Where Did Drumstick Sizes Come From?

If you’re anything like me, you’ve wondered why the sizing standards for drum sticks are so bizarre. Why is 7 smaller than 2? What’s with the A, B, CCC letter designations? What does it all mean, and how did it come to be this way?

The history behind the standardization process is actually pretty interesting. And beyond that, this article is going to help you understand what they mean and how you can apply the right stick to your playing.

History

Back in the early 20th century, there was a large range of stick sizes, from size two to size nine. The number represented the diameter of the stick — the larger the number, the smaller the diameter. The accompanying letters designated the intended musical application for the stick.

For example, a thinner stick used for playing in an orchestra was marked with an “A.” Why not an “O,” one may ask? According Matt Dean, author of The Drum: A History, noted drum manufacturer William F. Ludwig chose A because of his “preference of the letter and displeasure at the aesthetic quality of the printed letter O.”

1960s Ludwig 2B Drumsticks

The medium-sized “band” or “B” stick was for playing Big Band jazz, while the large “street” or “S” sticks were for marching band drummers hitting thick, calf-skinned drums and competing with loud brass players.

Since sizes 7, 8, and 9 were too small in diameter to be used in anything but orchestral or small acoustic band gigs, they were only marked “A.”

Sizes 5 and 6 could be used with a big band or an acoustic group, so they were made in both “A” and “B” distinctions.

Sizes 2, 3, and 4 were too large for orchestras, but good for big bands and street marching bands, so they came in designations “B” and “S.”

The Modern Drumstick

Today, drummers can still use some of the classic designs. 7A, 5A, 5B, 6A, and 2B are all still common. Some other distinctions, like “S” sticks, have all but disappeared, as innovations like nylon tips, heavier materials, and higher quality drums have made the marching sticks of old unnecessary.

Modern drumstick manufacturers have expanded greatly from the old designs, offering a large range of specialized sticks. No longer conforming to the old naming standards, many brands use their own designations.

Vic Firth 85A Wood Tip Drumsticks

You can find a Headhunter “CCC,” with a grooved handle and a size and style close in dimension to the 2B. Or you can try a Vic Firth 85A, a “5A on a diet,” whose diameter falls somewhere between a 7 and 5.

Although some of the standards from the early days have been abandoned, the idea that certain sticks are for certain applications still remains. Of course, evolving musical styles and the growth in the use of microphones has resulted in different applications than those found in the 1930s.

Jazz drummers — no longer competing for volume from the bandstand — often choose 7As, for example, which allow them to play quickly and with articulation. 5A and 5Bs are generally reserved for rock, and 2Bs are for heavy-hitting drummers.

Additionally, 7As are easy for younger drummers to hold and control, while larger-handed drummers may prefer 5s or 2s. For all players, 2Bs can make great practice sticks, so that when you switch to your performance-sized sticks, you can fly around your kit with ease.

What your stick is made of also has a profound effect on your sound, stick durability, and the speed at which you can play.

The most popular wood is hickory, which is dense, durable, and fairly inflexible. Maple, the second most popular, is lighter and less durable but sounds brighter. Oak, the hardest and least common wood for sticks, is exceptionally dense and makes for thick, clear hits.

Which brings us to the dark art of stick selection: the tip.

The size, shape, and composition of the tip can make a remarkable difference to your sound.

Don’t believe me? Let’s try an experiment.

Find your most expressive ride cymbal. Grab a stick with an acorn-shaped tip, a similarly sized stick with a barrel tip, and another with a round tip. Play your ride with each stick.

Acorn Tip
Barrel Tip
Round Tip

The round tip is tight and focused, with almost a “ping” sound. The barrel tip’s sound is less focused, but richer and rounder, with a longer sustain. The acorn tip is crisp, clear, and warm, with a medium sustain.

If you’re ever dissatisfied with the sound of cymbals, be sure to try a new tip before shelling out for a new ride. Or — who am I kidding — go ahead and buy a new ride along with some new sticks.

A further option is the nylon tip. When first invented by Joe Calato of Regal Tip, back in 1958, they allowed wooden sticks to last longer and take more abuse. But nylon tips also proved popular for their brighter, sharper tone. This can really help you cut through a mix without drumming harder or switching to heavier sticks.

The taper your stick has will also affect your playing. Long tapers make the stick lighter, faster, and more flexible. Short tapers are more durable, louder, and make the stick feel front-heavy. Medium tapers feel very balanced.

Making Sure You've Picked the Right Pair

Drummers have developed a kind of ritual when choosing a new pair of sticks.

Go into any drum shop and you will see drummers rolling sticks on a flat surface. By rolling the stick, you can determine its straightness. If the tip is bobbing up and down, then the wood could be warped. Try to find a pair that rolls evenly, with the tip remaining centered, to be sure the wood is cut well.

You might also see drummers trying to gauge the relative weight of each stick. Each stick of an ideal pair will weigh exactly the same. Today’s manufacturing standards are high, making the weight of sticks fairly consistent, but it’s always good to be certain before you buy.

Another trick is to click both sticks together. You’ll want to hear that their fundamental tone is the same.

Retire a stick after the shaft is worn down or when the stick is out of balance. Sticks are meant to be disposable, but using good technique will mean you’ll dispose of them less often."

Finally, let’s talk about sticks breaking and chipping. It really is less about how hard you hit and more about your technique. Most pros I know don’t break new sticks. They retire a stick after the shaft is worn down or when they feel the stick is out of balance. Sticks are meant to be disposable, but using good technique will mean you’ll dispose of them less often.

That said, using 7A maple sticks on a hard-hitting rock gig will ensure your sticks don't make it to the third tune. If you like the 7 size, I suggest you look for hickory or oak sticks with nylon tips and a short taper. You can also use the butt end of the stick for a song’s more powerful sections. But you should also expect that you will be breaking more sticks than the drummer who uses the larger 5B sticks.

Practice hitting your cymbals with a glancing, swiping motion rather than a straight-on, smashing action. Hitting a cymbal hard, straight onto the edge, will also increase the likelihood that you will crack the cymbal. With many high-end cymbals priced above $500, sloppy technique can get expensive fast.

Ahead Lars Ulrich Signature Metal Drumsticks

Use the stick’s taper, rather than the tip, to hit the cymbal, and this will ensure your sticks last longer too. A great tip I learned from a seasoned pro was to slightly angle your crash cymbals to help achieve this swipe technique.

Some of the heaviest drummers use sticks with a metal shaft at their core and replaceable nylon sleeves and tips. Some guys love them, though others may find that all that heavy impact is being sent straight into their hands, forearms, and wrists.

If you choose metal sticks, you must be careful to replace the nylon sleeve as soon as it begins to wear away. Exposed metal can tear through your heads and crack your cymbals.

In the end, stick selection all boils down to which stick feels the best to you. Whether thick or thin, wood or metal, ball-tipped, acorn-tipped, or nylon-coated, you can experiment with different shapes and sizes to choose the one that works best. Or keep a broad selection so you’re ready for any gig.

The important thing is that you go hit something!


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