Sometimes when you’re searching for the right tool for the job, the solution can be found by looking into the past. As far as modern drumsticks go today, there are hundreds of great options that satisfy a range of styles and preferences, however, one man in Austin, Texas has been producing a truly unique product since 2006.
Chris Bennett, owner of Bopworks Drumsticks, has been a collector of vintage sticks since he started working at an Austin music shop in the early ‘80s. His ‘vintage stick enthusiasm’ began when friend and drummer Tommy Taylor [Eric Johnson] would return to Austin from a tour, often arriving with a new lot of vintage sticks he had picked up from around the country; thus sparking Chris’s interest in the tools the greats had used back in the day. “We had a bunch of vintage sticks, so it was always fun to check the shape and what the playability was… we’d really nerd out about it,” recalls Chris.
The concern of having the rightsize sticks for controlling the sound of the drums overall harkens back to when players in the ‘50s and ‘60s would be playing smaller rooms, often with calfskin heads and no mics, and chose thinner stick models for controlling volume and touch.
In the early ‘80s when Chris first moved to Austin, he was having sound-control issues of his own. Chris tells the story of a gig he had at the Elephant Room [jazz club] in Austin. He had just purchased the new-at-the-time Bill Stewart-inspired [Zildjian] K Complex Ride: “I had taken it into the club all excited, convinced I was going to sound like Bill Stewart, and I couldn’t get the damn thing to sound at all good–I was sort of disillusioned. The next day I took out some vintage Roy Haynes sticks and a heavenly choir went off, and it all made sense.”
From that point on, Chris wanted to produce sticks that replicated the types used by the likes of the world’s most infamous drummers of the ‘50s and ‘60s (you can guess the names). Bopworks would fill the void in modern drumstick technology and availability.
The first stick Chris produced under the Bopworks name was the Birdland model–a thin stick with a long taper and full tip (L: 15 5/16”, D: .500”) that allows the user to play with a light touch and avoid unwanted overtones–not at all unlike that Roy Haynes vintage stick that saved the sound of Chris’s new ride. From there, he went on to produce select artist signature models such as the Art Blakey 8D (L: 16”, D: .530”) and the Mel Lewis 7D (L: 15 1/8”, D: .540), along with other models that are essentially replicas of those chosen by our heroes.
So why aren’t more people making sticks that are true to what was being used back in the day? “It’s really hard,” laughs Chris. The majority of older sticks were made on stock Hempel lathes, used for wood turning. The newer lathes, which are more efficient and can turn out more sticks, unfortunately can’t get the stick taper down without snapping the stick. Chris’s “mom-and-pop” operation, as he calls it, utilizes an old Hempel lathe, with each stick being hand rolled and weighed; by grams, not ounces. In addition, Bopworks sticks are made only with Hickory, as Chris feels that with Maple, or what have you, it’s hard to get a solid taper that’s long enough. Also, according to Chris, a lot of vintage sticks were dipped in nitrocellulose lacquer, which creates a harder finish. Gretsch, for example, will use a nitrocellulose finish on their more expensive drums, as will Martin guitars. However Chris finds that he’s able to get a desirable feel and strength via the conventional method of sanding sealer followed by a wax, cage-tumbling treatment, giving the stick a bit more of a “tacky” feel; a recipe that has proven to create a sound and feel that today’s players may not have experienced before. Not to mention, Bopworks sticks are packaged and wrapped by Chris’s wife, often times including a handwritten note and a vintage drum ad. “I believe all drummers are really passionate about music and playing. I think jazz guys obsess about cymbals… maybe some drummers feel they need to find the snare drum of their dreams, and that’s what they go for,” remarks Chris, “but in terms of connect-ability, it’s about connecting your hand to the cymbal, or drum.”
At first Chris didn’t anticipate the company taking off anywhere outside of Austin. “Originally no drum shop was interested in carrying the line because it was an untested, unknown brand–’We have too many sticks,’ was the average response,” recalls Chris. Eventually, thanks to a solid online presence and good reviews, the word about Bopworks and their unique flair became more widespread; though despite the ease of selling online, Chris has always been an advocate for buying his sticks from local shops. He concludes, “We keep our prices the same as the dealer price, so because it’s way easier for someone to go into a drum shop to be able to pick out their sticks, and not have to pay shipping.”
Upon encountering a selection of Bopworks sticks, drummers can be sure there are options that appeal to an array of player types. The Memphis R&B stick, for example, is designed to feel substantial in hand (D: .570”) while its 16” length and 5” taper maintains the option of playing with a light touch–a satisfying and all-around useful stick whether you’re playing jazz, R&B or light funk. I’ve had a great time playing 16th-note grooves with the Memphis R&B at mid to low volume. The stick has a good weight and the long, thin taper gave a nice rebound on a closed hi-hat. Buzz rolls and ghost notes at low volume feel great with these sticks, and are easy to control. Using the meat of the butt of this stick on a diecast hoop, you get a solid “knock,” while still being able to easily control the stick with your grip on the thin taper. If you’re looking for something shorter and with less of a dramatic taper, give the West Coast model a try; as Bopworks’ site describes–it’s inspired by the “cool jazz” West Coast scene of the 1950s and provides excellent response on a ride cymbal (L: 15 13.16”, D: .520”). When trying out the West Coast model, I felt that the shorter, thinner design, compared to the Memphis R&B, could benefit in higher volume scenarios, while still easily quieted. Playing a classic rock beat didn’t feel strange due to the less dramatic taper, and might even inspire a more reserved style if you’re playing rock. The “click” you get when side-sticking is not harsh, and pleasantly woody sounding. With all of the Bopworks sticks, the finish on them really does provide more “tack,” and the natural wood feel of the stick doesn’t diminish even after hours of use–a feel that I’ve not noticed in many of the more popular brands available.
As for what Bennett and Bopworks have in store for the future, Chris says he’s excited about his product slowly, but surely, being available at drum shops in places like Australia, Japan and England, which is already in the [Bop] works. He also expresses interest in further expanding the Bopworks range of sticks, as well as conceptualizing new accessories, such as stick holders that make switching from sticks to brushes more convenient. “Like a lot of companies, you come up with an idea because you’re annoyed with something,” remarks Chris, and continues, “It’s an interesting thing because you’re kind of connecting with another era. You’ve got your drums and cymbals, and the tool you’re using to connect them is really, really important.”
With Bopworks Drumsticks, Chris Bennett has created a product that drummers see to be special and rare in today’s market of big name makers. Pairing a pleasing aesthetic, functionality and nostalgia, Bopworks are sure to stand the test of time as players continue to discover them.