Mallet Selection

© 2001 James Walker

One's selection of mallets plays a crucial role in the sound a player produces on any mallet instrument. This month's lesson addresses the options available when selecting mallets, both for specific playing situations, and for one's personal preferences in general. The information presented here is important to all percussionists, but less-experienced players, and music educators, will benefit greatly from this lesson.

(Please note that preferences for particular makes and models of mallets are highly subjective. This lesson is not designed to name the "best" mallet for any given circumstance, simply to illuminate the options available to players.)

Mallet shafts

The choice of materials for the shafts is significant, as this is where the player is "in contact" with his instrument. Mallet shafts are created from a variety of materials, the most common being rattan and birch. (Other materials include plastic, bamboo, and in rare instances, wire.)

Rattan offers more flexibility than birch, and many players find that this flexibility is preferable for two-mallet work. These players prefer the "snap" which rattan can add to one's playing motion. Those four-mallet players who use a crossed-stick technique (i.e. Burton grip, traditional grip, Stout grip) tend to prefer this material as well, although there are a significant number of crossed-grip players who are quite comfortable using birch handles.

Birch handles are much more rigid than rattan handles, and many players feel that this adds to their accuracy when playing. Birch handles grew in popularity during the early 1970s, when the war in Southeast Asia limited supplies of rattan. Most Stevens-grip players prefer birch, finding that the rigidity of the material counteracts the built-in flexibility of that technique, although here as well, there are many players who prefer the combination of Stevens grip and rattan. Birch handles are also less likely to warp, compared to rattan.

Mallet Heads

Given the fact that it is the head of the mallet that (except for certain extended techniques) will be coming into contact with the bars of an instrument, the design and materials of a mallet head will have a siginificant effect on the sound that is produced. There are myriad types of mallets available on the market, so rather than specifying certain mallets for certain situations, here are some issues to consider when selecting a mallet:

  • Weight vs. Hardness - the common misconception is that a harder mallet is always louder than a softer mallet. However, the difference in volume is often a result of the differing timbres between soft and hard mallets. A harder mallet will produce a sound which projects more clearly, by "cutting through" the sound of other instruments. A softer mallet (generally speaking) will emphasize the fundamental tone of a bar, and in fact may produce more volume than a harder mallet, even though a harder mallet will be heard more prominently in an ensemble. A heavier mallet will produce more volume than a lighter mallet, as more energy will be transferred from the mallet to the bar(s) as the instrument is played.

  • Contact sound - quite literally, this is the sound of the mallet striking the bar (as opposed to the actual sound of the bar itself). The more pronounced the contact sound, the more articulate each note will be. Players seeking a very legato effect (i.e., a rolled chorale-type piece on marimba) will seek a mallet with minimal contact sound; those seeking more staccato articulation (say, if performing as a soloist with an ensemble) will be better served by a mallet with a more prominent contact sound. Generally speaking, softer mallets will have less of a contact sound than harder mallets.

  • Cores - The core is the center of the mallet head. Some cores are made from rubber, some from plastic, and some from wood. Some mallets incorporate rubber tubing or some other sort of padding around the core, to mitigate the hardness of the original material. Harder mallet cores will - as one might guess - help to create a harder mallet.

  • Wrapping - mallets may be wrapped with yarn (common for softer marimba mallets), cord (common for harder marimba mallets, and vibraphone mallets), or may be unwrapped altogether (common for bell and xylophone mallets, and some marimba mallets). Cord mallets tend to produce more of a contact sound than yarn mallets do, and the tighter a mallet is wrapped, the harder it will be.

Suggested Mallets for Different Mallet Instruments

(Note: these are general suggestions, and not meant to be "the final word" in mallet selection.)

  • Marimba - a variety of wrapped yarn and cord mallets for solo literature; hard yarn, cord, or unwrapped rubber-core mallets for ensemble work.

  • Vibraphone - cord mallets tend to be better suited than yarn mallets, for use on the vibraphone. Jazz players especially, should have a variety of hard and moderately-soft cord-wrapped mallets, using the prominent contact sound to help the player be heard in an ensemble setting.

  • Xylophone - a variety of unwrapped mallets, primarily rubber or acrylic cores, or occasionally with cores made of wood. (If wood cores are used, make sure that they are designed specifically for use on rosewood bars.) Avoid using mallets that are too hard, such as hard acrylic bell mallets, when performing on a rosewood xylophone; synthetic bars are much more forgiving of hard mallets.

  • Orchestra Bells (Glockenspiel) - hard plastic or acrylic mallets are suggested. Brass mallets should be avoided if at all possible, as the metal alloys used in orchestra bell bars are softer than the brass mallet heads, and denting will result.

Final Thoughts

As players become more familiar with different mallets, they will become better skilled at selecting mallets. It should be remembered that as a player develops as a musician, his preferences and needs in terms of mallet design may change, to reflect his evolving skills. University students have a great opportunity to examine different brands and designs of mallets, due to the variety of mallets likely to be owned by the members of the percussion studio and their teacher(s). The sound of the mallets, along with the player's comfort in using those mallets, should be the deciding factor in their choices; not brand names, advertising, or the fact that certain famous players may use that particular mallet.

Mallet choice is a highly subjective issue, and the mallets which may be the "perfect" choice for one player, may be quite inappropriate for another. Mallets must be chosen to suit not only the player, but also the particular instrument, the musical context, the ensemble, the acoustics of the hall (or recording studio, as the case may be), the preferences of the conductor or musical director, etc. It is rare that a player will have one set of mallets which is ideal for all situations. Instead, players should understand the factors which cause one type of mallet to be better suited than another mallet for a given circumstance, so that they may continue to find the appropriate mallet for their needs.

(This page and all the materials within copyright ©2001 James Walker, All Rights Reserved.  No portion of this page may be duplicated or distributed without the author's written consent.)

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