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Beat of a New Drum

Gerren Young crafts wooden bongos, congas and more by hand

When Gerren Young began playing the drums more than a decade ago, he was curious about how the instruments did what they did. Maybe too curious.

“In elementary school I got in trouble for pulling on the snare drum snares because I wanted to see how they worked and was shocked at how loud they were. So was the music teacher,” Young recalls.

Now Young knows exactly how drums work because he makes them. In a wood shop in the old Gibson Guitar factory on Parsons Street, on Kalamazoo’s north side, Young crafts all kinds of drums, from bongos, drum sets and snare drums to cajons, which are wooden box drums associated with Latin music, and his oddly cool-looking cajon congas. Young’s drums are as much art as they are instrument and are becoming sought after by musicians far and wide.

“I was struck by (Young’s) choice of materials and artful design,” says Kalamazoo percussionist Carolyn Koebel, who played in the local band Blue Dahlia. Koebel initially had Young repair the front plate on her own cajon but eventually ended up buying a new cajon from Young, along with a set of cajon congas. “The congas are my go-to choice for live performances, not only for their powerful sound but because they’re visually stunning,” she says. “They are absolutely top-notch. The artistic aesthetic is on par with the best products out there. … Well, it easily exceeds them.”

Young, 29, grew up in Comstock Township and started drumming in the sixth grade, playing in school and marching bands. The shop classes he took at Comstock High School fostered an interest in woodworking. After seven years of working in the building trades and traveling after graduating from high school, Young determined he wanted to “do something artistic” and decided to combine his passions of drums and woodworking.

“When I decided to make drums, they needed to be built in a way that wouldn’t be directly competing with big companies,” he says.

Young began by making stave drums, constructed out of separate pieces of wood and built from top to bottom like barrels. Most mass-produced drums are constructed horizontally with layered “plys” which are sheets of thin wood. Young makes his drum sets thicker at the edges and slightly thinner in the middle for broader tuning, which makes the drums more fragile, but the sound is worth it, he says. “They will respond at any dynamic level, and that (design) broadens the tuning range over most manufactured drums,” he says.

When Young started out, he made his first drums at his stepfather’s wood shop and it took him six attempts before he made a decent one. These multiple attempts are understandable, he says, because the process of drum making demands precise angles on the staves and allows only small errors in measurement — being off by even 1/100th of a degree results in an unplayable drum.

His first attempts resulted in some painful lessons. On one attempt he was sanding a drum on a spinning lathe using a sandpaper block when he switched to a scraper to smooth out some gouges on the exterior of the drum. The lathe was set so fast it was humming, but everything else seemed balanced — until the explosion.

“The drum is gone, and there’s blood dripping down my face,” he says. “The drum had disintegrated, and I was lucky not to have lost some teeth or an eye.”

Even so, he ended up with six stitches and eight staples in his head. ”Luckily, most of my other lessons involved hurting drums rather than myself,” he says.

Once he mastered the stave, Young moved on to making snare drums, entire drum sets, cajons, cajon congas and tri-tone bongos, a rectangular box split into three sections for three different tones. He says he is constantly looking for ways to refine his skills and techniques and expand his repertoire.

An example of his commitment to innovation is his cajon conga drums, which have a unique octagonal shape based on a homemade drum he saw in Chicago. Young’s cajon congas are tall and tapered and have “breather” holes at the bottom that give them a full, woody sound.

Young is a currently a one-man operation, and while he prefers to stay small, that situation may change soon. The demand for his drums has increased steadily, especially for his cajons. He sells his drums through his website, GenerationCustomDrums.com, fielding phone calls to provide quotes. He also has sold his drums on consignment at music stores such as Tree of Life, in Chelsea, and Skinny Beats, in Asheville, N.C., and at music festivals such as Blissfest, near Petoskey.

Depending on a drum’s size, it can take Young up to 18 hours over as many as three days or more to shape the drum, apply veneer and finish it. He tries to use exclusively Michigan woods, such as locally harvested walnut, maple, oak, cherry, sycamore, hickory and ash, which he gets from the Kalamazoo lumber mills Handley’s Hardwood Lumber and West Side Sawmill. The exceptions are exotic woods that he salvages from other contractors or woodworkers. A basic three-piece drum set without snare goes for $2,100 or more, depending on the wood.

One musician says the reason Young’s drums are in demand is simply because he makes great-looking and -sounding drums. “He has the best cajon drums out there,” says Randall Moore, a percussionist with the Ann Arbor folk-rock band The Ragbirds. Moore played a friend’s cajon built by Young and had to have one of his own.

Another admirer of Young’s drums is Traverse City drummer Mark Alderman, who plays with Soul Patch TC and other bands and who bought a used drum set made by Young. ”I’m especially proud when other drummers ask me about my one-of-a-kind set and I tell them it’s handcrafted and made from Michigan woods,” Alderman says. “Gerren’s doing some unique things.”

Young has definite ideas on how drums should sound. “Some drummers want their drums to sound just like drums on recordings, but that’s the wrong way to think about it,” he says. “Drums really need to best fit their musical situations live instead of merely aping the sounds on records.”

For example, Young recently built a drum set for a drummer who plays both hard rock and jazz so the challenge was to build one set that would serve both styles well. “I made one set that could be played for any style, depending on how high or low the tuning,” he says.

Young admits that coming to this way of thinking about drums was an evolution. “The sounds I started with are different than now.” But there have been other evolutions in his work as well. For example, he just built his first Taiko drum, a heavy drum used in traditional Japanese drumming. Big and very loud, the Taiko weighs about 30 pounds, with skins held down by heavy metal bolts.

Young also plays some of the drums he makes. He’s a percussionist for Deep Waters, a Kalamazoo alternative folk band, and is part of a traditional Japanese drum troupe called Michigan Flying Dragon. He also will fill in periodically on percussion for other bands.

But from day to day, he is in his woodshop, turning wood into musical works of art or making cabinets and dining-room tables, with an eye toward expanding that aspect of his business. While Generation Custom Drums may be ripe for growth, Young wants to avoid getting too big and losing what makes his products unique — his dedication to creating great-sounding, high-quality drums.

He sums up his philosophy in four words: “More art, less product.”

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A Demand For Drums

Young is a currently a one-man operation, and while he prefers to stay small, that situation may change soon. The demand for his drums has increased steadily, especially for his cajons. He sells his drums through his website, GenerationCustomDrums.com, fielding phone calls to provide quotes. He also has sold his drums on consignment at music stores such as Tree of Life, in Chelsea, and Skinny Beats, in Asheville, N.C., and at music festivals such as Blissfest, near Petoskey.