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September 12, 2013

Did You Know?: Purdue's Big Bass Drum

Big Bass Drum

The shell of Purdue's Big Bass Drum is shown with Arik Howard, left, Big Bass Drum co-captain and a junior studying electrical engineering, and Mike Sherwood, manager of technical services in Mechanical Engineering. (Photo provided)
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The "All-American" Marching Band's Big Bass Drum underwent significant repairs this summer for the first time in about 40 years.

The 92-year-old drum's characteristic boom has sounded during hundreds of Purdue's football games and events across the country since 1921. But this spring, as the band was returning from an event in Ireland, a U.S. customs inspection resulted in structural damage to the drum's hardware.

"The drum had been in need of repair for a while -- its lugs and tension rods were in bad shape, but the incident this spring was the straw that broke the camel's back," says Chris McCabe, a senior studying electrical engineering. He is the marching band's drum captain.

"It became clear that the drum, which is an iconic symbol of Purdue to so many, badly needed to be refurbished."

Although the drum was not due to undergo repairs for another eight years, McCabe, members of the drum crew and Purdue Bands & Orchestras employees began to reach out to local community members to secure the necessary parts and repairs.

Because volunteers donated much of the materials and labors necessary, the repairs were completed at almost no cost to Bands.

Mike Sherwood, manager of technical services in Mechanical Engineering, fabricated new pieces of hardware for the drum out of stainless steel, McCabe says. Sherwood also repaired some of the drum's damaged hardware, and he performed all labor at no cost to Purdue. Bands paid for the materials Sherwood needed.

Once Sherwood shored up the drum's hardware, Bands officials decided to give the drum's maple shell a new paint job. A local Sherwin-Williams store donated the necessary paint, and Heritage Classic Homes, a local contractor, provided professional painting services at no charge.

Madmen Creative, a local printing company, donated silver, diamond-shaped decals to place around the freshly painted drum. The resulting, glittery facade gives the drum a striking look, particularly outside when the sun catches the decals, McCabe says.

The repairs also eliminated rattling sounds that emitted from the drum when band members played it. The rattling sounds occurred due to the drum's damaged hardware. The drum also is easier to tune now that it has undergone repairs, McCabe says.

"The fact that the drum was repaired almost entirely thanks to donors is a real testament to how important Purdue Bands and the Big Bass Drum are to the University and its supporters," McCabe says. "It means a lot to us that so many people were willing to help make sure the drum looks and sounds its best."

The drum is the world's largest freestanding bass drum. When it was built in Elkhart, it easily doubled the size of any drum in the world. Today, the inside of the drum's shell bears the signatures of every band member who has served on the drum crew during its time in service. 

Next summer, the drum will undergo a second round of repairs, McCabe says, including the replacement of hardware that was merely repaired earlier this year.

Pamela Nave, associate professor of bands and percussion, says the drum's face-lift has imbued the instrument with new life.

"The drum is a musical instrument, and I want it to sound and look the best it can. The rattling, shaking and buzzing that was occurring when the drum was struck made my musical side cringe," Nave says.

"The drum now looks brand new and, more importantly, it sounds fantastic and produces a clear tone without any extraneous sounds. The instrument is now repaired to its original grandeur."

Writer: Amanda Hamon, 49-61325, ahamon@purdue.edu