Drumsticks: The Basics
No they're not just a piece of wood, even if that's what the guitarist down the road keeps on telling you. Just like a mechanic needs the right tool for the job, a drummer needs the correct stick for a certain musical situation. From normal sticks, to brushes, rods, mallets and signature pairs, there can be more to get your head around than it first appears. Each will be more suitable for certain genres or playing styles, while more in-depth characteristics about your sticks will even change your sound and overall feel. Ultimately, drumsticks are all about personal preference. A pair that you absolutely love might feel the complete opposite in the hands of another drummer.
When it comes to buying a pair of drumsticks, there are a few factors you're probably going to want to consider - there's a lot of choice out there after all! Leading brands like Vic Firth, Promark and Zildjian all produce a multitude of different sticks.
What do the Numbers & Letters on Drumsticks Mean?
The majority of drumsticks will be ordered and categorised by a number and a letter. The number indicates the weight and circumference/thickness, while the letter states the size/shape of the stick, as well as its recommended application.
5, 7 and 2 are the numbers that you're likely to come across the most. A lower number means the stick will be thicker and heavier; a higher number means the stick will be thinner and lighter. For example a 2B is the thickest kind of stick you can buy, while a 7A stick is much thinner in comparison. A 5A will then sit in the middle of the two. This makes lower numbers more appropriate for heavier playing (be it rock, metal etc), while higher numbers are better for more nuanced, lighter drumming (like jazz).
The letters on your sticks stand for the original intended use of the stick (but ultimately, you can use any kind of drumstick for any application - it's all down to your own drumming preferences after all). A stands for 'orchestral'; B represents 'band'; D is for 'dance; S stands for 'street' (e.g. a marching band).
Here are some of the most popular sticks available on the market:
- 5A - Lighter weight, medium thick. A well-rounded stick, good for most genres.
- 5B - Heavier weight, medium thick. Good for most genres.
- 7A - Lightweight, thin, good for jazz.
- 7B - Medium weight, reduced thickness.
- 2B - Heavy weight, very thick, good for metal/hard-rock,
- 8D - Longer reach, good for jazz.
- 3A - Thicker than a 5A and a bit longer.
- 1A - The longest reach out of these sticks.
Drumsticks: Design & Build Considerations
The material and shape of the tip of a stick will alter your sound. Wooden tips are the most common kind and are favoured for their deeper natural tone across your kit. They rebound nicely too, with a minimal amount of vibration present when striking cymbals. Nylon tips are known for their brighter, cutting and more penetrative nature. Many drummers prefer their more consistent sound. You'll also find that nylon tips will last a lot longer as the material doesn't chip - unless you're an especially heavy hitter!
The design and shape of the tip itself is important too. Teardrop models create a balanced sound that's suitable for most styles, with a rich and deep cymbal tone; barrel tips generally generate a broad sound that's suitable for pop and rock; acorn tips create a fuller and more developed tone; large round tips are better for metal and hard-rock due to their thicker sound; small round tips are good for funk, jazz and R&B due to their bright cymbal sound; ball tips are better for complex patterns.
Various types of woods are the most popular materials for drumsticks. Wood like hickory (which is the most common) combines durability and density, resulting in a seriously well-rounded stick that absorbs shock well. Maple offers a contrasting experience, as it's more flexible and lighter. This makes it ideal for when quicker playing, or more intricate rhythms are required. Maple is also known for its faster response time. Oak lasts longer than most other woods thanks to its sheer density. This makes it a good option for heavier playing, be it metal or hard-rock etc. Birch is also regularly used in the creation of drumsticks.
However, companies like Ahead take a completely different approach to the construction of their sticks. The brand actually started life manufacturing aluminium hockey sticks and baseball bats, becoming a market leader in the process. They decided to take their cutting-edge technology and aerospace-grade aluminium material and apply it to drumsticks. The result is sticks that are extremely lightweight, which manage to remain strong, consistent and incredibly durable. It makes them the perfect alternative to wood!
These two characteristics will noticeably change the feel of the stick. A standard drumstick is usually around 16 inches long, but many drummers also prefer shorter or longer variants. A longer stick will provide you with more reach - which is useful if you like to spread out each element of your kit - as well as improved leverage and power. Shorter sticks provide more control.
The taper (which describes the distance between the neck and shoulder of a stick) alters playability too. A longer taper will feel faster and lighter, with an improved level of rebound; a shorter taper generally provides you with a front-loaded feel.
The thickness of your stick will have an effect on durability, feel and the sound of your drums/cymbals. A lighter stick (like a 5A) provides you with better balance and speed, while thicker sticks (like a 2B or 5B) are better if you like to hit hard and loud. More thickness pretty much equals more power and a larger than life sound - plus they will last longer and you won't break as many sticks! At the other end of the spectrum, something like a 7A (which is a lot thinner) is very light, making it the go-to choice for many jazz drummers.
This is probably the most overlooked aspect of drumstick design when it comes to selecting a pair. The finish will influence how the drumsticks feel in your hands. If you're not comfortable while you drum, you won't be able to perform at your best, so it's a pretty important factor. Lighter lacquer coatings are known for feeling more natural; lacquer free sticks are more gritty and raw. Some sticks feature a glazed finish, or boast a 'dipped' or anti-slip lower half. These are meant to provide you with extra grip.
For the perfect pair of sticks, both of them should be as symmetrical as possible (in terms of weight, feel, size and shape). This will make any subsequent playing as smooth as possible. You can actually easily test whether a stick is straight by rolling it on a flat surface, like a table. The stick isn't straight if it wobbles while it rolls.
Which Drumsticks Are Best for Beginners?
If you're just embarking on your drumming journey, we'd recommend going with a pair of 5A's. These are available from just about every drum brand out there and are regarded as THE classic model. They strike the perfect balance between feel, weight and durability - making them suitable for a multitude of contrasting genres and playing styles.
Which Drumsticks Are Best for Practice?
There's a couple of different rules of thought when it comes to this. Some drummers prefer to use a much heavier stick for practicing, and then a lighter stick when playing live. Using a heavy stick (like a 2B) will help to develop the muscle groups faster that are used when you sit down to play. However, myself and many others simply use the same type of stick for practice and live performances. This means you get used to the sticks feel and will be comfortable when drumming at home, in the studio, and in a live situation.
A brush is made up of a number of separate strands/wires - usually either metal, nylon or plastic - that connect to a handle. On many modern pairs of brushes, these wires can be extended or shortened at will, allowing you to alter your sound. They're much quieter than a normal pair of drumsticks. This makes them perfect for more intimate venues and lower volume musical scenarios.
Brushes are commonly associated with jazz music, but are also regularly used across genres as varied as folk, country, latin and even pop. They can be used either by lightly brushing them over the surface of your drumhead, or as a lighter striking alternative to a traditional stick.
Promark make an interesting unique pair that they've dubbed as 'broomsticks'. These are a hybrid between brushes and rods (which you can read about below). They produce a volume that's louder than normal brushes, with less attack than standard rods. An adjustable ring then ensures you can alter the spread of the bristles. So if you're looking for an alternative to brushes, these might be just the ticket.
A mallet is built from a wooden handle with a head that's made from a ball of either cloth, felt, cotton or another softer/semi-hard material. They're used with many different percussion instruments, including marimbas, xylophones, gongs, timpani, tam-tams and drum kits. Mallets also create a wholly different sound when used with cymbals, allowing you to create swells with absolute ease. A mallet is a good choice for those unplugged, more acoustic-led gigs where you don't want to overpower the rest of your band.
A rod usually consists of a number of individual sticks. These are bound to one another with a couple of bands, creating one bigger stick. One of the bands can be moved along the length of the rod, tightening up or loosening the bundle. This can be used to help alter the sound of your drums and changes the feel of the stick.
Rods are quieter than a traditional drumstick, but are louder than brushes; this makes them a good option when you require a sound and volume level that sits somewhere in between. They're sometimes also known as rutes. Their origin is rooted in orchestral percussion, but they've since found their way into the arsenal of drummers playing many different modern genres.
About Signature Drumsticks
Some of the worlds best drummers have partnered with the biggest drum brands in the industry to create their very own signature sticks. The likes of Zildjian, Vic Firth and Promark produce pairs in collaboration with drumming heavyweights, including Dave Grohl, Chris Adler, Carter Beauford, Danny Carey, Gavin Harrison, Tony Royster Jr. and other titanic artists. They're made to each of their respective specifications - providing themselves (and now you) with an entirely unique set of sticks. If you want to use the same drumsticks as your favourite drummers, then a signature pair is definitely what you're after.
About Drumstick Bags
An accessory/drumstick bag should form a small (but essential) part of any self-respecting drummers gear. They're especially useful for live shows, as you can transport and store your sticks, brushes, mallets, earplugs, drum keys etc in one easily accessible location. Many can be attached directly to your floor tom too - allowing you to grab a spare stick if you break or drop one while you perform!
Want to Learn More?
For more drum-related articles, check out these other guides below: