Mallets for drums and other percussion instruments

What are drum and percussion mallets used for? What is the difference between a stick and a mallet?

The difference between sticks and mallets is simple:  Drumsticks are generally tapered toward the tip, allowing the stick to rebound off the drum.  Mallets do not have a taper.  They have a round or oval head attached to the end of the mallet.  The head of the mallet greatly affects the sound of the instrument.    

Are there different types of mallets for specific instruments?  Are all mallets the same?

Not all mallets are the same.  There are mallets made specifically for drums such as timpani, bass drum and tenor drums.  Mallets are also produced for pitched percussion instruments such as xylophone, marimba, concert bells, and vibraphone.  Specialty mallets are available, specially for use on steel drums, cymbals, gongs, and chimes. 

Drum mallets

Some drums are almost exclusively played with mallets.  Others can be played with sticks or mallets.  A few examples of drum mallets are listed below. 

  • Timpani (also known as kettle drums) mallets – Timpani mallets have a similar diameter as drumsticks.  The handle is most often made from wood, although aluminum, carbon fiber, and other materials are sometimes used.  A hard substance, usually wood or cork, makes up the core.  The core is usually wrapped with felt, although other materials may be used.

    A few attributes contribute to the sound produced by the mallets.  They are listed below.
  1. The thickness of the wrapping material
  2. The firmness of the wrapping material
  3. The type of core material
  4. The overall size of the mallet head

    Wooden headed mallets may also be utilized for very short, loud hits.  Timpanists will have a vast collection of mallets in order to attain the appropriate definition and texture for each musical situation.
  • Tenor drum mallets – Tenor drums can be played with specialized drum sticks, although they are often played with mallets.  Tenor drum mallets can have a tradition construction: wooden handles and felt-covered heads.  For greater articulation, the mallet heads may be comprised of nylon or other synthetic materials. Aluminum-handles can lessen weight while adding durability.
  • Drum set mallets – While the drum set is mainly played with sticks, mallets are occasionally used to attain a different sound.  Drummers will also use mallets to play cymbal rolls.  Drummers traditionally used timpani mallets on drum set.  Many drummers today utilize implements such as the Vic Firth Dual-Tone drumstick/mallet combo.  It has a regular drumstick-style tip on one end with a felt mallet head on the other end.  The drummer simply turns the sticks around to go from a stick sound to mallet sound. 
  • Concert bass drum mallets – These mallets are intended to be played on large concert (orchestral) bass drums.  The hefty wooden handle and large mallet head are meant to draw the sound out of the drum.  This style of implement is usually offered as a single mallet, but “roller” mallets are packaged in pairs to allow for bass drum rolls.  As with timpani mallets, various head sizes (and degrees of firmness) are offered to attain the desired articulation.  The mallet heads are usually covered with felt, but rubber and wooden heads can also be found.
  • Marching bass drum mallets – These mallets, unlike most concert bass drum mallets, are produced in pairs.  This is due to the fact that both sides of the bass drum are played.  Marching bass drum mallets are generally larger than timpani mallets, yet smaller than concert bass drum mallets.  The handles are usually wooden, while the mallet heads are covered with felt. 

Mallets meant for one instrument can sometimes be used on others (as long as they do not cause damage to the drum or drumhead). For example, here is a video of Steve Smith playing the drumset with timpani mallets.

Mallets for Keyboard Percussion Instruments

Mallets for Keyboard Percussion (also known as Pitched Percussion) – The smaller bar size of pitched percussion instruments require a smaller mallet.  The mallet heads are smaller in diameter than those found on timpani mallets.   The handles are also thinner than those of a timpani mallet.

There are mallets specifically designed for the individual keyboard instruments.  They are mentioned below.  Note that there is some crossover: a mallet may occasionally be used on more than one type of instrument.

  • Concert bell mallets – Concert bells are played with hard mallets.  They usually have plastic, birch, or rattan handles.  The small, round mallet heads are usually made of hard plastic or a similar synthetic material. 

    Some musical pieces instruct the percussionist to play with brass-headed mallets.  Care should be taken when playing brass mallets on student-level bell kits, as the soft metal bars may dent.

    Some bell mallets can also be played on xylophone.  Brass mallets, however, should not be played on xylophone. 

  • Xylophone mallets – Xylophone mallets typically have round heads made out of plastic or rubber.  They can also be covered in yard for a warmer sound.  The handles may be made out of rattan, birch, or plastic.

    Some mallets in this category, specifically soft rubber and yarn-covered mallets, can also be used on marimba.

  • Marimba mallets – The heads of these mallets usually consist of yarn wrapped around a rubber or synthetic core.  The amount of yarn and firmness of the core greatly affect the tone production on the marimba.

    Marimba mallet handles are often constructed of rattan or birch.  Some marimba mallets will also work well on the vibraphone.

    In addition to standard mallet offerings, the Malletech company offers a “Late Night Series,” allowing the performer to practice at a quieter volume level.

    Percussionists will often hold two mallets in each hand.  In four-mallet performance, the percussionist often uses two identical pairs of mallets.  Some manufacturers offer a package consisting of four graduated mallets, with softer mallets for the bass tones and medium to medium-hard mallets for the middle and high tones.

  • Vibraphone mallets – The mallets used for vibraphone often have mushroom- or diamond-shaped heads.  Thin yarn or fabric cord is used for wrapping the core of the mallet.

    Vibraphone mallets often have handles made of rattan or birch.  Most vibraphone mallets can safely be played on the marimba.

    Vibraphonists will often use either two or four mallets when playing the instrument. Here is a video of vibraphonist Tim Collins discussing hi mallet collection.

Cymbals and other Metal Instruments

Cymbals and gongs have their own unique playing techniques. They also require specific mallets, which are discussed below.

  • Cymbal mallets – Percussionists are often required to play cymbal rolls (or swells).  In these situations, it is common (and acceptable) to play the suspended cymbal with soft yarn marimba mallets.

    Some manufacturers produce mallets specifically for cymbal rolls.  Vic Firth offers the Becken mallet for this purpose.  They have wooden handles which are similar to the diameter of a timpani mallet.

  • Gong mallets – These large metal instruments require a large mallet.  The core is usually made of hard rubber, which is covered by felt or another soft material.  They usually have large, wooden handles. 

  • Chime mallets – These mallets have the shape of a mechanic’s mallet.  Due to this design, they are sometimes known as chime hammers.  The mallet head is made of rawhide or synthetic materials. 

  • Steel drum (also known as steelpan) mallets – Steel drums are oil drums that have been modified and repurposed as a musical instrument.  The mallets consist of a wooden or aluminum rod with a rubber covering the striking surface. 

How many mallets should a percussionist own?

Percussionists usually own a variety of mallets for each instrument.  This allows the performer the ability to choose the exact sound needed for the piece.  For one piece of music, the percussionist might choose a soft mallet in order to attain a light, airy sound.  For another piece of music, that same percussionist may utilize a harder mallet in order to achieve a loud, staccato sound.

How many mallets should a percussionist own?  It is recommended to have at least one pair of all-purpose mallets for each instrument.  These are usually the mallets in the middle of the manufacturer’s lineup: mallets that are not too aggressive or too mellow in tone quality.  Harder and softer mallets should then be added to the percussionist’s collection.

Mallets can be expensive, so it is important to keep them in good condition. They should be held by the handle only. Percussionists should try to not touch the head of the mallet. They can be stored and transported in a mallet bag or case.

Similar Posts