Traditional Drum Stick Numbering
The traditional method of numbering drum sticks, using numbers such as 3S, 2B, 5B, 5A, and 7A, comes from the earliest days of drum stick manufacturing, when a number and letter were assigned based on the stick's size and application. The exact specs of each model tend to vary slightly from manufacturer to manufacturer, especially in the taper and tip (more on this later). This method for specifying basic sizes and shapes became standard in the industry.
What the Numbers and Letters Mean
The numerical part signifies the circumference of the stick. In general, the lower the number the larger the circumference, and the higher the number the smaller the circumference. For example, a 7A stick is smaller in circumference than a 5A, which in turn is narrower than a 2B. An exception is the 3S, which has a larger circumference than a 2B despite the number.
The letter suffixes "S," "B," and "A" originally indicated the recommended application.
"S" model sticks were designed for "street" applications such as drum corps and marching bands. These large sticks were designed for the louder volume and projection needed for these uses.
"B" model sticks were intended for "band" applications such as brass bands and symphonic orchestras. With a smaller circumference than the "S" models, they were easier to control and thus especially popular with beginning drummers. 2Bs continue to be recommended by drum teachers everywhere as perfect starter sticks.
"A" stands for Orchestra. "A" model sticks were designed for big band and dance orchestras. They're smaller in circumference than "B" series sticks and lend themselves to softer playing. These sticks continue to be very popular with many jazz and rock players.
If "S" stands for Street and "B" stands for Band, why does "A" stand for Orchestra, you might ask. This anomaly has been credited to Ludwig Drum Company founder William F. Ludwig, Sr., who reportedly chose the "A" designation because it printed better and he simply preferred the letter A to O. The designation has continued to be used to this day.
Drum Stick Anatomy
The butt end functions as the counterweight to the tipped end of the stick. Used in reverse to the tip, the butt end can be used for extra volume and more power. Zildjian DIP sticks feature a rubber-dipped butt end with a tacky surface for enhanced comfort and a sure grip.
The shoulder is the area just behind the tip and is often used for cymbal crashes and swells, as well as alternating with the tips on the hi-hat for a wide variety of staccato sounds. The shoulder's shape is called its taper, and influences the sound and feel of the stick.
Short-tapered sticks have a stiffer feel and are more durable, while long, more narrowly tapered sticks are more fragile and flexible with a more delicate sound. The body is main area of the stick, and can be played on the rim for a wooden sidestick sound.
The most popular woods used in drum stick making today include hickory, maple, and oak. Maple, the lightest wood used for drum sticks is low in density, and lends itself to lower-volume situations and light, fast playing. Hickory is by far the most popular wood used in drum stick making, and is denser, heavier, and more rigid than maple. Hickory also is excellent at absorbing shock, which reduces hand and wrist fatigue, qualities that also make hickory the wood of choice for making baseball bats. Oak is a very dense hardwood that's extremely durable, and is heavier than hickory. Some drummers seek out sticks made of exotic woods such as rosewood or bubinga.
Synthetic sticks are made of a variety of materials including polyurethane and aluminum. They are extremely durable, and some, such the Ahead aluminum drum sticks, have replaceable tips; something you can’t do with wooden sticks.
Stick tips come in four basic shapes, each with unique tonal qualities, and in a choice of wood or nylon.
Round tips deliver a focused sound that's especially good on cymbals, ranging from the tight ping sound of small round tips to the broader, fuller tones of larger round tips.
Barrel tips have a larger contact area for a broader, more diffuse tone.
Pointed or triangle-tipped sticks produce a focused medium tone.
Teardrop or olive-shaped tips produce a range of sounds from tightly focused to diffuse depending on how they are held.
Nylon tips are popular with many drummers for their increased durability and brilliant, distinct sound, while some players prefer the softer, warmer sound of wood tips.
Selecting Your Sticks
Many drummers use a variety of different sticks for different styles of playing. In general, heavier sticks are the obvious choice for rock and R&B styles where a strong back beat is called for. Lighter sticks tend to be favored for jazz, folk, and acoustic styles. Experimentation is the key here, so try out a lot of different sticks to find those that are right for you. Many drummers like to use heavier sticks for practicing than they do for the gig in order to develop strength and stamina.
For playing a wide variety of styles and all-around use, 5A sticks with nylon tips are a good choice. For beginning drummers, 2B sticks are great for developing precision and technique. Again, play the field and find a good fit for your style, and remember the mantra of all great drummers: practice, practice, practice.