In the Clear

The Past, Present & Future of Acrylic Drums

By Jim DeRogatis

Mr. McGuire (Walter Brooke): I just want to say one word to you—just one word.

Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman): Yes, sir?

Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?

Ben: Yes, I am.

Mr. McGuire: “Plastics!”

Ben: Exactly how do you mean?

Mr. McGuire: There’s a great future in plastics!

—from the 1967 film, The Graduate

Since its first widespread use in 1951 via everything from the ubiquitous Tupperware to the sublime Eames chair, “plastic” has been synonymous with “the future.” So while drums have always been the most traditional of instruments—a Neanderthal banging on a hollow log was probably the first drummer—it was inevitable that someone would eventually build a “better” drum by turning from wood to synthetics.

Bill Zickos is generally acknowledged as the father of clear plastic drums. The founder of the Kansas City-based Zickos Drum Company built the first Plexiglass drums in 1959, though he didn’t formally start production until a decade later. In the early ’70s, Fibes’ Crystalite sets were the first acrylic drums to win significant popularity among rock players. But it was Ludwig that built the most famous clear drums ever, thanks largely to a one-of-a-kind drummer, John Bonham, who used an amber Vistalite set in the 1976 Led Zeppelin concert film, The Song Remains the Same.

Though many other manufacturers briefly hopped on the acrylic bandwagon (and just as quickly leaped off), these three American companies remained the biggest names in the field until the late ’70s, when a number of unique problems combined to halt production. Now, after years when they were viewed as an historic novelty, acrylic drums are experiencing a renaissance. There’s a booming market in vintage kits, as well as a thriving niche for new sets manufactured by a revitalized Zickos and Fibes. And last year, Ludwig made headlines by offering a new Vistalite set for the first time in 21 years.

Are drummers experiencing a strange nostalgia for a now-outdated vision of the future—something akin to the craze for space age bachelor pad music or retro furniture that looks like The Jetsons? Or are acrylic drums really a viable alternative to wood? Most drummers agree that they look cool, but what do they sound like? And how do you tune, clean, and care for them?

We’ll look at all of these questions in turn, starting with acrylic drums’ origins.


A former big band drummer and veteran tinkerer, Bill Zickos was searching for a better sound rather than a unique look when he made his first prototype drums from Plexiglass (a particular brand of clear plastic; “acrylic” is the generic name for the material). He followed the same method everyone used, and which still prevails today. The plastic is cut from huge sheets; heated (most manufacturers use pizza ovens, though Cream’s Ginger Baker is rumored to have made a set from Perspex warmed on the kitchen stove); shaped; bonded at the seams with adhesive, and finished by hand.

It took a decade of on-again, off-again experiments for Zickos to perfect a drum with a strong, clean, and consistent tone, as well as a “dry” but cutting sound free from distracting overtones. But there was one problem: When he tested his see-through drums on small jazz combo gigs, the volume blew his fellow musicians off the bandstand. Thankfully, musical styles were changing. “We didn’t originally go after the rock drum market, but Bill found that the drums projected a lot better and had a lot more resonance and life than most other drums, and that was perfect for rock ’n’ roll,” says Zickos’ son-in-law, John Brazelton.

In 1969, Zickos sold its first professional kit to Ron Bushy, the drummer with heavy-metal pioneers Iron Butterfly. Every night, as Bushy performed the epic drum solo from “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida,” his clear Zickos set reflected a rainbow of different colors from the stage lights, and musicians couldn’t help but take notice. Suddenly, drummers could be seen through the instrument that had formerly hidden 80 percent of their bodies. By the early ’70s, Zickos was selling more than 1,000 Plexiglass kits a year, but competitors soon emerged.

Drummer Bob Grauso and plastics specialist John Morena formed their company in upstate New York in 1966, combining the words “vibes” and “Fiberglass” (the material they favored) to come up with the name Fibes. C.F. Martin Guitars bought the firm in 1970, and things really took off; among the more notable Crystalite players were Alan Dawson, Billy Cobham (who can be seen with a double-bass set on the Mahavishnu Orchestra’s Spectrum album), and the great Buddy Rich, who endorsed other brands but favored a Fibes SFT snare.

Then America’s biggest drum manufacturer burst onto the scene. Ludwig didn’t invent plastic drums, and many aficionados say the company didn’t do them best. But “Vistalite” became synonymous with “clear drums” the way the brand name “Kleenex” has come to mean “tissues.”

Ludwig’s primary innovation was cosmetic. When Vistalites debuted in late 1972, they were available in clear as well as five colors: in order of popularity, blue, amber, red, yellow, and green. (White, black, and an opaque “smoke” were added later when green was dropped.) The drums were striking in appearance—the next step in flash and pizzazz after the sparkling psychedelic sets of the mid-’60s—but Ludwig kept upping the ante. In 1975, it introduced multi-colored Rainbow Vistalites (drummers could choose up to three colors alternating in one of six striped patterns), and in 1978 came a set with built-in Tivoli lights similar to those on Christmas trees.

Some of the most famous drummers in the world endorsed Ludwig, and players such as Keith Moon, Max Roach, Carl Palmer, Nick Mason of Pink Floyd, Karen Carpenter, and Johnny Jackson of the Jackson Five could all be seen with Vistalite kits at various points in the ’70s. But no one did more to popularize them than Bonham, who switched from a maple Big Beat set to Vistalites for Zeppelin’s tours in 1973 and ’75.

Bonham played an amber kit in 14 x 26, 10 x 14, 16 x 16, and 16 x 18 (he usually stuck with an alloy snare). “I remember those Vistalites with special affection,” Zep bassist John Paul Jones says, though he underscores the oft-stated observation that it wasn’t a particular instrument that gave Bonham his massive sound. “I saw Bonzo playing a tiny Ludwig kit that he had made for Jason when he was about 5 years old, and you still had to stand well back. Even the cases would sound good in his hands!”

Nevertheless, the association with one of rock’s most powerful drummers sold many of the tens of thousands of Vistalite sets that Ludwig made in the ’70s. But the drums also had their critics. Among the charges leveled at Ludwig were that Vistalites were fragile and could shatter if dropped on a seam; that they were often out of round, and that the bearing edges were uneven. Given the sheer number of sets produced, it was inevitable that a few “lemons” would find their way to the market. But that’s all it takes to taint a product’s reputation—just ask Ford about the Pinto of the same era—and Zickos and Fibes complain that Vistalites gave acrylic drums a bad name.

The other problem that contributed to acrylic’s decline was global in scale. A key ingredient in plastic is petroleum. In 1972, the price of crude oil was about $3 a barrel; by the end of ’74, it had quadrupled to $12 as a result of the Arab oil embargo employed after the Yom Kippur War. The impact to consumers was considerable.

As quickly as acrylic drums had boomed, the market disappeared. Bill Zickos left the company he founded in 1971 after a dispute with investors, and it closed in the mid-’70s. Martin sold Fibes in 1979, and the new owners, the Corder Drum Company, stopped making Crystalites. Ludwig ceased production of Vistalites that same year. Plastic drums went from clear to invisible almost overnight.


In recent years, interest in vintage drums has exploded. Granted, when most players use the term, they’re thinking about something like a fabled Radio King snare from the ’40s. But many rockers in their late 20s and early 30’s first gravitated toward the instrument while watching their heroes perform on see-through drums, so it’s only natural that they’d think fondly of these sets.

Lovingly restored vintage acrylic kits are now a common sight onstage and in the studio among players in underground genres such as stoner-rock (Brant Bjork of Fu Manchu swears by his mid-’70s Vistalites), post-rock (John McEntire of Tortoise bought an amber set in homage to Bonham), and alternative or punk (Weezer drummer Pat Wilson played blue Vistalites on a recent tour, and George Berz played a clear kit backing Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis).

I scored my own mid-’70s amber Vistalites in the spring of 2001 for $750; a matching 5 ½ x 14 snare set me back another $365. (I justified the expense to my wife by selling my 10-year-old cherry wood Recording Customs—a sweet set, but I haven’t missed them once.) I found my Vistas via the online auction site eBay, though I knew I was buying from reputable dealers; established shops such as Atlanta’s Vintage Drums or Iowa’s Vintage Drum Center can also help find whole acrylic sets or individual pieces.

My five-piece set was conventionally sized; an amber set in the Bonham configuration is the most sought-after item on the collector’s market, along with green Vistalites and special-order Rainbow sets in Bicentennial red, white, and blue or the colors of the African flag (which was popular among reggae drummers). These rarer kits can sell for upwards of $2,000, sans snare or hardware.

The popularity of vintage acrylics has inspired the original manufacturers to return to the business. Bill Zickos and John Brazelton reopened their company in 1993, and a revitalized Fibes was launched by Austin, Texas drum shop owner Tommy Robertson in 1994. Both companies now make an array of high-quality clear drums to order in a variety of colors. Ludwig also reintroduced Vistalites last year, though in a limited capacity—a clear five-piece set is the only option in what the company’s Jim Catalano calls an experiment to test demand. “I’m on the Net all the time, and all I ever hear is, ‘If Ludwig only brought back the Vistalites, you guys would make a killing,’” he says. “If the clear takes off and we get enough interest in the amber and the blue, then we’ll start doing things like that.”

A new acrylic kit from any of these manufacturers can cost in the neighborhood of $3,000—a steep tag that reflects the price of materials and manufacturing. Given that many people associate “plastic” with “machine-made,” it’s ironic that acrylic drums actually require more craftsmanship than wood drums. “It’s different and more involved,” says Fibes’ Robertson, who personally makes both types of shells by hand. “It’s a heavy investment, and it’s always going to remain a niche market. There are specific drummers who will buy and play an acrylic set—I have not met a person who didn’t love the way they sound—but some others will always go, ‘I just can’t see myself sitting behind those drums.’”

Of course, that unique look is part of the appeal, along with the distinctive sound. Since new acrylic drums reflect all of the improvements in manufacturing over the last 30 years—from better lugs and rims to higher-quality plastic shells—the classic, booming sound is stronger than ever. Looking to replace a rose-colored Fibes set that was stolen shortly before he joined Rainbow in 1980, Bobby Rondinelli recently purchased a new blue Crystalite kit to use with Blue Öyster Cult.

“Everybody that hears my kit, they freak out,” Rondinelli says. “I can’t say enough good things about these drums. I think the more people that get exposed to them, you’re gonna see more guys using them again, and I think this time they’ll stay for a while. I’m pretty much a purist—I love old stuff, and I’m a vintage snare snob—but good is good, and if something sounds better and plays nicer and is easier to tune and is more consistent, I’m not stupid. I can use any drums I want. I was using GMS, and everybody goes, ‘How could you go from GMS to Fibes?’ And I say, ‘Just listen to them.’”

King Coffee of psychedelic rockers the Butthole Surfers first played a Zickos drum in the mid-’80s, when he performed standing up with a snare and an 18-inch bass as a floor tom. “I discovered that if you put a really cheap Radio Shack strobe light underneath a clear drum, it just lights up like a light bulb,” he says. “We were really into stage theatrics, but we were also really low-rent as far as production, and for $20, that just looked incredible.”

Now Coffee is playing a new clear Crystalite set. “I think they’re better quality than the Vistalites,” he says. “They have a louder sound—there’s something about the acrylic that just resonates all over, and if you hit hard, they sound extra booming—plus I appreciate the whole ma-and-pa setup of Fibes. With the film projections we use now, clear is great because you can see the images through the drum set, and any lights you put through them just make them glow.”

Despite their reputation for fragility, acrylic drums don’t need to be treated any differently than a quality wood set. “Protect your instrument; use cases and common sense,” Robertson urges. “You’re not gonna break the drums from playing them. It’s the cartage—the handling—and that doesn’t matter if they’re acrylic or wood or anything.”

Clear drums do tend to show fingerprints; for cleaning, Robertson recommends a soft cotton cloth and Trick drum cleaner or Johnson Wax’s Clean & Shine. My vintage Vistas came marred by a few minor scratches and one nastier gouge that I added while replacing a dented badge. Many auto supply stores carry a line of plastic polish called Novus 1-2-3, which performs miracles in buffing out nicks and making acrylic sparkle. (This is one of several useful tips I learned from Vista enthusiasts on the Net; a quick Web search will turn up a bounty of sites devoted to the drums’ history and care.)

Wary of the volume and assuming they’d be unduly “boomy,” I initially outfitted my kit with Remo Pinstripes, though I soon learned from fellow acrylic drummers that I should have gone in the opposite direction, and the sets sound best with thinner heads.

“Acrylic drums are everything you’d think they wouldn’t be,” Rondinelli says. “They’re less ringy, more focused, real present, and quick. There are not a whole lot of harmonics you’re dealing with, and the volume’s all up in the drum. It’s not like you really have to hit them super-hard, because you’ll have a lot of ambient volume onstage anyway. If your guitarist has an amp that goes to 11, well, now you can hold your own.”

At the end of The Graduate, Benjamin Braddock opted for true love rather than a future in plastics, but then he didn’t play drums in a rock band. If he did, he could have had both at the same time.

— Modern Drummer, March, 2002