Vintage drums back in action at NPCC

Kim Koch drums
Wednesday, October 20, 2021

A North Platte Community College relic is back and looking better than ever.

NPCC alum Kim Koch recently restored a Ludwig Vistalite drum set that had been sitting in storage at the college for decades. Koch visited the college Tuesday to set up the drums and give music students a history lesson about them.

“They’re about 50-years-old,” Koch said. “Just like with any collectible, there are little quirks to them, and a lot of care has to be taken when handling them.”

The drums are a second-generation Big Beat Outfit – one of the most popular of the Vistalite kits Ludwig produced. They consist of a 14-inch by 22-inch base, 8-inch by 12-inch ride tom, 9-inch by 13-inch ride tom, 16-inch by 16-inch floor tom and 14-inch by 5-inch 10 lug snare.

“In 1973, the Big Beat Outfit sold for $795, and the matching snare drum was $121,” Koch said. “These days, an original kit like NPCC has will go for $3,500-$4,000 just for the drums.” 

Koch’s history with the college

Koch attended NPCC before the drums were purchased. He took classes from 1970-72, back when it was known as North Platte Junior College and based out of the current Prairie Arts Center in North Platte.

“They didn’t have a music department at that time, but they had a Knights and Ladies music group that would travel around to local schools performing and promoting the college,” Koch said. “Robert Rouch was the choir director. We had a four-piece accompaniment that consisted of piano, drums, acoustic guitar and bass guitar that backed up the singers.”

Koch played the drums, fueling an interest that would continue for the rest of his life.

Shortly after Koch graduated, the college bought the Vistalites. The exact date isn’t known as purchase records from the era no longer exist. Judging from a stamp on the set, it was purchased from Murphy’s Modern Music in North Platte.

About the drums

According to World Collectors Net, the Ludwig Drum Company launched the Vistalite line in 1972 with six transparent colors: clear, blue, red, yellow, green and the amber version that NPCC has. The shells were created by the Cadillac Motors plastics division, and the drums were produced at the main Ludwig factory in Chicago.

Their transparency visually enhanced the importance of the drummer and also played into the special-effects lighting and dry-ice fog frequently incorporated by rock bands of the time. The name Vistalite became known throughout the music world – thanks in part to their use by John “Bonzo” Bonham, the drummer for Led Zeppelin.

Breathing new life into a classic 

NPCC’s Vistalites had been collecting dust for years before they were brought to Koch’s attention. He learned about them from Bob Josjor, of Yanda’s Music and Pro Audio Mobile Music Store in Ogallala, a music equipment supplier for the college, who sent him a picture of the set.

“Bob messaged me on Facebook and said, ‘Look what I found at the college,’ because he thought I might be interested,” Koch said. “He was right.”

Koch had a connection to NPCC’s music department through his friendship with adjunct instructor Jennifer Winder, so he reached out to her to see if the drums were being used.

“She said they had been in storage because they were missing parts and unplayable, so I asked if the college would consider having them restored,” Koch said. “I’m retired and do drum restoration as a hobby. I had worked on a similar set of my own, so was familiar with the fragility of the instruments.”

The acrylic shells have a tendency to shatter like a china tea pot if dropped, but when Koch got his first look at the set, he was surprised at the condition.

“I told the music instructor she should feel very lucky,” Koch said. “Those drums were constructed sometime between 1972 and ’75 and, normally, when you find drums of that age, the weld seams on the shells are prone to spider cracking and chipping. I didn’t find any cracking whatsoever – on the mounting points or anything. They had a few scrapes here and there, but nothing that couldn’t be polished up.”

With college approval, Koch began the long and tedious process of repairing the Vistalites. The project took him approximately 41 hours.

“I reduced them to bare shells, replaced missing hardware, applied a special acrylic plastic cleaner to take all the oxidation and grit off the shells then hand polished all the chrome,” said Koch.

One of the base drum hoops had a bad crack in it that had to be fixed and repainted with a lacquer coating, a missing leg was added and new heads were put on all the drums. After the cleaning and repair was done, Koch pieced everything back together and tuned the set up.

“I was able to bring the drums back to almost new, off the showroom condition,” Koch said.

He put together a report of the restoration process, which he gave to the college when he returned the drums. Koch also donated two drum pedals and a drum throne to use with the set.

“I wanted to do this for the college,” Koch said of why he took on the project in the first place. “I couldn’t stand to see the condition the drums were in because I knew exactly what they were and what they were worth. It was like fixing up a car. I wanted to put them back on the road again. Maybe younger drummers will look at them now and go, ‘Those are really neat. I’m glad someone took care of them and brought them back to life’. That’s fulfilment for me.”

The public will get its first look at the newly revamped Vistalites during the Best of the West Music Festival Oct. 25 at the college. They will be part of the 6 p.m. concert in the McDonald-Belton Theater.