More than delicately wrought slivers of hand tooled timber, they are the drummer's er, thing.
You cut down the tree, shape the wood, delicately sand its surface, then use it to beat hell out of a piece of plastic. Andy Duncan considers the life of the drum stick, and which ones you should take home and make friends with.
ASSUMING THAT a) you are a drummer or percussionist, and that b) you prefer to save wear and tear on your beautifully manicured hands, you're going to require a pair of sticks before you can successfully annoy the neighbours and/or get a gig with Sigue Sigue Sputnik (and successfully annoy everyone).
That's the easy bit. When it comes to actually trying to find a stick with which you can pose, defend yourself, employ as improvised chopstick, and occasionally play, you are entering a veritable rain forest of felled timber where it's nigh impossible to see the wood for the C's.
But let's not get intimidated by this vast array of products. A good drummer should be able to get by with anything that comes to hand (assuming stick-like proportions of course). Much rated Sly Dunbar doesn't even use a matched pair. He grooves along with a heavy stick for optimum thwack factor on the snare and a lighter specimen for the more delicate tone and tricky patterns on the hi-hat. Here we pause to observe one simple rule of thumb: thick sticks will make a more consistent noise than thin ones, but make trickier playing proportionately harder.
For sheer volume and value for money as a potential truncheon, the signature model produced by Yamaha for Cozy Powell must take some beating (never mind about lifting). I came across this remarkable item when working night sessions at the studio where ELP were recording by day. The engineer said that one four minute take with these monsters pitted the snare head and detuned it back to the wrinkle. God knows what happens during a gig. A broken stick must qualify the immediate vicinity as a disaster area.
Nor does a broken stick necessarily mean that you need a heavier gauge. Design has as much to do with it as the way it's applied. Jerry Marotta (longtime associate of Peter Gabriel) is a fully qualified basher but breaks sticks because he uses a model which is mightily thick only as far as the its shoulder, which, although short still slims down to pencil thin. Sure enough, after five minutes or so the stick breaks at its weakest point, right under the acorn, and bang goes another three quid.
What about you? Do your sticks always break at the same point and often? Do you set your cymbals flat or your hi-hat tall so that the stick makes a near right angle as it lands? Do you hit accidental rim shots on your toms by setting them too high, flat or far away? Your own set-up could be causing you much loss of cash and dignity. There's nothing macho about a broken stick, it's just a sign of carelessness.
OK so what kind of sticks do the hotshots use? Let's take the Premier C as our yardstick (it's medium everything and widely available). The Simon Phillips model is fractionally thinner and lighter with a shorter, thicker shoulder and a more rounded acorn — ideal for a player of such dexterity and skill who can still kick up quite a row when it's heads down and every man for himself.
The Jeff Porcaro model (H110) made by Pearl is closer to the C with the exception of its longer, more gradually tapered neck and squarer acorn. Like most popular sticks it's made of hickory but unlike most others it's only lightly sealed. Sticks with a lot of varnish or polyurethane on them can take some hanging onto if your hands sweat. If you have nearly speared an onlooker it might be worth lightly sanding the grip end of your sealed sticks. This will make the wood porous, it'll absorb your sweat and be less likely to take a flier.
The Steve Gadd signature stick made by Vic Firth has been much used by the TV poser because it's black. In most other respects it's very similar to the Porcaro stick and the colour is merely a paint job. This means that your kit gradually acquires lots of black marks, and the sticks rapidly begin to lose their chic allure. No problem for Mr Gadd who can reach into the endorsee's bottomless stick hag and whip out a smart new one as soon as the first chip bites the dust, but something of a let down for you or me at their above average price.
What they do have going for them, however, is a rounded butt end. The man who has played for everyone and his dog (good band) isn't averse to turning one, two or even four sticks around at once and playing with this much neglected end. As I explained earlier this ups the volume but without damaging the heads. All the other sticks mentioned so far have butt ends which are sheered straight off. These would quickly pit and even break a head if used.
I happen to like the extra depth and crack created by using the butt in the left (snare) hand and consequently struggled for years to find a suitable stick. Then one day I found some sticks discarded in the comer of a studio the previous night by Stewart Copeland and Lo! they had rounded butts and were the perfect weight (same as the C and half an inch longer). I've been using them ever since (six years). However, supply has been a problem so it's worth ensuring that a plentiful stock of your favourite stick can always be found at your local shop before you get too attached to it.
Late in the evolution of the stick has come the graphite 'Aquarian' designed by American clinician and all round clever dick Roy Burns. Its longevity is its main claim. The top line X-10 should last ten times as long as its wooden equivalent and quite right too at £18.95 a pair. They are heavier than a conventional stick of the same size and do offer a degree of give thanks to a small hole drilled through the middle of the shaft.
Those of you who have impending videos to shoot or who suffer from pad induced arm-ache or Simmons Elbow, as it's known will be glad to discover that the Aquarian Lites offer a kind of extra cushioning for the electro player, and the Value line (a mere £14.95) the same, plus a range of four striking (ha, ha) colours.
Otherwise the moral of our story is as follows. If your style is solid and simple a heavier stick than the trusty C will make life easier and last longer. More subtle practitioners should take a leaf out of the famous chaps' book and opt for a lighter model which will help the pursuit of 19/8. Nylon tips make the cymbals zip but tend to fly off, leaving the owner with a pair of advanced knitting needles. Above all, beg, steal, borrow, but always experiment.
Feature by Andy Duncan
mu:zines is the result of thousands of hours of effort, and will require many thousands more going forward to reach our goals of getting all this content online.
If you value this resource, you can support this project - it really helps!