Analysing drumsticks, the tools of the trade
For drummers, our sticks are an extension of ourselves. If the kit is the canvas, the stick the brush that fluidly creates and express our art. They are an important part of a drummer’s sound and personality and can both grow with us or be unchanged since our humble beginnings. Our choice in sticks can be a mark of who inspires us and who we aspire to be – and they can also just look pretty cool.
1. Drumstick Size And Weight
The size and weight of a stick can both hinder and aid a drummer’s sound and ability. At the age of 11, upon completing my first ever drum lesson, a whopping fifteen minutes that ended up changing my life forever, I was able to convince my mum to buy me a pair of sticks – after it was made abundantly clear the drum kit would have to wait. My teacher said to get the “average sized” stick – a 5B.
For a small 11-year-old this stick was big, burly and heavy. I still have it, which shows how much impact each hit had on the drums. I struggled for a long time before experimenting with sticks more suited to my requirements.
Take John Bonham, for example. He used a smaller stick than my 5B and his sound was as big as the legacy Led Zeppelin left behind. Bonzo created that sound with technique – he knew it wasn’t about how hard you hit the drum, but how you hit the drum. His stick was a part of that big sound, though it was a modest size and weight.
The drummer Brian Blade has unequalled ability on the drum set, playing with as much sensitivity as power, and delivering great speed with dexterity at low volumes. He does this with a larger stick than the aforementioned John Bonham, but he also knows it is about technique and moves gracefully with a weightier stick.
There is another important factor too: comfort. To be conscious of the stick in your hand is a hindrance. And with every stroke, sound and movement you want all the elements to be working with one another, not against.
2. Sticks For Practise
When it comes to practice away from the drum kit, I always use a much heavier stick. This is a good way to further build up the muscle groups we use. If you have ever witnessed a Drumline performance, popular in the United States, you may have noticed a much larger stick than that usually used on a drum set. These drummers require a great deal of technique to perform their complex routines. As well as many hours of practice day in, day out, it also requires a great deal of athleticism.
The muscle groups a drummer relies on most are smaller than say a bicep or triceps, but they require development all the same. Therefore, when it comes to technical practice, a larger stick can be an important tool – much like a cross-country runner training with a weighted rucksack.
3. Environment and Style
Another factor that can influence the player’s stick is their playing environment or style. I use a smaller stick when I play jazz as it aids my performance and suits the size of rooms, I tend to play that style in. Whether it is due to sound reflecting, or a need for the overall sound to be very low, it is easier for me to achieve this with a lighter stick.
When I play larger venues, such as stadiums with capacities of 7,000 people upwards, I still use a relatively light stick. This is because a heavier stick will force me to drive the stick into the head and choke it, reducing the drums resonance. A sound engineer will have to compensate for this so it’s important for me to have a controlled sound on stage allowing the engineer to have maximum control out front and an overall natural drum sound.
On the other hand, I know drummers that play heavier genres of music that require maximum volume and energy from the player. This is achieved with very heavy sticks with the butt often being used to hit the drumhead. The energy of the music comes largely from the musicians and their performance so it’s important to use the energy correctly – a big stick with a big throw gives the desired effect.
4. Drumstick Durability
When it comes to a stick’s durability, the size of the stick can often be a factor in stick sturdiness, however, this is not wholly the case. The biggest contributing factor to a stick breaking is a player’s technique. To grip a stick too hard at the point of impact won’t allow the shock waves to disperse through the stick during its natural rebound, or through the head itself.
That causes the stick to split, regardless of the size. Giving the stick a little freedom of movement within the hand will both impact your sound and stick’s life.
5. Drumstick Anatomy
Finally, as well as a stick’s general weight, how do we choose between the many varying aesthetics of a stick? We see many variations in the shape of a stick’s tip along with the width of the shoulder and a slight varying length.
Most of these qualities attribute to the points made above, but these nuances can be a contributing factor in your choice. Below is a brief breakdown of the main variables, which are also covered in a previous article on the Dawsons blog.
- Tear Drop – shaped like its name and a common choice among drummers. It’s main point of contact is close to the main body of the stick bringing out slightly lower tones in the drums and cymbals.
- Barrel Tip – again, shaped like its name with a fat sound due to the amount of surface area that makes contact with the drums and cymbals.
- Round Tip – less surface makes contact with it being perfectly round so the sound is brighter and higher in pitch. Often attributed to a more defined sound.
- Oval Tip – another common tip choice, this gives a nice full sound and is popular in marching sticks.
- Nylon Tip – an important tip due to the significant difference it has in sound against the above choices. There are often chosen for their durability, but also carry a very distinct bright sound and rebound with more bounce. These are same reasons why they are not for everyone.
The taper of the shoulder changes with each stick. This can be tapered greatly meeting the stick’s tip with a small circumference or the opposite. The difference here is in the amount of rebound you will get from the stick. With less of a tapered shoulder there is a reduced bounce and the opposite when playing with more of a tapered shoulder. The latter can also give less durability.
- Hickory – The most common wood due to it flexing more than other woods, which helps to prevent breakage. It absorbs a lot of the shock and is a dense wood, adding to its durability.
- Maple – This is a lighter wood than hickory therefore not as durable, but much more suitable for a lighter style of playing and for percussion ensembles.
- Aluminium – Popular not only because of their look, but also because of their durability due to a surprising ability to flex. They absorb a great deal of the shock upon contact but can also contribute to cymbals cracking if you play with no regard for technique.
So, there you have it. The humble drumstick. What may, at first, appear to be a disposable tool is in fact hugely important to the style or sound you’re trying to achieve. Spend some time trying out a few different drumsticks, and you’ll benefit greatly in the long run.
Jack Atherton currently plays drums for U.K Singer/Songwriter, Jake Bugg.
Jack played on Jake Bugg’s multi-platinum eponymous album that debuted at #1 in the U.K album chart and has gone on to headline tours all over the world. In that time they have supported the likes of Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds; The Black Keys; The Rolling Stones; Arcade Fire; The Stone Roses, to name a few.
2014 saw a headline slot at Glastonbury festival and since 2012 they have performed at the world’s biggest festivals spread over five continents including Reading/Leeds fest, Coachella, Summer Sonic and Lollapalooza.
As well as Live performances, Jack has also recorded several performances including: Later… with Jools Holland; The Tonight Show with Jay Leno; The Late Show with David Letterman; Conan; The Ellen Show; The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon; The Graham Norton Show; The Jonathan Ross Show.
Since starting to play drums at the age of 11, Jack has studied with various teachers at home and abroad, sighting his studies with the late, great Jim Chapin from 1999-2008 as his most influential.
As well as being a session drummer, Jack is also an educator and author.