By the time George Way set up his own drum company in 1956 he already had a career’s worth of experience in the drum industry. In the mid-1950s American drum manufacturers were focused less on the sometimes over-engineered designs of the previous decades, and instead opted for increasingly streamlined, simple and efficient drums and hardware. George Way’s designs were perfect examples of this movement. The hyperbolic marketing copy in the Way catalogs stressed that these were quality drums, being described as “tailor-made” instruments made from the “finest obtainable” materials, featuring “workmanship of the highest order” by “men of many years experience in drum making” and with “the same care as a Rolls Royce.”
The George Way factory in Elkhart, Indiana began by issuing snare drums, and within a year or so produced a catalogue offering a wide selection of drum kits, parade drums, and drum accessories. Way included a variety of hardware manufacturers and brands, including his own “Waybest” accessories, as well as stands and pedals by the Camco Drum Accessories Company. Camco issued their own parts catalogs, which reciprocated in offering some “Waybest” items.
The drums had three-ply Jasper shells (with three-ply reinforcing rings) available in various “pearl” wraps and lacquer finishes (including both duco and wood tones such as “mahogany”). Wrapped and duco finished drums were painted white on the interiors, while the wood-toned drums were given a clear lacquer coating on the inside. The top-of-the-line Aristocrat drums had Way’s distinctive “Turret casing” lugs as well as tall chrome over brass “double edge – double flange” hoops. A secondary line of “Spartan” drums had the same shells and lugs, but with single flange hoops with clips.
The round protuberant “Turret” lugs were the most recognizable of Way’s designs. “The new ‘Turret’ casings,” according to Way catalogs, “are designed in the same circular form as the drum itself. This creates beauty and modern style in every line of the instrument.” Consistent with this design principle, the strainers also had round casings. With these distinctive features there was no confusing George Way drums for those of other manufacturers. The Turret lug design was one that would long outlast the Way company, but the early Way version had a propensity to crack when over-tensioned (a problem largely negated after some adjustments to the design by Camco in the 1960s).
Over the short duration of the Way company (1956-1961) there was continual refinement of the designs of the drum hardware. There were, for instance, a progression of five different versions of the Aristocrat strainer, three styles of Turret lugs on toms and bass drums, and two types of bass drum claws used.
The 1961 catalog announced additional developments. Drums now had 4-ply Jasper shells, and the “Spartan” line of drums were replaced by the “Tuxedo” line of center-lug drums. For this, Way designed new “streamlined” lug casings (which are commonly referred to as “Tuxedo lugs” even though “Tuxedo” referred to the drum line rather than to the lugs).
Despite the appearance of the 1961 catalog and its new offerings, things were about to change. Way lost control of his company, and the Camco Drum Accessories Company expanded into the drum-making business. The distinctive aesthetic of Way’s designs carried over into the Camco period largely intact. One notable change, however, was from George Way’s black “cloud” badge to Camco’s white one.
George Way Drums Inc. was a small business and didn’t have the manufacturing output of the other large American drum companies. Because of this, all George Way drums are relatively scarce, with some models and sizes (such as 14 inch floor toms and 20 inch bass drums) being quite rare. Snare drums show up in the market with some regularity (most often the 6-lug Studio models, or the occasional 8-lug Aristocrat). Full drum kits irregularly appear, nearly always in a 22/16/13 or 22/16/12 configuration, and more often than not in one of two versions of Black Diamond Pearl wrap. Hardware varies, but most often bass drums come with Walberg & Auge rail consolettes. More unusually, some kits have distinctive “Waybest” ratchet tom mounts, and yet others were ordered with virgin shells and had mounting hardware from other makers installed by the owners or their local drum shops. Tone controls were not standard on Way drums, but various brands are found on drums having been installed at the purchaser’s request.
It can be difficult to date George Way drums accurately as date stamps were not used at the factory. Drum kits often have transitional elements, with older and newer versions of hardware used simultaneously. Saying this, some Way drums have additional dates and information stamped in them, notably from George Hamilton’s Drum Shop in Detroit, Michigan (drums from his shop are recognized by a silver rectangular label underneath the Way badge). Hamilton seems to have date-stamped drums from his shop when they were sold (both in ink on the interior of the shell, as well as blind-stamped in the reinforcing rings), and included the new owner’s initials blind-stamped on either side of his drum shop stamp. He also stamped the drums when they came back for repair or additional work. While these stamps do not confirm when drums were made, they give considerable specificity at the point of retail.
Because of their scarcity, original production George Way drums are not as well known as their Camco descendants. Those who own and play them, however, know that these are excellent- sounding vintage drums, and an important part of drum history.