Translating Music Store Lingo: When Choosing Drumsticks

Awww yeeaahh, now we’re in my neighborhood, baby! Drumsticks: those two (or four) little conduits that make you one with your drums. Drummers can spend a lot of time and money hunting down the perfect shells or the sturdiest hardware or the most Elton-Johniest glitter wraps to have ever graced the stage and blinded the audience; but at the end of the day where it really counts is in your sticks. And whether you’ve been drumming for decades, totally new to drums or you’re trying to find the perfect sticks for your drummer friend/family member/homeless guy on your couch, you may have noticed a pesky little detail when you’re at your local music store staring at all those stick options…

Drumsticks are confusing.

First, there are a ton of options out there. Drumsticks are a very personal choice for each drummer: every drummer is different, so no shortage of stick differences. Second, all those differences are only kind of standardized…sort of. When you’re new to drumming, no one expects you to understand the cryptic “7A dipped nylon” wordage that’s slapped onto drumsticks by the manufacturer. That’s why I’d like to write my second article on translating some of the less practical inside-language used in the music retail industry. This blog in particular is to help YOU pick the best sticks for YOUR style: drummers gotta look out for each other ;)

Drumstick Materials:

Let’s start with the straightforward stuff: wood! There’s nothing we like talking about at the shop half so much as wood (believe me). And though there are all sorts of different materials used to make drumsticks nowadays (alumninum, polyurethane, pretty much anything that isn’t explicitly illegal or guaranteed to cause cancer), you’ll mostly only ever find them in 3 main types of wood:

1)   Maple: flexible, low-density, decent shock absorption, very popular with lighter styles such as jazz, folk, and unplugged stuff. A great example is the Zildjian Jazz Maples.

2)   Hickory: easily the most popular choice of wood, especially among rock, blues, and country players. Firm but great shock absorption so you don’t fatigue and/or injure your hands. Easily one of the best examples of this is the universally popular Vic Firth American Classic 5A's.

3)   Oak: definitely favored among the heavy hitters who want the most aggressive attack and the sturdiest, least-breakable stick. Often used in metal or for players with hands made up exclusively of concrete and hatred. Check out the Vic Firth Shogun Series for sticks that don't mess around. 

Other materials commonly used for drumsticks are nylon and rubber composites for extra grip and tips, which I’ll get to in just a sec. But first, I’ve got an axe to grind here…

Drumstick Specs and Styles:

…mainly, about those sizes. Dear God, the SIZES. If you’ve ever purchased drumsticks in your life, you’ve probably noticed the following little codes printed on the pairs of sticks themselves: things like “7A”, “3S”, “SD2”, etc. And if you’re the curious and thorough type (as are we), you might have compared one manufacturer’s so-called “7A” to that manufacturer’s “7A” and couldn’t help but notice that they’re not the same after all. What the hell, right?

Well, hop right on in my time-machine for a quick history detour for clarification!…kinda.

See, in the early days of industrial drumstick manufacturing, some fellas had a stroky-beard-type meeting in order to standardize drumstick sizes: the resulting idea was to indicate the circumference via number and the suggested application via letter. But my guess is at some point in that meeting someone rolled up a nice big fat one and passed it around before they concluded what numbers and letters to use exactly.

Circumference, for instance: one would think that measuring every friggin’ stick in the production line with calipers and a magnifying glass is inefficient. It’d be much more cost effective to simply pick an arbitrary number, say “thick is X, thin is Y, and medium is Z”, right? Common sense? And, one might also assume that the bigger that arbitrary number, the larger the stick circumference is, wouldn’t ya think? Yeah. Nope. It’s backwards. The numbers most commonly found on drumsticks – 2, 3, 5 and 7 - to indicate circumference begin with 7 as the thinnest, 5 as the medium-est and 2 as the thickest. Oh wait, except for 3. Yeah, 3 is thicker than 2. Why? Because, reasons.

But wait, it gets funnier. When it came to labeling sticks with a suggested application, it started off promising enough to say a stick created for things like symphonic bands or personal bands would be labeled “B” for “band” (5B’s are still easily the most popular choice for beginning band students to this day). So then it follows that a stick suggested for “street” applications such as corps drumming and marching would be labeled “S” for “street” and a stick meant for orchestral purposes would be labeled “A” for…orchestra? What??

Rumor has it you can thank William Ludwig for that one. Thanks, Bill. Here, have a brownie…

The most common sticks sizes on the market are 7A’s, 5A’s, 5B’s and 2B’s, though there are all sorts of different types with entirely different names depending the brand. Speaking of which, pretty much any given brand’s “2B” or “5A” is going to be different from the other brand, so…yeah. Best to not overthink it. Just come into the shop if you’re still understandably confused and ask to try as many you want. We know the drill.

Also different drumsticks are outfitted with different kinds of tip shapes. The idea is that each tip shape can produce a particular kind of tone and/or attack in your hits. Shapes are diverse, including:

-      oval tips: considered by most to sound balanced and warm (used for most genres)

-      acorn/triangular tips: considered by most to sound focused and bright (great for rock)

-      barrel tips: considered by most to sound heavier, deeper, and impactful (great for marching or corps)

-      round tips: considered by most to sound crisp and sharp (often favored by jazz players)

As briefly mentioned earlier, tip material such as plain wood or nylon can each produce different effects. This is most especially evident striking a cymbal with a nylon tip instead lieu of a wood tip since the feel and sound can change quite a bit.

Granted, the changes is tone and attack between tip shapes/types are subtle; most beginning drummers don’t need to agonize over those choices since there are much larger factors involved in drum tone and attack. But hey, if you can hear those differences right off the bat, feel free to experiment and see which tip shape/material you prefer. Your perfect pair of drumsticks is entirely up to you and your hands/ears. In fact…

Your Style Supersedes All

In the end size, shape, material, whatever…a drumstick is only as good as YOU say it is. When choosing drumsticks, consider how and what you play: this will help you to pick sticks that will compliment your drumming. All of the above info can help educate your decision, but at Bigfoot we’ll tell you “Try’em before you buy’em.” Experimenting with every kind of drumstick is the best way to figure out what helps you to play and sound your RAWKinest.

That being said…

I’ve found in almost 20 years of drumming experience that we can all stand to work on our technique, regardless of our drumming pedigree. The cool thing I’ve found about trying different sticks is that sometimes you can choose a stick that actually helps improve your technique by initially being “uncomplimentary” to you.

Here’s what I mean: being primarily a rock drummer, I’ve been guilty of volume issues and playing too hard. For years I used Zildjian 7A’s, an all-round great stick but broke them often due to my over-playing. Instead of just giving into my technique flaws and getting thicker, heavier sticks, I decided to be counter-intuitive, choosing lighter and smaller sticks (Regal Tip 7A’s). Ironically, using lighter and smaller sticks ended up forcing me to hold back a bit and play more conservatively. The new sticks not only helped me to cut back on volume (and hand blisters), it actually ended up improving my drumming as whole.

So yes, choose a stick based on your technique but every once in a while it’s not a bad idea to change it up and try sticks you would never have even thought to try before! In the end, there is no hard “right” or “wrong” when it comes to drumsticks. It’s all in how you want it!

Be sure to make Bigfoot Music your next one-stop shop for new sticks, drums, hardware and a healthy dose of customer service! Ooh, and subscribe to our newsletter if you dig gear talk (written by a real drummer! With a real brain!)

Stay excellent and have a good week!

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