Beginning students will often show up at their first lesson with incredibly big drumsticks. I often joke with them, “Please donʼt hit me over the head with those things!” These sticks can be as long as their entire arm. As it turns out, there is a huge variety of drumsticks from which to choose. Weight, length, circumference, type of wood (related to weight and density), shape of the tip, and taper all play a role in making one stick different from the next. These characteristics affect control, feel, shock absorption, sound, balance, and durability.
Without going into detail on every one of these aspects, here are some general considerations before choosing your first pair of sticks.
1. Most brands of drumsticks are categorized by letter. Sʼs (designed for “street" playing, such as drum corps and marching band) have the largest diameter, Bʼs (designed for concert band playing) are smaller in diameter than the Sʼs, and Aʼs (originally designed for big band or dance-type orchestras) have the smallest diameter.
2. For each model, S, B, and A, there is also a number associated with the letter (for instance, 5B), which fine-tunes the size beyond the letter designation. In general, the higher the number, the smaller the stick diameter. For instance, a 7A is smaller than a 5A.
3. The type of wood of which the stick is made determines its density. Oak is denser than hickory, and hickory is denser than maple. Oak sticks are heavier and often the most durable, while maple and hickory sticks are lighter and are therefore better shock absorbers.
Note: Drumsticks made of synthetic materials such as carbon fiber are also widely available. These are clearly the most durable option, but often come with problems in balance, feel and shock absorption.
4. It is a common belief that it is better to place heavy sticks in the hands of beginning students. The idea is that it is easier to learn proper technique using weighty sticks. There might be a grain of truth in this, but it ignores the fact that the bigger sticks donʼt fit well in most young hands (or adults with small hands). Holding the sticks can then feel uncomfortable. Lighter sticks are also much easier to control, play at low dynamic levels, and wield at faster tempos.
5. Most pro drummers use somewhere between a 7A and a 5B. Therefore, if a young student is lugging around a pair of 2Bʼs, those sticks will most probably be too big and heavy for them.
6. Sticks often come in a wooden or a nylon tip variety. Nylon-tip sticks produce a brighter sound on cymbals, and the tip itself will last longer, because it wonʼt chip. However, a brighter sound on the cymbals might be the last thing that you want, and nylon tips sometimes fall off of the stick, rendering it useless.
7. Make sure that the sticks are not defective:
- Warping — To check for warped sticks, roll the sticks on a smooth, flat surface, looking for wobble. You donʼt want it to wobble.
- Pitch — Tap each stick in a consistent way and listen close up to an ear. You want each pair of sticks to have the same pitch.
- Weight — Put the sticks in your hands and balance them to compare weight.
Note: The major drum stick manufacturers all match sticks by pitch and weight these days. However, it does not hurt to double-check their results!
8. Once you've collected a few pairs of sticks, you might want to invest in a stick bag. This will help you to organize, and hopefully not lose, your sticks.
9. It doesn't pay to buy cheap drumsticks. They are frequently warped and not pitch-balanced. They are made of less dense wood and break very easily. If you go with such brands as (in no particular order) Pro-mark, Vater, Vic Firth and Zildjian, you should be fine.
10. Make a visit to your local drum shop to try out a variety of sticks. These music stores often have a practice pad set up to help you make an informed decision.
11. When it looks more like an abstract modern sculpture than a drumstick, it might be a good time to buy a new pair.