First Note at Brilliant Strings

Swan Percussion in Wimberley designs innovative quality instruments

The Black Swan, a drum designed and built by Eric Holland and Mike Meadows, is a manifestation of the power of thinking outside the box, of being able to re-imagine. The drum’s name is inspired by Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Taleb explains in his book that people tend to think of white when they think of the word swan; the black swan is a reminder that there are always new ways to perceive.

Swan Percussion, based in Wimberley, began when Eric, a builder and designer, and Mike, a percussionist, fortuitously met. Eric grew up in New Jersey and earned a degree in landscape architecture from Rutgers. In 1994, he hopped on his motorcycle, open to whatever road lay before him.

The road took him to Austin. “I was fully loaded for any eventuality,” Eric says. “Family lived in Austin, and it was perfect for me: this odd liberal enclave with great music and great people.”

Mike Meadows and Eric Holland

When he discovered Wimberley, he found it was an even better match. Eric built a career based on mastering one skill after another, from framing and cabinet-making to design and architecture. One of Eric’s clients, a musician, invited Eric to a show. “When I went to hear the band, I was pleasantly surprised. The percussionist was just out of sight,” says Eric.

That percussionist was Mike Meadows. Mike has immersed himself in music since before he could talk. Drums were his holy grail, but with his parents’ encouragement to try other outlets, he began piano lessons at three, made it into the Atlanta Boy Choir at five, and took up trumpet at nine. When the part of the Little Drummer Boy in the Choir’s Christmas performance became available, he convinced his parents it was time for him to learn the drums.

Later, Mike took advantage of the diverse Atlanta musical culture and sought the most skilled teachers. He attended the Berklee College of Music in Boston, branching out from drums to hand percussion after breaking his foot. His interest in African musical tradition took him to Ghana to study the percussion of the many ethnic groups there.

Eric Holland in the wood shop

The subway stations of Boston also became a significant space for his musical experimentation and innovation. Mike and his bandmate played during morning commute hours. Because drums weren’t allowed in the stations, he had to find new ways of making music that sounded like drums. “I started combining different percussion elements. That’s also when I first learned about the cajon,” says Mike. A classmate of his from Peru, where the Cajon originated, built him one to use in the subway.

The band moved its home base to Austin in 2003, lured by the sunny, warm weather. When Eric saw Mike playing in 2008, his own interest in drums led him to ask Mike if he had any ideas for percussion instruments. He had plenty. “We met on my porch in Wimberley, and Mike showed me a gombe drum he’d brought from Ghana,” explains Eric. “I wanted to use that type of drum in a different context, with songwriters and pop and blues,” Mike adds.

Eric Holland sands Black Swan drum

Swan Percussion began with a simple goal: to build one instrument for Mike. That instrument, the Black Swan, would creatively combine everything Mike loved about the African gombe and Eric’s design expertise. The building proved challenging, but Mike maintained a cool confidence that Eric would figure it out. Once he did, they got a patent not only for the instrument but also for Mike’s technique of playing it.

“When I heard it on stage, I knew we had succeeded,” Eric says. “The response we got from the Black Swan when we took it to the drum world was pretty exceptional. We got whisked right to the top in terms of interest and connections.”

While the original plan was just to make this one instrument, one thing led to another. “I have an endless stream of ideas,” explains Mike. Inspired by the percussion of many cultures, he is always conceiving ways to improve and reinvent traditional instruments. Swan has modified the traditional cajon and used scrap wood to make shakers with unique textures and tones.

Black Swan drum

The Black Swan drum is designed with so many details in mind. For instance, it meets weight restrictions for flights, making it easy for musicians to travel with. “Everything we do must be innovative, versatile, and of the highest quality,” Eric and Mike agree. “It’s been a huge moral and ethical success. The Swan brand is recognized worldwide. There are Black Swans on nearly every continent,” says Eric.

Eric and Mike appreciate the enthusiastic response to their products and the respect they’ve earned in the industry but refuse to outsource in order to grow more rapidly. Everything they make comes out of the Swan shop in Wimberley. “Growth is less important to us than doing what we do locally, creating really wonderful tools for drummers and percussionists to use,” says Mike.

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