Tippers come in a wide variety of sizes, shapes, and materials. Logically, the smaller the drum, the smaller the tipper. Likewise, if you have a small hand, you will probably play with a smaller tipper. I tend not to play with tippers that are more than an inch longer than the widest span of my hand from little finger to thumb.
The first tipper I ever played with was the rough unfinished piece of pine that comes with most beginner drums. They are generally too short and clumsy to do more than a limited range of down and up strokes. It is difficult to get any top notes off them. I generally recommend that the student toss this one over the fence and get a better tipper.
My next tipper went the opposite extreme: long and heavy with a huge off-centered knob in the middle that made it easier to grip and less likely to fly out of my hand. It was also slow and tiring on my arm. Neither of these two tippers is pictured above. I threw away the first one, and traded the second one.
In place of the monster tipper, I received the tipper that is sixth from the left pictured above. I still wanted the off-center knob, but not so big. A friend wrapped some leather around it for me.
That bent piece of wood in the middle of the picture is a piece of a tree branch cut off and sanded fifteen minutes before a gig when I realized I’d left my tippers at home — forty miles away. It was light and difficult to play but it worked in a pinch. I keep it around for humility.
The straight thin tippers are what I call “speed” tippers. They fairly fly in my hand, and are the tipper of choice for polkas.
The third tipper from the right has soft rubber balls that give a neat bounce along with a muted thump. I think of it as an exercise tipper because I have to work to catch it and push it back towards the drum head. Very fun to play, that one.
The three tippers on the far left are different types of brushes. I’ve tried lots of trap set drummer’s brushes, but found them too long and stiff, as well as damaging to the drum head. I don’t really even like the brush tipper made specially for bodhrán. The plastic bristles sound too scratchy and have no weight to them. My favorite is handmade from two 1″ paintbrushes taped together.
You’ll eventually find two or three great tippers that will serve most of your needs, but you’ll probably not be able to resist buying more tippers. It’s the bodhrán player’s inexpensive addiction.
(My favorites in this picture are (from left to right) numbers 1 (the paintbrushes), 10, 14, and 18. The rest are just for show.)
- Kerry or Pencil Style, where a 2-headed stick plays obliquely to the drum head, the main beat produced with the lower head. Rolls and ornamentation are created with the use of the upper head.
- West Limerick, Single-headed or Stick Style, where a short stick is held by one end, straight out from the palm as one would hold the stick-shift of a car. Alternatively, the stick is braced between the lower joints of two fingers. Hands and arms are swung Kerry-style, striking the head of the drum once in each direction. Rolls are accomplished by increasing the speed of the hand.
- Waterford or Thong Style, the oldest style, where a thong is tied around the middle of the beater and twisted around the middle or index finger so that the stick hangs perpendicular to the fingers. Arms and hands are swung much as in Kerry style. It produces a very loud sound, and is used in marching but not in session or performance.
- Knuckle Style, played with no tipper, just the tops of the knuckles.
- Scottish or Tambour Style, where the stick is gripped in the fist or by fewer fingers in the same position. The hand and forearm rotate allowing alternate ends of the stick to strike the skin. This style can be played very fast, very easily, but provides less control than Kerry style.
- Hand Style or Middle-eastern Style
- Roscommon Style, the drum is played with the back of the knuckles. The drum rests on the left knew. The right hand is loosely open, fingers curved, wrist bent slightly so that the knuckles lie in a parallel plane to the drum head. Moving the forearm up and down, allow the wrist to flap. Strike the skin with the knuckles, one beat with each down-stroke, one with each upstroke. Rolls are produced by moving the hand faster.
- Clare Style, same as Roscommon except that the index finger is half extended. Alternating between one and several fingers varies the tone of the beats. Works well on drums with jingles set into the rim. Produces a softer sound than using a stick.
- West Cork Style, the drum is placed vertically in the lap, with the skin facing away, and the top edge of the drum against the chest. Hold the right/dominant hand in front of the drum, palm inward, with the middle fingers curled under, the little finger and the thumb crooked. Play by rotating the forearm and striking the drum alternately with the knuckle of the thumb and the back of the last knuckle of the little finger. This leaves the left/weak hand free to add beats and slaps. Rolls are achieved by the addition of another beat with the thumb on the upstroke. This technique resembles Middle Eastern drumming.