Sunday, December 8, 2013

Gear Up: What's in your tool bag?

"If you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail." - Traditional Proverb*

Any musician knows that you can never have enough stuff. Whether it's reeds, mouthpieces, picks or strings, you need tools at your disposal. For percussionists, this means sticks and mallets - and a lot of them - and a variety of other small instruments and tools.

One of my students recently asked me which was my most expensive single bag or case. I pointed to three: a cymbal bag (lots of metal means lots of dough!), DW kick drum, and my mallet bag. The last one surprised him.

"Isn't that just all your sticks and stuff?" Yes. It is. And it's maybe my most valuable bag - if not monetarily, then certainly practically.

Think of yourself like a construction worker.** Even if you only have one specific job, like framing, you are going to need a wide range of tools. Hammers, a variety of saws, measuring tapes, levels, squares, nail guns and air compressor (if you're using pneumatics), and more - not to mention special tools for problem solving, like a jigsaw or power drill, and all of the accessories. And if a tool fails, you'd better have a backup. Can't be running to the hardware store while your partner holds up a wall!

For every tool you don't have, you either can't do the specific task, or you'll do it with the wrong tool. And if you do it with the wrong tool, you're not likely to do it well - if you can do it at all - and it will be a lot harder than it needs to be.

Drummers and percussionists are actually a lot like the construction worker in our example. We need to have tools in our bag that will allow us to play a wide variety of styles and instruments at a moment's notice on any gig.

You can find literally thousands of lists of tools you should have in your gig bag, and many of them are extensive. Specific brands and models are the subject of another blog post (or several), but here's a bare minimum list of a few things I think are critical on any and every gig for a percussionist.

Light, medium and heavy drum set sticks.
At a minimum, you should have three pairs of kit sticks in good repair. Not only will you face different styles - like jazz and hard rock - you'll face different volume needs, environments, and preferences of band leaders, just to name a few. If nothing else, you can answer a confident yes, when the inevitable question is asked: "Hey, do you have something lighter/heavier you can use?" Besides, it's easier to actually play louder or softer if you have heavier or lighter sticks.

Brushes and rods.
Aside from their obvious tonal and stylistic uses, brushes and rods provide great options to get to lower volumes without having to use 0.05" high strokes. In super low volume situations, you'll need rods or brushes just to get below the tolerance of, say, the mother of the bride. You might end up even using your hands!

Timpani mallets.
More than one pair is preferable, but you'll need something in the medium range. You might end up playing timpani (but if you're the timpanist on the gig, you need a very different bag of tools - again, for another blog post), but more likely you'll play cymbal rolls and your drum kit with them. Because of that, buy something cheap that you won't mind getting beat up, lost or broken by the bass player. I use these. They're passable for rolls, and they sound great on my toms.

Keyboard mallets.
Again, at bare minimum, you need a pair of something either cord or yarn wrapped that could be used on vibraphone, marimba or xylophone in a pinch. A set of four would be even better. You'll also need a pair of phenolic or acrylic mallets that can be used on bells (glockenspiel) or xylophone. They can also be used on wood blocks and other small percussion if needed.

Egg shaker? Yes. That, too. I'd also recommend at least one plastic barrel shaker for medium to soft volumes, and a metal barrel for louder settings. As a side note, try practicing basic rock beats with your hi-hat hand playing eighth or sixteenth notes with a shaker instead of your normal hat pattern with a stick.

Pencils, pen, sharpie marker and highlighter.
No, I'm not kidding, and keep the pencils sharpened. In fact, get one of these and throw it in your bag, too. Most musicians have at least learned to carry a pencil, but the other tools are useful if you need to mark up your music, quickly write out a chart or sign for your check. And at some point, you're going to sign an autograph. Pull out the sharpie and make the kid happy, okay? You're the drummer!

Ear plugs.
As a very young man, I got asked by the coolest band in town to sit in on a "jam." It happened to take place at a new local studio, and we played Voodoo Chile at volume eleven for forty-five minutes. It was my first real hearing damage. I would have killed for a pair of ninety-nine cent foam ear plugs.

Miscellaneous tools.
A drum key (or two), a roll of gaff tape, a note pad (legal size), your business card(!), a metronome, and anything else you've ever needed on a gig and didn't have.

All of my recommendations come from personal experience. I've played hundreds and hundreds of gigs over the last fifteen years or so, and every item on this list has been needed on at least several occasions. Over time, you'll develop your own list of must-haves, and you'll never leave home with out it.

As the ol' Boy Scouts say, be prepared!

*If you're a nerd (like me), there's some interesting and brief background on this proverb here.

**Full disclosure: I actually worked a construction job for my father, who was a general contractor, for many years. We built homes. Lots of homes. It was my dad who taught me the value of not only having great tools and the right tools, but also taking care of them. 


  1. Yes, I'm commenting on my own post again.

    From a few of my uber-smart drummer friends, here are a few additions to the list: small practice pad, band-aid(s), athletic tape, Allen wrenches (hex keys), small triangle and beaters, flashlight w/a flexible neck, scotch tape, clothes pins and an extra pair of reading glasses.

    Seriously, each of these suggestions is very valuable. Consider adding them to your gig bag. Thanks, friends!

  2. Hey Mr. Sorenson, this is Jerry (percussionist at bountiful high). Are there any specifec yarn/cord mallets you would reccomend for general use? (e.g. marimba, vibes, and xylo)

    1. There are lots of great options. Here are a couple of lists I like:

  3. I'll check those out, thanks.


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