Myths about Pipe Band Drum Sticks

So, we all know there are way too many drums sticks on the market. Many, many options in all different shapes, sizes and colours. But if you take the time to go through them all (which can take a heck of a lot of time and money!), then you will discover there’s literally one or two options on the market that deliver incredibly consistent pairs time and time again.

All too often I hear discussions about picking drum sticks. The key things people throw around when offering advice on picking drum sticks : 1) Roll them on a flat surface to ensure they roll smoothly 2) weigh each stick so they match each other to the exact gram 3) pitch each stick evenly.

To put it bluntly – if you wanted to do all of the above things then I would suggest you might need 200 sticks to find 5/6 pairs to tick all of those boxes. It’s really unrealistic and not required. If both of our hands performed perfectly (i mean like a robot!) then we might start getting down to variables like exact weightings – but none of us are robots. Personally, I threw my drum stick scales out the window about 7 years ago. Feel is much more important to me, if the sticks feel balanced – joy! Don’t go wasting time trying to weigh them.

Rolling the sticks on a table …well if you find new pairs that don’t roll evenly then you are playing a stick that hasn’t been manufactured with quality controls in place.  I no longer roll sticks on a table – as I’ve been happy with the stick brand I’ve played for a long time now.

Pitching – this is pretty important. Try to look for sticks that are evenly pitched and on the higher end.  Who is the #1 stick manufacturer on the planet? Vic Firth. This may only be my opinion but I’ve tested (thoroughly) every other pair of sticks on the market and not one is as consistent and well balanced as the Jim Kilpatrick KP2 by Vic Firth. I’ve played these sticks for years in the Canterbury Caledonian Pipe Band and as a soloist and they have never let me down. Great pitch, fantastic balance and they are forever consistent. I have had similar conversations with other top pipe band drummers and rock/jazz drummers – time and time again, Vic Firth comes out on top.

I see other sticks coming onto the market  with the “latest technology” or non-lacquered surfaces to “stop the sticks slipping”. In my opinion, it’s all commercial rubbish. Stick with the tried and tested products and you will not go far wrong.

Everyone has different likes and dislikes, but one thing that will always outlast others is quality.

Whatever stick you play, be sure you have tried and tested all the sticks on the market and make the best decision based on quality, balance, feel and pitch.  It’s a pretty important part of what we do as drummers, so invest wisely.

Happy Drumming!




Some thoughts on preparing tunes

BLOGMany students often ask me what new tunes they will be learning for solo competitions each year.  They are generally quite keen to learn a new set each year, to keep it interesting. To be honest, I often try to discourage them from changing solos sets too much. What is the point in changing for changing’s sake? If the tunes are working well then I would be asking the student to hold onto them as a set and develop them. After all, it does take months, often years, to fully develop the musical style of a tune. If you listen to some of the all-time greats like Andrew Scullion and Jim Kilpatrick you will hear Donald Cameron and Highland Wedding being played for years and decades at a time. The tunes are fantastic, so there is no need to keep changing them up.

I do believe in keeping it interesting though, but that’s where concerts and performances come in handy. You can develop sets to play at other events, outside of your solo competition sets. Learning lots of tunes can be a great way to expose yourself to lots of different pipe band drumming styles. I recall as a young drummer listening to (on repeat!) – Victoria Police Pipe Band, 78TH Fraser Highlanders Pipe Band, the RUC Pipe Band, SFU Pipe Band, FMM Pipe Band, Shotts, Jim Kilpatrick, Andrew Scullion and so many more. I would try mimic or copy what I heard (not very accurately of course!) and it has really influenced my style of music today.  Honing in on one style as a learner has its pros, but it also has its cons. The more varied styles you can listen to, and appreciate, the more rounded your ear will be and it will give you a broader platform to start from. Obviously you will work out what your own unique style is in the end, but always keep an open ear. I still listen to bands now to see what I can learn from them. Every band always has some quality that is appealing, no matter what the grade.

Back to getting tunes prepared for solo performance. I dislike when a student picks a new tune 4 weeks before a contest and is adamant that they will learn it “in time”. In recent years I have been a lot firmer with my students and will not encourage them to play a tune in solos that they haven’t had prepared for six months or more. By “prepared” I mean – memorized, polished and up on the instrument. Getting a tune ready for competition is a process – a long one at that. When the pressure of competing goes on, you need to know you can fall back on thorough preparation. Last minute attempts simply will not work on a consistent basis.

If you have a solo set, try keeping it for two full seasons. During that time ensure you record practice sessions, and actual solo events. Spend the time after each recording to write a few notes on your performance. A few simple headings could be : Accuracy, Flow, Dynamic Range, Musicality, Expression and Phrasing (there are lots of others but these are a good starting point). Give the tunes a chance to develop and mature. If you aren’t getting the results you want, or a judge suggests you change tunes, take a breath and give it some time. If every judge suggests you change the tune then listen up and act quickly! Another option would be to send some of those recordings to someone and ask them for a professional opinion.

It is St Patricks Day and so a little Irish Quote is appropriate and applicable to your drumming.  “ Like a pint of Guinness … Good things take time”.


Tips for Memorising.

MemoryWay too many drummers (and bagpipers) complain about having to perform a tune without the sheet music – they moan about how difficult it is to commit the tune to memory.  But honestly, it’s not difficult at all – it’s all about discipline and repetition.

Whether it’s your first 4/4 march or perhaps your newest medley selection, the method remains the same. It’s not rocket science (like my previous post about what us pipers and drummers can learn from an Astronaut) – it’s just a matter of hard work and perseverance.

In a nutshell here’s what you gotta do :

1) Learn one phrase (that’s two bars of music) and then play it by memory – just turn the page over and test yourself. Join all the phrases together until you have one part – that’s actually only 4 bite-sized chunks and shouldn’t take you very long at all. Turn the page over and play the whole first part – flip the page and check that you got it. Do this 10 times.

2) Put your sticks (or chanter) away and go do something else for 10 minutes – make a coffee, grab a snack, watch Keeping up with the Kardashians (or maybe not!) then return to your instrument and see if you can still remember the part. If you can, great. If not, then repeat step one.

3)Come back first thing the next day and make sure you can still play it by memory. If you can, joy! If you can’t, repeat steps one and two. Do this every morning for 5 days and you will have the tune going no problem at all.

You can top-up your memorising speed by playing through the score in your head (visualisation) – or tapping the tune out with your fingers. I think young students often do this in Mathematics class!

Bottom line is, there’s no shortcut. But it’s worth it in the end. Once you have committed the tune to memory, you can really start having fun with it and moulding it with musicality and feel.

If you have any memorising tips, please share them!

Tuning a Pipe Band Snare Drum Part 4

normal_stephen creighton (b)Well drummers, we have finally come to the end of the Pipe Band drum tuning series. All we have to do now is look at the bottom snare setting and head adjustment.

So many people underestimate the importance of the bottom head and bottom snare wire.  The largest amount of focus is on the top head. From experience, and asking lots of questions (I was one of those annoying kids who constantly prodded for answers), many drummers think that the top head is where all of the brightness and pitch comes from.  Ok, so they aren’t totally wrong, but certainly aren’t totally right either.  I can see why they think the top head is important in terms of pitch as it’s made out of Kevlar.  They can stretch this Kevlar super tight, and get a “higher pitch”.  However, it is SUPER important to understand the the tonal quality and pitch of the drum is a result of both heads, snares and the shell being in tune with each other.  When things aren’t balanced, we get that dreaded “overtone” – or weird melodic tone that rings from the drum when you strike it. If you are interested in the science behind it all, then check out this wee article.

Here’s something for you to try.

  • Strike the top head and listen to the overall tone and pitch of the drum.
  • Now loosen the bottom snare wire off until it’s drooping down.
  • Strike the drum again and listen to the overall tone and pitch of the drum.
  • Now tighten the snare again, and repeat.
  • What did you notice?

Well, hopefully, you would have noticed how dull and boxy the drum sounded when the bottom snare was too loose.  This is probably the one thing I check on my drum the most. It is quite easy to knock or bang the bottom snare wire – even just by taking it in and out of it’s case. It’s just such a simple fix, but one that many forget to check!

Ok, let’s get that bottom head and snare sorted once and for all :

1) Take the bottom snare off. Get the DrumDial out and ensure your head is where you want it to be on the dial. If you are setting up a whole corps of drums, line them up (upside down) and pitch them evenly. Use your ears!!! Or if you are tone deaf, get someone in your band who isn’t (a piper could come in handy for once!!).  You should really be tightening the bottom head often, especially during the competition season.  Only turn each bolt 1/8 of a turn clockwise each time. There is no need to do more than this in one sitting.

2) Set the snare back on and ensure it is sitting evenly across the head. You don’t want one end being lop-sided.

3) You are able to adjust the height of the snare mechanism. This is something that many drummers overlook.  Use the height adjustment to ensure the snare is sitting snug on the head. You don’t want it to be sitting too far away from the head. Remember as you tighten the drum head, you will need to adjust this. Make sure you set the drum on a table or on the side so that you can get eye level with the snare. Using your finger, tap the snare near the edge of the drum to ensure it isn’t sitting to far from the head.

3) Gently strike the bottom head and start tightening the snare. You need to use your ears again!! You will hear the overall pitch of the drum increase as you tighten the snare.

4) Keep tightening and listening. There will be a point where that bright pitch turns into an overtone.  This will sound strange and unpleasant. And you don’t want this.  Loosen off the snare and gradually take it back up to tension. You want to reach that point right before you have choked it!

Okley, Dokley. You’re ready! Yup – we have successfully set your drum up to be played.  Well done.

You should adjust your drum as often as you need. Don’t assume it will sit perfectly for a year without being maintained. Also, you should consider changing heads and snare wires once every 12-18 months, as well as re-lubricating all of the areas we covered in the previous posts.  Another thing to consider is your pipe band stick pitch.  If you have old sticks that are low in pitch, this will clearly affect the sound of your drum. Combat this by getting a fresh pair at the start of each contest season – and keep them dry!!

Thank you for your input, and support. I hope these posts are of some help to you.

If you haven’t already, please pop your email into the subscribe button on the top right and continue to get updates from me. Also, please check out my website for all of your pipe band drumming requirements and educational resources.

Happy Drumming!


Tuning a Pipe Band Snare Drum Part 3

normal_gretalakesLet’s continue on with the pipe band drum tuning series. We are getting down to the nitty gritty of tuning your pipe band snare drum (scottish snare drum, side drum, marching drum or whatever else you wish to call it!).

In the last two posts, we looked at setting your drum up correctly from the point at which it arrives with you from the factory.  The key reason for doing this : you simply don’t know exactly how much lubrication has been applied at the factory.  By taking the time to do this, you will increase the life-span of the drum and burn through less consumables such has heads, bolts and snares.

Now we are going to look at setting the top snare – something that is totally down to personal preference.  No matter how you like the sound of the snare response – you need to apply the same principles or formulae to get the end result.

Using a tuning key, apply tension to the head by tightening the bolt on the suspension ring.

1. Get your top head tension to a point where you are happy with the pitch.  In the middle of winter, this might be quite dull compared to where you will have it during the summer pipe band season.  Remembering to use your Jim Kilpatrick tuning block (or old school calipers if that tickles your pickle). Once you have got to a point where you are happy, only tighten the top head sing 1/8 turns clockwise when required.  This doesn’t need to be done at every practice. Try to think of when you want the drum to be “at its best” – and work your way slowly towards that.

2. Figure out how to lower and heighten the snare mechanism.  Nowadays, drums come with “dummy proof” signs on them to show you which bolts are for tension versus height.  Lower the height down (of the) the snare mechanism – as you are doing this, confidently tap the drum in the centre of the head. You will hear the snare mechanism pull away from the head to leave you with a dull and snare-less sound.  IMG_5137Slowly, bring the height back up. You will soon hear the snare wires re-engage with the head. This is where you really want to take it slowly. The slightest turn of the height can push the snares so far into the head that you get a “choked” sound – where the snare wires don’t vibrate at all. You want to find a happy medium here – try playing with it. Don’t be afraid to lower and heighten the snare mechanism a number of times until you are comfortable with what you are doing.

3. If you aren’t getting the sound you want, then take a look at altering the tension.  By altering the tension, you are simply stretching the snare wires or loosening them.  By stretching them you will get less vibrations, and therefore less “snare sound”. By loosening them you will get a looser snare sound, or “snarey”  sound as some people refer to.  This again, is about finding the right balance. If you go too loose, you face the possibility of the snare wire falling off whilst you are playing it (and Yes, this has happened to me!). If you go too tight, you risk the chance of a choked and boxy sound.  Set the tension, alter the height, and continue to do so until you are happy.

4.  Where is the best place to get the true sound of the drum? Well, the best place is to stand where the listener stands. This will be different from the solo platform to the band platform. For the solo drummer, you need to focus more so on the top head and what the drum sounds like from the front. For a pipe band performance, you need to focus on the sound from behind. We will take a look at the bottom head in our next instalment. But here’s something to think about – if you hear a slight rattle from off the top head when you are standing over it – walk around behind. The chances are you probably wont hear it.  But if you tighten the snare and the rattle off the top disappears, chances are it may sound choked from behind. Use your ears!

5. Once you are happy with your snare setting, you wont have to adjust it every practice like the bagpipers or mid-section drummers.

6.  Make sure you look after the drum and store it in a sturdy case.  Flimsy cases are going to allow the drum to be battered and bruised – and probably damaged. If you are serious about getting the best case in the World  – you have GOT to check out the HardCase case. They are absolute life savers, and come with wheels and extendable handles. A pipe band drummers dream!

I’m looking forward to our next instalment – setting the bottom snare and head.

Happy Drumming for now!

James Laughlin

Tuning a Pipe Band Snare Drum Part 2


So, let’s continue on from the previous post on tuning your pipe band snare drum (Premier, Pearl or Andante).

We have already talked about dismantling the drum as soon as you buy it and preparing the top head and hoop for playing.  The next thing we need to look at, is the bottom head and mechanism.


Loosen the bolt, using your drum key.


Gently wiggle the snare wire so it comes free.

1.  Remove the bottom snare wire, carefully. Use your key (or tool) to remove the snare, just loosening it off enough to wiggle it free. Then remove your bottom snare head exactly the same way as the top head, by loosening the tension bolts.  Remove the bottom hoop followed by the head.







Lubricate the bearing edge. 


2. Take a cloth and wipe any residue or dust from the bottom bearing edge.  Remove any other debris in the shell or cavity. Take the vaseline and place a generous amount around the bottom bearing edge of the shell.





Lubricate the bolt holes.

3. Lubricate all of the bolt holes with vaseline.  You will be thankful you’ve done this months down the line. Place the head on the bearing edge, and set the bottom hoop on.

4.  Screw the hoop down evenly as per the top head.

Turn the bolts to screw the head down.

Turn the bolts to screw the head down.







5. Introduce the Drum Dial. This is another little gem in the process of drum tuning. Most drummers use it for tuning bass and tenor drums, but there is huge value in using it for your bottom head. It helps you ensure you maintain an even bottom head tension. This will also help ensure you have your whole corps of drums set up as close to each other in tension (and hopefully pitch) as possible.  The drum dial indicates a reading when you set it on the head. You want to ensure you set the dial in the correct position on the head – in line with a tension bolt. Also, you will notice reduced readings where the snare sits – this is due to a groove in the shell (this is the case for most drums). As for a number – well this depends on your desired tension.

Drum Dial!

Drum Dial!


6.  Take the head down until the point where the shell is sitting above the hoop. This will give you a great starting point. Also, you will notice the head creaking and making noises as you tighten it. Listen to those noises. Don’t push it too hard, too quick. Take your time if it isn’t liking the tension you’re applying, and consider stopping for a day!

Ensure you take the head past the point of the bearing edge.

Ensure you take the head past the point of the bearing edge.




7.  Set the snare back on (the correct way up, and YES, I have made this mistake!!) and tighten it until it sits snug.

There you have it – the bottom head of your pipe band drum is now ready to go.  In the next instalments we will look at setting the snares, ongoing tuning, what to listen for and trouble-shooting.





If you are keen to learn from James, check out his Guide to Pipe Band Drumming Books.

Tuning a Pipe Band Snare Drum Part 1


0800RXBB-C(a)Tuning a pipe band snare drum is straightforward, provided you know the basics and use your ear.

Firstly, make sure you know what type of sound you are searching for. If you don’t know, either stop before you start, or get to a pipe band contest and have a listen to see what you like. Nowadays, tone plays a pretty vital role in the overall performance, and in the end – the result.

Let’s start at ground zero.

When you receive your pipe band snare drum you should dismantle it. Yep, you read it correctly. Dismantle it. Why, you’re asking? Well, you cannot guarantee that the manufacture has correctly lubricated the drum.  Therefore, if you just start to tighten the bolts, it will be metal on metal. Not ideal, and will also result in possible corrosion or jamming.  You really want the drum to last you as long as possible.


Remove the pipe band snare head and suspension ring. Use a standard drum tuning key.

1. Lower the height of the snare mechanism. Take the top suspension ring off using a tuning key.  Remove the head. Take a cloth and wipe around the bearing edge (the rim of the wooden shell).  Ensure there are no loose particles inside the shell. Take some lubrication (vaseline will suffice) and place it around the bearing edge where the head will sit.  Also, generously lubricate all of the holes where the bolt will insert.

2. Lubricate in between each washer using an industrial oil.  Again, this will prevent warping and friction. This is a pretty messy part of the set-up – but don’t skip it out!

Lubricate the bolt holes and around the bearing edge.

Lubricate the bolt holes and around the bearing edge.

3. Place the head back on the bearing edge (ensuring you have removed any stickers from the head) and then place the top hoop over it and set the bolts in. Using the tuning key, start slowly tightening the bolts so that they just initially “catch”.  Then you will want to work clockwise from bolt to bolt and gradually bring the head down. i.e. increasing the tension.

The Jim Kilpatrick drum tuning block.

The Jim Kilpatrick drum tuning block.


4. Introduce the Jim Kilpatrick Tuning block. This little beauty is a saviour. It helps you to ensure that you are evenly bring the head down, and is WAY better than using a vernier caliper. Start at the largest portion of the block, and work your way down. I would say go at least half way or two thirds of the way on the block to start with. This will give you something half reasonable to play on (but still pretty tubby/flat). I have gone further, and tend to do so more often than not.  Once you have got to a point where you are happy, only tighten the top head sing 1/8 turns clockwise.  This doesn’t need to be done at every practice. Try to think of when you want the drum to be “at its best” – and work your way slowly towards that.

Using a tuning key, apply tension to the head by tightening the bolt on the suspension ring.

Using a tuning key, apply tension to the head by tightening the bolt on the suspension ring.

There you go, that’s stage 1 completed! Easy.

Check back soon for the next Stage on getting your pipe band snare drum set up.


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