Thinking About Tippers

By Alistair Dennett

Looking at the parts of a bodhrán (or any frame drum) we have the skin (or head) and the frame (or rim if you like) and sometimes an internal brace and tuning mechanism. The heart and soul of any frame drum is, of course, the skin. Equally important however is whatever you use to strike the skin.

The reason for this is every tipper will sound different. Every tipper will also feel different. The sound and the feel of the tipper will affect your playing profoundly.

Oddly though, the choice of tipper is often an after-thought and it takes a while for the average bodhrán player to discover the importance of this vital piece of the instrument and start a serious quest for the perfect tipper(s).

Things to think about

For a start, most players use several tippers in their kit to provide a variety of sounds and feel that may be encountered at a session. What makes one tipper different from another very basically is:

1) Weight
2) Length
3) Shape of the Ends
4) Placement of Grip
5) Special Shapes or Ends

So let's look at each in turn:

1) Weight

The weight of a tipper affects not only the sound of the drum but also the speed at which the player can respond to the music. In the old days, tippers were generally heavy and short with big knobby ends, which worked well with the heavy skins that were used at the time. Lately though, skins are thinner and the tippers are lighter and the playing faster. Lighter tippers are easier on the hands and wrists over the long term. This is important since some of the older players out there are experiencing problems with their wrists.

A heavier tipper will sound not only louder but also deeper in tone. This is because the tipper sinks into the skin and you get less 'head sound' and more of the natural tone of the skin. This is both good and bad. A lighter tipper has more attack in the sound, which cuts through the music better and makes the sound of the drum brighter and cleaner. A heavy thump can be pleasing under certain circumstances but can also give the music a muddier sound. If the music is being played fast, you should use a lighter stick.

Once you find a style of tipper you like, you can adjust the weight by asking the maker to replicate the dimensions using a denser (or less dense) wood. Changing the species of wood provides a wide range of weights (in the extreme, compare Balsa to Ebony.) Appendix A is a chart of different samples of wood and the measured densities of those specific samples (different samples of the same species may vary). The chart was provided by Jim Hunter (see below) who also did the measurements. I think it's worthwhile reviewing this chart and becoming familiar with the differences from one species to the next.

2) Length

Length has a less obvious impact on your playing than weight or shape. The longer the tipper, the slower it is for a given thickness. However, a long thin tipper can have a fast response and give an interesting sound which is clean and articulate (see "The Dowel or Rod Shape" below). Since drums are generally smaller today (14"-16" rather than 18" - 20") you need a shorter tipper in order to play triplets. You can play triplets with a long tipper on a small diameter skin, but you have to contort your wrist significantly and this can be very awkward. OR you can learn to play the triplets on just one end of the tipper, which is an advanced technique.

A longer tipper is obviously heavier than a shorter one for a given diameter. This has the effect of producing a louder and deeper sound.

The advice here is to have a variety of lengths to accommodate the type of music you are playing at the time. A good rule of thumb is to start with an 8" - 9" tipper and vary the length +/- from there.

3) Shape of the ends

Take a tipper of the same overall weight and length and you can change the sound it makes against the skin and it's response (speed) by changing the shape of the tips. Three basic styles of tips are:

Tear drop or oval: This shape produces a softer sound against the skin as compared with the other shapes below. It's best defined as a 'B' sound with a softer attack to the note, as in "Boom". It is also faster than the other shapes since the moment of inertia is closer to your hand.

Ball: This common shape has a sharper sound than the teardrop. You might define the sound as more of a 'D' with higher initial attack to the note, as in "Doom"

Bell: This shape brings more of the weight of the tipper out to the very end. The resulting sound is more complicated to define, but in general the sound will be louder than the other two shapes above. On thinner skins the effect is a fairly 'round' sound and on thicker skins the sound is much sharper. Another effect of the bell shape is a slower response time since the majority of the weight is at the ends if the tipper and the moment of inertia is effectively further away from your hand.

4) Placement and Type of Grip

Most tippers on the market include a treatment along the shaft to afford some sort of grip. The treatment is often a round swelling, one or two raised bands or something to prevent the tipper from flying out of your hand. The placement of the grip is usually in the centre of the tipper or placed at a 5/4 ratio from one end. You often don't get to choose what sort of grip is provided with any given style of tipper. Thinking about the grip you choose is worthwhile whether you are just starting out or a seasoned player.

A centred grip provides a symmetry and balance to the tipper and a predictable reaction while in use. A given tipper may play a bit faster with a centred grip and has a well-defined and even triplet sound (when you bring the top of the stick around to strike the skin.)

A 5/4 ratio grip placement (when the shorter end of the tipper is down) will provide a fast response to triplets, but is a bit harder to control. Placing the longer end of the tipper down will increase the volume of the single strokes and provide increased momentum to the swing, but playing triplets requires more control to sound even.

No grip is another option not often provided but has a few advantages (and disadvantages too). First off you can use an elastic band to place the grip wherever you want and adjust it to suit the tune, tension of your drum or to experiment to get the optimum feel and response from the tipper and skin. An elastic band also has the added advantage of being very easy on the fingers. Some grips can be uncomfortable on the fingers after a good night of playing. One disadvantage is that the elastic moves a bit under your fingers and this may give a feeling of less control.

Many advanced players opt to have no grip at all and this works well if you can control the tipper in your fingers while playing, but it takes additional practice.

5) Special Shapes and Ends

The Dowel or Rod Shape:

There is a forth style of tip as well, which is a straight 'rod' with no flare to the tip at all. I treat these as a special case however since they are hard to come by. Unless you use a very dense wood, the straight tipper will need to be fairly thick. It's preferable to use a dense wood such as ebony in order to avoid a 'clunky' tipper. See the discussions on weight and length above for more information.

If you have a tipper made of ebony or some dense wood, it will be quite thin in profile. This allows for a faster stroke without much effort. The small surface area striking the skin gives a higher initial attack to the sound but the density (weight) of the wood allows the skin to still resonate. The effect is like a 'Toon' sound, and if you choke the skin with your left hand you get a nice 'Tip' sound. Also, you can work up some special strokes that allow the tipper to bounce on the head like a roll on a snare drum. This effect is used by such players as John Joe Kelly of Flook, Brian Morrisey, Rónán Ó Snodaigh of Kila and others. This style of tipper is usually longer than the regular flared styles and requires adjustments in playing technique to use it effectively.

Brush Ends:

Several makers provide a tipper with a fiber brush at one or both ends. Obviously this gives a soft 'swish' to the sound and is appropriate for many quiet occasions, providing a delicate touch to a tune. They are also useful for playing with a jazz swing to a tune, which is not uncommon, especially when playing with certain guitar players.

You can also use a standard brush or brush/stick combination used by kit drummers and made under the Regal Tip brand. The Regal Tip Ultraflex is a very good stick to try. It has a long nylon brush and a rounded wooden end. Remember that they come in pairs, so if you buy with a fellow drummer, you get one each at about $11.00 apiece.

If you have a pair of brushes and a smaller diameter drum, you can squeeze the drum between your knees with the skin facing up and play it like a snare drum. I've been to many sessions where the music resolves to a jazz or ragtime feel and this allows you to add a nice swing feel to the music without being too obtrusive.

Stick Bundles:

You can make a very inexpensive and effective tipper using bamboo skewers. This has the special advantage that you can experiment with diameter and length and stiffness to you hearts content without draining your bank account. You should have an assortment in your kit anyway since they have a very pleasing sound. Note that these tippers sound really good with synthetic skins. Kit drummers that use the Pro-Mark stick bundles can use worn out bundles by cutting them down. These also have a pleasing sound.

Homemade stick bundles from left to right: 20, 15, 12, 10 skewers and ProMark bundle rescued from the trash and cut down.

You can make a large variety of bundles very easily using:

Package of Skewers. You can find these in any larger grocery store.
Duct Tape (of course)
Tube if silicon bathtub sealer (or white glue)
220 grit sand paper

Count out a variety of bundles starting with, say, 10 skewers and then adding 3-5 for each additional tipper.
Lay out each bundle on a piece of paper and lay a small bead of silicon (or glue) across the center.
Gather them up in a bundle and wrap the duct tape around the center with just enough to overlap the bundle once at most (or less) while squeezing tight.
Cut the bundles to the desired length (start with about 9") and sand the edges of the ends to round them off.
Experiment with length, diameter of the bundles and the length of the duct tape band around the middle (this has the effect of creating a harder or softer sound). You can also add a small band of duct tape halfway between the centre band and the tip. This stiffens the ends quite a bit and provides a harder sound and feels more like a wooden tipper. You can get fancy by using shrink-wrap tubing instead of duct tape.
Your total investment in time will be about one hour to make 8 finished bundles or so. I like using a 9" bundle of 20 skewers and then changing to a 12-skewer bundle for a more delicate sound.
Experiment and have fun! Share with your friends.

So, how do you find the 'perfect' tipper(s)?

The important thing is to find a good starting point. Borrow tippers from friends and try them out. Once you find one that feels really good, make a note of the length, type of wood, diameter, shape of the end, grip treatment and position, where it came from. You can use this information to find a similar tipper for yourself and start experimenting from there. There are a few makers who will custom make a tipper for you for not too much money.

The best maker I know of is Jim Hunter of Ottawa, Ontario. He has a wide variety of woods available and measures the densities of each wood sample (see Appendix A). He will provide you with the list of densities to help you decide whether your next tipper should be lighter or heavier by adjusting the density of the wood rather than, say, making the ends bigger or smaller which will affect the balance and response (speed) of the tipper. Each piece is beautifully polished using progressively finer sanding paper ending with 3000 grit. He has a very methodical approach to documenting his tippers so that players can use that information to build a collection for themselves by varying the length, weight (type of wood and diameter) and shape of the end. He will also add a little weight to the ends by inserting a small slug of brass or steel. He is always looking for suggestions from players on how to improve his tippers and is happy to get feedback from you. As well, you should think about which style of grip you like. Jim has developed a nice rounded grip with an indentation for your thumb. It feels very nice and may be easier on the fingers than other grip styles. He will also make tippers with an indentation or no grip at all. You can find him at:

Jim Hunter
33 Eisenhower Crescent, Ottawa, Ontario
Canada K2J 3Z8
Telephone: (613) 825-4261

Web Site:

Appendix A
From: HUNTER TIPPERS The following is a list of wood types usually in stock. Densities given have been measured in-house from samples and may vary with the shipment. By using denser woods, minor changes in shape can produce significant changes in the moments of inertia as measured at the grip point, and, in turn, can change the response of the tipper. Since they are hand-fashioned, no two tippers are alike.

This table shows the names of various hardwoods and their densities in gm/cc.

African Blackwood 1.24 Black Walnut (Canada) 0.60
Brazilian Rosewood (recycled) 0.87 Brazilian Rosewood
(recycled and spalted)
Canarywood (Panama) 0.69 Cardinal Wood
(Brazilian bloodwood)
Chechen (Mexico) 0.94 Cocobolo
(Nicaraguan Rosewood)
Dogwood (Southern U.S.) 0.84 Ebony, Gabon (Africa) 1.26
Ebony, Macassar
(Celebes Islands)
1.23 Honduras Rosewood 1.08
Jatoba 1.00 Kingwood (Brazil) 1.03
Lignum Vitae (Mediterranean) 1.29 Madagascar Rosewood 0.84
Maple, Hard (Canada) 0.91 Morado (Central America) 1.02
Paela (Brazil) 1.02 Palm Heart (Central America) 1.00
Pink Ivory (South Africa) 1.10 Purpleheart (Central America) 0.85
Redheart (Central America) 0.76 Satinwood (Africa) 0.86
Snakewood (South America) 1.23 Wenge 0.86
Yellowheart (Central America) 0.87 Zebrawood (Africa) 0.86
Zircote (Mexico) 0.89


Web page created and maintained by Tommy Kochel, December, 2004.
Last updated October 2005.