How to Choose Drum Sticks

  • Posted on: 3 July 2011
  • By: Sheldon Kreger

Drum sticks are highly specialized musical instruments. With so many brands making top-quality sticks, selection comes down to personal preference. It's easy to be nit picky when the market is as flooded as it is today. However, there are a few guidelines you can follow to ensure that your sticks are matched to your playing and personality. You need to buy and spend some time with many brands and styles of drum sticks to find your perfect pair.

Does the Brand of Drum Stick Matter?

Short answer: Yes.

Long answer: There are cheap drum sticks which will harm your sound and playing. However, all professional level sticks - regardless of brand - will be of equal quality. Although many will protest to this statement, I have always been happy with every stick company I have tried.

Professional quality stick brands include:

  1. Vic Firth
  2. ProMark
  3. Vater
  4. Zildjian

What Distinguishes Professional Drum Sticks?

All of the stick brands listed above make sticks with the following standards:

  1. Roundness: Sticks should always be perfectly round. If you have any doubts, find a flat surface (such as a large practice pad or counter top) and let the stick roll down the side. Sure, it will veer off in one direction or another, but it won't wobble or bounce up and down.
  2. Equal length: Stand them up on the tip, and you'll know right away if your sticks are equal in length.
  3. Pitch Matching: Read the sleeve of the sticks you are thinking about buying. The manufacturer should mention that the sticks have been pitch-paired by computer analysis. This means that each stick will vibrate and resonate at the same frequency. This ensures that sticks are equally dense, and will guarantee that your drum rolls will sound clean when executed correctly. You can hear the pitch of the sticks by gripping them loosely and playing on a practice pad.

What Personal Preferences Should I Consider?

Professional drummers use different sticks for different styles of music. Keep the following in mind when you're at the music store and when you sit down for band practice:

  1. Weight: In general heavier sticks are used for heavier playing such as metal, rock, and punk. Lighter sticks are used for softer playing in jazz, fusion, and pop. However, there are plenty of exceptions. Ian Froman, a prominent jazz musican, uses big, heavy sticks in his playing. I personally prefer lighter sticks, and I'll only push a medium weight, even for blast beats.
  2. Taper: The taper determines how quickly the stick becomes narrow toward the tip. This will affect both rebound and overall feel of all weights of sticks. See example image below.
  3. Diameter: The thickness of the stick determines weight and feel.
  4. Tip Shape: The shape of the tip of the stick will determine the tone the stick produces on the drum set - especially cymbals. Some are long and narrow, while others are perfectly round. Take a look at the example image below.
  5. Tip Material: Nylon tips are generally more durable and produce more attack on both cymbals and drum heads. Wood tips break more frequently but have a more mellow, true tone. When playing heavy, I practice with nylon tips and perform with wood tips to avoid breaking lots of sticks. However, drummers like Omar Hakim like the brightness of nylon tips on the cymbals during recording. I personally like more warmth and less definition.
  6. Paint: Painted sticks look cool leave marks on cymbals, which is not fun to clean up. They are also slippery.

Vic Firth Signature Series -- Peter Erskine Ride Stick Nylon Tip SP2
Vic Firth Signature Series -- Peter Erskine Ride Stick Wood Tip SPE2
Vic Firth Signature Series -- Peter Erskine Wood Tip SPE1
Vic Firth Signature Series -- Peter Erskine Nylon Tip SPE1

The top stick maintains a slower taper. It is also smaller in diameter. I use this stick on the practice pad and for fast pop or jungle drum 'n' bass tunes.

The lower stick has a faster taper, a shaped wood tip, and a larger diameter. Both are made of hickory. I played these sticks for about 5 years, but I have now switched to a similar maple model from a different brand.
Kinds of Wood

Again, personal preference prevails when it comes down to the choices of wood we use as drummers. The most common are hickory, maple (sugar, American, or rock), and Oak (Japanese). All manufacturers offer sticks in all kinds of woods, tips, diameters, tapers, and so on.

  1. Hickory: Hickory drum sticks are the most common. They are medium density and hold up decently to heavy playing. They will fray apart and slowly crack before they break completely.
  2. Oak: Oak is a very dense wood. Oak drum sticks are therefore very heavy and durable. I've never seen a pair of oak sticks break, probably because I play lightly and almost never use them. I feel like I'm playing with rods of marble when I play with oak drum sticks.
  3. Maple: Maple drum sticks are the lightest. Different companies use different varieties of maple such as sugar and rock maple. All varieties feel very similar. Maple drum sticks dent rather than fragment, as opposed to hickory. But, when they do break, they break completely in one large crack. I use maple sticks exclusively behind the drum set.

Synthetic Drum Sticks

Ahead makes drum sticks with nylon shoulders and metal/nylon bases. They offer interchangeable weights, tips and lengths. I have heard that these sticks are extremely durable and well worth the steep price if you are a heavy player.

Ahead Drumsticks

Sheldon's Favorite Sticks

Vater Percussion Sugar Maple Blazer Wood Tip

Heavy for maple, but light for their diameter. I use them on the practice pad for endurance drills.

Vater Percussion Sugar Maple Recording Wood Tip
Very, very light and narrow. I use these in small acoustic venues when I need the definition of a stick, but very low volume.

Vic Firth American CustomĀ® SD2 Bolero
These are my go-to drum sticks. I use these for everything - they swing effortlessly on the ride cymbal, yet have enough diameter to let me grab and smash them hard on the crash. The small tips articulate very, very lightly, letting my cymbals open up at low volumes and accentuating the deep tones of my drums rather than the slap of the heads. Fantastic!!!

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