Updated: Jan 3, 2020
Although this article is aimed more towards advanced players, it mostly deals with what to listen for when practicing, and how to hold the sticks, which, of course, is very basic, and can be dealt with at any level, from lesson one on up.
Can you make your drumsticks sing? They will sing, you know, if you let them. Try listening for it next time you practice. It works best when practicing on a hard rubber drum pad. When playing on actual drums and cymbals, the resonance of the drums and cymbals tends to drown out the resonance of the sticks, although actually,when played in a certain way, one actually can indeed make the wooden sound of the stick heard more prominently even as it strikes the cymbal. Drummers like Jack Dejohnette, Adam Nussbaum, and Steve Davis do it all the time, as did Tony Williams, Paul Motian, and many other drummers. I think Dejohnette's use of very dry ride cymbals helps a lot, but most definitely, it's also in how he holds and plays the stick. Now I am sure a lot of you are wondering what the heck am I talking about, “getting the drumsticks to sing”? Well, believe it or not, a drumstick does have an audible tone to it. If you hold a stick lightly between thumb and forefinger, hold it up to your ear, and tap the stick lightly with your 3rd or 4th finger, you will hear a tone. And it will be of pretty definite pitch, too. If both drumsticks have the same pitch, you have a very well matched pair of sticks. It is the weight mainly that gives it its pitch, although also the stick's width, length, and the type of wood used has a lot to do with it. But since we will assume that the two sticks in a matching pair are designed the same way, with the same wood, then mainly what we are checking is whether the weight of the sticks match. Because if they don't, they will have an unmatched pitch. Getting two sticks that are perfectly matched pitch-wise, is not easy to find. More often than not, they are at least slightly unmatched. But you want to get them as close as possible. Some drummers, like myself, may go through quite a few pairs in the store, giving them this pitch test, before deciding on a pair to buy. When I was still a teenager, I studied for 3 years with the great Joe Morello. He used to teach in a big music warehouse kind of store in New Jersey which sold musical instruments wholesale to other music dealers. Sometimes Joe would buy a pair of sticks, and this is where I learned about the pitch-matching test. Joe would be very meticulous about that, as I would watch him bringing sticks to his ear and tapping them. This is where I learned this from. But choosing matching drumsticks is only one reason for wanting to listen to the pitch to which your drumsticks “sing”. It is when practicing on a hard rubber drum pad that I can most easily hear and focus on the pitch my drumsticks make, because then that sound can almost become more predominant, or at least equally predominant as the sound of the drum pad being struck, depending on how you are holding the stick and how the stick is striking the drum pad. Letting my sticks sing changes my approach to how I play, because it is like I am opening up and allowing for extra space in the sound, making more space for a new added sound. The result is that the sound of the sticks and the sound of the drums and cymbals being struck by the stick, compliment each other, as they act together to create a unique sound of their own. So, how, then, does one make this happen? Well, start off by experimenting with your grip. I suggest you start with full strokes. Experiment by varying the tension in your fulcrum, and where on the stick exactly are you gripping it? And how sensitively are your fingers reacting to the rebound? Are they helping or hindering the motion? Are you choking the stick in any way? You may actually try at first just throwing the stick down to the pad with no grip at all, or just enough of a grip to keep from losing the stick and having it drop on the floor. With no grip at all, the sticks will sing. Try to hear it, and then try to recapture that sound with a little more control of the stick so that you can have the sticks sing as you play. If your fulcrum is too loose you will not have the control of the sticks that you need, which means you will not be able to effectively utilize the natural power in the motion of the rebounding sticks. But then again, if you are gripping the sticks too tight, or gripping on more places other than your fulcrum, like if you are using other fingers to grip the stick, you probably will also lose much of the tone of the stick. When you really have it right, you'll know. Your sticks will let you know, with their happy, tuneful voices. They will sound free and joyous. It's much like a lot of other things in life. Take baseball, for example. The bat and ball make a certain sound when they make contact. A grounder has a certain sound of its own. A left fielder, a right fielder. A one base hit. A two base hit... But what does a home run sound like? You'll know when you hit one! Well, try not to settle for anything less than home runs, when getting your sticks to sing. Try it, and be patient – very patient. Think of your sticks, yourself, and everything else in life, for that matter, as your children. Very sensitive beings, very delicate, but with patience and time, and much love, they can become capable of great achievements, and most importantly, great joy! And singing! So, enjoy the process! Until next time!