Best Drumsticks for Bucket Drumming

Bucket Drummer SXSW

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One of my favorite parts about my job is that I never know what’s coming next. I’m a freelance musician, and I take projects and gigs as they come. It can be kind of stressful, and I know that a lot of people would not be happy to live this way- there’s a lot of uncertainty and blind faith involved. And it’s not like I’m an investment banker over here, I have to live a pretty minimal and non-materialistic lifestyle, and work a lot, to make ends meet. But I’m rewarded for all these sacrifices with a really rich and soul-nourishing career. And every day, I learn about new breadths and depths of the vast world of music.

Case in point, today I have been tasked to recommend drumsticks for bucket drummers. I live just off a busy tourist drag in Hollywood, and I’ve visited my share of cities and cultural centers. So I’ve seen bucket drumming before! I’m aware of it. I think I’ve even jammed with a bucket drummer in New York once, playing my ukulele while he provided the rhythm. But until this morning, as I started researching the topic in more depth, I really didn’t appreciate this wonderful corner of percussion performance.

And if you are also just getting into bucket drumming, check out Gordo’s videos- he nails the style and common techniques with elegance and grace. An excellent introduction to bucket drumming!

An Ode to Percussion

I think people tend to take for granted just how powerful percussion is. When we think of the members of a typical band for instance, we might think of the vocalist as the most important, and the other members as all equally contributing to the sound. Bass, guitars, keyboards, drums, maybe a horn section. And the drummer is usually hanging out in the back of the band, happily beating away. But as a producer and songwriter, I’ve gradually come to realize that after vocals, the percussion is the most important element of the overall sound. Musicians and non-musicians alike respond really strongly to the drums! It’s what gives the song a heartbeat, it drives the rhythms forward. Adding or subtracting drums from a song makes a huge difference as to how the overall song feels.

And the amazing thing about drumming and percussion is how many ways there are to approach it! Sure, we tend to think of the drumset, and that’s definitely the standard approach. There’s no limit to what you can spend on making the fanciest imaginable drum setup. Don’t ask me, ask Neil Peart! But for every ridiculous over-the-top drum setup that rivals the cost of an upmarket sedan, there’s somebody slaying it in a subway station with about $15 worth of buckets and sticks. Trading in the budget for raw spirit and enthusiasm.

Bucket Drumming: One Man’s Trash

Bucket Drummer on Subway PlatformBucket drumming’s appeal is pretty obvious and doesn’t require much untangling. It’s so inexpensive and lofi. It’s an ingenious upcycling of humble materials. Lightweight and easy to transport. A great opportunity for showmanship, with the obligatory stick flips and technical fast rhythms. You can be a one-person show or jam with others. And it’s an inexpensive and fun activity to bring into a classroom and teach children. And come on, you can sit on one bucket while playing on another, how great is that?!

So when you’re getting ready to give bucket drumming a try, you might suddenly realize that choosing sticks is a more complex proposition than you expected. I mean, in its purest form, bucket drumming has about two elements- the bucket and the sticks. You might be tempted to avoid putting any thought into stick choice. After all, isn’t the whole point that you are using whatever you have lying around to make music?! Making a carefully considered selection of sticks seems counterintuitive.

But musicians can always play their best, and feel their best, when they are using the right gear. Once you have something that legitimately feels better to play, you’re never going back! Shopping for drum sticks is surprisingly complex, with about a half dozen parameters that vary between sticks. So read on for some untangling.

Choosing Bucket Drumsticks

Stick Size

Like I said, sticks vary based on their size, material, tip material, tip shape, and more. But the size of the sticks is the most immediate and important aspect of buying them. Playing with sticks of a different size has the most noticeable effect on the drumming experience.

But stick sizes are weird! They’re hard to understand at first. Here’s a quick rundown. They are denoted with a pairing of a number and letter. The higher the number, the thinner the stick. The higher the letter, the heavier the stick. The size 5A is basically the default- it’s the most common size, the recommended starting point for beginners. 5A sticks can be adapted to pretty much any playing style. 2B sticks are fat and heavy, popular for powerful genres like punk and metal. 7A sticks are the lightest common size, recommended for expressive and dynamic genres like jazz.

When choosing stick size, there are no firm rules. There are jazz players who famously use absurdly heavy sticks, for instance. But you should at least understand the effect size has. Lighter sticks are easier on your hands, faster to play with. But they are more prone to breaking if you are a heavy player.

Bucket drummers play best with sizes 5A, 5B, 7A, and 7B. If you are new, start with 5A, like any drummer. You probably should not go any thicker than 5A or 5B. Lest you risk damaging your bucket over time, and hurting your hands as you play on very hard surfaces (striking the bucket’s rim and the concrete ground are common bucket drumming techniques.) Players who want to prioritize speed and quickness might try moving to 7A or 7B sticks.

Other Stick Considerations

The three most common materials for drumsticks are maple, hickory, and oak. Maple is the lightest and most flexible material, while oak is the hardest. Considering bucket drummers usually do best with light sticks, I’d recommend maple or hickory sticks.

Drumsticks can have wood or nylon tips. Wood usually gives the fullest and richest tone, but nylon has a sharper attack that could be satisfying for speedy technical playing. I noticed that Gordo seems to prefer nylon tips.

Bucket drummers presents a unique challenge when choosing sticks. Typical drumstick designs, with the shaft tapering to the tip, are prone to damaging the bucket, as well as breaking themselves. Many bucket drummers solve this problem by turning the sticks around and playing with the back ends, or by playing with headless or timbale sticks.

Best Drumsticks for Bucket Drumming

Vater

I’m putting Vater sticks at the top of my list because they are usually the most inexpensive of the popular stick brands. But you’re not cutting corners when you play with Vaters- pro drummers and amateurs alike speak highly of them. Vater’s Hickory 5A sticks are an excellent starting point for any drummer, bucketeers included. They’re available with nylon or wood tips- I’d honestly recommend starting by ordering a pair of each to explore which you prefer. It’s too subjective for me to suggest one or the other.

If you want to go lighter, jazz drummers are fond of Vater’s Manhattan 7A line. How can you argue with that kind of endorsement?

Vic Firth

Vic Firth is another musicians’ favorite brand. I was writing an article recently about drumsticks for jazz drumming, and I saw forum post after forum post by veteran jazz drummers just gushing about their favorite Vic Firth sticks. They’re a relatively new company, founded in the mid 60s by a percussionist who wanted to create the best sticks for musicians he possibly could. Vic Firth sticks are still 100% manufactured in the US.

Vic Firth’s American Heritage series 5A sticks are an excellent first stick for bucket drumming. And while they are slightly thicker, try their Peter Erskine series, a favorite of jazz players for their lightness and tone.

If you find yourself turning your sticks around and beating the bucket with the back ends, maybe you ought to try the Alex Acuña Conquistador timbale sticks, in a flashy crimson at that! Doesn’t hurt that the price edges down from Vic’s other sticks.

ProMark Rods

Rod or bundle sticks are a unique approach that might work great for bucket drummers. These sticks are actually made of about a dozen thin dowels banded together. They were developed as a middle point between brushes and traditional sticks, and are ideal for quieter and acoustic jam sessions. Bucket drummers may appreciate the variation in tone they provide, as well as the lightweight feel. Check out ProMark’s three lines, Cool Rods, Lightning Rods, and Hot Rods (listed in order of increasing diameter.)

Novelty: Light-Up Sticks

Here’s a recommendation that veers away from musicianship into showmanship. But bucket drumming is often just as much about putting on a show and standing out, as it is about playing music for its own sake. Rockstix sells color-changing motion-activated light up sticks. I must warn that they are relatively expensive, heavy, and not durable. If it weren’t for their light-up function, they would be a very tough sell. But if you want to put on a memorable show, give them a try! Who knows, if you are playing for tips, your increased revenue might offset the cost of the light-up sticks. It’s show business!

Conclusion

Bucket drumming is something of a return to form, really. Stretching back through history, drumming has been a simple and communal affair. Everyone gets together, beats animal skins stretched across wooden bodies, and dances and sings. After the ostentatious extravagance of expensive drum sets on huge stages, there’s something refreshing about a person on a street with a bucket. Flowing with the bustle and rhythm of the city, improving everyone’s mood as they pass by. Isn’t that what music should really be about? Living in the moment, touching people in their daily lives? So grab your bucket, buy some great sticks, and practice those stick twirls and foot-lifts. Keep working, and always keep the joy of the music alive!