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I’m a British-American. I was born and raised in the US, and I’ve lived all over, from the Midwest to the Deep South. But my parents emigrated from England shortly before I was born. I feel this gives me a unique insider-outsider view of American culture. I find myself comparing and contrasting America and UK (as well as Europe on the whole) constantly.
And while I’m known to be overly critical of American culture from time to time, I also recognize that the US truly is a unique and beautiful place, the best in the world at many things. The American inventive and multicultural spirit is really inspiring, and as a result, so many amazing cultural phenomena have originated here. By my personal opinion, jazz is among the finest. What an inspired approach to music! What an important event in music history.
The Impact of Jazz
I think you can really think of music as pre-jazz and post-jazz. True, jazz was only really popular in the mainstream for about two or three decades, from the 20s to the 40s. By the 60s it had pretty much settled in the role it currently plays- high art music, a historic genre, an acquired taste. For fancy people who like feeling fancy. An indulgent exploration of tones and virtuoso playing. Hard to follow sometimes, unless you know what to listen for.
But jazz just introduced so many musical ideas! The modern drum set was invented as a way for one person to play the role formerly accomplished by an entire percussion section, in a concert hall or marching band. The kick drum with the pedal, the hihat cymbal, the very idea of creating drum patterns that can be played by a single person. Jazz’s contribution of the drum set is so influential! In modern genres like electronic, pop, and hiphop, where there is no physical drum set used at all, the electronic percussion still usually emulates traditional drum kits.
Jazz and Drumming
So if you are a jazz drummer, or a jazz drummer-to-be, you are actually continuing a very proud and important tradition. Not to mention that great drumming is very important in the way non-musicians enjoy music. (I’m mostly a music producer and songwriter, and I’ve gradually realize that laypeople just really, really respond to drums. More than most people realize.)
While jazz drumming could be seen as “where it all began” it’s actually approached very differently than most modern genres. The entire focus of the playing is different, and the beat is driven forward in a different way. Most modern genres are powered by the kick and snare patterns, and the cymbals are used to accentuate the rhythm and keep time. But in jazz, the cymbals lead, and the drums follow. This plays a big effect on stick choice!
Aside from this fact, jazz drumming tends to be softer and far more dynamic than other genres. In jazz, the subtlety and expression of the playing is given a platform to shine. Ghost notes, accents, tone variation, the works. Whereas other modern genres tend to prioritize loudness and consistency.
Choosing Sticks for Jazz Drumming
Choosing the best drum sticks as a jazz player is no simple task. The number of different factors to consider- stick size, material, head shape, taper length, more- is headache-inducing. Not to mention that naming conventions are archaic and confusing (higher numbers mean thinner sticks, for example.) But read on for a breakdown that should clear the air.
Stick naming conventions actually have a pretty interesting history. They consist of a number and letter. As I mentioned earlier, the higher the number, the thinner the stick. And the letters were A for orchestras, B for marching bands, or D for dance bands. Yes, that convention has somehow stuck around despite being hopelessly out-of-date. It’s helpful to just recognize a few very common sizes. The most all-around, or even “typical” size is 5A. It’s a great size for beginners, and can be adapted to pretty much any genre, jazz included. 7A sticks are among the thinnest and lightest, and usually the top recommendation for jazz players. On the other end of the spectrum, 2B sticks are massive, preferred by very heavy players in genres like rock and metal.
Since jazz tends to be softer and more dynamic, thinner sticks like 7A shine. The light weight makes them more prone to breaking, which is why other genres with heavier playing go for more substantial sticks. But the lighter sticks are also more expressive and lighter on your hands.
The three most popular wood types are maple, hickory, and oak. These three form a spectrum from the lightest to heaviest material. Many jazz players prefer maple sticks, which are very light and flexible. The flexibility also means they absorb the most energy, making them the easiest on your hands. So 7A maples are a common recommendation for jazz players.
On the other hand, oak sticks are the heaviest and densest. Oak absorbs the least energy and is therefore harder on your hands. It’s also the most durable. Hickory is the middle ground between these materials.
Drum sticks usually have wood or nylon tips. Wood is the default and the most common. This gives a deeper, richer, fuller, and more organic tone. On the other hand, nylon-tipped sticks are known to be great for very bright, sharp, well-defined cymbal work.
There are at least a half-dozen tip shapes, and to make matters worse, their names are inconsistent. Tip shape also has a subjective, difficult-to-describe effect on tone. Teardrop tips are the most common, and very adaptable and comfortable across styles. But my jazz stick recommendations run the gamut of tip shapes, so this seems to be one of the most subjective aspects of stick choice.
Choosing the Best Sticks for You
Understanding the different aspects of drum stick design only gets you so far. Because while many players play jazz with conventionally jazz-oriented sticks, others are known to play with sticks that belong in a punk or metal band. There’s no substitute for trying out different kinds of sticks and seeing what suits your playing style and kit the best. The work is worthwhile- once you find “your sticks” you are likely to stick with them (no pun intended) for a very long time. Combing some drummer forums and other articles though, I saw veterans consistently recommending some of the same models. I’m sure these are the best places to start!
Another note: I highly recommend buying from a trusted brand like Vic Firth, Zildjian, or others, over lower-cost and lesser-known brands. Sure, you pay a premium, but it’s not just for brand-name markup. The trusted brands built their reputation on quality control and testing. They actually put the work into making sure each individual stick is very well-made, and pairing the sticks proficiently.
Drummers’ Favorite Jazz Sticks
Vic Firth SD2 Bolero
The Boleros are not the only stick I saw with multiple recommendations. But I have to say, no other stick seemed to inspire its level of enthusiasm or excitement. Vic Firth is a relatively new company, founded in 1963, but have a high reputation for quality and care. Their sticks are all manufactured in Maine. Hilariously, Vic Firth also made wooden salt shakers, pepper grinders, and rolling pins until relatively recently. I guess it wasn’t hard to get into more cylindrical wooden products, but I can’t help but picture playing drums with Vic Firth salt and pepper shakers…
The Bolero sticks are maple, so they are lightweight, but are thicker than the typical 7A jazz sticks. This “fat but light” stick, with its small round tip, seems to be a winning combination. Some of the comments I found:
“I love the sound of the maple on my ride cymbals. the little round tip […] really gives you a nice mellow yet totally woody attack.”
“They produce a very full, deep and warm sound on drums and get low but clear pitch out of cymbals.”
Other Vic Firth Sticks
Aside from the Boleros, I saw multiple recommendations for the Peter Erskine Ride sticks and the American Custom SD4 combos. The Erskines have a long taper and hickory teardrop tip, a combination that was crafted with jazz cymbal playing in mind. In the words of one player: “The long taper and back-heavy feel contribute to the best rebound I’ve ever felt in a stick. The shape of the tip lends a very articulate, delicate sound to cymbals, particularly the ride. If you’re like me and enjoy playing intricate sticking patterns on the ride but don’t want the wash of the cymbal to muddy things up, this tip is great.”
Alternately, the American Custom SD4 is slightly thinner with a barrel-shaped tip. Vic Firth boasts that the sticks are great for “bright, articulate cymbal sounds. Light and fast for jazz or chamber music.”
Vater Manhattan 7A
When it comes to the traditional “7A is for jazz” approach, I saw loads of enthused drummers advocating for Vater Manhattans. These hickory sticks are slightly more inexpensive than Vic Firth’s offerings, and are available with wood or nylon tips. And since I saw competing advice recommending either tip material for jazz, I’d say you ought to try both and see what feels right to you. Vater also manufactures all its sticks in the USA. They advertise that the Manhattans are “longer than an average 7A with a small round tip for defined cymbal work.”
Zildjian Jazz Sticks
I can’t help but round out my recommendations with Zildjian’s 7A hickory jazz sticks. How do you argue with one of the world’s oldest continuously-operating musical instrument companies? Zildjian was founded in 1623 in what is now Istanbul. Beyond that, how can you possibly quarrel with a company that got into cymbal manufacturing by mistake, because the founder was an alchemist who was trying to find ways to turn base metals into gold?! It turns out one of his failed gold attempts made for a killer cymbal. Anyway, the company maintains an excellent reputation for quality, and is a popular favorite among players.
Armed with the pride a jazz drummer deserves to have, and the knowledge about what makes for great jazz sticks, you’re ready to demo sticks searching for your favorites. So get out there and make some beautiful rhythms! Keep working, and always feel the joy of the music!
Robert is a freelance audio engineer and the lead writer for Range of Sounds. Robert has had a lifelong obsession with dissecting and understanding music and is a self-taught composer, multi-instrumentalist, songwriter, singer, and recording engineer.