Have you ever heard a great drum sound on a classic recording and then become obsessed with that sound? Have you perhaps dreamed of owning a set of Gene Krupa Slingerlands, Buddy Rich Rogers, John Bonham Ludwigs, or Tony Williams Gretsch? To argue the issue of vintage vs. new might be an interesting exercise, but the bottom line is: Vintage drums are very cool and easy to love.
So if you've decided you just have to have some vintage drums, there are a few things you should know before shelling out a heap of money.
The vintage drum market is alive and well. In fact, it's perhaps too healthy, to the point that there are loads of fake vintage drums showing up on sites such as eBay, Craigslist and Kijiji. So it might be wise to stick with drums that you can actually see and touch.
Assuming the drums are genuine, give them a thorough visual inspection. How's the finish? Is it intact or will the drums need refinishing or recovering? Do the drums match? Are all the parts there? Are the parts genuine and original or have substitutions been made or parts improvised? How are the plated parts? Are they free from rust or is the plating worn away, pitted or peeling? Are there any extra holes? You can't expect a 50-60 year old set to look new, but they should at least look cared for, and anything substandard will affect the value and therefore the price.
You may want to evaluate the sound of the drums, but this is very subjective. More to the point is whether they can be easily tuned. That means you need to check the bearing edges for trueness and that they are free from cracks, dents and damage. Make sure the hoops are round and that there are no bends or other damage such as can happen when a drum is dropped (this applies to metal shells as well). Do modern heads sit on the shell and under the hoops properly? Can you tune the drums to where you want them or are there issues with the casings or tension rods?
Other areas require a more experienced eye, and still others look a lot worse than they are. Cracked or chipped pearl wraps can be fixed or replaced quite easily. Reinforcing rings and loose plies can be reglued. Water damage, on the other hand, can be a kiss of death.
As for price, there are some huge bargains available if you're willing to search them out. Otherwise, expect to pay what you'd pay for a new set of comparable quality (and perhaps significantly more).
And that’s about all you need to know. So get out there and start looking for that classic set you've been longing for all these years.