Ask many drummers what the ultimate snare drum is, the Holy Grail, the ‘must have’, and you’ll hear the words Radio King. This snare drum has been a best seller since it was introduced and remains highly popular among players and collectors worldwide.
I’ll attempt to give a quick history of the drum as well as outline its main features. This snare drum was in production over 4 decades, so as you can imagine there are too many models to discuss here, but hopefully this article will serve as an introduction and you can go and explore a little more.
The Radio King first appeared in the 1936 Slingerland catalogue alongside an announcement that Gene Krupa was their new endorsee. It was a solid shell snare drum, which many believe to be the ultimate when it comes to sound and playability (most modern drums are ply, with the exception of a few custom companies).
The earliest models featured streamlined lugs without inserts, the rods tensioning directly into the lugs, and brass hoops engraved with ‘Slingerland Radio King’. Offered as a metal or wood shell, it is the wood shell drums that are hailed as a timeless classic. By 1938 the lugs had inserts (nicknamed ‘cigar lugs’) and the Gene Krupa model was Slingerland’s bestselling snare drum.
The solid maple shell featured reinforcement hoops and was fitted with nickel plated hardware, a three point strainer and extended brackets at both strainer and butt end, which the snare wire end plates themselves screwed directly into. All drums were fitted with a two pad muffler, with each pad washer stamped ‘Slingerland, Chicago ILL’. The felt colour was yellow, red or green. Around 1942 felt pad washers were eliminated and the felt colour became grey. The size of knurled adjustment knob became slightly larger too.
During 1940-42 The Super Radio King was introduced with ‘super lugs’ (referred to as ‘small beavertail’) replacing the cigar shaped lugs and the ‘super strainer’ was introduced (referred to as the clamshell strainer). This strainer was more delicate than the three point, and many don’t like it for that reason, although it remained on drums up until the early 1960’s.
Around 1955 the Sound King hardware was introduced with a more modern look and Slingerland stick saver hoops (which curved inwards) were fitted as standard. Radio king remained stamped in hoops until around 1956 and both the three point and clam shell strainer were offered.
In the early 1960’s solid shell snares became the artist model. By 1962 the clam shell throw was replaced by the zoomatic and between 1963 and 1966 the Radio King name reappeared on snares. By 1970 the artist model was 3 ply and the Radio King cob had been replaced by the Krupa sound king.
Artist models appeared over the years, such as the Ray McKinley model featuring a wooden hoop with pearl inlays and countersunk claws on the batter side, metal full flanged hoop snare side. The Buddy rich model featured a 3 point strainer and simple butt end and bottom hoop.
I’ve probably missed loads of information out, but you can read all this in more detail on the web.
Although most companies made solid shell drums in the 20’s and 30’s, most turned to plywood. Slingerland claimed in the 1950’s that they were the only company still manufacturing solid shell snare drums. “Each solid snare shell is hand turned for exact sizing to a perfect circle. It is the strongest and most durable shell made. Makes for easier playing, greater sensitivity of snares and easily controlled power and volume”.
Over the years, the Radio King Snare drum was offered in depths of 5,5.5,6,7 and 8. The Shell interiors are usually pretty rough, and separation/ splits in the reinforcement hoop are common. But these drums sound incredible. You can take a battered Radio King that cosmetically looks well past its time, place it on a snare stand and the magic happens. Most name players have one in their collection for studio work, and these drums provide the backbeat for many classic records in every genre.
In his book on Slingerland drums, Rob Cook states that collectors tend to refer to all solid shell Slingerland snare drums as Radio Kings and to not consider any drum a Radio King, unless it has a one piece as opposed to plied shell. What really distinguished the Radio King models from other Slingerland drums though, he states, were the Radio King Brackets, which drew the tension of the snare wires outward rather than upward. Rob says that the presence of these support brackets on both the strainer and butt plate is a better way to identify a Radio King, as this was part of the basis for the patent.