Wednesday, 14 September 2022

All About Sticks

Expensive, breakable, liable to fly out of your hand at the worst time … love ‘em or hate ‘em, drum sticks are a fact of life. While the leg of a chair or a stick picked up on a walk would work, modern drumsticks are high-performance tools that are tailored down to the finest detail to do the job required. The vast majority of sticks are made from wood -- most often hickory -- but there are other options to try. For a real dive into the details, check out the websites of a few drum stick makers.

Wooden sticks
Hickory is by far the most commonly used wood to make sticks. Hickory is very strong and has a good balance of weight and flexibility. Maple is often favoured by drummers who are looking for a lighter stick, softer attack or both. Oak is heavier and more rigid than hickory and is a good fit for heavy players who like the feel of a more solid stick.

A recent innovation is torrified wood ... wood that has been baked in an oven. This process hardens the wood, making it stronger and more rigid. It also results in a distinctive dark hue to the wood.

Engineered wood sticks appear occasionally. Think plywood. The theory is that a sandwich of wooden plies will yield more consistent sticks that will be stronger and less prone to the variances of natural wood. There doesn't seem to be anyone making these right now, but somebody's probably working on one.

Metal sticks
These have been around in various forms since the ‘60s. The most successful are usually made from aluminum tubing with some sort of nylon tip and shoulder added. Metal sticks are extremely consistent and some drummers just love them. There are also sticks made from solid aluminum and even steel. These are very heavy and are generally intended for “weight training” on the practice pad.

Nylon and other plastics and synthetics have been tried and mostly ignored by drummers, though there have been a few successes.

A taper in the stick can enhance its rebound, articulation and feel. The majority of sticks have a taper that begins a few inches from the tip, some sticks have a longer taper, and some specialty sticks have a taper that runs the length of the stick. Some sticks have a second taper starting in the grip area and running to the butt, which enhances the stick’s power.

What about the tip?
Every type of wood has its own sound. This is further enhanced by the size, shape  and profile of the tip. The other choice is nylon. This stuff is strong (Kevlar is a type of nylon) and it combines hard-wearing qualities with excellent sound quality.

Signature models
Occasionally a drummer and stick-maker will work together to create a unique model. Mostly the mods consist of tweaks to existing models, but the changes can make a noticeable difference to how the sticks feel and behave. As well as the artist's signature, the sticks sometimes feature cool graphics. By the way,  the majority of sticks these days are tweaks to the 5A and 5B models.

Drum Stick Sizing
Originally, different models were given a number to signify the stick’s thickness, and a letter to represent its application: A = Orchestra, B = Band, S = Street. Sizing runs from large to small, so a 1A stick is thicker than a 7A. There is little correlation between classes of stick; e.g. a 5A and a 5B are different in length and thickness, and have different profiles. Note that some companies have created their own codes for different models, e.g. RK, HD, etc.

There’s lots to choose from, so the stick of your dreams is likely out there, although it may take some time to discover it. 

Tuesday, 23 August 2022

The Forgotten Head

I'm happy to see that single-headed drums have been mostly relegated to the used equipment ads, and that double-headed drums have regained their spot at the top of the food chain. But with more membranes comes more responsibly. Tuning a two-headed drum means tuning two heads and getting them to play nicely together.

Before we delve into the methods of tuning bottom (or 'reso') heads, we need to understand a bit of the theory and mechanics behind them. First, bottom heads trap sound inside the drum, and when we hit the top head, some of the sound bounces off the bottom head and back into the drum and out the top. This interaction brings more of the drum shell into the picture. The bottom head also influences tone, pitch, resonance, decay, and even stick response.

So let’s look at the three standard bottom heads: snare, bass and toms.

The thinness and tightness of the bottom snare head controls tone and pitch, and also determines how quickly the snares respond. Tune the snare head low and your snares will respond slowly. This gives the drum a more "throaty" sound.  Tightening the head yields more of the shell sound, improves stick feel, and allows the snares to respond more quickly. I keep my snare head “as tight as a board”. Anything less and the snare drum, to me, sounds flat and sluggish, and it likely won’t project well.

Bass Drum
These days the majority of bass drums have a fair amount of damping, often with a hole in the front head. Still, having even 80-90% of a front head will give you more resonance, more boom, and more beater response. That's important for feel as well as sound. The audience can feel a boom, whereas a sub-sonic 'blat' will go almost unnoticed. Drummers who want a full, round sound will keep both heads intact and cut back on the damping. They also tune the drum higher … in the 'boom' territory.

The old rule of thumb was, tune the top head for feel and the bottom head for tone. It works, although you'll end up with a fairly high “jazz” pitch. A better starting point is to tune both heads to the same pitch. I like to go for as much resonance and possible, which is usually found around the middle of a drum's range. From there I tweak the bottom head to fine tune. Tightening the head will reduce resonance and sustain, and usually increases overtones. Loosening the head can add resonance, sustain and a sense of fullness.

So take some time to experiment with those forgotten heads to make sure you're getting the most from the top heads.

Wednesday, 27 July 2022

What Colour Is Your Metronome?

I heard an interesting drummer one night. He had good chops, good ideas, and served the music well.  He also kept messing up the time. Few things make me sadder than hearing an otherwise capable musician who is in dire need of some metronome practice. 

I know what some of you are going to say: Practicing with a metronome will mess up your natural timing. I have only one thing to say to that. I've never been faulted for keeping good time.

When I was at jazz school, I landed a gig alongside a bass player whose time was wretched (but the job paid well and had other perks). About a month after starting this gig, my ensemble professor pointed out that my time was, uh, messed up*. He concurred that playing with someone who has bad time can seriously mess with your sense of time. Fortunately it's not a permanent condition. In contrast, playing with people with solid time will also improve your sense of time. And, what could provide a more solid partner than a metronome?

The key to working with a metronome is to focus on the metronome. Too often we start the metronome and then turn our attention to the exercise. You need to listen to the beat of metronome and then put your strokes exactly where they belong. A real torture test is to play on a hard surface. You can't fudge this one.

Slow & Steady
Practicing slow tempos will help with slow tempos. No surprise there.  A tendency to speed up is bound to show up at 40 bpm. Slow practice also gives you time to really focus on what you're doing.

Pedal to the Metal
The metronome is helpful in regulating faster tempos and also with speed development. To play a fast jazz ride at 300, just set your metronome at 300. To play faster still, bump the metronome up from time to time (also see

Inside Story
One of the best exercises I've seen for really nailing things down is to put the click 'inside the beat'. If the exercise is 8th-note based, count the clicks on the '&'. For swing or shuffle, set the metronome on the skip beat, as in 1-trip-LET.  For a real challenge, have the click represent 'e' or 'a' or the middle triplet. I find these fun to do and not that difficult. Mark Kelso's DVD has an excellent overview of this (

Spatial Perception
Another great challenge is to spread out the clicks. Begin with the click on all four beats, then on 1 and 3. Then let it be just on 1. Then let the click be the first beat of a two-bar phrase.

Just One of the Gang
People in the know (e.g. Bernard Purdie, Gavin Harrison, etc., etc.) treat the metronome or click track as just another member of the rhythm section. That should be your goal -- let the metronome be the clave to your samba.

BTW, I recommend spending no more than half of your practice time with a metronome (and only for the first 10 or 15 years). And don't worry. The music will 'breathe' just fine despite your excellent time.

* I heard a better one at a big band practice. The leader called out one of the trumpet players and said, “You're time's sort of all shot to hell”.

Friday, 15 July 2022

The Myth Of Independence

When I was at music school, we had a coven of enthusiastic drummers, and almost every week one of our members would see some note-worthy drummer at a club and dutifully report the next day that the player had '4-way independence.

But there's a problem with that assessment. In order to have all four limbs move truly independently, each one would need to have its own brain, and extra brains are pretty rare. Octopi have a separate 'brain' for each tentacle, and each can go about its business more-or-less unsupervised. But we poor humans have to make do with just the one brain to manage four disparate activities.

Despite evolution's short-sightedness, we've managed to get by fairly well in mono-brain mode. Take the old saw about walking and chewing gum at the same time. While these are completely independent tasks, they are simple repetitive movements that require almost no brain power. Once we start walking and chewing, we switch to auto-pilot and walking just happens! If we want to stop or change direction, the brain steps in and manages the change. Then it’s right back to auto-pilot.

We drummers take the walking-with-gum thing a lot further. We can keep a syncopated bass drum pattern going while playing a different pattern on a cymbal. We can then add some contrasting snare drum work. Throw in a hi-hat and it seems like 4-way independence. Four-way? Yes. Independent? Well, no ... not really! As with walking, one, two or even all of those actions are on auto-pilot most of the time. We can make little changes here and there, but then auto-pilot takes over once again, thanks to your remarkable nervous system.

Independence mainly relies on ostinatos and (so-called) multi-tasking. An ostinato is a set pattern that is repeated by one voice. Your ride rhythm, for example, is an ostinato, and it is played pretty much automatically, freeing the other limbs to do other things.

As for multi-tasking, humans can't really do this. What we actually do is quickly switch the focus of our attention, and our ability to do this is limited. We work on one thing, set it aside to work on something else, then put that task on hold while turning to a third or revisiting the first. For many tasks, we can switch in a microsecond. So I can leave that cool ride rhythm unattended while I do a bit of thing on the snare, and then my attention can go back to the cymbal.

Of course, all this wonderful co-operative activity is taking place behind the scenes in the brain -- what we often call muscle memory -- and for a lot of tasks it’s very useful. But for playing music, it's absolutely vital.

Sunday, 26 June 2022

Listen Up And Listen Good

We've all heard of speed reading. Maybe you've even learned how to speed read. At the very least, you likely have thought it was a good idea. Reading is an important business skill -- many business leaders even pride themselves on their reading speed and comprehension.

Wouldn't it be great if we could take a ‘speed listening’ course, one that would teach us to hear 'faster'? That way we’d be able to catch just about any turn in the road and respond immediately. Alas, there is no comparable speed-up program for listening skills. But do not despair. While there doesn't appear to be a body of resources on speed listening, we can apply some of the principles of speed reading to our listening habits.

Just the Facts
Speed reading begins by examining the material with a focus on picking out the highlights while passing over the minor details -- articles, adjectives, filler, etc. That way you're only spending effort on the most meaningful bits. Done well, this can increase both reading speed and comprehension. 

Music too has important bits and less important bits. The lesser bits will usually take care of themselves. That leaves you free to concentrate on the more important parts: structure, chord changes, phrasing, unique or repeated lines, dynamics, energy levels, changes in direction, other musicians' contribution.

Focus on Focus
If you try to focus on everything, you'll be overloaded and will miss out on a lot. Instead, work with the 'gestalt' -- those features that rise above the milieu. That will make it easier to respond to the more interesting things when they happen. If the guitarist is wailing, you can direct your energy to supporting that and almost ignore the bass player for a bit.

Listen Actively
Practice moving your attention from instrument to instrument. Listen to see how each band member contributes to the whole. A simple exercise is to simply name the orchestration --  which instruments are playing? And don't forget to listen to yourself.

Do It Full Time
... not just on the band stand or during rehearsal. Actively listening to the house music at a busy coffee shop or shopping mall is an interesting exercise.

Use the Available Tools
Charts and lead sheets can help you identify what sort of things to listen for: melodic lines, sections, figures, etc. Listen to and analyze good music as much as you can. Take notes to help lock your observations into memory.

Will your improved listening skills turn you into The Flash -- dominating your drum set and responding in a microsecond? Likely not, but you’ll be better prepared to hear the things you need to hear when you need to hear them, and sometimes even before you hear them!

Tuesday, 31 May 2022

Know Your Metal

Cymbals have an interesting history that dates back more than 3000 years. And it all begins with a chunk of yellow metal. Cymbals are made from alloy -- a blend of two (or more) metals. The alloy we’re all familiar with is what is traditionally called bell bronze, but there are other alloys to consider. So here is a quick guide to cymbal raw materials.

Brass is an amalgam of copper and zinc (roughly a 65/45 mix). It's easily recognized by its distinctive yellow colour, pliability and rather neutral tone. Although brass cymbals are usually thrown in as freebies with beginner sets, they do have some uses.

Often dismissed as a low-end metal, this blend of 92% copper and 8% tin is real bronze. The metal is somewhat easier and cheaper to make than bell bronze as it can be stamped from sheets of metal, but it's also the standard in a number of high-end cymbal lines. Easily identified by its coppery colour, the metal produces gobs of high end, which makes it ideal for rock. These cymbals are often bargain priced can be an excellent sound choice.

B20 (Bell Bronze)
This is the benchmark for professional cymbals. The tin content is upped to 20% (with perhaps some micro-ingredients thrown in) and the result is a yellowish-gold metal that yields lavish low end, bright highs, and anything in between. Always made from cast ingots, these are among the most complex, musical and prized cymbals ever produced.

B12, B15, B23, B25
Whatever the tin content, in the right hands all these bronze variants produce excellent cymbals. The general rule is: the more tin, the more low end whereas less tin will yield brighter tones.

Nickel silver
The odd man out here is a mix of copper, nickel and zinc (60:20:20). These rather rare cymbals can be identified by their blueish-olive colour. The tone is similar to B8, with a little more bottom end. They were a popular and less-expensive option in the past, and are rather uncommon these days.

Stainless Steel
Some artisan cymbalsmiths have been experimenting with this metal, creating interesting sonic products. Stainless steel can produce a quality cymbal with unique sound qualities and always with a bit of ‘trash’ although the metal cannot take the kind of abuse that bronze can.

Sunday, 15 May 2022

We’re Going to Need a Bigger Drum

I posted an article some time ago on how to play quietly but there is another side to the equation. So let’s have a look at  HOW TO PLAY LOUD.

Go Big
There are a lot of factors involved, but the first priority is larger drums. It’s just physics: A 24-inch drum has more vibrating area than a 20-inch one, which translates to more air moving, and that means more oomph and more volume. Larger drums can make the difference between struggling to be heard or being able to relax and just play. And let's face it, big drums do look pretty cool.

For Reference: Bonham Sizes

26 x 14 BD, 14 x 6 1/2 SN, 14 x 10 ST, 16 x 16 FT, 18 x 16 FT.

Carry a Big Stick
Even a small increase in stick size and weight can help you get more volume. If your go-to is a 5A, a 5B is a pretty easy upgrade. If you normally use maple sticks, consider switching to hickory or oak.

Tuning Up 
Lower tones don’t carry very well, so if you’re accustomed to tuning your drums in the low end of their range, then the drums won’t help you to project. Bonham’s over-sized sound was thanks to middle-of-the-range tuning.

Let ‘em Ring
Damping is almost essential on drums, but too much can interfere with volume and projection. When applying damping, use only as much as is necessary to get rid of any microphone-unfriendly ring.

Is This Thing On?
Speaking of microphones, this may be your best option. Why risk your physical well-being trying to compete with a bevy of amplifiers. If they all get to use huge amps and P/A support, then so should you.

Let’s Get Physical ... Safely
An overly physical style of playing can be exciting, but keep in mind that there is always the risk of injury. Have a look at how Bonham attacks the drums. Actually, he doesn’t. He’s a loud and heavy player, but at the same time his hand work is quite relaxed -- almost gentle at times. Volume and excitement do not require hard playing.

So get drums large enough to do the job, tune for projection, invest in some microphones, and above all, relax.