mom looks at it, and the first thing she said – just loud enough for everyone to hear – was “He can’t play that. He’s got asthma!”
So, with that in mind the band director told me they needed more drummers, and twenty years later, that is why I’m right here. “He can’t play that, he’s got asthma.” That was the turning point of my entire freaking life.
DGR: Do you still want to play trumpet?
DS: [Laughs] No, not at all. I’m good.
DGR: Is there a record or drummer in particular that really got you going when you started playing?
DS: There was a lot of ‘YYZ’ being played in my high school at that time. A lot. I marched, also; so there was a lot of the corps stuff, and watching the guys with the crazy chops. Other than that, nothing really in particular, except there was a lot of Phil Collins around my house. My parents were big fans. So, there were a lot of these big, epic, eighties drum fills. A lot of the grandiose stuff with a little bit of YYZ on top. That’s all you need when you’re a kid; a nine piece and somewhere to hit it all.
Right now, I like a lot of the modern funky guys like Stanton Moore and Jeffrey Clemens of G-Love. He (Clemens) was one of my big inspirations when their first couple records came out, because he’s just such a funky – it’s almost sloppy, but it’s right on the beat. And, as I’ve gotten to know him, all his inspirations, the stuff that formed his playing, are always the stuff I like the most.
DGR: Clemens is playing Phattie Drums, right?
DS: Yeah. He’s been playing [Phattie] for about ten years. He was one of the first guys to see our gear, play it, and then want to take it on tour.
In the Beginning
DGR: What made you want to start building drums?
DS: It was kind of a fluke. I bought some old jasper shells that didn’t have any holes, and then I bought some cheap steel drums, drilled the jasper shells and just moved the hardware over to make a workable drum.
Then, shortly after that, I lost my job. So, I had my parent’s garage and some time on my hands, and it just kind of took off.
DGR: How long did you work out of your parent’s garage?
DS: About a year and a half. I managed to fill the entire thing.
When I started, I had one router table against the wall, and both their cars fit. Then one care didn’t fit. Then a spray booth showed up where the other car used to be. They were really good about it though. I filled up every inch of that garage, and they let me go for a year and a half without saying anything about it. So, it was appreciated [laughs].
DGR: Are you still using those same machines?
DS: No. They’ve all been worn out. I still have the carcass of my first drill press, which I’ve been asked to get rid of many times, but I just can’t. It built probably the first 1500 drums. I just can’t part with it. I would bronze it if I could.
DGR: So, there wasn’t something lacking in the drum market that made you want to start building?
DS: Well, I think it was price at fist. And, I think there are a lot of young companies popping up now who are saying the same thing, you know. You can go to 200 different small company websites and read the “We’re here to provide a lower cost, better quality drum” message. I’m now of the opinion, though, that you really do get what you pay for.
But, at the time, Ayotte was the maker I idolized the most. My goal was to essentially build myself a set of Ayottes, because those were amazing drums. Specifically, the African walnut satin with natural wood hoops. I think every drummer has seen that kit. That’s the kit I wanted, so I called to get a price quote and it was something like $3400. I had just barely scraped up $400 to get a car, so there was a bit of a gap there.
I got sucked into the idea that I could do this cheaper, but later realized that as you start to spend money on good components, good hardware and things like liability insurance, it’s not that much cheaper.
DGR: With is it that separates Phattie and the rest of the Stauffer family from the big manufacturers?
DS: Well, you can call and talk to me, and I’m going to build your drum. You can’t call and talk to the CNC machine in Taiwan that’s going to build your drums. It’s just a different experience; a higher level of personalization, more options for customization. If you order a custom paint job, you’re going to pay for a quality paint job, but you can get whatever paint job you can imagine.
With some of the larger companies, you can pay for a custom paint job and pick from eight colors, but if you want something a little different, the price is going to jump thousands of dollars because they’re not set up to do it easily. They make excellent drums, but it’s a different business model.
DGR: What about other boutique builders?
DS: We’ve focused in on some very specific markets. With the Black Label drums, we offer very traditional sizes, classic looking lugs – a very particular vibe. With the Phattie stuff, you only get six ply shells on the toms, eight ply bass drums. There’s a very focused sound with one type of bearing edge. So, if you’ve heard a set of Phatties, you know that in those sizes, that’s what those drums were meant to be.
Many of the other companies make a five ply kit with rings, then have a ten ply kit going out the next day. I think that’s great, and there’s a market for extreme customization – which we offer visually – but with us; say you go see the Eli Young Band, and you want that kit. If you order those same sizes, you’ll get that same sound.
Also, the carved snares, no one’s doing that. The Sounds Like Art series, totally unique – 3D, carved, custom. No one else is doing that.
DGR: What inspired the Sounds Like Are series?
DS: Well, for a while, Phattie Drums combined with R.A. Colby incorporated out of Johnson City Tennessee. They’re one of the world’s leading manufacturers of custom pipe organs and consoles. It’s an old school type thing, and their wood workers are some of the best in the world.
I moved into their warehouse, and we were working together for about three years. My expertise with scissor lifts came at the right time since they really need a tune up. While I was there, they build a whole new organ and console for the U.S. Naval Academy. It was this huge, totally over the top project. Even the bench was insane, totally notched and carved and everything. On the back of that bench was a carved, 3D pattern that was just amazing, and I thought, ‘We should wrap that around a drum.’
It took a long time to make that happen. To do it consistently and accurately, and also make drums that sound good and tune properly. It didn’t happen overnight. We started prototyping, and we had to build a custom CNC machine to make it happen. We had to make the first ones on a three axis CNC machine by making the staves first, individually carving them out and then putting them together. It was an unreal amount of work, but now we have a programmable machine, and just do it that way.
DGR: So, Phattie, Black Label, Sounds Like Art and Cocktail Drums are all individually branded. Why did you decide to do that instead of including everything under the Phattie umbrella?
DS: For the first eight or nine years, everything was under the Phattie name. Well, when I first started, I used a very traditional looking badge that said Stauffer Drums. I put that badge on everything, but then realized that all the major drum companies were named for last names. I wanted to do something different.
Everybody called me Phattie D at the time, because that sounds a lot cooler than “Dennis on the drums.” So, I just changed the name to Phattie.
That has a little backlash actually, as people see the name and may ignore the company because they feel it isn’t professional. So, when I decided I wanted to branch out into cocktail drums and vintage-style kits, I wanted to better identify with those markets. We went with really nice diecast badges and classic lugs to help reach those markets. It’s really helped. The Cocktail Drums, in particular, have been a big hit.
DGR: You said earlier you have a very specific sound in mind for each brand within the Stauffer family. Can you give us an idea of what you’re going for with each line?
DS: With Phattie, the sound has evolved into a very punchy sound. I like to think of it as naturally eq’ed. It’s basically a double 45 degree edge on a very thin shell, but the top of the edge has been flattened, so it’s about two plies thick on average. Combined with the thin shell, it leaves lots of resonance and low end, and lots of oomph. But it also cuts down on ring and overtones – and maybe a hair on volume. It’s a very big, full sound that’s just a touch vintage. Very easy to mic. I also try to avoid using diecast hoops, because I think it chokes that sound a bit.
With the Black Label’s, I’m doing a much sharper edge, cut all the way to the outside with a very slight roundover. Similar to the old vintage edges, but not as large a roundover. I’m using eight ply shells and diecast hoops, which focuses the sound and gets something like a more modern take on the old Gretsch sound. The tune up really well, and are great for bop. They sing, but still sound fat.
The Cocktails vary from drum to drum depending on the order, but the thing we hear the most is that they sound like bigger drums than they are. These aren’t toys. Our goal is to create a real, workable instrument that is meant to be used in a professional environment.
The Sounds Like Art snares also vary between models, but the Dragons, which are our most popular model, has a 45 degree inside cut with a big, fat, almost quarter inch roundover on the outside. It helps cut out some of the overtones and lets them tune up a little bit higher. The shells start out at an inch think because the carving is so deep, so the wide outside cut helps open up the sound.
DGR: Who’s playing Phattie?
DS: [Laughs] Over 5000 happy people. Really though, two of our big guys are Jeffrey Clemens from G-Love and the Special Sauce, which is great because he’s a good friend and just plays Phattie because he wants to. He was a real big vintage guy before – he still is, really – but he really likes Phatties because they had that vintage vibe.
Another guy is Chris Thompson of the Eli Young Band. He’s got a least five kits now, including a cocktail kit which they’ve now integrated into their live show – because every good live show needs a part where the singer sits down with an acoustic guitar, and now Chris has a cocktail kit that sits right up there with him.
DGR: So, roughly how many drumsets and snares does Stauffer produce annually?
DS: [Laughs] Well, I’m going to go with a lot, and leave it at that. I stay busy.
A Video Tour of the Old Factory
Phattie Acrylic with LED Lights