Choosing the right pair of drumsticks

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Originally posted to the Drumsource Blog

This guide is for players of all levels and will help you to understand stick sizing, different woods or other materials and how to choose the right stick for you based on a number of important factors.

It’s not just beginners who can benefit from a better understanding of choosing the right pair of drumsticks. I’ve spent plenty of time talking with accomplished drummers who’ve hit a rut and decided to try and rediscover a more comfortable stick that allows them to push through their latest technical barriers.

You should reassess your stick choice as your playing evolves and muscles develop

It took myself years of experience and experimentation to find what worked best and today, I’ve singled out maybe 3 pairs I like to use in particular situations. That said, I have had the privilege of working in a drum shop for over 10 years so I’ve been able to test a huge range of different models!

So let’s get in to the introduction. 

The Basics

If you’ve had your first drum lesson then hopefully your tutor has provided you a simple explanation of how to choose a stick and highlighted some of the main products available?

If not, or you’d like to know more then here’s our handy guide to understanding the basics:
Choose which is best for you
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Choose which is best for you

There are 3 core models you should know: 7A / 5A / 5B. We can categorise them as small, medium and large. 

For your first pair of sticks the typical rule is: the stronger and/or larger your hands, the bigger the stick required.

However, you might feel that all three seem comfortable enough and if you’re not sure how to gauge how comfortable each one feels then try to decide based on the amount of power and volume you want. For folk or jazz you might want a quieter sound and more nimble stick. But for rock or metal you’d probably like a louder sound and more powerful stick.

At the very least, all drum shops should stock the three models above. If you’re in a drum shop looking at a rack full of sticks then you’ll typically find these three models prominently grouped together with surrounding sticks arranged by relative size (assuming this particular shop has keen organisational practices!).

Stick codes and size system

"At one time, sticks were generally ‘classified’ into 3 categories: ‘A’ for Acoustic/Orchestra/Jazz settings, ‘B’ for Band and ‘S’ for Street (Marching)" -vicfirth(dot)com

Although you’ll still find sticks bearing these codes today, there have been so many new models and designs created since that the old system doesn’t really reflect a true classification for use anymore.

Don’t be fooled by thinking or letting people tell you that there is a method to the way sticks are numbered. There are a handful of models that appear to follow the pattern of higher number = thinner stick but when you take in to account all the other similar model numbers then this system becomes irrelevant. There is no standardisation.

Unfortunately this does make it very difficult to grasp an understanding of which models are which and therefore harder to find the right stick systematically. Also, trying to explain what you want to your teacher or a shop assistant can get really confusing too!

My advice is to get as familiar as possible with the 3 core models and try to relate everything else back to those. It’s also important to have an understanding of balance and rebound too. For example you’d be able to state, “I’m looking for a stick that’s somewhere between 7a and 5a with a forward balance for more power”.

Remember!  Don’t strain your wrists with a stick that is too heavy – work your way up. If training on a pad with heavier sticks, only do so for shorter periods of time.

Choosing a brand

Like many other different types of goods, you might be tempted to purchase your drumsticks based on influences other than your main needs. Professional endorsements for example. This really isn’t the best thing to do.

Drumsticks are incredibly personal to you and because manufacturing processes, designs, materials and many other aspects can differ so much from brand to brand, it’s always a good idea to test as many as possible before sticking (pun intended!) to just one.

It’s likely you’ll gain an affinity with one. Or, you’ll find a pair or two from several brands that just work.

Top UK session drummer and Vic Firth endorsee, Andrew Small (kylie, massive attack) explains:

"I’ve been using the SD9 Driver for years (even before my official endorsement). It always feels very balanced in my hands i.e the tip end doesn’t feel heavier than the butt end.
Even though the SD9 is little thicker than some sticks, it’s still light enough for me to feel comfortable, regardless of whether I’m playing quietly or really digging in.
For years I’d been searching for a stick that felt great not just when it was brand new but also after I’d done a couple of days rehearsing for 8 hours"


From my experience with several brands of drumstick, even the most subtle of differences can have a profound effect on your playing. Here are some of the things you’ll expect to notice as you test different models:
  • Glossiness – some sticks have a light varnish or the wood is naturally a bit slippy
  • Deterioration – fibrous woods splinter, others dent, some are prone to a clean snap
  • Butt end shape – especially if you play your sticks further toward the back
  • Tip longevity – some tips split or grain pops off, some nylon tips are harder or softer

Here is a comparison of 5A wood and nylon tips  from four major stick brands: Vic Firth, Vater, Pro Mark and Regal Tip
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The obvious difference is the tips. The shapes are quite varied and also the colour and density of the plastic. Another fairly clear difference is the wood. These are all hickory but the shade goes from very white to a yellow brown which represents where the wood is sourced and milled.

If you looked carefully then hopefully you also spotted the very subtle changes in taper too. As we’ll discuss in the next section, this affects the balance, speed, dexterity and power.

Lastly, here is a great example of different stick wear from a review by classicdrumshop(dot)com
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Design factors

Now we get in to the nitty gritty of how choosing the optimal stick can assist and improve your playing. I’ll show you the various design elements, discuss what each one does and explain its relationship with others.

Below is a diagram of the design elements that can affect a drum sticks feel and response:
The 6 Attributes You Need To Learn
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The 6 Attributes You Need To Learn

First of all, you might have noticed there is no ‘weight’ label? Here’s why:

Wood is a material with varied consistency so the weight of a finished stick is always going to fluctuate. Sometimes up to 2 or 3 grams. Because of this, it’s difficult for manufacturers to very effectively sort and pair matching weights and pitches.

Also, the weight is a variable determined by combinations of other design attributes. For example you might know a specific weight that you like but when you consider the diameter and taper then the weight will be affected. It’s more important to observe the balance and this is something that Pro Mark recently addressed with their new ‘Select Balance’ range.

So let’s take a deeper look at the six stick attributes:

DIAMETER

The diameter could also be described as the sticks thickness and relates mostly to your grip. As we discussed in the basics section, the general rule is that a bigger diameter suits larger hands or for players who want more volume and power.

However, choosing a maple stick can reduce the added weight significantly. You might find that a larger but lighter stick gives you more control over dynamics and finesse.

LENGTH

A drumsticks length is probably the least considered attribute but still highly relevant to your technique. Though it doesn’t impact the feel to as higher degree, a longer stick provides better reach and more ‘throw’ or to be more scientific; velocity.

Interestingly, a longer stick can also add adjustability to your playing. By modifying where you grip the stick, you can change the balance which will influence response in terms of speed.

WOOD

There are typically three readily available wood types to choose from: Hickory, Maple and Oak. These of course all have different characteristics and effect playing quite dramatically.

Hickory is the most widely used and provides an excellent balance of strength and rigidity. It’s quite fibrous which adds density but can often lead to splintering as the stick deteriorates.

Maple is a softer, lighter wood with a fine grain pattern. Maple drumsticks can be bigger in diameter but stay low in weight, great for high control and delicate technique. You’ll often see maple sticks dent rather than splinter but whilst they retain good balance and feel, they break easier in the hands of a more powerful player.

Oak is dense and weighty. They’re typically better for players with a stronger grip and harder feel. Oak’s quite favourable amongst drummers as it tends to last well. However these sticks can sometimes feel very rigid and detract from the dexterity of your technique. It’s a subtle characteristic but oak also has a brighter percussive sound, more obvious on cymbals or percussion.

Others: Sticks are available in a variety of other materials but you’ll likely find that nothing can provide quite the same organic feel as wood. Due to the advantages in durability I would encourage you to experiment with other materials but please be mindful of your wrists and muscles as some materials cause higher levels of shock.

TAPER

Taper is a slightly more complicated aspect of choosing a drumstick. It describes the way the stick thins down in diameter toward the tip and effects both the response in terms of speed, the balance in terms of control and the velocity i.e. the level of power through a stroke.

You should definitely be paying attention to a sticks taper when choosing as this is where all the fine tuning is made. The image below shows a short taper starting further toward the end of the stick and a long taper starting further back.
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You can see in this particular example the stick with a short taper also has a larger diameter at the tip than the stick with long taper. This increases the prominence of the shoulder and also the weight at the front of the stick giving a lot more power, volume but less rebound speed.

The stick on the bottom with smaller diameter at the tip has a lighter, faster response and less volume.

With so many styles of taper, finding the right one for you can take some time but try not to get too hung up focussing in. Just be sure to recognise how the stick responds to your technique and playing style and note what works best.

SHOULDER

The shape of the shoulder is a result of the length and degree of the taper. Less of a consideration for technique and response, the shoulder of the stick increases volume and can increase the life of the stick.

If you play a lot of rim shots or angle your cymbals quite flat then take a look at where most of your hits impact the stick. If you can find a stick with the shoulder in that position then you should achieve longer lasting sticks.

TIPS

In my experience, beginners seem to get really confused about tips, especially nylons. So to dispel any odd misconceptions, nylon tips are for a brighter and more consistent cymbal sound. Wood tips can sometimes dent causing a flat spot whereas nylon tips won’t and usually last longer. That’s all.

I have heard a few instances of nylon tips exploding clean off however so be warned!

Tip shape is a big one for me. I tend to play ‘off the drums’ meaning I’m not using much power to lay in to them. I’m getting the stick to do a lot of the work, not just technique wise but also in terms of sound and timbre. The tip helps achieve this a lot, especially on cymbals.

The amount of contact from the tip defines the different timbres you’ll achieve. The image in the taper section above highlights two contrasting tips. The top stick (VF3A) is loud and full whereas the the bottom stick (VFAJ1) has a low volume, light and thin sound.
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