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A beginning student came to me yesterday ready to start lessons with a set of 4 Mike Balter 122R mallets. I've always used Burton or Friedman mallets - mallets designed by 4-mallet players - which don't have as much weight at the top. But I've often wondered how heavy a mallet can be before it gets too top heavy to play 4 mallets with.

I happened to really like the sound of the Balter mallets - they're a little closer to the fat sound I hear on Milt Jackson recordings. I tried them out, and they felt a little awkward, but I wondered if it was something I would get used to over time. The shafts were a good length for 4-mallet playing. But I wasn't sure if I should tell my student to keep the mallets or not.

So the question is, can a 4-mallet player ever get the control and fluidity with a mallet that has a fair bit of weight on top? Tony, you've designed your own mallets so I'm sure you have considered this. At what point does a mallet become unwieldy to play with? Would love to hear from David and Gary too if you're reading this and care to comment - and anyone else for that matter. Maybe I missed it, but I wasn't able to find a discussion on mallet choices on the site yet.


tonymiceli Sun, 09/22/2013 - 23:24

i think there IS such thing as too heavy.

my soft mallets have a little weight to them and i like it. but the harder ones i designed to be light and fast.

are they heavy and hard or soft? i imagine soft or softer.

but you know if he's happy with them, then what can you say. I've had students playing with soft mallets and i can't hear them in the audience. they like the sound but if you can't hear them in the audience then what's the point, stay home.

so maybe that's the test, can he play in a band and be heard.

vibraman Mon, 09/23/2013 - 02:07

i think the best thing is to change the mallets for the song and sound you want. i use david friedman´s mallets for fast playing songs because they are very light and it´s more easy to play fast with them for me. for ballads i use tonys mallets because i love the sound and softness of them. on ballads you also don´t need that high volume cut through in most cases. gary burton´s mallets are something inbetween. i know most of the pro´s don´t change the mallets for different songs but i stil think that makes sense.

guitar players choose different guitars for different tunes, so why shouldn´t we with a simple change of mallets get more nuances of our sound. everything that gives us more expression of sound and color is good...

btw classical percussionists change the mallets all the time.sometimes it´s even written in the charts when to change. it´s just us lazy jazz players who don´t do too much...


David Friedman Mon, 09/23/2013 - 07:25

In reply to by vibraman

In general I think it's important to learn to get a variety of tone colors from one set of mallets.
I strike the instrument differently when I play a ballad, from when I play a fast, loud tune.
Most guitar players don't switch guitars depending on the kind of tune they play. Of course they have acustic guitars, 12 string etc. But ask John Scofield how often he switches instruments when he performs.

I know people who feel perfectly comfortable with mallets I consider too heavy. It's a matter of taste and feel. I would never give a student mallets that are too heavy, of course. It's important to ask a beginning student if he or she is comfortable with the mallets they're playing with.

That's my take.

vibraman Mon, 09/23/2013 - 17:16

In reply to by David Friedman

well, jazz guitar players might not switch but rock guitar players do. i got david´s DF30 mallets and i love that they are so light. i am currently just practicing very fast tempos and i can play easily faster with his mallets than with others. but i like the softness and the sound of tonys mallets also. i think it also depends on the setting you are playing with. in a duo you might use other mallets than in a big band.

another aspect is if i practice with heavy mallets and switch then to davids light ones it feels so easy....but maybe all this is just a matter taste and to get used to it.

at least i think it´s good if you have a large pool of mallets to choose from, no matter if you use then only one or change them during the gig.

p.s. i also switch snares drums and cymbals depending on the music if i play drums. of course not during a gig but i wouldn´t play jazz on a rock drum set.

rogersvibes Mon, 09/23/2013 - 20:06

In reply to by vibraman

For what it's worth, Metheny switches guitars A LOT during a performance. Of course, he can afford to hire someone to manage his guitars. Even so, I don't think the analogy to guitar players is very strong, since a single guitar is capable of a lot of tonal variation (not to mention volume) through amp settings, pedals, and the like, which in most cases, vibraphonists do not have access to. As a somewhat new vibes player whose main instrument is guitar, I have noticed that I like to try out many different kinds of mallets as this is one of the easiest ways to explore tonal colours on the instrument. I agree with David though that this shouldn't replace experimenting with different colours on one steady set of mallets.

Babu Tue, 09/24/2013 - 05:14

In reply to by David Friedman

About personal sound on the instrument I think there's roughly two schools among the players. Some try to "sound as X...", or adopt the sound generally used in a specific style of music. If they play another style, they tend to get another sound. On another hand (mainly in Jazz it seems to me) some musicians develop their own sound, indepedently of the style of music they play. You can recognise them quite instantly by their sound.
Thus 2 different uses of gear, that is, 2 different ways of using diferent mallets.
Some want to have at hand different possibilities of sounds in regard with the kinds of the musics they play or will play, when the others want to keep the same "sound signature" among the different musical situations they are in. Different mallets meaning they'll use the right tool at the right time to match their "usual" own sound.
I know, all is not black or white, the reality is a blend of the two situations for each one of us, but for me it's somewhat true. As a pro jazz guitarist myself, I belong to the second type : when I use pedals, effects, etc... I want to recognise my basic sound, that's all. Only in recording situation I'll use different sounds to match composer's requirements.
But, of course, the 2 ways of dealing with sounds are valid and efficient.

Steve Shapiro Tue, 09/24/2013 - 10:53

In reply to by David Friedman

Hey David,

Sco uses one guitar, but lots of effect pedals - which seems to me just like using one vibe, but different mallets. If he brings an acoustic guitar, that's like us bringing a marimba (...this is why it is much easier to be a guitar player!).

Gary Burton Thu, 02/13/2014 - 10:15

In reply to by David Friedman

Gee, I have to weigh in here, if only to say I'm impressed by all the thoughtful comments from so many. I guess we all take our mallets very seriously. Of course, I have been using the same mallets since 1970 -- let's see, what is that, 43 years. I guess I'm happy with my choice. I agree 100% with David's perspective, by the way. Everyone's hands are unique, so there is no one weight or feel of mallets that will be perfect for everyone. As a side note, I've also noticed over the years that students who come to the vibes from a background of playing drums seem to always prefer heavier and thicker handled mallets, reminding them of drumsticks, I suppose. As for the issue of using different types of mallets, I think that is fine for a studio musician or a classical player, who knows what is going to be required at any given time, and therefore can choose the most suitable mallet. (A funny story about this: Larry Bunker, famed L.A. percussionist and long-time friend, told me that he became annoyed with producers who often came on the talk-back to tell him to switch to a different type of mallet, either harder or softer, when he was certain he had chosen the most appropriate mallet. So he had three identical sets of mid-hardness mallets wrapped in three different colors. So when he was asked to change mallets, he would switch from the yellow to the red, or the blue, and still have the same mallets, and the producer would be happy with the change!). But, back to the point I want to make: A jazz player does not know specifically what he or she will play in the next few measures, let alone in the next several choruses. All we have to go on is a general sense (this is a ballad, or this is a strong beat Latin piece, etc). So, since I am not sure what exactly I will want to play as I proceed through a solo, I want a mallet that is all-purpose.

For me, all purpose means I can play softly and have a lovely sound, and I can play hard and keep the same tone quality -- that is, it is doesn't change from a nice full tone into a clanky, metallic sound. I want to be able to play the entire dynamic range from the softest to the loudest, and still have the same basic tone quality. (I also feel the same about the bars -- the lowest keys, middle keys, and upper keys, should all have a uniform tone quality. I don't like it when the low end bars sound thin or tinny compared to the mid and upper octaves, which is why graduated bars are needed).

As for the weight of the mallets, I prefer them to be just heavy enough to lend a little bit of extra hitting power (so I don't like ultra-light mallets), but I don't want to feel so much weight that it makes me feel sluggish or like I'm being forced to slow down. A lot of my playing involve]s very minimal movement of the mallets, especially on faster flurries of notes. I want that to feel effortless, and my mid-weight mallets accomplish that for me. Also, I don't think I would take the approach of practicing with heavier mallets and then switching to lighter ones to feel momentarily liberated and freer, whatever. I believe in practicing exactly how you are going to play. Get married to your mallets. You need them to become part of you, so natural that when you start to play they are just an extension of your hands. That's not as likely to happen if you keep switching mallets. This is a big part of my mallet philosophy.

John Keene mentioned "dropping the mallet on the bar vs. hitting the bar." I stopped to think about that for a minute. I have always told my students to NOT just drop the mallet on the bar in the case of a soft attack. The tone quality is subtly different, I have always thought. My theory is that in the case of a proper attack, the snap of the wrist and fingers lifts the mallet off the bar as quickly as possible, giving the best "ping" and ringing of the bar. Dropping the mallet on the bar leaves the mallet on the bar a split second longer, dampening it slightly. I also believe that one should not play soft passages, like ballads, limply. They need to be played just as purposely and intently as louder passages -- just softer. But if John thinks differently, I might re-visit that concept.

I think eventually, everyone goes through the mallet cycle. First phase: no clue what mallet is best. Second phase: trying lots of different types and changing your mind dozens of times. Third phase: settle on something that works well enough, and leave the search for the perfect mallet behind, putting all that effort into the music instead.

I wish everyone the best possible outcome wherever you are in the mallet cycle. And yes, when it comes to mallets, Mike Balter is the man.

Babu Mon, 09/23/2013 - 08:16

In reply to by vibraman

Hi Tarik, hope all's fine with you !
What model of David Friedman do you use ? DF30 or DF30L ?
I'm thinking of buying a set, but I don't know if the light model gives the same clear and loud sound I like in David's sound.
Thanks for the answer !

David Friedman Wed, 09/25/2013 - 03:32

In reply to by Babu


The DF30's are my all purpose mallet. The DF30L's are also pretty full sounding and are simply a bit lighter. I have a student who uses them all the time for all kinds of music.

Babu Wed, 09/25/2013 - 07:11

In reply to by David Friedman

Your explanation is very useful for me. I prefer light mallets, and now I know I can buy DF30L without any doubt.

stewhoff Mon, 09/23/2013 - 10:12

Thanks for the great responses. I'm not sure yet about the idea of changing mallets. Mallets do have a specific, fundamental sound associated with them, and to a great degree they do define a player's sound and approach. Within that mallet's sound, as David points out, the individual player can change tone colour, much like a pianist does by employing different techniques. As Tarik pointed out, other very good vibraphonists do change mallets, though it's not that common. Though Tarik, don't you think that, with orchestral playing, it's much more an interpreter's art, so the goal is to play what you think will best get across the composer's intentions. Jazz players are expressing themselves, and the choice of equipment, and the consistency of its use, helps define that person's voice.

But the original question was, more or less, at what point is a mallet too heavy for a 4-mallet player to control. My beginning student arrived at his lesson with mallets that I hadn't worked with and I wasn't sure if I should tell him to return them or not. I liked the sound, but ultimately would they be unwieldy for a 4-mallet player? Would it be reasonable to expect anyone to play, for example, some of David's more challenging pieces in the Vibraphone Technique book with such big mallets? It's an impossible question unless anyone is familiar specifically with the Balter 122R mallets, but I'm wondering then, what people are using, what sound they are getting out of them, how versatile they are and how successful or unsuccessful they have been with them.

tonymiceli Tue, 09/24/2013 - 08:37

In reply to by stewhoff

the other thing is, you said he's a beginner. I'm not a very 'this is how you do it guy' and sometimes i think i should be more that way. esp with beginners.

maybe the trick is not to say anything but insist he gets some different types of mallets and play with all the different types.

i recommend a CASE of my mallets for starters. :-) :-) :-)

Marie-Noëlle Tue, 09/24/2013 - 08:43

In reply to by tonymiceli

I started with Tony's mallets, though I didn't have the chance to test many others. But I love them, and specially as a woman found them not too heavy to old by 4.

John Keene Tue, 09/24/2013 - 08:44

In reply to by tonymiceli

I think James Walker who teaches mallet students would totally agree with me on this. First, I recommend starting students out on two mallets; there are enough problems playing with four without burdening a beginner with that. The student can progress from two to four at a later time (I prefer two, but I was taught and believe that everyone should know how to play with four). Based on that, and also considering how expensive it is to buy quality mallets, I'd recommend letting the beginner play on whatever he wants that sounds acceptable (which the 221's certainly are) and let it go at that.

Steve Shapiro Tue, 09/24/2013 - 10:37

This is a subject I have thought about a lot. I would LIKE to use just one set of mallets, and often I do. But I find that it sometimes limits my possibilities. Also, I have done a lot of experimenting, and one thing that I have discovered is that the choice of mallets is much more apparent and influential to the player than it is to the audience. If you go from a big set of Milt mallets, to some hard, lightweight 4-mallet sticks - yes, the audience may hear the difference. But mostly, it is a difference felt by the player. With recording it is a little different, as the choice of mallets can often be heard a bit better.

Here are some considerations:

-what volume level, and ensemble type? i.e. what tone are you going for?
-how hard do you want to have to hit?
-how fast do you need to play?
-how sharp or blurry a line do you want to make?

Sometimes I feel that mallet choice can be like what thickness pen you would use to draw, such as fine point vs. marker. Harder, smaller mallet heads give you a sharper line. But you can certainly tell a story either way - it's cool to draw all night with a fine point marker, if you're making good drawings.

I often choose based on the tune. Certain mallets can create a different sound and a mood. I have a set of Albrights that are a bit oversized and soft, but made for 4-mallet playing. These are too bulky for fast tempos, but I love using them on a tune like "Softly as in a Morning Sunrise." When I listened back to a gig recording of that recently, I found something special happened musically, which did not happen on other tunes with my usual mallets. It was likely due both to the tone of the mallets, and the way this influenced me to play...

c.stallard22 Tue, 09/24/2013 - 11:43

I started out using Balter 23R mallets (the blue ones) and STILL DO for practicing, even though I prefer other sets (I'll admit, Tony's are my favorite).

The 23Rs are heavy, and that's why I practice with them. Does anyone here play baseball or softball? As a ball player, I work on my swing by adding weight to my bat or using a heavier bat than I'm used to. I do this so that when I'm at the plate, my normal bat seems lighter and I'm able to get more power when I swing.

Obviously bats and mallets are different, but IMHO it's a similar concept. I practice with heavy mallets so that when I switch to lighter ones, everything is easier. Suddenly sixteenth notes that were difficult at one tempo are a breeze, and I have more freedom in my playing. Heavier mallets keep me in check: I literally CAN'T practice past a certain speed because of the weight, so I'm forced to practice slowly. Then, I practice with lighter mallets if I'm getting close to a concert, so my muscles have the right memories of weight.

I don't think approaching practicing this way works for everyone, but I wouldn't be too hard on the student. I'm not familiar with the 122Rs, but my first pair of vibes mallets were heavy and I think that was a good thing.

PS: I remember my lesson teacher on marimba asking me to buy a couple sets of mallets, and that practically broke my bank. Keep in mind that buying more mallets gets expensive real fast for some students, so it might be awhile before he can even consider a lighter pair...

stewhoff Tue, 09/24/2013 - 21:20

This is great . . . lots of terrific feedback.

First of all, in response to John, I do start students off with 2 mallets, but at the same time I introduce them to 4-mallet playing. So while they're just getting used to the grip - learning to spread them away from the instrument, and getting the general stroke under control - we're working on scales, basic 2-mallet technique, reading or whatever with 2 mallets. This keeps things interesting while they're slowly getting comfortable with and easing into 4-mallet playing. I don't see a conflict there.

Also, I should mention that Stefan Bauer (and if you don't know Stefan's playing you should definitely check out his site and search his videos) suggested to me that having students play with weightier mallets helps get them "dropping" the mallet into the bars rather then "hitting" the bars.

And earlier today I called up Mike Balter and tried to explain the kind of mallet I might be interested in.

The problem a lot of us have - and I live in Toronto but had the same difficulty in New York - is that very few stores carry a selection of mallets other than the most popular Vic Firth models. And if you want to hear what mallets sounds like, it's rare the there is a vibraphone on the floor to check them out on. One store in town said they would order Balter mallets for me to try. So I asked Mike to recommend mallets that are heavier on top, that would give a fatter, warmer sound but would still be manageable for 4-mallet playing.

He narrowed it down to three models. One was the 23Rs that Carolyn mentioned. I didn't write down why, but for some reason there was something about them that didn't fit my description as well as the others. The other two were 50Rs and 46Rs ("R" stands for Rattan). They are part of the artist model series. When I looked up the designers, I discovered that the 50Rs were Christos Rafalides', and the 46Rs were . . .ta-daaa . . . Tony's. So tomorrow I'll call the store and have them order a few pair for me to try out. Tony, it would be interesting if you could point out the differences you see in the two models.

I also should point out that Tony has done a few videos discussing various Balter mallets, as well as David Friedman's DF30L by Innovative Percussion - a great mallet too (I still use the previous generation Friedman mallet, but look forward to picking up a set of the DF30s).

So that's the latest in my personal mallet saga. Keep the comments/thoughts coming. It's all very interesting.

Randy_Sutin Wed, 09/25/2013 - 06:23

In reply to by stewhoff

He is an awesome resource to tap. He knows a ton about mallets.

Best part is, if you like something about two different models he makes (like the shafts on one and the heads on the other), he will custom make you a set of mallets.

Good luck in your search.

tonymiceli Wed, 09/25/2013 - 13:14

In reply to by stewhoff

i'll tell you one thing, i think there's basically a few shades when it comes to mallets. if you had all the mallets in the world, i bet we could lump them into a few categories. rubber balls and yarn, know what i mean? that's my take, others might disagree.

christos are heavier than mine and have more mids and less highs. i like his, so let me say that.

i think mine have the highs to cut through the stage and get to the audience. and mine are light. that is the hard model.

the soft model is heavier and softer and less highs of course. i think soft sticks naturally have less highs then hard sticks. you guys agree?

I'm very proud of my mallets, i designed the hard ones for a purpose. they sound great with a band. and honestly i like them by themselves also. i like that sound. i think milt uses a version of that sound. bobby hutcherson used that sound.

remember i think there's a stage sound and an audience sound and most of the time they can be very different. esp acoustically.

i think if you used mine OR christo's you'd be very happy.

rfrench5 Thu, 01/30/2014 - 10:16

I have been trying different sets of mallets over the past few months. It can be a kind of blind test of course if you can't actually try out a set before you buy them. I am buying mine through either steve weiss, or lone star. The local drum shop in town has some, but not a whole lot like the web sites. When I was in L.A. in November 2013, I went to Pro Drum Shop in Hollywood, CA. where I had not been in over 20 years. They still have a decent selection but again nothing like the selection in the web sites.

For me, for the present time, I am slanting more towards two mallet playing, and the mallets that I am liking for that are the Stefon Harris set. I like the oversize head, they are light, and they really give a good nice warm non-percussive sound, as he says in his You Tube vid. For even four mallet playing I am still liking the Stefon Harris set. Yes I know the handles are shorter. I used You Tube vids first to check out some of the other mallet sounds and I have to say the vids are VERY valuable. Thanks Tony Micelli and others!

For four mallet playing, I am liking the Joe Locke sets, both the Crossover and Deep Tone sets. I have started using grip tape for wrapping the mallets because for me, it eliminates that familiar clicking sound and it also seems to give me a little more 'umph' and confidence (?) in playing for some reason. I use tennis grip wraps and both the Pro-Mark wraps for the mallet wrapping.

I have also tried the Ed Saindon sets too. For me, they are almost too heavy. I am using them more so for 'weight training', meaning that for the practicing and in the local college ensemble that I am in, I am using them to "train" my muscles for a period of time, so that when I switch back to a lighter set in the same gig, it will feel lighter and easier to perform. For me this kind of scenario seems to work. Wacky it may seem to others.


Jacob Britton Sat, 02/01/2014 - 22:06

I would recommend, at least for four mallets, the Victor Mendoza series as well as the Gary Burton series. Both are kind of light, particularly the Mendozas. I have a feeling you would like those. The have a nice slappy sound.

I know how you feel on the weight training business. When shedding 4 mallet marimba solos, at home I use the Nebojska Z. mallets which are EXTREMELY heavy and build my chops like crazy. All my other mallets feel so light