Students and performers today have access to a larger selection of mallets and instruments than ever before. Naturally this can make selecting mallets a daunting task. Rattan or birch, yarn or cord, round or oval, length, weight? The choices seem virtually endless. It is no surprise that we at Steve Weiss Music constantly receive requests for advice when it comes to purchasing the “right” mallets. The problem? There is no one “right” set of mallets. That being said, here are some ways to avoid purchasing the wrong mallets.
While we all love to save money, it is important to remember that the instrument you play sounds only as good as the mallet you use to play it. Even a top of the line instrument can sound unpleasant when struck with the wrong implement. Often a few extra dollars can be the difference between a good sound and a great sound. As your collection grows, be sure you have a quality mallet bag to protect your investment.
The majority of mallet handles are made from either birch or rattan. Birch is a light but stiff wood which will retain its shape quite well over time. Rattan is a slightly heavier and more flexible material. Over time, rattan handles may develop a slight curve. For most players, this is nothing to worry about, but more particular players may find this problematic.
It is important to note that both birch and rattan mallet handles are used by players of all levels all around the world, and that choosing one over the other is simply a matter of personal preference.
Like the other factors we have listed so far, handle length will ultimately come down to the player’s personal preference. That being said, it is worth mentioning that the majority of Stevens-grip players tend to prefer a slightly shorter handle, while cross-grip (or traditional) players tend to prefer a longer handle. This is a logical trend, as longer mallet handles are required to achieve the same intervals for cross-grip players. Stevens-grip players sometimes find that a longer mallet handle feels heavier than they prefer.
It is fairly common for cross-grip players to prefer a heavier mallet, due to the mechanics of the grip they are using. Once again, the opposite is true for players using Stevens grip, who tend to gravitate toward a somewhat lighter mallet.
We normally recommend that beginners start with light mallets so that they can focus on developing proper playing technique without feeling fatigued or strained, which can sometimes accompany playing with a heavier mallet.
Yarn vs. Cord
Yarn mallets are used primarily for wooden instruments, particularly the marimba, due to their warm sound quality. Using yarn mallets on a metallic instrument such as a vibraphone will typically not produce the strong fundamental tone the player is generally looking for.
As you may have guessed, the inverse is true of cord mallets, which produce a more articulate tone, making them much more suitable for instruments like the vibraphone. Cord mallets can be used on the marimba as well, when the player desires a more pointed tone with a faster decay.
For these reasons, yarn mallets will often be marketed as “marimba” mallets, while most “vibraphone” mallets are made with cord.
Most mallets today are produced in a line, or series, of different hardnesses. As one might expect, soft mallets will generally sound their best in the lower range of the instrument, and may not speak well in the upper register. Of course the opposite will be true of harder mallets. We always recommend that beginners start with a medium mallet. From there, a medium-hard and then medium-soft mallet would be the next logical addition to your set. Try to avoid extremes (ie, very soft, two-toned, etc.) until you have a comfortable selection of medium, general-purpose mallets. Remember, it is ultimately the player’s job to achieve the desired dynamic, not the mallet’s.
The Bottom Line
When you add up all of these different factors, it is easy to see that there is no one perfect mallet out there. Most players spend years building their collection of mallets, ensuring that they always have the right mallet for the task at hand. It is important to remember that the ultimate goal when selecting mallets is to produce the best tone possible on your instrument. For most of us, it will take some experimentation to find the combination that feels good in our hands and produces the sound we want. Be sure to take note of what you like and dislike about each and every set of mallets you play, which will help you avoid the “wrong” mallets we mentioned earlier. From there, it’s just a matter of time before you know exactly which mallet to reach for on your next piece.
Still have questions? Give us a call at 888-659-3477, or email us at.