Bodhrán Stick Design
In many parts of Ireland the normal way to play a bodhrán was by hand. Most styles were backhand, some with knuckle or knuckles, some with finger or fingers and some had a forehand style using some elements from Italian and Basque techniques. Frequently old drums had cymbals. See Tony McMahon’s Clarebannerman YouTube videos. Sticks, when used, were generally heavy with ball ends.
Right from the first the first time I saw stick players, it was interesting to me how so many sensitive players successfully moderated the sound by what they added to their sticks… glove fingers, wool leather, chamois, cloth tape, medical bandages, electrical tape. Seeing such a variety of ideas was a great education, particularly at an age when the normal bodhrán sounded gruesome.
Lathe workers who were not players were supplying the music shops with the definitive sticks that were better suited at the back of the fire to make the tea. Peadar Mercier’s stick was lighter than most. Johnny MacDonaghs sticks were lighter again and about 9.5” long. Gino Lupari’s was lighter again and he was very particular that the weight of his sticks matched the thickness of the Lambeg skins and thus lighter and slightly shorter than Johnny’s, thicker at the ends and tapering towards the middle.
When Tommy Hayes won the All Ireland Bodhrán Competition in the early' 80s, all my ideas about sticks changed. His use of a thin, short, light stick was captivating to watch and his playing proved that the use of light thin sticks could be very effective, less exhausting and much more musical and sensitive.
Since I was locked into what is now called the Kerry style, as played by Johnny McDonagh, I mixed Tommy’s lightness and thin grip size and Johnny’s stick length of 9.5”. Hence my adoption of the fiddle bow type of stick.
So, by accepting as correct the grip thickness that fiddle bow makers had developed over these past 400 years, and the whippy type of wood that they most commonly used (brazilwood-pernambucco) and forsaking the ball end in favour of a straight stick, a new design emerged... (Any whippy dense wood particularly yew is good for these sticks. Ebony, although dense, has little spring)
- The diameter was between 8 and 9 mm.
- The wood was from a springy type timber.
- The wood had a suitable density/weight.
In all honesty, I was stuck for a stick many years ago, had about 5 minutes to make one and I had many old broken fiddle bows in to be repaired. I cut off the frog end and measured 9.5”… cut it to length and rounded off each end. So that was how I discovered how good it was. No great thinking there!! I have used this type ever since, as have so many other makers and players. I had many of the remaining bits of bow left lying around which many years later, were wanted by top end players.
Many old crafts people were well aware of the advantage of balance and nice feel when they use a tool to do something again and again. For old high quality tool makers it was of supreme importance. So often, what separated a good tool from a less good one was balance. Knowing that this would also be very important in stick making, I used it to advantage.
I first decided where I wanted to hold the stick, marked the position and then drilled the stick end to accept a gauge 8 screwnail to make it balance at the position marked, using trial and error to get the amount of weight correct. I have never changed this design in 34 years. Balance and weight being of key importance.
An idea adopted and developed by other people was to simply put the finger of a glove onto the end of the stick, hold it in place by a rubber band to give a softer sound. So using the same stick and temporarily adding something gives a new sound.
I used to apply electrical tape or masking tape (duct tape), allowing it to overhang the end by about 1mm.. This also gives a nice soft sound. Since, unlike the glove, it was a permanant change, I needed 2 sticks identical in every way to the first stick except for the sound produced.
I considered it all important that the following:
- grip diameter size ( 8-9mm )
- stick length
do not change, so that the distance from where the stick is held to the striking ends remain constant.
My reason... For developing a very repetitive skill, it is faster and easier to learn when the variants are limited as much as possible.
Most people have their own favourite stick and would not like to lose it. They usually have a very exact position where they hold it not matter how they choose to grip it... witness all the grooves, ridges elastic bands etc. to keep this unchanging. This is a combination of grip size, length, balance and weight.
The information above tells why I chose this stick design. It is no better or no worse than other peoples’ ideas... just my personal preference. There are loads of different weights, lengths, styles and grip thicknesses to choose from. And its what suits you that is important…but all you need is a couple.
Split end sticks
I must declare at the opening of this section that I strongly believe that the split end type is the high point of stick design and the following article outlines the design path towards the step by step refinement towards this design.
- Get a long grained wood. I chose Hazel.
- Shape stick
- Boil the end to soften it.
- Bash the end using a hammer on the anvil to split and soften the end.
- Problem... end not springy... but soft sound achieved.
- Using the same long grained wood
- Shape stick
- To limit the splits wrap insulation 3” from end.
- Split into about 20 segments using a sharp knife and a hammer.
- Microwave for 20 second bursts to spread out the segments.
- Problem... segments too thin... but springy.
- Using basketmaking coil.
- Wet the coil... stretch it to straighten it. Dry for 2 days.
- Cut to 9.5" lengths... 13 off
- Make a round bundle and put a blob of glue in middle.
- Hold in place using electrical tape
- When dry round off the ends on the sander
- Remove the tape.
- In use each individual stick in the bundle bends, flexes and springs, producing a less defined, softer lighter sound than the solid stick. The bending of each individual rod was the aim of the design for a softer sound.
So the dynamic is that the bundle hits the skin and then some of the individual rods, not all, strike back at the skin before the bundle can be removed from the skin.
In my first version of this design most of the individual rods in the bundle had sharp points and edges. Unnoticed by me the skin suffered thousands of tiny pinprick damages over a few months, the tough outer layer of the skin was fatally and irreparably damaged.
The damage first showed as a dull ring on the skin in contrast to the rest of the skin, which was burnished to a shine, eventually a couple of small holes became visible. Soon after that the patch became flabby and the drum lost its sound.
- Most of the individual pieces were pointed and eventually ruined the skin.
- No real bounce but a nice brushy forgiving sound.
- The grip was too thick.
At this stage of development barbeque skewers became available and a friend showed me one that he had made and where to buy them.
- Using barbeque skewers, cut 13 of them to 9.5”
- Round off the ends of EACH skewer. Burnish each end to a shine.
- Lay each skewer onto a piece of linen that had been loaded with glue.
- Roll up the linen so that each skewer remains loose, yet bound together by the linen.
- Shape the stick to form a 9mm. Diameter grip section, keeping in mind the constant grip distance of the fiddle bow type and balance.
- Use electrical tape to help bind everything together.
(These stick bundle types allow each individual stick to bend, flex and spring. That is why they were used... bend and flex.)
No real problems found, but I stopped making them as I felt that the split end type made this type redundant.
I know that many players still like them. This again is personal taste. I have no plans to remake or sell this type , but, for those who would like to use this type I have asked my son to make a few variations oof the type. They are much more difficult to make hence the price is higher.
In summary, the important features of these 2 stick types are:
- Shape a 12 mm x 9.5” long whippy stick forming a 9mm grip.
- Using a bandsaw, cut slits to form 6 segments.
- Calculate the length of the heavy end so that the centre of gravity is exactly the same as I use on the fiddle bow type stick.
- The grip position is exactly the same for both stick types so I can freely interchange.
- The grip diameter is exactly the same for both sticks.
- The weight and balance of both sticks are exactly the same.
For MY playing I feel it is easier to improve my technique when all variables are minimised. The only things that vary are the bounce and the sound produced. I hope that this helps improving players and also stick makers.
Like so many other players I seldom use the fiddle bow type because of the delicate sounds achievable and use most of the time the split end type, the bounce of which makes it so user friendly. When used to play on the shell the sound is not harsh. The Fiddle bow type gives a sharper more precise sound sometimes needed when playing for dancers.
Why I have written this explanation of my designs.
Many sticks that are paraded as copies of these types completely miss the point of the designs, mostly because I have not previously explained my thinking/design process clearly and explained the reasoning behind these designs.
Some copies have dowels up the ends of the split end types that wipe out the bounce. Some makers thought they were designed to click and so called them click sticks.
I have repeatedly posted warnings about the danger of using these skewer type stick that contain within the bundle needle sharp skewer ends and sharp edges both at workshops and on my website over many many years.
A couple of years ago I posted on a bodhran facebook site a warning of the danger presented by use of such sticks. Since I was the originator of the design I felt duty bound to do this.
I posted it on that facebook bodhran site to relay the warning to as wide an audience as possible, not just for the benefit of readers on my own website, but for all players, as many new learners were using that site for information.
This warning was immediately challenged by another maker/seller. He blamed bad technique for the skin damage, either unheeding or unknowing of the many individual style used in Ireland and elsewhere in the world.
To blame the player rather than the stick was a bit much. I am still disgusted that, as a copier of my concepts, that he had the arrogance and direspect to challenge what is patently obvious. If a stick endangers the skin, it should not be made, sold or used.
A drum should not be beaten by any sharp object.
Another maker proudly displayed his skewer type with a bit of brass up the middle of it. He really does not understand that the purpose of the skewers was to allow flex and produce a softer sound. He described my warning as Bullshitsu on the same bodhran website. Hmmm.
In the space of a few months this year four drums were sent back to me for reskinning. All the owners used the incorrectly made skewer type sticks.The skins had to be replaced.
As I said earlier in this , should you wish to make this type of stick I will add an article on how I used to do this. I gave up on this idea about 25 years ago as I felt that the split end type surpassed it in both sound , bounce and ease of use. I have no interest in leading the design backwards... but since so many players like them I eat my words …though advise caution.
Many stick makers have their own ideas on sticks. The above article simply outlines my thoughts on the subject to guide the thinking of players who are frequently perplexed by the plethora of grip thicknesses, stick lengths, weights, and functions.
I write this in the hope that it helps improving players to limit the number of technological variables so that they can concentrate in a more focused way on variations in their playing to make it more interesting, more musical, and more sensitive.
Many players used to talk about matching the stick weight to the skin thickness to get optimum response with the minimum weight. These sticks suit te range of drum skin thicknesses that I make.
For new players my advice is …experiment until you find a stick that suits your individual style. Then buy whatever number more you feel you need …BUT ensure the new sticks have the same grip thickness, balance, weight and length, …don’t have too many variables. There are many makers to choose from.
I now sell 2 types of stick:
This is simply the fiddle bow type made from rosewood, with a slightly weighted end for balance. The rosewood has the right density and springiness - not too light and not too heavy. The fiddle bow makers have agreed after 300 years of testing that 8.5 mm is the best grip diameter. It has no balls on the ends, no ridges in the middle and no rubber grip aids to change the optimum diameter size. This stick is light and fast to use and good players agree that the balance is very good. It is just about the right weight for use on medium to light skins and 240mm (9.5 inches) long. Many good teachers recommend this stick.
This is a new design to many but I have been making and improving this type for these past 30 years. The design evolved from efforts to soften the sound of the stick on the skin. Later on, it was an attempt to revive the rim playing from the old Kerry styles where players alternated from playing on the skin, to playing on the rim. Ordinary solid ended sticks give an unacceptably hard rattle, grating to the ear. These sticks give a nice light clicky sound and bounce back extremely quickly. Crucially the grip size is 8.5mm and again the length is 240mm (9.5 inches) and from rosewood. It is much livelier than the skewer type sticks, yet gives the same soft sound.
Irmine Blanc bodhrán sticks - (added to webstie; 1st March, 2016)
At Le Bono Festival last week, I met Irmine Blanc, a very good bodhrán player with a style of her own. In the class we discussed dangerous skewer type sticks... and how badly-made versions can destroy bodhran skins.
We had discussed the thin grip fiddle bow thickness also and its advantages for a player. 3 days later she sent me these photos of what she had just made. One brilliant design.
The middle stick is from 8mm diameter Yew, which is a wood of the correct density and it flexes beautifully. It is my favourite wood to use for sticks. Split into 4 segments, this core flexes in harmony with the outside ring of skewers. Every end of each skewer is rounded, as can be seen in Photo 1.
Used as in photo 2, it is suitable for single end playing. With the added end, for balance, as in photo 4, it is perfect for double end playing. Congratulations, Irmine and thanks for giving me permission to post it here. Simply brilliant.
Sticks and photos by Irmine Blanc:
Irmine Blanc’s sticks... Update - 4th May, 2016
Further to the above information Irmine has taken protection on her design and is now offering them for sale. I have tested them and highly recommend them.
She has made some dimensional and material changes. The length and diameter of the core or handle has been made exactly the same length and balancing point as my split stick and fiddle bow type designs... and the diameter of the core is exactly the same as mine.
I have asked Irmine to do this so that players who use my sticks have a constant weight, diameter and length in all 3 types.
I used to make the skewer type, but abandoned it in favour of the split stick type 3 or 4 years ago. I have seen so many terrible and downright dangerous attempts to make this type that I am nervous when I see a new attempt.
Irmine’s design is excellent in that it answers all the design problems with simplicity. Since so many players love the hotrod sound I could not praise this design enough.
- The skewer ends are individually rounded and will not damage the skin.
- The core has a perfect grip diameter making it more comfortable to play.
- The core is split into 4 sections and thus enabled to flex with the skewers. This gives it bounce.
- The individual skewers are set a small distance from the core so that it produces that desired soft swish much better than other skewer types.
- The stick weight, balancing point and length match my other 2 sticks.
These sticks are now available from Irmine Blanc: firstname.lastname@example.org
They cost is 20 euros ... postage extra... payment via Paypal to Irmine’s email address.
Contact her for other payment methods.
Photo of Damaged skin (below). Notice the epidermic layer stabbed to a dull patch around the hole.
The importance of using properly made skewer type sticks is reinforced by this skin which I am repairing today... notice the dull patch and the hole. I get at least 20 of these per year. Please take the warning!!!
This damage is caused by constant use of skewer bunches glued together and the ends of the bunch rounded on a sander creating needle sharp ends. Buyer Beware.
When the skin is struck the individual skewers flex and stab back the skin causing this damage. I have spent 30 years repeating this warning... in vain as far as many stick makers are concerned. Irmine's Design solves the problem, and is totally safe to use.