A great drumstick is the perfect combination of balance, response, feel and sound properties. Each of these critical factors is a function of a stick’s design— and knowing a little about each of these components will help you determine which stick might be best for you and your situation.
The thickness of a drumstick’s shaft affects its overall weight, projection, and strength. A thinner stick plays faster and creates a lighter sound on drums and cymbals. A thicker stick will offer power and projection.
A musical style, in and of itself, will not always determine the thickness of a stick that professionals prefer. There are heavy-hitting jazz players that prefer thick sticks and heavy metal drummers who prefer thin sticks for their playability. If you are a heavy hitter (for whatever style of music that you play), choosing a thicker stick will usually result in increased longevity.
Here are two extreme examples in stick thickness. The diameters of the Vic Firth American JazzTM AJ5 is .490”, while the Mike Jackson CorpsmasterTM signature stick is .740”. The most popular drum set sticks typically fall in the .525”–.630” range, while marching sticks are generally between .675”–.740”.
There are many determining factors in how a stick “feels” in the hand. The length of a stick affects its leverage and the reach. When comparing two sticks with the same diameter and taper, a longer stick will feel “front heavy,” giving the player increased leverage and power. A short stick will feel like the weight is pushed back towards the hand.
These two sticks have exactly the same diameter (.540”), with a medium taper. The length of the 7A is 15 ½”, while the Extreme 8D is 16 ½”. While the designs are similar, the Extreme 8D will feel like a much more powerful stick, even though the thickness is the same.
Stick material is the key to its response and durability. Material also has a unique effect on the sound, flexibility, and lifespan.
MAPLE has a fine grain pattern, producing a light, fast playing stick with the greatest amount of flex. These sticks are perfect for the artist who is playing lighter types of music or prefers a larger diameter stick without as much weight. Many professional drummers love the thickness of a 5B in the hand, but want a stick that doesn’t feel as heavy, so they might choose a 5B maple. Same design and playability, with a lighter feel.
HICKORY has a fibrous grain pattern and is denser and more rigid than maple. A hickory stick produces less flex and is capable of withstanding a great deal of shock and stress, making it more durable. American hickory has a wide variety of commercial uses – from hardwood flooring to furniture – and is by far the most popular type of wood for crafting drumsticks.
In the Vic Firth catalog, 85% of all sticks are made from hickory. The most popular hickory stick (by a large margin) is the American ClassicTM 5A.
PERSIMMON is known for its density, durability and resistance to high impact. Sticks made from persimmon produce a full-bodied and slightly darker sound than other wood. Persimmon is in the same genus as ebony and is sometimes referred to as “white ebony”. Since it’s grown more for its fruit than as a commercial lumber product, persimmon sticks are usually only found in smaller run product genres, such as concert snare sticks.
OAK is a denser wood with a more rigid response than hickory. The natural hardness of oak produces clear, defined cymbal articulation from the tip and an incredible cross-stick tone. The downside of oak’s rigidity is the “shock” that is produced – and translated to the wrists and forearms – when playing rim shots. The most common oak used for producing drum sticks is Japanese Oak, found in Japan and eastern Asia.
CARBON FIBER sticks are quite possibly the most durable sticks ever, lasting significantly longer than traditional wood sticks. Made from an advanced aerospace-grade carbon fiber composite, Vic Firth’s TITANTM sticks are the first of their kind to emulate the feel of wood. The downside of carbon fiber products is the much higher price and the limited variety of models (Vic Firth only offers the 5B stick in carbon fiber).
Other types of materials are also used in manufacturing sticks, such as aluminum. These sticks may offer increased durability, but have a trade-off in the way the stick feels to the player.
Along with a stick’s length, taper also affects its feel and balance. The amount of taper and location of the shoulder (where the taper begins) determines whether the stick feels “front heavy”, “back heavy” or evenly balanced.
A LONG taper produces more flex and faster response. In the design of his “Big Band Stick,” Peter Erskine wanted an extremely long taper so it would play very fast off the cymbal, with the majority of the weight “in the hand” vs. at the tip. The downside to a long taper is the loss of power and durability if you are a heavy-hitter.
A SHORT taper increases the size of the neck of the stick, providing more power and durability. A short taper feels “front-end heavy.” Many heavy-hitting drummers like the extremely short taper of a stick like the 3A because they can feel the front-end power without necessarily moving to a large diameter stick.
A MEDIUM taper provides the best balance between the butt and the tip. The weight of a medium taper stick feels like it’s balanced between the hand and the tip.
5) TIP SHAPE
The tip shape and tip material are critical to the overall sound produced on drums and cymbals (being more pronounced on cymbals). Each tip shape and size adds different characteristics to the sound, depending on the amount of contact surface area and mass.
When deciding on the type of sound that you want from your cymbals and drums, it’s helpful to know that a large tip with a very large surface area will create a dark, rich sound, while a small tip with a very small surface area will produce a light sound with clear definition.
Of course, the weight and balance of the stick is also a contributing factor in the overall sound a stick produces. A long, front-heavy, large diameter stick with a small tip will most certainly produce a darker sound than a short stick with a long taper and large bead.
6) TIP MATERIAL
Each material produces a different sound color and varying degrees of articulation.
WOOD tips are the most common tip material, producing a balance between full sounds and great articulation on drums and cymbals. The density and hardness of a wood will also factor into the sound color produced by a stick. For instance, a soft wood such as maple will produce a darker tone when compared to a hard wood such as oak.
NYLON tips produce a brighter sound and provide increased durability. Drummers who want the clearest possible articulation and brightest tone will often choose nylon tipped sticks over wood.
DUAL-TONE or SWIZZLE sticks offer a standard stick tip on one end, with a felt ball on the butt end. This provides the player with the ability to quickly switch to a soft mallet for cymbal rolls or warm tom sounds.
7) SURFACE COATING
The final coating applied to a stick may also affect how it feels in your hand. Note that not all hands are the same! Individual differences in perspiration will affect the way each player perceives “tackiness”.
LACQUER-LESS sticks are finished off with a “dry-tumble” technique that creates a very smooth, natural and organic feel without the use of a lacquer finish. Sometimes called “unfinished” for the absence of lacquer, these sticks will often absorb the perspiration from a player’s hands and change the feel as the stick ages. Again, some drummers may perceive this as making the stick “slippery”, or more tacky –depending on the player’s unique characteristics.
LACQUER gives the player a very natural stick feel. A few sticks, have heavy lacquer applied, which increases the tackiness. Because a player’s perspiration will not penetrate lacquered wood as easily as un-lacquered wood, the relative tackiness will not change as much
PAINTED sticks have a medium amount of tackiness to the feel, which is similar to regular lacquer. Depending on the way that the player’s perspiration absorbs into the paint, a stick may either feel more tacky or more slippery as they play.
GRIP is an anti-slip coating applied to the gripping area of the stick, providing the most slip resistant grip.
8) OTHER UNIQUE QUALITIES
Because individual tastes vary from player to player, many sticks offer unique properties that set them apart from the others. The sticks in this category may include special design properties such as contoured grips, special paint options, specialty tips (felt, metal, dual), “Kinetic Force” inserts, unique tapers or enlarged shoulders.
Once upon a time, manufacturers often classified sticks into musical categories. “A” model sticks were for orchestra, “B” stood for “band applications”, “S” for “street” or marching band, plus others. Today, a stick with a letter designation has little to do with its size, design or application – and will vary widely from manufacturer to manufacturer. There is no “perfect stick” for every drummer because we all have differing musical tastes and playing styles.
The best way to select the perfect pair for YOU is to experiment until you find a great fit for you!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
As Vic Firth’s Director of Internet Activities, Mark Wessels has an extensive background in many genres of percussion performance and education. Plucked from the education field in the Texas public school system over 15 years ago, Mark was the first full time “website developer” in the percussion industry. Starting from a non-existent web presence for Vic Firth in early 2000, he forged a unique path for the industry, marrying engaging the entertainment and educational content.
Mark is also one of the world’s top method book authors. With over 300,000 books in print, “A Fresh Approach” to Snare Drum, Mallet Percussion & Drum Set are among the world’s most popular percussion methods.