BY DAVID E. LIBMAN | FROM THE SPRING 2019 ISSUE OF DRUM!
Most drummers who have played for any length of time have experienced one or more of these drumstick snafus: You play just a few tunes and a stick breaks; the band gets louder, but you can’t seem to hit hard enough to keep up with the volume; you’re supposed to play quietly for a party, but each time you strike your ride cymbal it sounds too loud; the stick keeps inching forward and slipping out of your grip; you can’t quite reach the crash cymbal and the stick flies out of your hand; or your hands stiffen and your forearms feel tired after only a few tunes. We often blame ourselves when these things happen—attributing them to improper technique, having a bad day, a weird smell in the practice room, etc.—but we rarely consider that the root of the problem might lie in the sticks themselves.
Stick selection has a tremendous impact on two things. First, it affects how you feel when you’re playing. The right stick size can help you feel fluid, relaxed, and improve your playing; the wrong size can contribute to feeling stiff and off-balance. Second, it affects your sound. An easy way to observe this is to take your favorite ride cymbal to your local music store, grab a stack of differing stick sizes, and tap your ride with each one. You’ll be amazed to find that under 20 different sticks, it can sound like 20 different ride cymbals.
Despite the tremendous impact that stick selection can have, many drummers assume that they should choose one drumstick size and use it exclusively. Drumsticks remain one of the most inexpensive pieces of equipment we can purchase, so why not inject some variety into your options? After all, there is no law against using more than one type of stick.
When I started playing drums in the 1970s, there were far fewer sizes to choose from. The proliferation of signature sticks has dramatically increased the variety of stick sizes—both signature and non-signature—on the market. Having options is great, but too many choices can be overwhelming. Here’s a quick primer on the basics to help you get started.
Most manufacturers offer a basic selection of old-school sizes: 7A, 5A, 5B, and 2B. The smallest is 7A, and the largest is 2B. The most commonly used size is 5A, with the larger 5B coming in a close second, and there are several concert and marching sizes that meet or exceed these sizes. It’s always struck me as odd that smaller sticks like 7As receive a higher number than a larger stick like a 2B, but hey, I don’t make the rules. To add to this, manufacturers have recently started adding “super” to a stick size to denote a longer length. A 5A may be 16″, while a Super 5A is 16.5″.
What about the signature sizes? If you examine the specs, you’ll find that most signature sizes are a variation on the standard sizes with a different taper, tip, or length. Promark’s 5A, for example, has a 0.551″ diameter with a 16″ length, while its Neil Peart signature 747 is essentially a lengthier 5A (16.25″) with the same 5A diameter. Vic Firth’s 7A has a 0.540″ diameter and 15.5″ length; the Steve Jordan signature model has a similar 0.525″ diameter with a longer 16.5″ length and a different tip.
Almost all stick manufacturers’ websites do an excellent job of publishing diameters and lengths, so you can use this to your advantage if you’re looking for a new addition to your stick bag. You also might consider looking up or down the scale if a particular size isn’t working for you. Say you’ve been using a 2B, but your bandmates are complaining that your ride sounds too loud. Instead of immediately buying a new ride, try switching to a smaller 5A. Or maybe you keep reaching for your hi-hat with a 5A, but your setup makes it feel slightly too far away. Try a Super 5A with the same diameter but a longer length and your problem may be solved.
TALE OF THE TAPER
Most sticks start with a thinner diameter just beneath the tip that widens to the point where it reaches the grip diameter. This increase in width is called the taper. The impact of taper and balance is something I ignored for years, but once I began to understand how it affects a stick’s feel, stick selection got easier.
A stick with a long taper will feel lighter up front. Some drummers say that sticks with a longer taper feel like they have more rebound. A stick with a short or “quick” taper will feel heavier up front. For a quick way to see how this works, check out Promark’s Select Balance sticks. A stick with a “forward balance” will have a 2.25″ taper, while the same size stick with a “rebound balance” will have a longer 3″ taper.
If you’re a player that responds to a stick’s balance—and most of us do—the taper will affect where you grip the stick. Correspondingly, a stick with a short taper may feel shorter than the same length stick with a longer taper. This is because you’ll have a tendency to grip the longer taper–stick further back to accommodate the balance point, which means you have more length of that stick to play with.
For example, one of my favorite sticks used to be Zildjian’s now-discontinued Tony Williams stick, which was a modified 2B with a 16″ length and a short taper. Looking for something with similar dimensions, I noticed that Zildjian’s Eric Singer model was also a modified 2B with a 16″ length. The significant difference was that the Singer has a longer taper, which caused me to hold the stick further back. Consequently, the stick has more reach for me, even though it’s the same 16″ length as the Tony Williams model.
Aside from reach, taper and balance also have a tremendous impact on sound. A 5B with a longer taper may sound lighter on drums and cymbals than a 5B with a short taper, which has more weight up front.
Most drumsticks are made from wood. Typically, most manufacturers use hickory or maple, but some offer other options. Promark, for example, famously offers many sizes of oak sticks. Zildjian manufactures a laminated birch line. Innovative Percussion sells a variety of Christopher Lamb laminated beech concert sticks. Cooperman offers sticks made from persimmon. The options are endless, really.
Because of their varying densities, different wood types do pull distinct sounds from the drums and cymbals, but it’s the wood’s feel that has the greatest impact. Sticks with a higher density are heavier. Generally, birch sticks will feel heavier than oak; oak heavier than hickory; and hickory will feel heavier than maple, which is the lightest of the bunch. Once you understand these variations, you can use it to your advantage in swapping weights or sizes.
Perhaps you only want to use one stick size, but you want that size to offer more weight options for louder and softer gigs. Manufacturers allow you that option. Los Cabos, for example, offers a 2B with the same dimensions in red hickory (heaviest), hickory (medium) and maple (lightest). Vater offers its 5B in both hickory and maple. Zildjian offers the same 5A in three wood options: laminated birch (heavy), hickory (medium), and maple (lightest). These are only a few of the many varieties out there.
Another common scenario is that you may like a stick’s weight and balance, but the diameter feels too narrow or wide. Consider moving up or down the size ladder and possibly changing materials. Maybe you like the feel of the Vic Firth hickory 5A but you want a wider grip. Vic Firth’s 5B has the same length and a similar taper as its 5A, but a wider diameter. Maybe you try the hickory 5B and like the new diameter, but it feels too heavy. Try Vic Firth’s maple 5B and see if the lighter weight gives you the best of both worlds.
Keep in mind that stick manufacturers usually have proprietary methodologies to calibrate moisture content, a variable that affects weight and rebound. Correspondingly, even though the major manufacturers all offer hickory 5A sticks with somewhat similar dimensions, those hickory sticks will feel very different from each other. So, if you love the size and balance of one manufacturer’s 5A, but something about the feel is not quite right for you, you might want to consider trying the same size in a different brand.
Wood is organic, and it can vibrate and break. Consequently, several manufacturers offer options that come with promises of vibration reduction and increased durability. Zildjian’s Anti-Vibe is an example of a wood stick that incorporates a rubber plug component in the handle to reduce stick vibration.
If wood isn’t working for you, there are also many non-wood options. These inorganic sticks don’t just feel different, they also sound different—especially on cymbals.
Ahead has been a trailblazer in making sticks with an aluminum alloy core, polyurethane covers, and handles that are designed for vibration reduction. Aquarian makes graphite sticks with enhanced durability too, and some models include comfy, cool-looking red grips. Vic Firth makes carbon-fiber composite Titan sticks. Techra manufactures sticks from carbon fiber with claims of increased durability and vibration reduction, and some of its models include special grips to keep the sticks from slipping. Boso manufactures sticks from bamboo, claiming to make “thin sticks extremely heavy and thick sticks extremely light.”
TIPS ON TIPS
Drumsticks come with a variety of options for tip shape and material. The names of tip shapes include “acorn,” “arrow,” “barrel,” “ball,” “oval,” “round,” and others. Regardless of how one describes the shapes, the distinctive features usually come down to whether the tip is large or small, and whether its surface is more round or flat.
Not surprisingly, a larger tip usually yields a bigger sound, but the quality of tone the tip will produce usually depends on the shape. A larger, arrow-shaped tip may have a long flat surface that can pull a very woody sound from a ride cymbal. On the contrary, a smaller, round tip has less surface area and tends to give a more ping-y tone. A large oval tip may make your floor tom sound huge and full, but a tiny barrel tip might produce a bit of a “doink.” If you like your stick size, but you don’t like its sound, try a similar size with a different tip shape.
Tip material also has a huge impact on sound. Many manufacturers offer tips made of nylon or a harder version of nylon called Delrin. When compared with wood, these synthetic tips generally pull more highs and less lows from a cymbal or drum. So Regal Tip’s nylon-tip 5A will likely produce a more ting-like sound from your ride cymbal versus the same stick with a wood tip.
It’s no fun to play a stick that’s too slippery or sticky, so the stick’s finish is hugely important. What will work best for you largely depends on your body chemistry, which can change over time. As I’ve aged, I’ve found that I need a stick with more grip.
Many manufacturers have options if you prefer a tacky or grippy feel. Most Regal Tip sticks, for example, come with a slightly tacky finish. Promark offers its ActiveGrip sticks. Vic Firth has Vic-Grip and DoubleGlaze models. Zildjian offers dipped sticks. Vater’s Color Wrap sticks have a somewhat tacky feel. Diamondback drumsticks feature an enhanced grip with a laser-engraved, textured finish. CooperGroove sticks include crosscut notches in the handle and are dipped in a colored coating to enhance grip. These are but a few examples.
If you prefer the feel of a slicker or smoother finish, Vater’s models have a very natural wood feel, as do most standard Promark and Vic Firth models. But if even the slightest bit of finish annoys you, don’t despair: Promark, Regal Tip, Vic Firth, and Vater are among those who offer completely unfinished options.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning that many manufacturers now offer painted sticks, especially the signature models. Zildjian, for example, offers its 5A in a variety of colors. Painting a stick doesn’t just change the color, but also affects the feel and grip. The particular color, however, doesn’t seem to have much impact on the sound—unless it makes you feel a certain way when you’re playing.
If you’ve tried everything and still can’t find a finish that works for you, manufacturers like Ahead, Vater, Promark, and Vic Firth offer stick tapes. These fabric-like tapes help in gripping the stick and also add an element of shock absorption. Be aware, however, that using wraps can change the sound of your sidesticking.
HOW TO DECIDE
For years, I would try one pair in my hand, play for a few minutes, and then switch to another sized pair and see how it compared. Then I realized that the best way to compare two different stick sizes is to put a different size in each hand. Place a 5B in your right hand and a 5A in your left, play for a few minutes, and then switch the sticks. You’ll easily get a sense of how the sizes compare.
So, which sticks are best? By now, you can probably predict the answer: There is no one “best” stick. In fact, you may find it’s best to use many different sizes, materials, and finishes. Fill your bag with different options and experiment beyond your preconceived notions. I’ve seen great jazz drummers play big, fat 2B sticks and great rockers play small, thin 7A sizes, both to great effect. There are no hard and fast rules, so have fun with it.