An inner rhythm

Editor’s note: This is part of an occasional series profiling the various personal collections of residents of Marshalltown and the surrounding area.

Phil Stafford of Marshalltown has been playing the drums since his childhood days in his native Fredericton, New Brunswick, later playing in several bands in the southern Ontario area and ones in the United States. He owns 14 drum sets, ranging in age from 1958 to 2013, and possesses over 200 cymbals and countless drumsticks.

“Anything prior to the mid-80s is considered vintage for musical instruments,” Stafford said. “My drums are all either American or Japanese made. Rogers drums were the Cadillac of drums between 1968 and ’75. They’re not the most expensive, but they’re the best. Slingerland drums (now owned by Gibson), were a great quality and value. Pearl made tremendous drums in Japan that were every bit as good as American made drums. My 1962 Ludwigs are pretty tough to beat, despite the smaller bass drum, it’s probably the most resonant, and the set I have is similar to what Ringo Starr played. I later had the Beatles logo added to my set.”

He began playing the drums at 10 years old, inspired by his father Bill. He took lessons and learned how to play traditional styles of music.

“In those days, my favorite musicians were the Beatles, the Beach Boys and Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. A drummer I liked was Dave Clark of The Dave Clark Five,” he said.

At the age of 12, Stafford joined an ethnic dance band, playing mostly Polish, Ukrainian and Eastern European music.

“We were called the Polish Express,” Stafford said, laughing at the name. “We played pretty much at least once a weekend throughout southern Ontario. I remember we’d go play weddings where no English was spoken. Southern Ontario was very culturally diverse, as many Eastern and Western Europeans came over after World War II to work on railroads and in the automobile industry. Most of my friends were English, Italian, Polish, Hungarian … I only learned how to play drums because I could never learn scales and could not learn music theory. I had to leave high school music after twelfth grade because I would have had to learn scales; we had 13 grades in Canada. I had to drop out of that, which was too bad because I was their percussion guy.”

After playing in that band for four years, he transitioned to country bands and Rockabilly, playing the tunes made famous by Merle Haggard, Conway Twitty and Jerry Lee Lewis.

“We were very popular in a smaller region around Toronto. Then I started to do fill-in stuff in that genre and we all basically played the same songs then. The Canadian landscape was more narrow in terms of country music, because 40 percent of broadcast music had to be Canadian in content, and still does,” he said.

Throughout his career as a drummer, Stafford’s repertoire has come to encompass rock, pop, soul, country, rhythm and blues and hits from the 1960s and ’70s.

“Anything with the solid traditional downbeat and backbeat really intrigues me, because I’m basically a rhythm and blues rooted guy. I like some of the current stuff. I have played in current music bands. I really like the Motown Sound, and the sounds of Pittsburgh, LA and Alabama,” he said. “I play with a tremendous amount of conviction. I’m not a thrasher and banger, but I’m very intense. It’s almost like a different person when I sit down to the drums.”

Stafford said he was an active drummer up through 1983 – a time when he could expect to play five nights a week.

“I put myself through college doing that. I basically packed it in and finished my Canadian accounting qualifications, and all throughout my career, I was a non-stop 80 hours a week worker, plus I had a family.”

He worked for Fisher Controls in England and the United States, landing in Marshalltown. He retired from there in 2009.

“I began playing the drums again in 2013,” Stafford said. “I didn’t play much in those nearly 30 years except community bands in Marshalltown. There are a lot of older guys like me who were flyers like me in the ’70s and put it away, and now their careers are winding down and they’re getting into their closets and pulling out their Fender bass guitars. I’m finding these people all over Central Iowa.”

When Stafford took up the drums again, he only owned one set – his mid-1970s Pearl drums.

“I bought them when I was 17 years old. I didn’t have any money and I put myself through college with them. They were in storage for years,” he said.

The other 13 drum sets were acquired in the last three years through buying, selling and trading online.

“If you talk to most extreme musicians, it’s hard not to have multiple instruments, but not many people have 14 sets of drums because of their size,” Stafford said. “They’re all beautiful and they all have unique sounds. I have certain sets I take out to a bar, to an auditorium, and small, lightweight drums for smaller shows.”

He owns over 200 cymbals, and determines which ones are most appropriate for a particular gig based on vocal range of the singer. He also likes to use cymbals that date to the same era as the drums.

Proper care and maintenance of drums is essential. Keeping the parts lubricated is important, the collector noted, as well as caring for the drumheads.

“I keep the heads loose purposely, because if you keep them tight, they’ll bend and stress and they’ll pull the lugs, so if you’re going to store them, you lighten them up. They have to be kept fairly humid and basically room temperature. You also have to be careful of mold, because that will rot the wood and then it’s unrepairable.”

Today, Stafford offers freelance, fill-in and last-minute drumming services. Learn more about him at: www.bandmix.com/phil-stafford

If you collect something interesting or unusual, contact this writer at the information below.


Contact Sara Jordan-Heintz at 641-753-6611 or sjordan@timesrepublican.com