Wait, wait…before you begin reading, please take a look at the pictures that I have uploaded that go with this article.
Are you ready? Yes, those are all the drumsticks that I currently own and they represent only 1/3 of all the drumsticks I have owned in the 30 years that I have been playing drums. If you’re asking yourself, “Why does he have so many different sticks?”, the answer is that over the years I’ve played many different styles of music in worship ministry and some of those songs required different feels, effects, and sounds. Having sticks that are comprised of various shapes, sizes, and materials (I call them secondary sticks) can accomplish those sonic goals and are a must for your stick bag. But, choosing the right primary drumstick has at times seemed like a never ending journey for me. I liken this search to guitar players who are constantly trying to find the “perfect tone” by constantly switching out amplifiers, speaker cabinets, and effects pedals.
With that said, finding that perfect stick may take some try-out time and a little bit of money as the average pair of drumsticks costs between $8 and $10. Whatever you do don’t throw away the drumsticks that you’re not ultimately happy with. You may find a use for them down the road. I used to daydream that I could use those unwanted sticks as deadly bolts in my post-apocalyptic, handmade, rubber-band powered crossbow.
Let’s begin by talking about the anatomy of a drumstick. A drumstick has five body parts that include the following; tip, neck, shoulder, shaft, and butt. The tip is the designed striking area of the stick. Below that is the neck, which is where the stick begins to taper away from the tip to the apex of the shoulder. The shoulder is where the tapering ends and the uniform diameter of the shaft begins. The shaft then continues to the design grip area called the butt, which often has a heavily beveled end, squared end, or is rounded.
There are a few exceptions to this five body part rule, but most of them are design specifications of an endorsed drummer. For instance, a stick might have a very short tapered neck or a slight narrowing of the stick diameter at the fulcrum (we will talk about the fulcrum later) or a stick may be designed with a butt on both ends of the stick as in the case of the Morgan Rose (Sevendust) signature series made by Vater drumsticks (I would only recommend this stick if you are getting your cymbals for free like Morgan does).
The most important piece of anatomy I am concerned with is the size and shape of the stick tip. Tips have five primary shapes that include; acorn, barrel, oval, drop, and round. When choosing a stick, this piece of the sticks anatomy is very, very important. Wood tip size and shape has an effect on the tonal quality of ride cymbals and high hats. Tips also are made of nylon and are glued onto the end of the stick.Nylon tips are used in an effort to increase the longevity of the drumstick.
Most drumsticks seem to falter in their construction at the tip being is that this is the area that is physically impacted the most. I have not noticed any variable in the tonal quality of different nylon tip shapes. In general they all seem to sound the same to my ear. Another little known fact concerning wood tips, is that they compress overtime. That is if you can prevent them from chipping away first. I have noticed that with my primary drumsticks the ride cymbal has a different tonal quality when I use new drumsticks versus older drumsticks with compressed tips.
To test different wood tips, simply set up your ride cymbal on a stand away from other instruments and then alternately hit the same spot on the cymbal with tips that are of various sizes and shapes. If you don’t have any differing tips then just alternate the butt and the tip of the sticks you have. You will definitely hear what I’m talking about.
This piece of stick anatomy makes the most impact when ride cymbals and high hats are mic’ed. The average parishioner cannot audibly distinguish the tonal differences between the small round tip and a small oval tip. But, they may be able to audibly distinguish the difference between a small round tip and a large barrel shaped tip and will definitely be able to pick out the tonal ugliness of a tip that has been chipped down to something that looks like a dogs chew toy.
The next major consideration when choosing a primary drumstick is the shaft diameter and total stick length. You will notice that many drumsticks will have labels comprised of a letter and a number such as 2B, 5A, 7A, 5B. So, what’s with this drumstick alphanumeric labeling system anyway? At one time, it seems that there was a standard among drumstick manufacturers. The number represented a uniform diameter. Low numbers represented large diameters and as the numbers increased the diameter decrease. The letter was meant to represent the musical application. For instance, “B” represented “band” and “A”represented “orchestra”. Somewhere along the line of drumstick manufacturing history that all went out the window.
Each manufacturer still uses the alphanumeric labeling system for their regular product lines that follow a “general standard” of stick diameter. For instance, 7A labeled drumsticks tend to be thin and short as drumsticks go. But, that does not mean there is any uniformity of diameter or length between the manufacturers. For instance, the 7A drumstick produced by Vic Firth has a diameter of .540” at 151/2” long and the Pro Mark 7A has a diameter of .512” at 15 3/8” long. Why is this significant to you? Because a healthy human hand has the ability to differentiate thicknesses of as little as 15/1000 of an inch (.015”). Aside from that, you will notice drumsticks that are signature models and were designed for a specific endorsed drummer. Which then raises the possible question, “Is this Artist’s signature series drumstick really meant to be used or is it a joke (i.e. the above mentioned Morgan Rose signature stick)?”
The vast majority of drumsticks are made with wood. But, over the last several decades drumstick manufacturers have played around with all kinds of wood alternatives trying to find the next big innovation. I have seen everything from aluminum and graphite to carbon fiber and heavy-duty plastics. I’m ashamed to say that I even owned some.
The reality is there’s just no substitute for a good wood drumstick. The three major timbers used for drumstick manufacturing are Hickory, Oak, and Maple. My personal favorite is Maple. It’s lightweight and strong, but above all, it just breaks rather than allowing itself to be shredded into a toothpick before you’re forced to throw it away.
As a rule I never use materials that may shorten the life of my cymbals. This should apply to you as well, being as that the majority of worship drummers are using drum sets and cymbals that are owned by the church. If you are getting your cymbals for free, then play what you want!
A minor consideration when choosing a drumstick is the region of the fulcrum. One common misconception concerning the anatomy of the drumstick is that the fulcrum is a special and specific balance point that resides on the drumstick and is where some music store salesmen will claim is the best spot to initiate your grip. Don’t be fooled. The reality is that the fulcrum is not a specific place. It is part of the drummers grip, whether traditional or matched, and it is most effective when it’s placed in the rear 1/3 region on the shaft of the drumstick. That region may change location based on the length and weight of the drumstick. This video link by former Steve Miller drummer Gordy Knudtson is a great reference http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ojebJUf6-vA. I’m more concerned with the overall feel of the drumstick in my hand and the shape of the stick tip. Plus…I always thought that the fulcrum was something that got cut off of us at birth.
Anyhow, That’s all for now. Part two is coming soon with topics such as cross-stick sweet-spot, painted or stained, when to discard, and varieties. Watch that video until then.