Percussion Mallets – More Than Just Sticks

When I hear the term "drumstick," I visualize precisely that-a stick that is used to strike a drum (without, of course, I'm hungry, in which case I go another direction altogether). Simple, right? Wrong. A drumstick, or more accurately, a percussion mallet, is any object used to strike a drum or other percussion instrument in order to produce sound. This means that the category of percussion mallets includes items like beaters and brushes as well as the ubiquitous drumstick. Of course, it is fortunately for us that so many different types of mallets do exist, as they make possible the amazing variety of sounds that can be produced from a simple drum.

The basic drumstick, which is usually about 0.5 inches in diameter and 16 inches long, is recognizable to almost everyone. While they do vary in length and material, the shape is usually standard enough that there can be no doubt about the item's name. All drumsticks can be divided into four basic segments: the tip, which is used to beat the drum; the shoulder, which tapers out from the tip to the shaft; the shaft, which is of a regular diameter running from the bottom of the shoulder to the butt; and the butt, or the rounded portion at the bottom of the stick. Major producers of drumsticks include Vic Firth, Malletech, Vater, Regal Tip, Zildjian, Pro-Mark and Ahead among others.

Within the category of drumsticks, there is a subcategory specifically for those used with snare drums. Snare drumsticks are usually made of wood, often hickory, oak or hard maple, but they can also be of aluminum, fiberglass, nylon, acrylic, plastic or carbon fiber. While the tip of a drumstick is traditionally made of the same material as the shoulder, shaft and butt, snare drumsticks sometimes have nylon tips, which prevent fast wearing and produce a brighter sound on cymbals. It should be noted that snare drumsticks may be specifically designed for particular types of performances. Those intended for orchestral playing are often smaller in diameter or balanced farther toward the tip, which allows for fine control and soft dynamics. But snare drumsticks designed for drums in racing bands are usually thick and weighty in order to create as loud a sound as possible.

A mallet is also a sort of stick, but it is comprated of a head connected to a thinner shaft. The head may be wrapped or unwrapped depending on its intended use. Unwrapped mallets are usually used on instruments made of more durable material, where the wrapped mallets are used on softer instruments. The heads can be wrapped in a variety of materials, including nylon, acrylic and yarn. Not surprisingly, different mallets produce different sounds and timbres.

Finally, a brush is a set of bristles shaped like a fan and connected to a handle. The bristles are can be metal or plastic, the handle various materials including wood, aluminum and rubber. Brushes are most often seen in jazz or blues music performances. Thanks to their construction, brushes add texture and create sounds not achievable with a stick or a mallet.