#1 - Stick Uncertainty
Is there anything more personal to us drummers than our drumsticks? You can argue that a drummers snare is what makes each of us unique, giving an individual their sound, but the fact remains that sticks are our tool. The thing we use on a daily basis to do what we do on whatever kit we are playing on. But how do you find the perfect pair for you? The perfect pair for your hands. I've recently gone through another period of stick uncertainty (as I call it), testing hundreds of pairs of sticks with the minutest differences imaginable. Those who haven't done this, you'd be surprised how different a stick measuring 0.565" in diameter and a stick at 0.570" can feel in your hands. The ultimate aim is to get a stick that suits your playing at this moment in time. All drummers at some point in their career have to decide what kind of drummer they are and what kind of drummer they want to be. So are you; a heavy hitter? A melodic player? A rhythmic player? Laid back or energetic? A groove player? Or maybe even a lazy player? When you've decided this and been truly honest with yourself, then you have to address what you want to improve, what you want to be able to do that you can't and what you want your drumming identity to be. Through this, you can develop a pretty good idea of what you want your stick to do for you, but you must note that no stick in the world will magically make you a better drummer! It can only aid you - think using a hammer to try to tighten a bolt, it's not happening.. a stick is a tool and you need the right tool for the job. Changing hammer will not suddenly make the bolt tighten, it may jam it further in but only a spanner can do what you're needing to do. Still with me?
In the early days, you're given a pair of sticks and you just learn to play, for the most part doing as you are told. That's it, no complications and no concept of the bigger world of drums - stick racks spanning as far as the eye can see with at least 100 drummers using the exact same pair the world over, an unfathomable amount of cymbals creating a shine as blinding as the sun each with their own unique sound and feel. This period of drumming is where I think all drummers are introduced to what I call the Old Trusty Faithfuls: the good old 5A drumstick. We all remember our first set of sticks, what brand they were, what size they were and when we stopped using them. For me, I had a pair of ShawX 5A drumsticks. From early on in my career, I was using a variety of different types of 5A sticks; I was a very explorative drummer... Okay, I left my sticks at home all the time so I inherited a thousand pairs off my then drum teacher. But as I matured and reached my teens I'd found my stick of choice, the Vic Firth 5A, that was all I would ever need, the one for me. Or so I thought.
At the age of 15, not only was I playing in the school jazz and soul band, and every single opportunity that presented itself at school, but I had also just finished playing in my first "real" band with a couple of guys from the year above me. I was breaking into rock and roll, at least that's how it felt. I was super cool with my long curly hair and gigs every other week after copious amounts of rehearsals at our expense and the only currency in which we were paid was "the experience of being in a pub underage". It was here I hit the big time, I started playing in a grunge band, with two other long-haired angsty teens. Very quickly found that my Vic Firth 5A drumsticks just couldn't handle my newfound rock chops. Frequently splitting in two and flying off into the crowd injuring several people in the process... Okay, they didn't actually injure anybody or even come close as a matter of fact, but it did hurt my wallet significantly as I began powering through 3 or 4 pairs a gig. My only option (aside from not hitting as hard because that is a completely ridiculous concept for a 15 year old idolising the likes of Bonham and Grohl) was to get stronger sticks. I hated 5B sticks because I found they were too bulky for my hands and didn't have the tips I wanted - I wanted sticks like Taylor Hawkins with the ball tips but his were too much like a 5B in diameter - so they were out of the question. I settled on a pair of Zildjian 3A sticks with a ball tip with next to no taper on the shoulder, after flitting between these and the Vic Firth equivalent - straight down the middle between a 5A and a 5B. They felt great in my hands, and they felt strong and reliable; I only broke about 5 or 6 of these in about 4 or 5 years. But it was around 4 or 5 years later I had my second battle with stick uncertainty.
At University I became disillusioned with my ever faithful 3A drumsticks. They were difficult to play with at faster tempos with accuracy and near impossible to play quieter than moderately loud. So I embarked upon my next battle, I didn't want to change my sticks too much, however. I wanted the same tips but just a little thinner/lighter. Something more musical. I settled on a pair of Pro-Mark TX808L Ian Paice Signature sticks: the same tip and similar shoulder but a little thinner in diameter allowing my playing to be more musical and accurate in my playing. These sticks allowed me to get into the more intricate and finely nuanced areas of drumming, to a point.
After almost two years using the TX808Ls, I felt like my playing stagnated and like the sticks were no longer fit for purpose. I just couldn't get any of the tones I wanted or any of the musical variety I really wanted as a professional drummer. Every time I'd play with the TX808L's I began playing really simple, rock or hip-hop based grooves and I realised that I just couldn't move them around the kit fast enough. The shoulder and the tips didn't allow me to play as musically or as precisely as I now wanted to be playing, I had to change my sticks... again. [noticing a pattern yet?]
This leads up to present day.
When I finally settled on a stick, after months of deliberation, I realised that through using the TX808Ls in the latter months of their time with me, I had rendered a whole spectrum of my playing almost inaccessible. A whole realm of dynamic contrast, tonal experimentation and extra heaps of "feel" had been relatively untouched. I had but touched the surface with my once beloved TX808Ls. Now, those of you who have seen the Gear section of my Drum page will know what sticks I am currently using so the surprise of the next bit may be somewhat spoiled. For everyone else, I want you to guess what sticks I ended up with by how I describe what I needed my sticks to do... Ready?
I needed my sticks to be light on the cymbals with a nice clarity created by a smaller tip, a sharp crisp tone from my snare all the way into the rim if brought back for different snare accents on different rim shots when playing funk. I needed it to be articulate in my hands, not so short that I was reaching but not so long as to be tangling myself in knots whenever I tried to embark on a flashy gospel chop fill. In amongst all this musicality, I really needed them to be able to take a pounding if necessary and withstanding washing on a cymbal or cracking on a rim or thundering through linear grooves.
The sticks I ended up with were...
- *obligatory drum roll* -
...big gigantic oak 1A Vic Fir- I'm joking! Could you imagine! I couldn't manoeuvre those beasts around the kit if I wanted to!
I ended up with Vic Firth Extreme 5As - nice amounts of power, reach, tone and musicality. Now, in no way am I saying these are the best sticks in the world or the most perfect sticks in the world. Not at all. But what I am saying is that these are absolutely perfect for where I am, and where my playing is, at this point in my career right now. Sticks are incredibly personal and my style of playing suits an Extreme 5A, as it stands. I think there's something wonderfully poetic about coming nearly full circle back to the Old Trusty Faithfuls, but with some kind of a variation. I like to think that near symmetry reflects a growth in my own playing as all I wanted my sticks to do with each battle of stick uncertainty was be more musical and more musical, and MORE! MUSICAL!
So, I know most of you will know what to be looking for when choosing a stick but for those of you that don't, feel free to ask me, or simply get involved in the comments and discuss with your fellow drummers. Thank you for taking the time to hear my take on drummers and their sticks.
I'd love to hear your thoughts on Stick Uncertainty and how you get on with the sticks you have, how you got there and whether they are almost perfect but there are no sticks on the market that do exactly what you need. Leave your thoughts in the comments along with what sticks you thought would be perfect for what I was looking for, and start a discussion amongst yourselves.