SIGNATURE STICKS – STEPHEN CREIGHTON PIPE BAND, BY VATER PERCUSSION
The idea behind this article probably came to me after reading a review of a piping related product, and realising how little reading material appeared to be available which would appeal to pipe band drummers.
In recent times there have been great developments in bass sections (call them mid sections if you prefer) with new products being produced by the likes of ‘Proline’ and ‘TyFry’ which are well marketed and seem to have pretty much cornered the market, at least here in Scotland. Despite the ever-increasing number of ‘signature’ snare sticks now available, they never seem to arrive with much fanfare and, dare I say it, never seem to be reviewed.
The signature drumstick is of course nothing new to pipe bands, with the original Alex Duthart stick being the most popular, and maybe pretty much the only ‘signature’ stick available when I started playing about 1970. This Duthart stick, although I didn’t know it at the time was very similar to the ‘Fritz Berger’ signature stick. I’ve only come across one pair of these, which were still being played by George Brown, who was a member of Bob Montgomery’s Edinburgh City Police corps, when I visited his home a few years ago.
Geordie, as he was known in the band, was in his 70s, still gigging with a dance band and had a practice pad and music stand set up in his living room as he still played every day. Fritz Berger had a longstanding association with the Edinburgh Police band which began with leading drummer Jimmy Catherwood, but George was the man who introduced Dr Berger to Alex Duthart. The meeting of these two players would have an impact on how drumming in Scotland, both written and played, would develop over the next few years.
Anyway, the signature stick grew in popularity and Alex’s stick would be joined by the ‘Bob Turner’ and I think I’m right in saying the ‘Alex Connell’, the leading drummers of Muirhead & Sons and Glasgow Police respectively. There were probably more around this time, but as I hadn’t really started collecting bags full of the things back then, I wouldn’t like to say for sure.
More recently large numbers of signature sticks became available: several models by Jim Kilpatrick, the classic KP2s still being very popular. Add to that, sticks by Tom & Gordon Brown, Arthur Cook, John Moneagle, Paul Turner, Eric Ward, Barry Wilson, including the latest incarnation of the ‘Duthart’ stick, marketed by Drew Duthart as well as J Reid Maxwell, Doug Stronach etc.
While I have probably managed to unintentionally miss out at least one prominent leading drummer who currently has a stick on the market, sometime last year I began to hear a few people speak highly of a new stick by Stephen Creighton and thought I’d like to find out more about them.
Stephen will need no introduction to most people who are taking the time to read this, but for the record he is the leading drummer of the St Laurence O’Toole pipe band from Dublin. He has won the All-Ireland solo drumming championships seven times and has been a finalist at the World solo drumming championships no less than 22 times in the past 24 years. As well as leading his corps to many wins at major championships, including two World titles, they are the current Grade 1 drumming Champion of Champions. In March 2015 Stephen was also appointed ‘Head of Marching Education’ by Premier Music International. Enough said!
A quick look on the internet confirmed such a stick existed, but despite my best efforts, I could find no review. As I knew for a fact that the drum shop I usually go to in Edinburgh to pick pairs of sticks at the start of the season, did not stock them, so was not in a position to go in and try out a few pairs. The obvious solution would be to approach the man himself for his thoughts, although I suspect his mind would already be made up and it would be slightly unfair to expect him to be completely subjective on the subject. So, here I am now reviewing the VMPBSC-1 stick myself.
Pipe band drumsticks don’t appear to change very quickly. I have a stick which was my grandfather’s which probably dates from around the late 1920s which is made of ebony or some similar blackwood. Although it didn’t survive the abuse it was given by my sibling and I, even minus an inch or two of the bead end, you can tell it must have been a heavy stick in its day. The fashion seemed to change for a period with a slimmer stick being popular for a period through the 40s and 50s, before a swing back in favour of a thicker stick, but made of lighter wood. However I suspect that since the Alex Duthart stick was released back in 1969, everything has pretty much been a variation on that theme.
The Vater Marching Pipe Band Stephen Creighton -1, (let’s just call it the SC-1) is made in the USA by Vater Percussion in Massachusetts, who began making sticks in the basement of a drum store in Boston in 1956. They now produce 25,000 sticks a day in their factory in Holbrook MA, so aren’t short of experience. Vater will be a familiar name to kit players, but this seems to be their first venture in to the pipe band market. The production methods used by Vater can be seen on an excellent eight minute video on their website and is to say the least, a very impressive set up. The SC-1 itself is made of Sugar Maple and at 16” long is pretty much the same length, give or take an 1/8”, as most of the sticks I’ve matched it with. It is available in both lacquered and painted finishes and each pair is weighed and matched for tone (by computer analysis) prior to leaving the factory. The computer analysis part can been seen on the Vater video and is a computer aided answer to some poor soul sitting for eight hours a day rattling sticks off the side of his head!
The bead is oval in shape and the butt end of the stick tapers off slightly over the last 1½ inches. Most of the weight seems to be around the grip area of the stick and to begin with felt slightly lighter at the tip than the model of stick I’ve used for the past few seasons.
Despite this, the SC-1 felt comfortable in my hands as I found myself unconsciously griping the stick slightly nearer the butt end than I have done previously. On playing with them over a few weeks I also found the stick improved the clarity of open work and also made keeping the volume down when playing quiet passages of scores much easier. I think this will be of great advantage to many drum corps, especially in the lower grades. I feel most top end bands have made great progress in recent years in the dynamics they produce, but from about the middle of Grade 2 down, it’s still something most bands could do with all the help they can get.
The snare response from the SC-1 is excellent and I find I do not have to crank the top head up quite so much to get the sound I want to achieve, which I’m sure, over the course of a season will save me quite a few heads. I found the pairs I have been trying out were well matched for tone and also, as I expected, very well finished. The SC-1 come in a range of weights from 52g – 65g and my personal preference is toward the heavy end of the range rather than the lighter, but each to their own.
I expected to prefer playing with the lacquered sticks rather than the painted, but think the painted are better suited to me. It’s a long time since I played with painted sticks, but the coating is much lighter than I expected it to be and despite my initial apprehension, had no negative effect whatsoever. Of the finishes available, the coloured sticks seem to be by far the most popular, if the tuning field at the British Championships if anything to go by. This is no great surprise as bands now pay more attention to co-ordinating these things with the huge range of custom finishes seen on drum shells and tenor and bass beaters now available in just about any combination of colours you wish.
So, do we need yet more pipe band sticks on the market? As I haven’t even mentioned sticks which aren’t endorsed by a particular individual – and there are plenty nice sticks out there by Premier, Andante, Beatstreet etc. – my thoughts would be that you can’t have too much choice. As long as someone is able to produce a quality product it should be welcomed. In short I’ve been impressed by the SC-1 and would not hesitate in recommending it. It may not be to everyone’s taste, but I think it will be to many. If anyone has any doubts, then they should try to catch St Laurence O’Toole in the tuning area and see what it can produce, or even catch Stephen Creighton after the band has competed. I’m sure he would be happy to let you try out a pair.