Vistalite was the name of the acrylic drum line produced by Ludwig. Although now synonomous with acrylic drums, Ludwig Vistalites were not the first and, some would argue, not the best acrylic drums produced.
Acrylic drums were first produced by Bill Zickos from Kansas in 1959 with commercial production beginning a decade later. (Ron Bushy from the heavy metal group Iron Butterfuly was the first Zickos endorsee in 1969.) In the early 1970's the Fibes drum company took plastic percussion to a wider audience with both Bill Cobham (Mahavishinu Orchestra) and Nick Mason (Pink Floyd) playing clear acrylic kits from Fibes. Legend has it that Ginger Baker (Cream) made an acrylic kit himself by heating sheets of plastic over his stove.
The drums themselves are made from acrylic sheets that were heated and shaped for form cylinders. The seams were glued with acrylic resin and the shells were then finished and fitted in a similar manner to wooden ones.
Ludwig launch Vistalite
The Ludwig Drum Company lanuched the Vistalite line in 1972, too late to make it into the 1973 Ludwig Percussion catalogue. (The original brochure can be seen in the catalogues section of this site.) At launch, six colours were available.
The drums were produced at the main Ludwig factory in Chichago though the shells were actually produced by Cadillac Motors plastics division. One of the earliest adverts for the line quoted the name "Stratosphere Drums" though this tag soon disappeared (should it ever have been made public?). John Bonham began playing Vistalites in 1973 and the name Vistalite became known throughout the drumming world.
Changes over the years
The following table should help you date your Vistalites..
1972 (launch) The launch drums were available in clear, blue, red, amber, yellow and green. The early shells were formed with a v-shaped gap on the outside of the shell and filled with clear acrylic resin. The effect of the resin is to make the colour appear to fade at the seam on the coloured shells.
On double headed toms the seams were normally positioned at the rear of the toms, the badge positioned to face the audience and the tone control (mounted with a single screw and nylon washer) towards the drummer. Concert toms had the seam positioned under the clip mount, though the badges were still positioned to face the audience. Therefore with both concert and double-headed toms, there was a clear definition of left and right-mounting.
As with other Ludwig kits, concert toms and the 12 inch double-headed toms were fitted with the small classic lugs.
The very earliest kits suffered from a mild 'crazing' of the shells. This was the result of the acrylic sheets being removed from the oven before reaching the required temparature. Production methods were changed within a couple of months of launch and the problems disappeared.
1975 This year saw the first major changes to the Vistalite line. Most significantly was the introduction of the Rainbow Vistalite shells in six patterns (see below). Along with the Rainbow shells, the seam 'V' was now positioned on the inside of the shell and the acrylic resin was not worked to a smooth finish. The tone control was now fitted with a nylon sleeve and a 3-hole re-enforcing plate was also added to the assembly. The positioning of the seam became consistent across all double headed drums - by the lugs behind the tom mount. In terms of colours, solid white and black were added to the line.
The badge and tone control were now mounted together, opposite the tom mount - creating bi-directional toms (though the position of the seam on Vistalites still implied left and right-side drums).
Late 1977 With sales of fewer than 50 kits, green was dropped from the Vistalite colour options. Smoke (a sort of see-through grey) was added. The hardware was improved with 12 inch toms now being equipped with large lugs and bass drums being fitted with the thicker half inch spurs.
1978 Ludwig launched their "power" drums in 1978 and a few extra deep Vistalites were produced. Power bass drums were fitted with two pairs of spurs (one front, one rear - natch).
1978 also saw the launch of the Tivoli kits (see 1980 catalogue in the catalogues section). Based on a 3-band (pattern A) shell, the Tivoli kits had tiny lights mounted along the two horizontal seams. The lights were powered by a single mains power unit. Five piece kits were available with 22 or 24 bass drums. The electronics were problematic with both bulbs and power supplies suffering from a high failure rate. Ludwig lost heavily on the Tivoli line and a fully working Tivoli kit is now one of the most valuable Vistalites on the second-hand market.
Late 1979 Just before production ceased in 1979 Ludwig changed their badges to have rounded corners and the seam was positioned behind the tom mount on double headed toms (it was always there on the concert toms).
Chrome over Vistalite
Ludwig produced a number of kits with solid white Vitstalite shells wrapped in Chrome. This option was already available with wooden shelled kits and the steel shelled drums were also selling well at this point. However, instead of this option being launched to capitalise on the unique sound of the acrylic shells, the 'Chome over Vistalite' kits were simply the result of an administrative error which resulted in a triple order of white shells being placed. The solid white (and black) kits weren't selling well and Ludwig had a pile of shells to get rid of. They were wrapped in chrome and sold to anybody strong enough to lift them!
Launched in 1975, the Rainbow Vistalites were a Ludwig innovation and took the world of plastic percussion by storm. Six patterns were originally available, though this was reduced to four (A, B, C & F) by the time the 1980 catalogue was produced in 1978.