Friday, November 24, 2017

Ahead Drumsticks: Why Did I Switch?

For the past 5 years I have not only been playing country music but have also been playing 4 hour gigs! Aside from the toll it takes on my body it's also been pretty rough on my drumsticks! Most of the gigs aren't the hardest hitting gigs out there but let's be honest, 4 hours of hitting something will take its toll on you and your gear and that's on top of hitting drums for the past 35 plus years.

Recently I made the switch to Ahead Drumsticks and have never been happier. I am still surprised at my decision to do this because of the journey that brought me to using what is technically called a hyper-form engineered drumstick better known to the rest of the world as a non-wood drumstick. Let me share the details that led to this decision.

Let's start with my gear: Thanks to all that I learned regarding drumming technique from my old teacher Greg Alban I have never been known to destroy drum heads and cymbals. There are times when I do lay into my drums but I would never claim to be the hardest hitting drummer out there. Yes, you will definitely hear me from the drum riser but that's a combination of my playing and my drum sound (another gift from Greg as his tuning method is the best I have ever used). I have an open tuning yet many people are surprised to hear that I use Drum Dots on my toms. These dampening products help cut down the ring but don't choke the drum so my drums still have that big sound that people have come to expect from me. 

Then there are my sticks. Like just about every drummer out there I have pretty much used wooden sticks from the moment I started drumming. Regardless of the brand I was always told to use a hickory species of wood because hickory is good for rebounds. My preferred size was a 5B but would use a 2B for practice pad work in order to get a better work out. All of this worked just fine when I was younger and playing 1-2 hour rock gigs back in the Los Angeles club scene or gigs of various musical genres that I found myself in once I started performing in the Tucson music scene because many of those gigs were in venues smaller than a night club. Then I started doing 4 hour gigs back in the night club scene as well as at casinos and that's when I started to notice things that I didn't find to my liking.

The Reality of Wooden Drum Sticks 

First, I had grown tired of being covered with wood chips. At times I felt like I was caught in the middle of a termite attack but I just figured it was part of being a drummer. I would find it all over my drums, embedded in my Drum Dots, all over my pedals and all over me! The worst part for me was when I would find it in between the edge of my drum heads and the rims because that had an impact on the sound of my drums.

Second, I would love the sound and the feeling I got when I started a gig with a fresh pair of sticks. The drums had such a full sound, the hi-hats had a nice crispness to them and those grooves where I played the ride bell with the shoulder of the stick really moved. However, by the 3rd set the shoulder was no longer the perfect shape it was at the beginning of the night so my sound wasn't quite to my liking and that wasn't cool because that's when the set really gets cooking. Some would say that I should just grab another stick but it's not that simple. Yes, I had a drumstick endorsement for many years but since I am not a rock star I don't get my sticks for free. Even though I received a most generous discount I still had to pay for them so I'm not going to just toss the stick away or into the audience. Wasted money and a potential lawsuit for poking someone's eye out weighed heavily on my actions.

Third, I hate the feeling I would get when I broke a stick in the middle of a song. In the past I usually tossed a stick out when the shoulder was worn down but now with all of these long gigs and constant hitting there are times when my stick would just split down the middle or when the tip would just fly off. Again, I just thought it was part of being a drummer but it's not something I like to deal with. Most importantly, it's an obstruction to my performance and while it's not a big deal to just grab another stick and continue with my groove it still serves as a temporary distraction. To speak further on such an issue, wood is wood and while drum stick companies insist that they use the best wood there are times when a stick will not live up to the what is advertised by the drum stick company. So yes, there were times when I would simply do a rim shot with a fairly new drum stick and BOOM, it splits. Really? I just bought this and now it's already broken? Yes, that does happen.  

Finally, since I order sticks in bulk I don't have the chance to walk in a music store and roll the sticks to see if they are perfectly straight. Sadly, even though it was a rare occasion, there would be a stick here and there that wasn't straight and of course you can feel that when you're playing. Again, I paid for this and while I could send it back do I really want to deal with the hassle of sending it across country and getting another stick? Further, am I getting what I paid for?

Finding Another Path

Recently I had a full weekend of gigs and experienced something that I had never experienced before, pain. It was nothing major but the sensation I felt in my finger joints concerned me for two reasons: First, was I doing something wrong from a technical point of view? As we all know, it's not unheard of to develop some bad habits and when that happens it's time to reevaluate one's playing. So, that took me back to my practice pad as I took a good look at my grip as well as how I executed my strokes, rebounds, etc. From what I could see everything looked okay so I started to think of other possibilities. Perhaps it was the fact that I've been drumming for over 35 years so the constant striking of a drum and vibration of the stick had now taken a toll on my hands. After all, I've had numbness on the palms of my hands for years but there had never been any pain so again, this was concerning. Finally, arthritis does run in my family so I wondered if this was the beginning of a new experience due to the fact that I am also getting older. Whatever it was, I didn't like what I was feeling and it started to preoccupy a lot of my thoughts. That was when I turned to something that had been sitting around my house for some time.

Earlier this year I joined the artist roster for Ahead Sticks and Percussion Products. For a while I was using their practice pads and other gear while also buying their products for my percussion class at St. Augustine Catholic High School. I wasn't using their sticks because I was already on the artist roster for another drum stick company so my Ahead rep and I worked out an agreement for me to use their other gear. Still, I was curious so I ordered a pair of sticks just to see how they felt. They were okay and even though I did order the the grip tape I didn't wrap them around the sticks. I think my old school sensibilities got the best of me because I have never used any kind of wrap on my sticks and I didn't plan on starting now. The snob in me took over even though the instructions regarding the sticks state that you have to use the grip tape because it is difficult to grip aluminum when one is sweating because it is still a type of metal.

So I just put the sticks away and didn't give them another thought...until I felt some pain in my finger joints.

One day while I was home alone the thought crossed my mind to give these sticks another try since I had gone back online and read how they in fact cut out more vibration than wooden sticks. Since there was no one around to see me commit the crime of wrapping my sticks with grip tape I decided to go for it. Once I became a drumming fugitive I took the sticks to my practice pad and all I could say was WOW! I couldn't believe how light they felt and how easy they were to play. The grip tape didn't have any effect on my rebounds and it felt almost as if the sticks were dancing in my hands. This was very important to me because playing country music requires a lot of dynamics especially when we play ballads, waltzes and shuffles.

The next step was to take the sticks to my electronic set. Again, there was a difference in what I felt with me seeing how easy it was to go around the pads. Aside from that, I could feel a difference in my rolls as well as my ability to play complex patterns with more efficiency.

Now it was time for the big test, which meant that it was time to take these sticks to the stage and the timing couldn't have been better because I had a three gig weekend coming up and I planned to see how well these sticks would hold up. I showed the sticks to my band mates and asked them to keep an ear open to see if they heard any difference in my drum sound as well as in my playing.

The first thing that turned their heads was a fill I did during a fanfare at the end of a song. I went around my drums before hitting the last crash and kind of freaked myself out because I couldn't believe how fast my single strokes were when I went around the drums before the final crash. Apparently some of my band mates noticed it too as they turned around and offered looks of astonishment. Aside from that I was told during our first break that my drums sounded bigger and seemed to have more attack.

I agree! I use birch drums so attack is an important part of my sound but these sticks really brought out a more focused attack that really cut through the sound of the band. Most importantly, I was able to perform without a whole lot of effort. Everything just felt easier to play but the sound still filled the room like never before. Playing country music also means that I do a lot of cross stick playing and I was amazed at the sound that came from these sticks with plastic sleeves on the shoulder.  I also noticed the clarity of my crash cymbals, how easy it was to do those swing patterns on the ride cymbal and of course, that big and consistent sound that came from the bell on the ride cymbal.

I was having a blast so getting to the end of the last set didn't seem to take long at all. I was not as tired as I had been in the past and my fingers didn't hurt anymore. I couldn't believe how much vibration these sticks removed. During the last set I was curious about how much vibration these sticks actually removed so I grabbed a wooden stick out of my stick bag and played one song with that stick in my right hand. Unbelievable! I couldn't believe how much vibration I could feel. Had I really been dealing with this for the past 35 plus years? How did I only start feeling pain in my fingers now when it was obvious that I had been dealing with this from the beginning of my playing career?  This was eye opening to say the least.

Finally, there would be seven more shows after this first gig with my new sticks and I am happy to say that the sticks felt the same way they felt the first time I used them live. Even though the plastic sleeves were a little worn there was no change whatsoever in terms of how they felt and how they made my drums sound. Now I have more sticks in my stick bag, mostly as spares in case I drop a stick as well as some replacement sleeves and tips so it makes me wonder how long it will actually be before I have to buy any more sticks or replacement parts. I don't see that happening for quite some time. 

I am happy to admit that this was a time in my life when I was more than happy to swallow my pride. Here I was using a non-wood pair of sticks with grip tape of all things! Then again, why should I care what someone thinks? I don't set up my drums in the traditional way because I have an ergonomic set up. I approach country music in ways that are not typical of most country drummers. Even my solo drumming act focuses on things that are not typical of what many other drummers do. So, why should my choice of sticks surprise anyone?

Myth Buster 

When I first researched Ahead Sticks I came across websites and message boards with claims that these sticks ruin your cymbals and drum heads. I am pleased to say that this is not true! Nothing of the sort has happened to any of my gear. Drummers who bash their gear are what ruin cymbals and drum heads. I have long believed this because I have seen it first hand for years and none of these drummers used Ahead Sticks. You take any drummer with bad technique hitting their gear that is angled in a non-constructive way and I promise you that they will be buying cymbals and drum heads on a regular basis.

I have been blessed to have good instruction over the years and while that has spared me many injuries that are common to many drummers it has also saved me lots of money as I don't have to buy new gear on a regular basis. In fact, I am so confident in the way that I play drums that I never feel hesitant to play another person's drum set because I know I won't damage any of their gear. Meanwhile, do you want to sit in with my band on my drum set? Sorry Charlie because it's not happening because I don't know what kind of technique you have and I won't sit there and watch you damage my instrument. Am I a hypocrite? You're damn right I am but I'm an honest hypocrite to say the least.

Money doesn't grow on trees and knowing that one pair of Ahead Sticks is the equivalent of 6-10 pairs of wooden sticks. I have 3 pairs in my stick bag so imagine the money I will save this year considering the fact that I usually went though about a dozen 5B sticks a year (I told you that I wasn't a basher). Yes, my wooden sticks got chewed up during 4 hour gigs but I have been known to be able to use the same pair of sticks for 2-3 weeks at a time. Of course that meant I had to deal with balance issues as the wood chipped away but that was just something that came with the territory, right? Well, not anymore.

I just wish I have discovered these sticks much sooner.

Carlos Solorzano

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