Tech Tip:Brushes and Bundled Sticks
by Dan Gray
The distinctive swish-swish of brushes is one of the signature sounds of jazz. In the hands of a master like Clayton Cameron, Ed Thigpen, or Bill Stewart, brushes really come alive. The use of brushes in popular music dates from the 1920s when jazz drummers in Chicago and New Orleans began using them. These days more rock drummers are getting hip to the wide dynamic range and variety of attack that brushes offer to add another aspect to their sound.
Brushes come in a huge variety of sizes, shapes, and materials. They come in configurations including: telescoping or non-telescoping; with metal bristles, plastic bristles, loop ends, or ball ends; with handles of wood, rubber, aluminum, etc. There are now more brushes available than ever before to suit nearly any style.
Telescoping vs. non-telescoping versions
Telescoping brushes let the brush retract into the handle for protection when not being played, as wire brushes can be very easily bent or damaged. One nice feature of telescoping brushes is that the width of the "fan" of the brush can be widened or narrowed to the player's preference for different sounds and feels. Non-telescoping brushes often come in a tube to protect them during storage.
Retractable brushes come with a variety of different ends. One popular style ends in a wire loop, which allows great glissando effects on the cymbals. Another popular option is a rubber ball end, which can be used on cymbals for mallet effects.
Brushes come with bristles that are made of wire, nylon, and plastic, and each option offers a different sound. It's advisable to keep a pair of each on hand. The thin wires used for wire bristles have a silkier sound due to the greater number of wires used; articulate a little better on cymbals; and have a flexible, snappy feel that's ideal for classic jazz styles. Nylon bristles are thicker than the wire variety, with fewer of them used in the brush for a stiffer, lighter feel. Plastic bristles are larger yet, for a darker, stiffer, coarser sound that lends itself well to acoustic pop and rock.
Choosing your brushes
I would suggest a pair of standard telescoping wire brushes, such as Zildjian's Retractable Wire Brushes, as well as a pair of nylon brushes like Pro-Mark's B600s. For heavier brush sounds, try Vic Firth's Jazz or Rock rakes. This way you can become familiar with the unique properties each has to offer.
There are a couple of excellent learning aids available for learning traditional brush techniques, including the Warner Brothers Essence of Brushes video and The Sound of Brushes CD
There are many different kinds of bundled sticks available, going by a bewildering variety of names. They all consist of rods or dowels of various thicknesses bundled together for a sound that's somewhere between sticks and brushes. For a quieter, more brush-like sound, try bundles with smaller rods, like Regal Tip Flares or Pro-Mark Hot Rods. For a heavier, stick-like sound, try Pro-Mark Thunder or Lightning Rods.
Brushes and bundled sticks offer worlds of different sounds and feels for contemporary drummers. They both make it much easier to fit into lower-volume musical situations and will spur your creativity with their unique colors and sounds.