The Great Vic Firth Stick Shortage
Posted on February 5, 2023
There’s been a lot of stick talk on my blog lately. And I’m talking some more because the universe has decided to play a cruel trick on me.
Back when I wrote about Regal Tip’s secretive status, I said that “I’ll be heartbroken if Vic Firth ever discontinues the AJ5”. And literally the very next day, I learned that the entire American Jazz line of drumsticks has indeed been discontinued. FML.
Well, discontinued indefinitely I should say. It’s quite apropos I discovered this after writing about Regal Tip since Vic Firth has taken the same business strategy: make no public statement as to why your inventory has vanished from stores, and instead let the rumor mill take care of it all.
The story this time is that Vic Firth is facing some sort of lumber shortage, and has decided to just focus on standard products, e.g. 5Bs and 7As. The rest have been shelved for the moment, but they’re supposed to come back this spring. That’s the tea anyway.
I perused Vic Firth’s website, and out of the 209 products the company has, nearly 160 are listed as being “out of stock”. That’s 75% of the entire inventory, which includes my AJ5s, as well as signature sticks, and even some corps master sticks. Bad news for all the winter guard drum lines out there. The story is similar if you’re a timpanist looking for mallets. No percussionist is safe.
Everything is a bloody commodity these days, isn’t it? If the AJ5s ever do come back, I guess I’ll have to hoard them like they’re bullets. Of course, when a drumstick is truly gone for good, it’s best to just rip the band–aid off and find a replacement right away — don’t stifle your playing just to salvage your inventory and delay the inevitable.
I started using the AJ5 in college. Throughout my freshman year, the only opportunity I had to drum in any kind of ensemble was in my college basketball band. Driving a band with 100+ wind players (in a stadium at that) made me a very loud and aggressive drummer. Then, when I went to my first jam session, I damn near killed the other musicians I was playing with.
To help me tone things down, I decided a change of stick was in order. I had been using 5Bs for years, but I went right to the other end of the spectrum and tried out the AJ5, the thinnest stick Vic Firth
makes made at .490 inches in diameter.
I really like the AJ5. The stick is hickory, so I can still get some considerable volume out of it with good durability, but the thickness (or lack thereof) allows for a lot of control — there’s more delicacy and finesse than what I get from a 5B. It’s got a teardrop tip, which is the best, and the long taper is great for cymbals as well. The model is fast and precise, and it also just plays great, so anything bigger now simply feels clumsy and slow.
Faced with the reality that I won’t be picking up a new pair for a while (if I ever get another pair again), I guess I should find a replacement. All I need is a pretty thin hickory stick, around half an inch in diameter, with a long taper and a teardrop tip. It can’t be that hard… can it?
Considering I wrote a whole post about this, you probably already know the answer. Let’s just say that I’ve picked up some new pairs:
I perused some of the other big drumstick brands, in addition to a few smaller companies I’ve heard about. I started by focusing on diameter (not bothering with anything bigger than .540", the standard size of a 7A), and then broadly focusing on the other design elements I want. I’m not considering anything from Vic Firth. In fact, I’m just gonna avoid VF until the company can get its shit together. There are seven pairs I’ve been trying out, so let’s talk about them.
For reference, the stats of the AJ5 are: Hickory • 16" x .490" • Teardrop Tip • 3 ¼" Taper.
ProMark Classic Forward 7A (Hickory • 15 ⅜" x .512" • Oval Tip • 2 ¼" Taper)
ProMark is probably VF’s biggest competitor, so this is a sensible place to start. The “Classic” 7A is a bit thinner than ProMark’s normal 7A and is probably the thinnest 7A out there.
While this one feels good in the hand, it’s a little bit too short for me. I didn’t realize until now how much length would be a factor. I really don’t like the oval tip either, which has a blunt, muddy sound on cymbals. It’s a shame since these are pretty easy to get ahold of at the moment — you can even buy them in bulk.
Vater Sweet Ride (Maple • 16" x .530" • Bead Tip • 2 ¼" Taper)
I bought these just a couple of days ago at a local drum shop, on a lark. Vater has some other sticks I’m interested in, such as the Bebop 500 (which is right at .500", unsurprisingly) and the 52nd St. Jazz (.530"). Sadly, I couldn’t get ahold of either of these sticks, for one reason or another.
The Sweet Ride is nice and long, but the bead tip isn’t my preference; it’s better than an oval tip for sure, but it’s still lacking in articulation for me. This pair also confirmed that I really don’t care for maple drumsticks.
Maple is less dense than hickory, but in a way that occupies an uncanny valley for me. Maple may be light, but not in the way rutes are — maple feels like empty calories in my hand. But because of the length and the sub–.540" diameter, these are usable, and I would choose them over the ProMarks.
Bopworks Birdland (Hickory • 15 15⁄16" x .500" • Oval Tip • 3 ¼" Taper)
Bopsworks is a smaller drumstick business based out of Texas that I’ve been vaguely interested in since first hearing about it a few years ago (the company itself has been around since 2006). The mission statement of Bopworks is to make replicas of the sticks used by jazz drummers throughout the 1940s to the 60s. Some models name–drop famous jazz drummers, while others don’t for legal reasons.
Anyhoo, the Birdland stick is the thinnest one Bopworks makes, and is the thinnest on this list (I never found one under .500"). While the diameter is great, it’s lacking in length, and the oval tip is a knock against it. This tip is certainly more nimble than the one on the ProMark stick, but it’s still not my jam.
Bopworks 40’s Swinging Classic (Hickory • 16" x .515" • Teardrop Tip • 3 ¼" Taper)
Unofficially Gene Krupa’s stick, the 40’s Swinging Classic is more up my alley; only a modest bit thicker than the Birdland model, but with better marks for length, tip, and taper. It’s one of my favorites out of this new collection I’ve built, and my only significant gripe is that Bopworks tragically misspells the name of the stick with an apostrophe.
LA Backbeat J505 (Hickory • 15 ½" x .505" • Teardrop Tip • 2 ¾" Taper)
LA Backbeat (a.k.a Louisiana Backbeat) is another small drumstick company that I only just heard about amidst the Vic Firth debacle. The company (based out of Lafayette, LA) has been around since 2013.
The way LA Backbeat organizes sticks on its website is… unusual. Model names aren’t really used — rather, things are simplified by simply naming the stick after its diameter (e.g. 505, 535, 550… the biggest seems to be 670).
Unfortunately, you can’t just look at the different makes of drumsticks like a catalog. LA Backbeat instead has a huge collection of listings for the different sticks available. You’ll see the same stick multiple times, with differences in weight, length, tip, taper, and quality (the quality, from high to low, is described as “Pro Grade”, “Player Grade”, and “Wonky”).
Anyway, with all of that confusion out of the way, I eventually found what appears to be the thinnest stick in the catalog*, the “jazz” J505. I really like this one a lot, it’s just a smidge too short for me. It also has a flat butt rather than a rounded one — something else that annoyed me more than I thought it would. Fortunately, there’s the 505X, which is 16 inches long. Unfortunately, it was sold out when I made my purchases. Maybe next time.
There’s also the JB “jazz bounce” 505(X) variant, which has a longer taper. I’m not sure how much longer the taper is, but if I could get ahold of a JB505X, it would probably be the best replacement for my AJ5.
LA Backbeat J520X (Hickory • 16" x .520" • Teardrop Tip • 3" Taper)
All in all, another good drumstick. I got this one to see how I would like a LaBB stick at 16 inches, with a diameter tradeoff. The 520 also comes in a long taper variety, with an “XXXX” version that’s 17 inches(!) in length.
To conclude, the best substitutes are probably going to come from Bopworks and LA Backbeat. I would love to try a J505X and/or a JB505X. I just have to be patient.
Honorable mention goes to the Innovative Percussion JH-1 Jeff Hamilton Model (.500" with the weirdest tip I’ve ever seen). I can’t find it anywhere, and my patience is far too short to scour the depths of the internet trying to find it. These companies don’t deserve my effort anyway — it’s your goddamn product, so you can work on making it available.
I’ll update this post if the AJ5 ever does come back; before I go, I can’t help but share this gem I found on a forum thread during my research:
Ah yes. Muh vuvuzela iPhone. Some jokes just write themselves.
This is why I’m not sure I want to join drum forums…
Edit May 2023: The agony is finally over — at the start of this month, VF, at last, has reissued the American Jazz line, and I’ve successfully picked up several pairs. Better late than never. (Remember what I said about bullets?) Looking back at this journey, I think my favorite pair ended up being the LA Backbeat J505. I would have ordered some more, but wouldn’t you know, they’ve been sold out for weeks. I just can’t catch a break.
More than anything else, I really hope this was just a curious moment in my drumming journey. There’s just nothing quite like the AJ5.
* ↑ LaBB does have a “Wonky” 500 stick, but I guess I’ll pass on that one since it’s wonky.